The Social & Cultural Association of Jews in Poland
Chairman: Szimon Szurmiej
Jewish Community of Warsaw
President: Piotr Kadlcik
Telephone: 48 22 620 0554
Fax: 48 22 620 0559
Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland (JRCP)
Telephone: +48 22 620 58 37
Fax: +48 22 620 10 37
E-mail: sekretariat @jewish.org.pl
Jewish settlements in Poland can be traced back more than 1,000 years. Jews found sanctuary in Poland as they fled persecution in Western and Central Europe. By the middle of the 16th century, approximately 80% of the world’s Jews lived in Polish territory. From the 16th through the 18th centuries, Jews enjoyed a unique form of self-government called the Council of Four Lands (Va’ad Arba Aratsot), which functioned as a Jewish parliament. However, from 1648 to 1649, Cossack bands led by Bogdan Khmelnytsky massacred up to 200,000 Jews in eastern Poland (present-day Ukraine). Much of Polish Jewry was impoverished, and Poland became fertile ground for messianic leaders such as Shabbtai Tzvi and Jacob Frank. Later it gave birth to the Chassidic movement.
A great wave of emigration began toward the end of the 19th century, when much of Poland was a part of anti-Semitic Czarist Russia, and Polish Jews moved to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Germany, France, and the Land of Israel.
In the inter-war period, despite the government’s often hostile policies, Polish Jewry was one of the most creative communities in the Diaspora.
On the eve of the Shoah, 20 years after Poland regained independence, some 3.3 million Jews lived in the country, constituting the second-largest Jewish community in the world. Warsaw alone had over 300,000 Jews. Approximately 85% of Polish Jewry was wiped out in the Holocaust, and many Jews from other countries were deported to Poland and killed in the German extermination centres located there.
After the war, most of the survivors refused to either return to or remain in Poland, which was torn apart by civil war and anti-Semitic attacks. Emigration accelerated after the Kielce pogrom in July 1946, which claimed the lives of over 40 Jews. Although the situation eventually stabilized, the Jewish population continued to lose ground to successive waves of emigration.
THE COMMUNITY TODAY
Most of the Jews in Poland live in Warsaw, the capital, but there are also communities in Krakow, Lodz, Szczecin, Gdansk, and in several cities in Upper and Lower Silesia, notably in Katowice and Wroclaw.
In the last few years, there has been a reawakening of Jewish consciousness, and growing numbers of young people of Jewish origin who had no previous knowledge of Judaism are joining the community.
The Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in the Polish Republic (KKOZRP) coordinates the activities of Jewish organizations. The two major communal organizations are the Religious Union of Jewish Communities and the Social and Cultural Organization of Polish Jews, which is a secular organization. Under the auspices of the Lauder Foundation, clubs offer a wide range of activities for young people, including Jewish summer camps and athletics. One Jewish group is composed of persons orphaned in the Holocaust and raised by non-Jews.
High on the community’s agenda is the preservation of the large number of Jewish historical sites (including cemeteries and synagogues) that are located all around the company. While anti-Semitism remains a problem, none of the political parties that ran on an openly anti-Jewish platform passed the electoral threshold for either Sejm or Senate representation.
As the central Jewish organisation in Poland, the mission of Jewish Religious Communities of Poland is to serve each of the communities and their members by stimulating development, providing high-quality services, organising religious life, creating programmes that engage current and potential members, obtaining and allocating funds for priority social projects and representing the interest and opinions of the Jewish community in the rest of society.
JRCP Aims and Goals
- Cooperation with the government and international organisations
- Restitution of Jewish property
- Legislative work
JRCP undertakes ventures that serve the broad development of the Jewish community. It ensures that the Jewish community in Poland will carry on in the future by investing in youth. Through cooperation with all branches, JRCP strengthens future leadership and membership potential.
- Development and implementation of educational and scientific programmes. Cultural programmes.
1. Creating programmes for each target group
2. Developing programmes that promote membership in a Community (for members and non-members)
3. Developing programmes for young people.
4. Organising meetings/ training sessions/ seminars
5. Organising cultural events
- Youth club
- School for children
- Courses in Judaism
D) Public Affairs
JRCP protects the good name of Jews in Poland, Israel and worldwide. It develops, promotes and unifies the Jewish community and its culture by creating a positive atmosphere around Jewish organisations by encouraging involvement and promoting the values of Judaism, as well as by reacting to anti-Semitism and other negative trends.
E) Social issues
- Caring for the elderly
- Seniors’ Club
- Health care
- Operating a kosher cafeteria
- Assistance fund and activities of Gemilut Chesed
- Developing volunteer work
F) Everyday religious life
G) Protection of Jewish heritage
Culture and Education
A Jewish primary school and kindergarten have been opened in Warsaw. The Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH) is an important repository of documentation on the history of Polish Jewry and the Shoah. It also maintains a permanent exhibition of Jewish art and artefacts from the Holocaust. In Krakow, the Centre for Jewish Culture in Kazimierz provides a venue for much of the city’s Jewish activity, including exhibitions, lectures, films, meetings and courses.
The E.R. Kaminska Jewish Theatre in Warsaw is the only regularly functioning Yiddish theatre in the world. Audiences can hear simultaneous interpretation of plays in Polish (and occasionally in other languages) using headphones. Today most of the theatre’s actors are non-Jews.
There are a number of Jewish publications, including Jidele for young people, Dos Yiddishe Wort (in Polish and Yiddish), a literary journal called Midrasz, and the ZIH Bulletin. There is also a journal devoted to Israel called Polska-Izrael. In recent years, an impressive number of books and publications on Jewish themes have appeared.
There are synagogues in most of the towns mentioned above. Some of these, such as the Remu Synagogue and the Templum in Krakow and the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw, are historic structures. Poland’s Chief Rabbi is based in Warsaw, and a second rabbi caters to the needs of young people. The JDC maintains kosher cafeterias in the largest Jewish centres. Private kosher restaurants can be found in Warsaw and Krakow. Kosher meat and other foodstuffs are available, and in recent years Poland has become an important centre for the production of kosher spirits.
Poland, particularly in its central and eastern parts, contains numerous places of interest for the Jewish visitor. In Warsaw there are a number of sites connected with the ghetto uprising and the life of the city’s once vibrant community. These include the central ghetto monument, designed by Natan Rapoport, and the exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute, which also houses a collection of paintings by Polish-Jewish artists. In Krakow, which was spared the destruction to which the capital was subjected, there are a number of old synagogues that can still be visited, among them the Remu and the 14th-century Stara Synagoga (the oldest in Poland), which today houses a Jewish museum. Lodz is the site of one of the largest Jewish burial grounds in Europe. Of particular interest are the mausoleums of the city’s great textile magnates. Many of the smaller towns also house remnants of the Jewish presence.
The High Synagogue in Krakow
Among the most noteworthy is the town of Tykocin (near Bialystok), which has a magnificent 17th-century synagogue that has recently been restored to its former grandeur. Another such synagogue can be found in Lancut. There are also many historic cemeteries, some containing the graves of famous Chassidic rabbis, such as those in Gora Kalwaria (Ger) and Lezajsk (Lezensk). The sites of former death and concentration camps are a magnet for Jewish visitors. These include Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Treblinka. No trace of Treblinka remains, and the grounds are the site of a powerful monument made of thousands of shards of broken stone.