For the Chief Rabbi of Poland, the “Spark of the Jewish Soul” Reignites the Jewish Community in Country Decimated by the Holocaust

Rabbi Michael Schudrich
Rabbi Michael Schudrich

In 1939, Poland was home to a thriving Jewish community of 3.5 million people—folks who made their households and livelihoods in cities, villages and farms across the vast country.

Six years later, barely 300,000 Jews survived in Poland.

The Holocaust—and the Nazi’s Polish-based death camps—resulted in the murder of 3.2 million Jews from Poland, some 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population.

Repercussions of this crime against humanity continue today, but there is renewed hope in Poland for Jews. And Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the American-born Chief Rabbi of Poland, may well be the No. 1 reason why.

Rabbi Schudrich was the special guest of the Museum’s Upstander Speaker Series on June 4 at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas. Appointed Chief Rabbi of Poland in 2004, he has played a central role in the country’s Jewish Renaissance. Indeed, since the fall of Communism in 1989, a growing number of Poles have learned of their Jewish roots, and Rabbi Schudrich is the person they often turn to for guidance.

“We cannot change the number of Jews who were murdered in Poland,” Rabbi Schudrich told the crowd of more than 250 at the JCC. “But, we can change the number of Jews who are out there and have yet to discover their identity.”

Today, about 25,000 Jews call Poland their home. As Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Schudrich spends much of his time counseling people who have discovered—or who are trying to determine whether—they are, in fact, Jewish.

After World War II, most Jews living in Poland who survived the Holocaust left the country—many to Israel—and those who remained were forced to hide their Jewish identities under Soviet Communism.

For Jews living in Poland, “From 1939 to 1989, everything that happens tells you it’s not safe to share your Jewish identity with your children and grandchildren,” Rabbi Schudrich said. “ But in the last 26 years (since the fall of Communism), we’re seeing these children and grandchildren have their hidden secrets now revealed because it is safe—that they are, in fact, Jewish, and there is great hope and optimism.”

These revelations of newly found Jewish identity—Rabbi Schudrich called it the discovery of “the spark of the Jewish soul”—are transforming lives and, albeit slowly, Poland itself. Rabbi Schudrich was one of three Jewish leaders in Poland recently awarded prestigious Bene Merito Medals in recognition of their actions in promoting Poland abroad.

Born in New York City, Rabbi Schudrich attended Jewish day schools there and graduated from Stony Brook University in 1977 with a Religious Studies major and received an MA in History from Columbia University in 1982. He received Conservative smicha (rabbinical ordination) from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and later, an Orthodox smicha through Yeshiva University from Rabbi Moshe Tendler. He served as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan from 1983 to 1989 before moving to Poland in 1992.

A rising level of anti-Semitism is an issue throughout Europe, Rabbi Schudrich said, but Poland is making great strides in building strong Jewish-Catholic relationships. “I prefer to emphasize what’s working in Poland,” he said. “Good things are happening, and I am an optimist at heart.”

Be sure to join us for our next Upstander Speaker Series on October 15 when Lieutenant-General Roméo Antonius Dallaire, a Canadian humanitarian, author and retired senator and general, will be the special guest. Dallaire served as Force Commander of UNAMIR, the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda between 1993 and 1994, and attempted to stop the genocide that was being waged by Hutu extremists against Tutsis and Hutu moderates.

The Upstander Speaker Series is sponsored by Real Time Resolutions and is supported by The Dallas Morning News, G&H Ventures, LLC and Humanities Texas. This project was made possible through a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

HTx_logo_color_trans_HiRes

And, don’t miss out on seeing the Museum’s Special Exhibit, “The Wartime Escape,” which chronicles Margaret and H.A. Rey’s (creators of Curious George) escape from the Nazis. The exhibit closes on June 20.

-Chris Kelley for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

 

Alice Abroad: Reflections

I am happy to report a safe return trip from Poland. The last day was spent exploring Warsaw, including the Miele 18 memorial to the ghetto fighters and the Jewish cemetery, where all the original markers had been dessimated. There was a very touching memorial to the children lost in the Holocaust.

Warsaw was 90% destroyed in WWII — within weeks of the war ending in 1945. So the whole city has been built since 1945 — using photos of the original city. We in America cannot truly imagine that kind of loss and destruction. Let’s use the New Year to remember how lucky we are and make sure we use our resources to make the whole world a safer place.

Alice Abroad: Experiencing Belzec

December 25, 2011

I feel a little conflicted about posting an update on Christmas Day, but I will trust you to read this when it’s right for you. Yesterday we went to the most amazing memorial I’ve ever seen — at Belzec. Just a few short years ago, the site where over 600,000 Jews were killed over just 9 months time (that’s 2500 per day), people were seen regularly digging into the mass grave with shovels, hoping to find jewelry or other valuables on the corpses — there was no preservation or memorial in place. Then the USHMM and the Polish governnment partnered to create the most beautiful memorial on about 10 acres of the site. It rivals any memorial you’ve ever seen in the world!

This is one view of the Belzec memorial installation. This granite wall here is about 5 stories tall.

 

Engraved scripture: “EARTH DO NOT COVER MY BLOOD, LET THERE BE NO RESTING PLACE FOR MY OUTCRY” Job 16:18

 

 

Alice Abroad: The Road from Chelmno

December 22, 2011

Today in Poland — long road trip to Chelmno, where 300,000 people died by being driven on “gas vans”. They were loaded naked into these vans, 60 at a time, and driven 4 km down a road while fumes were pumped into the van to kill them. There bodies were dumped in mass graves. They used 16 of these vans running constantly to murder that many people. It defies explanation.

The second part of the day, though, was much more upbeat — meeting with survivors who were all children during the Holocaust. They were awesome! I will tell more about them soon. Thanks again for following this journey!

Alice Abroad: Neighbors

Day 3 started with a long bus ride to the site of a horrible Pogrom in the small village of Jedwanbe. Only 3200 people lived here in 1941 — half were Jewish and half Christian. All neighbors in a small town. The Christian half rounded up all the Jews one day and forced them into a tiny church and set it on fire. Poles killed Poles. It wasn’t discovered for 40 years because they let the Nazis take the blame. A memorial was on the site for 40 years giving credit to the Nazis until research uncovered the shocking truth.

To read about this terrifying attack, check out the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jebwadne, Poland. 

Alice Abroad: Development?

Day 2 in Poland – Tuesday – was a bus ride to Stutthof near Gdansk in northeast Poland. Some of the of the camp buildings were still standing — many others were marked with simple memorials. There was a gas chamber and crematorium. The day was cold but no snow on the ground. The emotions I felt while walking in the footsteps of so many tortured and brutalized souls are hard to describe, other than deep grief. The most puzzling aspect was the proximity of new housing to the camp where approx. 65,000 people perished. You could throw a stone from the back yard of one of these homes and hit the gas chambers.
We took a long train ride to Warsaw in the afternoon and I sat next to a Polish man who spoke good English and he said he had never visited any of the concentration camps — ever. He sad it was too painful. Really?

Alice Abroad: Arriving in Poland

Checking in from Gdansk, Poland — we arrived mid-day and it’s really cold and dreary. Gdansk is a beautiful and quaint little city with many scars from WWII and the Holocaust. We walked along the Wannsee River and saw many un-restored bombed out buildings. There is a charming memorial to the Kinder Transport in front of the train station. The mood of the group is still light-hearted as we prepare to start our trek to camp sites tomorrow morning at Stutthof and then board a train for a 4-hour trip to Warsaw.