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A vivid focus on Poland’s past and present
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A vivid focus on Poland’s past and present

Movies of Jewish life before the Shoa form backdrop to discussion

Polish-born Yiddishist Agi Legutko, at the podium, looks on as Cracow JCC executive director Jonathan Ornstein addresses an audience at the Museum of the City of New York. 
Polish-born Yiddishist Agi Legutko, at the podium, looks on as Cracow JCC executive director Jonathan Ornstein addresses an audience at the Museum of the City of New York. 

An extraordinary exhibition of home movies of prewar Jewish life in Poland, held at the Museum of the City of New York, formed the backdrop of a program dedicated to the perhaps surprising reality of Polish-Jewish life today.

On the final night of the “Poland Today” exhibition, on March 30, the museum joined forces with the Consulate General of Poland in New York, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and the JDC — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — which last year celebrated 100 years of working in Poland and across the world.

In a series of brief talks that evening, speakers addressed the reality of Jewish life in Poland today, which, despite the devastation of the Nazi era, has shown signs of renewal.

JDC CEO Alan Gill, whose grandfather survived the Lodz Ghetto and enlisted to fight in the Polish Army at 18, described Jewish life in Poland today as “a modern living miracle, a life that has risen from the ashes.”

That optimism was reflected by the main speaker, Agi Legutko, a young woman from Cracow who was brought up as a Catholic and fell in love with Yiddish and Yiddishkeit — before finding out that she has Jewish roots. She now heads the Yiddish Language Program at Columbia University and is working on her first academic book — about possession by dybbuks and the role of these mythical malicious spirits in modern Jewish identity. 

After the Holocaust and the coming of communist rule, the Jewish population across Poland stood at around 100,000, down from three million before the war. According to the JDC, it now numbers around 25,000 — a rough estimate because it includes people who don’t self-identify as Jewish.

The issue, Legutko said, is not so much the numbers as the vitality of Jewish life. “Jews are coming out of the closet,” she said, and the country has become the center of Jewish life in Europe. 

The Jewish cultural festival in Cracow, started in 1988, features 250 events over 10 days; Jewish studies courses are proliferating; and two JCCs have been established — one in Cracow in 2008, and one in Warsaw in 2013.

Legutko reported, with her eyes shining, that her father, embracing this long-lost part of his identity, has joined the JCC in Cracow. “He joined on the same day that I was asked to serve on the board there, but he didn’t know that when he decided to join,” she said.

The executive director of that JCC, native New Yorker Jonathan Ornstein, addressed the audience via Skype. He said it now has 550 members. Jewish life, he said, is resuming a kind of normality in the way the Jewish and non-Jewish communities interact — and even, he added with a grin, in the conflicts within the Jewish community itself.

He said he wished that Jewish youngsters going on the March of the Living were shown not only the sites of tragedy, but also the places of renewal. Outside his JCC, he said, they have a big sign inviting the kids to come in.

Agata Rakowiecka, JDC staff member and executive director of the JCC in Warsaw, also addressed the crowd via Skype. At her JCC, she said, they provide the broadest range they can of entryways into Jewish life, including one of the most popular — Sunday brunches that bring together some very different Polish Jews. “You can find an Orthodox family sitting next to a gay Reform couple, next to some secular students,” she said.

Serving as a vivid counterpoint to the talk of a modern-day revival were the grainy black-and-white movies themselves, culled from the museum’s archives and poetically edited by Peter Forgacs, with music by the Klezmatics, the American klezmer band. The evening’s speakers described the amateur filmmakers, who included immigrants from Poland who traveled back to visit the families they left behind in the first decades of the 20th century. For a time, the home movies provided Jews in New York and across the United States with a window onto that world, uncolored by the horror that was still to come.

For some, talk of an awakening among young Poles and the country’s Jews is still overshadowed by those overwhelming losses. At the closing night of the exhibition, a few members of the audience took exception to rosy descriptions of the JCCs and reports of the growing number of people — some young, some old — who have discovered that they are Jewish, or part-Jewish, or have made public what they knew but kept secret. 

“The Sunday brunches [at the JCC] are not that cool,” one woman in the audience said. “And when we were there, we saw anti-Semitic graffiti.”

There is also the problem, as one speaker mentioned, of the popularity of “a revival of Jewish culture without Jews.”

Yet Rakowiecka recounted how, when she was studying in Israel seven years ago, people kept asking her how she could stay in Poland. She lives there now, she said, “not just because it happens to be my home, but because I can find Jewish community life here. We will never get back what was lost in the Holocaust, but we are reclaiming our place as part of the global Jewish people, without a complex and with the ability to find different ways to connect.”

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