‘It’s Not The Warsaw You Think It Would Be’

‘It’s Not The Warsaw You Think It Would Be’

The Polish capital is brimming with Jewish culture (it’s got more kosher restaurants than D.C.), but it’s hard to escape a sense of absence.

Members of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation share a meal with Warsaw Jewish community leaders during a young leadership tour to Poland in June.  (Courtesy Taube Jewish Heritage Tours)
Members of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation share a meal with Warsaw Jewish community leaders during a young leadership tour to Poland in June. (Courtesy Taube Jewish Heritage Tours)

Warsaw’s emergence as a beacon for European Jewish culture is, perhaps, as improbable as the skyscrapers that define its rebuilt cityscape.

But like Berlin — another city associated with Holocaust tragedy and wartime destruction — Warsaw today is in full renaissance. Ambitious young people from across Poland flock to the capital’s multinational offices, tech start-ups, foodie scene, festivals and music venues.

Increasingly, they also come for its Jewish culture — not only heritage sites and memorials, but also revivals of Jewish life. That makes it ripe for discovery by Americans, Europhiles and travelers seeking to pair Jewish heritage with a vibrant modern community.

The rebirth of Jewish culture in Poland is all the more curious when you consider that much of it, in recent years, has involved a critical mass of non-Jews motivated to revisit a mournful legacy. As memorials all over Warsaw attest, that legacy is profound indeed: With one recent estimate putting the number of Jews living in Poland at just over 3,000, and 600 official members of the Warsaw Jewish Community, Poland’s growing Jewish presence is still a whisper of what it was in the immediate pre-war years, when Jews made up a third of the city’s population.

And yet: Warsaw has more kosher restaurants than Washington, D.C. It also has one of Europe’s few Yiddish theaters — the Ester Rachel Kaminska and Ida Kaminska State Jewish Theater, established in the 1950s and going strong, with Polish actors and translations.

Famously, Warsaw has the most talked-about new Jewish museum on the Continent — POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014 on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. A must-see destination, POLIN recently expanded its cultural reach into the everyday life of Warsovians with Menora, an “information point” for Jewish Warsaw that is named for a long-vanished but legendary Jewish restaurant on the spot.

Menora honors this legacy by hosting Charlotte, a Jewish-flavored (but not kosher) eatery inspired in part by the cafés of Paris’ Marais district. Charlotte has become a favorite for its buzzed-about challah, traditional pastries like rugelach and hamantaschen and full café menu.

Aspiring chefs can learn to make traditional Polish-Jewish recipes like pierogi and borscht at Menora’s Jewish historical cooking workshops. It’s a smart strategy: People who wouldn’t necessarily go to a museum exhibit might engage with Jewish culture through food, which Menora offers in an informative context — offering background on what a Shabbat dinner looks like, for instance, or exploring the history behind kosher pickles.

Warsaw skyline.

Speaking of kosher pickles: One of the best ways to mingle with locals, and get a literal taste of contemporary Jewish Poland, is a visit to the legendary Sunday kosher vegetarian brunch at the JCC Warsaw (which calls the event “non-Polish speaker friendly”). Along with pickles, the homemade spread includes focaccia with hummus, egg salad, falafel, granola and market vegetable dishes. It’s a lively scene, packed with families — and at about $5.50 (20 zlotys), it’s also a deal.

I wouldn’t have known about it, however, if I hadn’t been tipped off by Helise Lieberman, an American who settled in Warsaw 23 years ago to oversee a fledgling Jewish day school. She stayed, raising her own children here, and currently runs Jewish tours of Warsaw with the Taube Family Foundation, a major benefactor of POLIN and a galvanizing force in Polish-Jewish revival.

The bima and painted ceiling of the 18th-century Gwoździec Synagogue, the centerpiece display of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
(Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews)

“It’s not the Warsaw you think it would be,” commented Lieberman’s colleague, Shana Penn, who oversees Taube Philanthropies from Berkeley, Calif. “Which is not to whitewash,” she added, noting that the Holocaust’s toll remains palpable. “Warsaw is as much about what you don’t see as what you do see. It’s about absence.”

But it’s also about the way layers of history interact in a city where socialist-era barriers have given way to historical murals. And where the magnificent, neo-Romanesque Nozyk Synagogue — the only surviving prewar shul — today holds daily services and hosts the headquarters of Poland’s Jewish communal organizations.

Taube’s Warsaw office is itself historic. The prewar building it shares with the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, a Jewish genealogy destination with a popular café, was once the headquarters of Warsaw’s Main Judaic Library and Institute for Judaic Studies.

Old Town Market Square in Warsaw.

Lieberman frequently refers visitors across the street to the city’s new Hillel, which opened last year thanks in part to Taube sponsorship. Hillel’s glittering “Blue skyscraper” home stands on the onetime site of Poland’s Great Synagogue, which at the time of its 1878 dedication was the largest synagogue in the world; the temple was destroyed by Nazis during the Ghetto uprising.

I asked Lieberman how it is possible that a society long known for anti-Semitism could have evolved to the point where non-Jews are actually embracing a long-persecuted culture. “The world is changing,” she replied, candidly describing the way democracy, the Solidarity labor movement, grassroots opposition to Communism and an intellectual backlash to official anti-Semitism all played a role. 

For Lieberman, as for other Jewish travelers I spoke with, to spend time in Poland is to support the thoughtful efforts of a younger generation to acknowledge the past and appreciate a complex heritage.

Visitors often opt for guidance by local experts; in addition to Taube, other Warsaw Jewish specialists include AB Poland, which offers part-day walking tours, and Milk and Honey, a Berlin-based Jewish heritage outfit.

Many of the core sights commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto, the site of Europe’s largest Holocaust ghetto, and the site of a tragic 1943 uprising. The Umschlagplatz Memorial, a hulking structure reminiscent of a freight car, honors the 300,000 Warsaw Jews deported to the Treblinka extermination camp; nearby, the square, socialist-style Monument to the Ghetto Heroes incorporates fragments of the original ghetto walls.

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes incorporates fragments of the original ghetto walls.

While the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw has tombstones dating to the early 1800s, newer memorials include tributes to the martyrs, including children, of 1943. More recently, a mural near the ghetto was unveiled in tribute to Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the ghetto uprising, who died in 2009.

Sights like these give thoughtful context to the indicators of Jewish revival visible around town: kosher restaurants like Galil and Bekef, September’s Singer Festival of Jewish culture and the annual Jewish Film Festival in November.

Even amid the bustle of contemporary Warsaw, the war’s long shadow endures. A white Bauhaus villa, on the grounds of the city zoo, turns out to have been the wartime hiding place for hundreds of Jews by a onetime zookeeper and his wife, Jan and Antonina Zabinski. Today you can tour the villa once occupied by these heroes of the Polish resistance, whose story was chronicled in the bestselling 2007 novel and 2017 film “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

Warsaw is also home to the world’s skinniest residence, another site with Jewish provenance. Keret House, a two-story dwelling wedged between two apartment buildings, is named for its original inhabitant, Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret, a dual citizen whose Polish parents survived the Holocaust.

Metaphors abound, but there’s no denying the touristic appeal of this curiosity officially billed as an art installation (at just four feet wide, it hardly conforms to code). It’s one more example of the way Warsaw is rebuilding, both literally and Jewishly, on its own scale — and in its own style.

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