An Interview with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland
The New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland
to ask a few questions about Jewish Life and Heritage in Poland.
NYJTG: Thank You Rabbi for your time. My first question is how you became Chief Rabbi of Poland?
Rabbi Schudrich: It really all started when I was 18 years old, to give you some background, it’s the first time… I’m American born, my parents are American born and I’ve never been to Israel. When I was 18 years old I wanted to go to Israel and a friend of mine was going on a Jewish teen trip, they went to Eastern Europe, Soviet Union and to Israel and I said; wow!!!, let me do that, so we went to Eastern Europe, Soviet Union in 1973 and onto Israel and I became fascinated by all the aspects of the trip including what was really left in non-Soviet Eastern Europe and so I decided to come back and check it out. So, I was back here in this part of Europe in ‘76, ‘77, twice in ‘79 and by the fall of ’79, I started meeting young Poles who had discovered their Jewish roots and realized there was something more happening here than he was talking about. So, when I finished my last position in 1989 right, I served for six years, ‘83 to ‘89 in Tokyo, I was the Rabbi of Tokyo and came back to New York and saw that the whole world was changing in Eastern Europe and I said; well, maybe I should do something here now and by March of ’90, I was working here.
NYJTG : There is a lot of talk about the Revival of Jewish life in Poland, is this a useful term to describe the situation in Poland? Also what is being revived?
Rabbi Schudrich: Okay, I call it more re-emergence of the Jewish community, revival is also an accurate word. Basically what is happening is that, before World War II, there were three and a half million Jews in Poland, the heart and soul of the Ashkenazi world, five years later by the end of 1944, 90% of those Jews had been killed by Germans and accomplices. That statement is so horrific that most people don’t think how many Jews survived, 10% survived and of the 10 % that survived, means 10% about 350,000 and where are their today?
A vast majority of the survivors leave Poland in the 25 years after World War II. If you want to feel safe saying the statement; I am a Jew, it makes good sense to leave post-holocaust Soviet occupied communist, Poland, so most of the Jews leave but not all the Jews leave, some stay and the ones who stay, many of them agree with those who left; stay Jewish, leave communist Poland, stay in communist Poland, stop being Jewish, to this extent that often you didn’t even tell your children or your grandchildren. So, the deep dark secret of who you really are goes for 50 years, from ‘39 to ‘89, 1989, co-communism collapses and at that point, the not-so-young survivors are confronted with the question; is it safe enough today for me to tell my children, my grandchildren, my friends, neighbors, colleagues that I’m really Jewish. Since 1989, thousands and perhaps some even tens of thousands of Poles have discovered their Jewish roots. That’s the story of the Jewish community of Poland today. So when we say re-emergence, revival, people have to understand it is people now connecting to the Jewish people and to Judaism that simply didn’t know they had Jewish roots before.
NYJTG: How many Jews are in Poland now? I have seen statistics as low as 7,000 and as high as 40,000 what accounts for the discrepancy?
Rabbi Schudrich: Okay the number of Jews in Poland today, I can say without a doubt nobody knows, 7,000 is just simply an untrue number. It’s like counting all the Jews of San Francisco who belong to an Orthodox synagogue and that’s going to make up the number of Jews in San Francisco.
NYJTG: Such as counting for example the membership of JCC or…
Rabbi Schudrich: No, no, no 7,000 Jews in Poland mean you’re counting a very small part of all the Jews in Poland.
Let me share with you one statistic; there were 3 and 1/2 million Jews before the war, 10% survived, 350,000 Jews after the war. Those numbers are more or less we know, we don’t know really how many left but even if we say 90% left, that still leaves 35,000 who had children and grandchildren. To say there are 7,000 Jews in Poland today, that means that over- I have to figure it out-but probably about 98% of all the Jews left and then almost nobody had children, so that’s just clearly not true plus the fact that I know more than 7,000. Why people say that, I don’t know, you know, it’s hurtful to us, it’s misinformed, okay. There are some tens of thousands of Poles who today know that they have Jewish roots and feel a positive connection, will their children still be Jewish? I don’t know but that’s why I am here, I want to give it a chance. If we do nothing, then most likely nothing will happen, if we do something, we have a chance.
NYJTG: So, how are we defining who is a Polish Jew?
Rabbi Schudrich : Okay, there are two different definitions that are used here; one is as the hocus rule, the law of return, which is one Jewish grandparents and that’s the general membership and for being counted in the minyan of course then we go according to halacha that the Jewish mother or go through a local conversion.
NYJTG: How difficult is it to live in Poland, especially for the younger Jews? Is it difficult for both the regular and the secular Jews?
Rabbi Schudrich: Difficult in what sense?
NYJTG: Jewish life, the cultural aspect of it.
Rabbi Schudrich: It depends who the person is, it depends where they live. In Warsaw on Shabbat morning, there are five different places where you can pray, now some place I wouldn’t pray there but there are other people who wouldn’t come to my synagogue, that’s normal Jewish life. In Warsaw, we now have five or six kosher restaurants, yes they’re mostly for tourists but the locals can use it. We’ve now published a new kosher list with thousands of items, kosher items you can buy in Warsaw, we have tefilot twice a day, morning and evening. We have Shiurim , we have classes several times a week, we have a Kolel, we have a daycare center, we have a pre-school through middle school, we have a Cheder. So in Warsaw, you can live a quite full Jewish life, it doesn’t compare to New York, London or Jerusalem. There are many other places to live, you know, it’s considering where we were 20, 25, 15 years ago, you know, there signs of Jewish life, serious signs of Jewish life.
NYJTG: In reference to the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival that’s ongoing now, does the festival have a direct impact as a bridge between the Jews and the Poles in connecting them with their Jewish culture and in rediscovering their Jewish roots and heritage?
Rabbi Schudrich: There is no doubt. When a Pole discovers he has Jewish roots or she has Jewish roots and she can come to the festival and she can hear Jewish music or actually something like Jewish music and feel the atmosphere that is positive about Jewish culture and come to a Shabbat dinner, this is certainly and its unintended but now we do know that it’s an entry way for quite a few people who discover their Jewish roots, no doubt about it. With all kinds of things, seminars, lectures to get connected with
NYJTG: Yesterday I visited the Kolce Cemetery, in called Cemetery Victims of Nazi Terror, in Kloce, a village in southern-western Poland, Głuszyca Municipality,(mainly those who died during the Construction of the Riese) located in a remote area right outside Wroclaw. It is a small cemetery and there was a mass grave of forced Jewish laborers among other graves. Can you tell us more about this cemetery?
Rabbi Schudrich : Yeah. Let me tell you something and as you said, these were prisoners and if I remember correctly, it was actually a Jewish cemetery before the war and they buried whoever they could bring back there during the war to bury them in the Jewish cemetery. What’s important is that we have, there are many more unidentified mass graves in Poland that we ever thought existed, meaning that there are places either Jews taken from the labor camp, that sometimes we know about but there are also many cases and I never realized this till a few years ago, you know. 23 Jews hiding in the forest, the Germans found them, they killed them and they’re still there, no marker, no mazeva whatsoever, no nothing. In the last five years, we have now commemorated for the mazevoth, put up maps and bought, secured 52 such massacre areas. We have at least another 200 to do, at least and we’re going one by one by one, unlike the work being done in the Ukraine, for us it’s not enough just to know where they are but then we’re obligated to protect it, to protect it, to put up a mazeva to cover it.
NYJTG: It our duty…
Rabbi Schudrich : Yes, it’s called kvod hamet, honoring the dead and especially here these are Holocaust victims, you know, we should understand that these are Holocaust victims and we need to do what we can, that every one of them that we can, should have a mazeva. Now obviously the case of the mass grave of 23 people to one Mazeva, because we’re not going to make 23 mazeva
NYJTG: I heard that about 2,000 Jews were buried in this mass grave, who came from Greece and other countries …
Rabbi Schudrich : Right. Well, if people sent theirs from all over Europe, because Auschwitz had 40 sub camps, at least 40 sub camps, as you come to the outlet and then he sent 150 kilometers away.
NYJTG: It’s in the Galicia region and it’s a very remote area, there’s was no sign of direction for this cemetery…
Rabbi Schudrich: No, no, I’ve been there. Yeah, I was involved with the work there.
NYJTG: Rabbi David Weiser from New York came here and donated a fence at the cemetery in their memory…
Rabbi Shudrich : Yeah, I know, of course I worked with him, I mean my office worked with him. There were many, many discussion. But we’ve done over 50 more, not just there, all in almost in the eastern side of Poland.3 million Jews were murdered there, most in that camp, some in the ghettos but also some, you know, just in the labor camps, in the forest. The thing that people can’t understand because it’s too horrible, if we say only 5% of Polish Jews we’re not murdered in the death camps, we’re not murdered in the ghettos, were murdered in the forest where they were hiding, that’s a 150,000 people, the numbers are so overwhelming people cannot begin to really understand what it means. Well, on the promise is that we’re doing the best we can but we are very much lacking in funds for this, this is something really where we need the help from world jewry, this is our world jewry obligation. What we can do and what we already are doing is we identify the place, verifying the place using the Geo radar, using archival and using witnesses, serious research to make sure we’re not making up stories. The rest of the job, we need to have help from around the world, for the mazeva, for the securing of the grave.
NYJTG: Visiting the cemetery in Warsaw . I noticed that it looked like a small forest and needed some care…
Rabbi Schudrich: 15 years ago it was a big forest, 15 years ago we could barely walk in. What’s important is to have perspective, nobody basically took care of the cemetery for 50 years, which means they kept growing, growing and growing and it’s really in the last 12, 13 years that we’ve been able to start to push back against all the growth.
NYJTG: What are some of the challenges that you’re still facing here in Poland?
Rabbi Schudrich: I would say that 25 years ago, all the challenges have to do with being post-holocaust, post-communist, today we still have post-holocaust and post-communist challenges but more and more we have normal Jewish challenges; how to find a nice Jewish girl for a nice Jewish boy, how to find a nice Jewish boy for a nice Jewish girl, not unlike Morocco, Sweden or even the Upper West Side, that for me is one of the most important things. How to make our Jewish education better, it’s the problem all over the world because we’re never satisfied, we want to keep making it better. How do you get more people to go on birthright? We sent close to 700 people, young Polish Jews on birthright but we want to send even more.
NYJTG: Talking about the Jewish conversion now, it’s a long and serious process for those who just discovering the Jewish roots or just want to convert,-Is there a Jewish court in Poland?
Rabbi Schudrich : We use a bet dim from other countries, either from London or from Israel.
NYJTG: And what is the process for the conversion, the need to pursue such jewish education?
Rabbi Schudrich: No, is anywhere else in the world, they have to learn and then have to practice and then they tested and they’re converted. Sometimes they’re sent to Israel, sometimes the bet dim comes here, sometimes they go to London, it depends on the situation..
NYJTG: And how much does this community support this…
Rabbi Schudrich: This community is very open to converts.
NYJTG: Last question, what is your favorite dish in Poland, what dishes you like the best?
Rabbi Schudrich: I am a vegetarian. So the Polish food is famous for its meat. What I like is a good Tofu salad but that is not Polish.
NYJTG: Thank you Rabbi for your time and all the information you shared with us. I really appreciated it as will our readers.
By: Meyer Harroch