American Leads a New Generation of Polish Jews

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 26, 2007

WARSAW -- The anti-Semitic hooligan picked on the wrong guy when he yelled a slur, hurled a punch and fired pepper spray at a Jew walking near a synagogue here last May.

The target -- short, skinny, middle-aged Michael Schudrich -- was a native New Yorker who didn't believe in turning the other cheek. He retaliated with a left cross, and despite being blinded by the pepper spray, gave chase as the assailant turned tail and fled. "I went into automatic New York mode," Schudrich recalled.

The bully didn't realize that Schudrich was not just any Jew, but the chief rabbi of Poland. News of the assault was reported around the world, magnified by Schudrich's presence the next day with Pope Benedict XVI at a previously planned ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp in southern Poland.

The attack served as a reminder that Poland -- where more than 3 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, the most of any country in Europe -- was still afflicted by anti-Semitism. Lost in the headlines was the notable accomplishment that Poland had a chief rabbi at all, an American who had overseen a small but remarkable renaissance of Jewish life in the country of his ancestors.

When Schudrich moved to Warsaw in 1990, Jews were hard to find. Four decades of communism had forced the few survivors of the Holocaust and their offspring to conceal their religious heritage. The Iron Curtain was lifting, but Jewish communal life was almost nonexistent. "It was a broken population," he said.

As a representative of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, a U.S.-based charity established to help rebuild Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, Schudrich was assigned to see what could be done for Poland's Jews. It was a tall order for the rabbi, who spoke no Polish and was fresh off a six-year stint as a rabbi for Jewish expatriates in Tokyo.

"People would ask why I came to Warsaw, and I'd tell them that I had graduated at the bottom of my rabbinical class," he said, kidding, during an interview in his office at Warsaw's Nozyk Synagogue, the only temple in the city to survive World War II.

Doubts were strong that Warsaw -- home to 393,000 Jews prior to the Nazi invasion, but only 5,000 in 1945 after the Nazis were driven out -- would ever have a visible Jewish population again. But slowly, as democracy took hold and totalitarianism disappeared, Poland's Jews rediscovered themselves.

"One guy would come visit me and say, 'Rabbi, there are no Jews left in Poland, except for my aunt,' " said Schudrich, 51. "Another one would say, 'Rabbi, there are no Jews left in Poland, except for my old classmate from the third grade.' After a while, you began to put all the aunts and third-grade classmates together, and you were talking real numbers."

While Schudrich and other Jewish community leaders are reluctant to provide estimates, they guess there are roughly 20,000 Poles who identify themselves as Jews. About 2,000 are active members of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, an umbrella group founded in 1993 that today has chapters in Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and five other cities.

Since then, a Jewish primary school has opened in Warsaw, as have several Jewish kindergartens, youth centers and summer camps across the country. Eight rabbis have been assigned to Poland to serve the revived population. That's up eightfold from 2004, when there was only one. "And he's sitting in this room," Schudrich said in his cramped office.

Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish journalist, said Schudrich, an Orthodox rabbi, had a keen instinct for reaching out to Jews who were confused or uncertain about their heritage. Many came from mixed marriages. Keeping kosher was almost unheard of.

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