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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.

"None of us, almost none, had any religious background at home," said Gebert, who writes for the leading Gazeta Wyborcza daily and is also publisher of Midrasz, a Jewish monthly magazine. "He was willing to take us as we were. He would never kid us that being Jewish is simple or easy, yet he never gave up on us as Jewish basket cases, either."

Schudrich first visited Poland in 1973 as a teenager during a tour of eastern Europe and Israel. He came back three times that decade, and again in 1985, drawn by a sense of shared roots. His grandparents emigrated from Poland before World War II, and here were the people and the country they had left behind.

"I had a real sense of imbalance, that I was the benefactor of something wonderful that I did nothing to deserve," he said.

Today, Schudrich jokes that he oversees "one of the most vibrant, dysfunctional communities in Europe." He ticks off stories about Poles who discovered only by accident that their mothers or grandparents were Jewish, of fearful parents who kept the truth hidden from their children.

Such as the two skinhead teenagers who got married out of high school and had a baby. The young mother belatedly discovered that she had Jewish roots; not sure what to do, she started making Sabbath dinner for her confused husband, who didn't object. His parents, however, were furious and tried to break up the marriage.

"Why were they so much against this? Because they were both Jews!" Schudrich said, explaining that the parents had always concealed that fact from their son. Today, the couple is still together and increasingly devout. "It's very romantic: Two Polish skinheads fall in love in high school and later discover they're Jewish," the rabbi said, chuckling.

Stanislaw Krajewski, a philosophy professor and Jewish community leader in Warsaw, said it wasn't as strange as it might seem to have an American as the chief rabbi to Poland's Jews.

Of the eight rabbis serving in Poland today, only one is a Pole -- and he returned to his native country only last year. Prior to that, it had been four decades since a Pole had become a rabbi and served in his homeland.

"To us, this is a rather normal thing," Krajewski said of having a foreigner in charge. "The question is whether they understand Polish culture, Polish subtleties, the Polish language. And Michael does. He understands very, very deeply the subtleties of Polish Jewry, the complicated history, the fears."

Schudrich admitted that his language skills could still use some polishing.

"His Polish is still atrocious," needled Gebert, a longtime friend. "His singing is also horrible, truly, genuinely horrible." But he doesn't hesitate to speak out, especially when challenged, his friend added.

The street fight last May, for example, started when the hooligan shouted "Poland for the Poles" at Schudrich and a group of seven other Jews walking through central Warsaw.

The phrase is a longtime slogan of Polish nationalist groups that embrace anti-Semitism, and Schudrich decided he couldn't let it go unanswered. "I turned around and said, 'Why do you say that?" The assailant responded with his fists and pepper spray.

Police caught the attacker a few days later. They said the 33-year-old man had ties to neo-Nazi groups and a prior record of "hooliganism." He was convicted and given a two-year suspended sentence for assaulting the rabbi.

Since then, Schudrich said he's been accosted a couple more times on the street by people shouting anti-Semitic slurs. Each time, he has yelled back. He said he wants other Jews in Poland to know that it is okay to stand up for themselves.

"The message I want to give to people here is that you just don't have to take it," he said. "Typically, when this happens, they run away. They're cowards. In New York, you'd have to worry about them having a gun."

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