WARSAW - As the last of the Holocaust survivors pass away, and with them the memory of the heights of Polish Jewry, the nation's menorahs seem to be flickering back to life.
An estimated 70 percent of Jews of European ancestry - and two-thirds of Jews in the United States - can trace their origins to Poland. Now Poland's small but growing Jewish community, while remembering the tragedy of the Holocaust, is trying to get both their fellow Poles and the world to think not just of death but of life.
Groundbreaking on a new Jewish museum here took place in June. By not focusing on the Holocaust and Nazi persecution, organizers hope the museum will foster remembrance and celebration of Jewish life in Poland before the war, a subject that many, even inside the country, know little about.
The new attempt to place the Holocaust in the larger historical perspective of Jewish culture in Poland comes as the community is experiencing a period of growth and renewal triggered by the end of communism. Somewhat surprising is that the recent efforts to cultivate and nurture the revival have been driven not just by Jews.
Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi and a New York native, came here in 1990 to help rebuild Jewish communities at a time when they were almost nonexistent.
As Schudrich puts it, "Polish and Jewish relations [since 1945] were in the freezer. The fall of communism was the single most positive event for these relations in 50 years." That thaw has spurred a long overdue exploration of Poland's Jewish past and has led to personal journeys of discovery for some Poles.
Under communism, many families, for fear of repercussions or reprisals, hid their religion. Now many Poles, raised as Roman Catholics, are discovering their Jewish heritage. Heartbreaking tales of death-bed confessions, or documents dug out of dusty lofts after death, have led many Poles to the synagogues to try to piece together their identity.
Schudrich describes both his mission and that of the Jewish community as "giving every Pole with Jewish roots the chance to discover their heritage and get involved in the community."
The number of Jews in Poland is nearly impossible to calculate. The official estimate, which is almost certainly too low, stands at 20,000. Schudrich, 52, says that since arriving in the country 17 years ago, "I've gone from being the youngest man in the synagogue to being the oldest. It doesn't always make me feel good to have become an antique, but for the community it's a big step." He estimates that the average age of his congregation has fallen from between 70 and 80 to between 30 and 40.
Schudrich is based in Warsaw's only prewar synagogue, near Grzybowski Square. Once the heart of the city's Jewish life and home to Jewish merchants, tailors, and tradesmen, the square and the warren of streets surrounding it were bricked inside the ghetto and systematically destroyed during the Jewish and Warsaw uprisings.
Prozna Street, which leads from the square and is effectively the only Jewish street to have escaped the Nazi destruction, is a depressing reminder of the dark days. Its tenement blocks, abandoned for decades to damp and ruin, have been untouched. The area, though, is enjoying a rebirth. The square now hosts a Jewish shop, school, tour agency, theater, and a pair of restaurants. Prozna Street has been earmarked for restoration work, including a heritage hotel and the possible reopening of more Jewish shops. Much of this work is being done by Poles who are eager to reclaim the country's Jewish heritage from the history books.
Since the fall of communism, the Polish appetite for history has been insatiable. Force-fed a version of history cooked up by communist authorities, Poles now have been rediscovering their past. In the past five years the focus has turned to the country's 1,000-year-old Jewish heritage.
One man who was ahead of the crowd when it comes to involvement in Jewish culture is himself not Jewish. Janusz Makuch directs Krakow's world-renowned Jewish Culture Festival, Europe's biggest such celebration. He sees the role of Poles in supporting Jewish culture as crucial for the country itself.
"The legacy of Polish Jews was neglected for so many years," Makuch said. "In the absence of Jews, we are responsible for keeping Poland's Jewish culture alive."
Makuch started the Krakow festival in 1988, a year before the communists left power. He has seen interest mushroom, with the festival growing from its humble one-day beginnings to a nine-day jamboree that attracts hordes of visitors from both the United States and Israel. He believes that the celebration not only offers an opportunity to showcase Jewish culture and arts but "gives a reason for the whole diaspora to come back to Poland and show their homeland to their children and grandchildren."
Krakow remains to many Jews the heart of their culture in both Poland and Europe. In the city's Kazimierz district, the old Jewish quarter, as recently as in 2000 most of the pockmarked buildings looked like fighting had just stopped yesterday, rather than more than 50 years ago. Hulking shells of buildings were a testament to a forgotten history.
However, in a blitz of restoration, the city has restored its two main Jewish squares. They now buzz with restaurants, serving both a slice of the past and tasty Jewish cuisine, while the cobbled streets around are busy with Jewish theater and music. And like Makuch, most of the owners and organizers are not Jews.
This renaissance can be seen all over the country, with Jewish cemeteries, which lay abandoned for decades, being spruced up; Jewish theaters reopening; lampposts plastered with ads for Hebrew lessons; and more Polish-Jewish literature being translated into Polish than ever before.
Rabbi Schudrich sums up this new interest: "Everybody who is physically able should visit Auschwitz, and we can never forget what happened there. But there is also an obligation to see the living. Jews in Poland haven't been submerged by their tragedies. We are saying: 'We are here; we lived; and we still live.' "
Rory Boland, a freelance writer in Warsaw, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.