Safe to be Jewish in Poland — and Israelis find Tel Aviv ‘very Polish’

ARRIVING in the Polish city of Lodz in 2001, Jonathan Ornstein was in for a huge culture shock.

American-born-and-raised, he had spent the previous seven years in Israel.

Lodz, which he remembered as a “bit of a rough place”, was not immune to the antisemitism which had inhabited Poland for hundreds of years.

“It wasn’t overt, it was more about the large amount of antisemitic graffiti, which was obviously upsetting,” Jonathan told me from his home in Krakow.

“You would also see it with the two football clubs there, where the fans of each club would call each other ‘Jews’ as an insult”.

However, life changed for Jonathan — who had moved to Poland after falling in love with a non-Jewish Polish woman in Israel — when he secured a job teaching Hebrew at Jagiellonian University’s Department of Jewish Studies in Krakow.

Seventeen years on and he is the executive director of JCC Krakow, a Jewish cultural and educational centre opened by Prince Charles in 2008.

Krakow, which was home to some 80,000 Jews before the Holocaust, has experienced a huge revival in its Jewishness over the past 25 years. The JCC, in the historically-Jewish Kazimierz quarter, is at the centre of it.

But the southern Polish city is a long way from Jonathan’s early life in New York.

Raised in a modern-Orthodox family, he soon realised that the customs and practices were not for him.

Jonathan said: “I didn’t believe that there was a higher power and I had a hard time going through the motions.

“It wasn’t about the Jewish cultural aspects — it was more to do with prayer, synagogue and the strict adherence to the laws because God told us to. I had a problem getting past it.”

After reading political science at the University of North Carolina, he moved to Israel, initially planning to stay there for a year.

But, living on Kibbutz Yod Vatah, in the southern Negev, he fell in love with the country and decided to emigrate.

He served two years in the Israel Defence Forces, where he saw action as a combat soldier in Lebanon and Gaza.

Jonathan recalled: “I thought that, if I was going to be a citizen of Israel, I should serve in its army.

“It connected me to Israel and to a Jewish identity that I hadn’t felt before.”

Of maternal German descent and paternal Romanian and Ukrainian heritage, his decision to move to Poland was met with bemusement from his family.

“My father believed my living in Israel would bring me back towards religion — he started to think I was a Mossad agent or something,” Jonathan laughed.

When Jonathan moved to Krakow, there were a few functioning synagogues, a smattering of Holocaust survivors and a number of Poles who had started to discover their Jewish roots.

“There wasn’t much hope — I don’t think there were discussions going on about whether or not there would be a Jewish future in the city,” he recalled.

“It was more about, ‘oh we have Jews living here and we have to take care of them’, so it was more like a caretaker’s situation, I felt.”

The idea for the JCC had come about in 2002 when Prince Charles was in Krakow on a state visit.

He was taken to Kazimierz, where he met with Holocaust survivors — and he was so moved by their story, he asked how he could help them.

“They had synagogues, but didn’t have a place to be together, such as a senior citizens community centre,” Jonathan said.

“Through Dame Vivienne Duffield, Prince Charles was introduced to World Jewish Relief, which suggested a community centre, but one which would also be for younger Poles who were discovering their Jewish heritage.

“WJR teamed up with the Joint-American Jewish Distribution and it was opened in 2008 by Prince Charles.”

Many in the Jewish world saw Poland and Krakow as a place only of the past and almost exclusively through the prism of the Holocaust, Jonathan explained.

“While honouring the past, the centre needed to make its mark by taking a different tack,” he recalled.

“We built a building adorned with an explosion of colours, a place sightly irreverent, and with a message that, in a place defined by death, we needed to focus even more on life, which is in line with Jewish values.

“The two most important roles we have is to rebuild Jewish life in Krakow and to show the world that Poland is a place of Jewish life. We had to rebuild bridges between Poland and the Jewish world.”

Today, at the centre, there are more than 50 non-Jewish volunteers. It is almost fully funded by donations from overseas, which means Jonathan spends between four and five months of the year outside Poland.

If it wasn’t for the centre, he may never have met his wife Kasia (nee Leonardi), either.

Her sister found that their father’s family was Jewish and subsequently became involved with the JCC.

She took Kasia to a Chanucah event there eight years ago — and she met Jonathan.

“Kasia became more interested in everything Jewish and decided to convert through a Conservative shul in New York and then she decided to have an Orthodox conversion in Israel,” he said.

The pair were married in 2017 in a courtyard in front of the JCC.

For Jews who remained in Poland after the Holocaust, they could not openly practise their religion due to the communist regime.

Just three years after the Second World War finished, there was a pogrom in the city of Kielce.

And, in 1967, following the Six-Day War, Jews were seen as Zionists and, therefore, not loyal to Poland, so many of them were forced underground.

“It meant changing their names and keeping their identities hidden, even from their own families,” Jonathan explained.

“Today, however, many of them feel the need to express their Judaism by telling their children or grandchildren.

“Children and grandchildren may also discover their Jewish roots if they find a box with documents in it, for example, or even by Googling the family name.”

Poland has had a long history when it comes to antisemitism, but he insists that antisemitism is nowhere near as vociferous as it once was.

“I don’t think any people are inherently antisemitic,” the 49-year-old said. “There is antisemitism here, but there is in the UK and America, also.

“I think this is a safe place to be Jewish and we don’t feel any threat here.

“A few weeks ago, we hosted Rami Sherman, an Israeli involved with the rescue mission at Entebbe. We publicised it and there was nobody protesting outside, and we had no security.

“It was the same when we held Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations. We decorated the courtyard with Israeli flags and there were no problems.

“I think that would be a difficult thing to do in London or in many other cities around the world.”

Just this week, a summit of central European leaders in Israel was cancelled because of a row over the Holocaust.

Poland withdrew after being angered by comments from Israeli leaders about Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

Israel’s acting Foreign Minister, Yisrael Katz, used the phrase “Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mother’s milk”, quoting the former Israeli prime minister, Poland-born Yitzhak Shamir.

And, last year, Poland implemented its controversial Holocaust Law, which criminalises anyone who accuses the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi crimes. However, it was later reduced to a civil one, and only fines may be levied.

Jonathan said: “The law is unnecessary because we don’t need a law to tell us Germany did the Holocaust, not Poland.

“There were Poles who did horrible things, but which country didn’t collaborate? The problem for us as Jews in Poland was that we bore the brunt of the fall-out between Israel and Poland, which was unpleasant.

“Generally, Poles look very favourably towards Israel.

“Lots of Poles visit Israel and many of them have said they think Tel Aviv feels very Polish.”

The Kazimierz area of Krakow is home to many restaurants which offer Jewish-style food, but it is not kosher — and, usually, there is also pig on the menu.

“The joke is that it is kosher-style pork,” laughed Jonathan, whose parents, Iris and Jerry, and siblings, Michael and Katherine, still live in New York.

“Kazimierz is the best-preserved Jewish quarter anywhere in Europe and, within 10 minutes of the JCC, are seven renovated synagogues.

“The Jewish culture here creates an environment which is conducive to Jewish life.”

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