What was a hundred years ago will not return
Interview with Miriam Synger, director of the Emuna Foundation, which supports the Jewish community in Łódź. Interviewer: Daniel Gleichgewicht.
DANIEL GLEICHGEWICHT: How has Jewish life in Poland changed in recent years?
MIRIAM SYNGER: Jewish life in Poland has been through different periods, but looking at the last twenty years we can notice an increase in Jewish activities. I would not call it a “rebirth of Jewish life”, as is often said today. What was a hundred years ago will not return. There will be no shtetl’s (little towns) in Poland, where Jews would be a majority. We can forget about such great numbers of synagogues that stood on the streets of Łódź, Kraków and Warsaw. There won’t be any Jewish retirement homes, orphanages or hospitals. However, there are new Jewish institutions, meaning the number of Jews is growing, not declining. This growth stems from the fact that Polish Jews have become less afraid to reveal their origin. There are many people interested in converting to Judaism. Perhaps they find wisdom they haven’t found elsewhere.
Is it possible to live a fully orthodox life in today’s Poland?
Yes and no. You need to have a synagogue and access to kosher food and Jewish education, while being able to keep the Sabbath… That is all possible. Synagogues operate in the largest cities and kosher food is found in regular shops or ordered online. There are a few schools, some of them on the internet and kindergartens. On a technical level, you can be orthodox in Poland, but not completely. The Jewish soul cannot be bought or loaned. Either you have it or you learn it. The Jewish spirit called yiddishkeit is what I like to understand as thinking of another person, caring for the weaker and poorer with openness and hospitality, the general understanding of good. If someone wasn’t raised in this, carries post-Holocaust like traumas in their heart, anxiety over their background or uncertainty about their choice to be religious they would still be orthodox, but very withdrawn Jews. That isn’t full orthodoxy.
How is the Jewish community in Łódź a part of the bigger society in the city?
The Jewish community in Łódź is very eager to work together with the city and other local organisations. The Jewish community is primarily dedicated to the Jews of the city, at the same time there is willingness to cooperate with the outside. There have been many events organised together with the city and many more are planned in the future.
What is the goal of the Jewish TV Szalom project?
Our Jewish web TV has three goals. It should inform Polish Jews about events in other cities. We are so few and it would be good to work some on the communication, which is very poor. Maybe this is because of the fear of abandonment most Poles harbor in their hearts. It would be good if Warsaw knew what was up in Gdańsk and Wrocław caught up with Łódź. The second goal it should have is to make Poles more accustomed to Jews. Show that despite the many differences we are still just people that need to find common ground. In order for us to stop fearing each other, we must know more about one another. The last aim is to show ourselves to the outside world. Let the Americans or other Europeans see that not every Pole is an antisemite, that there is room for Jews in Poland and that we aren’t being eaten alive. We’re building schools and praying in synagogues.
The storm concerning the changes to the law regarding the Institute of National Remembrance has calmed down a bit. Are you worried the noise around this matter hurt the Jewish community in Poland?
I am afraid this noise was bad for all of Poland. Noise is a good way of describing it. Neither can you hear what information is being passed on, and neither is it music to the ears. Everyone understands something else from it, then passes it forward in a distorted version. In this case the noise was negative information. When it had been processed and passed on it took the shape of a monster. Until it all goes silent and the noise finds its way to another spoiled medium.
Łódź was a grand Jewish center before the war. How do you balance daily Jewish life in a small community, with the size of the legacy, heritage and growing Jewish tourism from abroad?
A very good question that we ask ourselves, like other minorities surrounded by bigger and stronger groups. How much do you keep of yourself, how much will someone else change us? The answer has to be found with sociologists, historians and the wise. Looking at it individually, everyone should follow themselves, their values: not their local rabbi or a group of tourists. As for the legacy and heritage – well, the size is enormous. Polish Jews are strong in hope and weak from their past, carrying the weight of centuries of Polish history and countless Jewish corpses. How to hold on to that? First we have to stretch out a hand to each other and then try to communicate and understand one another. Then we can pick a good goal, try to reach it in love with smiles. Isn’t that advice to all people in the world?
Miriam (Maria) Synger is a sociologist from Kraków. She spent a few years in Israel and is currently living in Łódź. She is the director of the Emuna foundation which supports the Jewish community in Łódź with smaller projects. She has operated a Jewish kindergarten and been engaged in education for children and adults. Recently she has worked on creating a Jewish internet television called Szalom.tv. She has some ideas, plans and dreams for the future – all of them connected to Poland and Jews.
Daniel Gleichgewicht is an Assistant Editor with New Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in International Relations with a specialisation in intercultural relations from Collegium Civitas in Warsaw.
You can read more on the revival of Jewish life in central and eastern Europe in New Eastern Europe’s issue 2/2019: Postmodern Geopolitics. The consequences of the emerging multipolar world.