Daniela Malec’s blond hair, swept into a stretchy purple band atop her head, sprays upward like a fountain, giving her a perpetual look of amazement. Add her blazing blue eyes, and the 26-year-old Jewish activist looks punk prophetic. “What does it really mean to be a Jew?” she asks, naming the issue that fires her and about 20 other young people who recently formed a group to address such questions.
A fraught subject anywhere, Jewish identity is especially complicated for Malec and her colleagues: They live in Poland, largely regarded by Jews worldwide as little more than a graveyard. To the extent that most international Jewish agencies and individuals take notice, it’s to pay respects at Nazi death camps, safeguard the remnants of the once- vibrant culture and support the survivors of World War II who somehow kept the faith — in short, to preserve the past. With fiery youthful assurance — and the pluralistic possibilities opened by Poland’s joining the European Union in May — Malec and her friends insist, audaciously, on a Jewish future.
Amid tragic history and, no less challenging, a sentimental tourist- focused Jewish culture without Jews — one about as bona fide as Madonna’s tefillin — these young people are claiming their buried heritage.
The Holocaust snuffed out 3 million Polish Jews, about 90% of that country’s Jewish population, and the remnant was pushed out in “anti-Zionist” purges of 1968, when some 20,000 Jews were forced to emigrate. Most who remained — estimates range from 5,000 to 25,000 — stayed underground, some intermarrying and dissolving all ties to Judaism, some slowly emerging during the past 15 years since the defeat of totalitarian communism. Most of the young men and women in Malec’s group — called Cholent after the famous Sabbath stew that is a mish-mash of long-simmering ingredients — come from mixed families in which a parent’s or grandparent’s Jewish background was hidden or denied. Like other young people coming out of the closet and forging community and sense of self in a post-modern age, they aim both to assert and to deconstruct identity.
“We don’t want to create a definition of a Jew that everyone has to live up to,” explained Cholent member Kasia Czerwonogora, 19, who found out her father was Jewish when she stumbled onto some documents in her family home a couple of years ago. “We want to create a place where all of us with different viewpoints can discuss and find out who we are.”
Vulgar counter-examples surround them. The southern city of Krakow, where Cholent was formed last fall, is the center of a Jewless Jewish revival, proffering its own, sometimes bizarre, images of what’s “authentic.” Kazimierz, the famous Jewish quarter that thrived from the 14th century until the Holocaust, is now the site of a sort of Ashkenazi theme park run by non-Jews featuring “Jewish-style” restaurants that serve up stuffed cabbage (sometimes containing pork) and klezmer music played by Catholic conservatory students. In some, waiters don caps and vests that look like they’ve been pulled from the rack of a “Fiddler on the Roof” bus-and-truck company. Tchotchke shops sell carved wooden figurines that are the local equivalent of the chiefs and squaws for sale in trinket stands along a southwest American interstate: shrugging, bearded men who clutch Torah scrolls or moneybags.
Steven Spielberg shot “Schindler’s List” on location in Krakow, and walking tours of the neighborhood point out the fake set-pieces built for the film with as much veneration as, say, the home where the great Yiddish songwriter Mordecai Gebirtig lived before being herded to the ghetto and gunned down by the Nazis. At one of Kazimierz’s seven synagogues (only one of which remains in weekly use for the city’s 200 affiliated Jews), an exhibit features piped-in cantorial music; cardboard cutouts of wizened men in black hats are propped under faded frescoes of Hebrew verses.
Two generations of Poles grew up lacking not only the opportunity to put flesh and bones on these two-dimensional images; they didn’t even have a clue that Jews once flourished in Poland at all.
Robert Gadek, 33, a non-Jew who is now the director of the Center for Jewish Culture in Kazimierz, remembers the shock of discovering what he calls “the blank spots in our history.” Coming to Krakow from a small town in western Poland to study linguistics at the university in the early 1990s, Gadek began learning about Polish dialects. His professors mentioned one called Yiddish. “I found people who spoke all the other dialects,” Gadek recalled, “but where were the people who spoke Yiddish?” Researching on his own, he found “first of all, that Yiddish was no Polish dialect.” His “pure fascination” with the thick, complicated world he was uncovering grew into a deep sense of duty to help fill in those national blank spots.
Gadek had good timing. Solidarity’s victory in 1989, and the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter, lifted the lid on once-forbidden topics. Public programs, college courses, commemorative events and journals by and about Jews proliferated, especially as money started pouring in from Israel and the United States. Kazimierz, long treated as Krakow’s garbage heap, started to be restored — and the Jewish tourists started to come, most spending an evening in the neighborhood after their grim, obligatory visit to Auschwitz, a 90-minute drive away.
But for all the kitsch and exploitation, the renovation of Kazimierz did create some Jewish public space, and more thoughtful institutions have taken root: The center where Gadek works presents lectures, panels and debates on topics ranging from democracy and tolerance in the European Union to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ”; a brand-new Museum of Jewish Galicia is currently showing an exhibit of photos documenting traces of Jewish civilization in the region.
Cholent is also hoping to open its own Jewish youth center in the Kazimierz — “a place where we could have meetings and panels, celebrate holidays, watch Woody Allen movies together,” Malec said.
In the meantime, the members of Cholent find that more “official” Jews are not so eager to embrace their search for ways to make the culture live on. Cholent would love to spend time, for instance, with their peers from Israel and North America, who come to Poland on “March of the Living” tours, which take Jewish youngsters to Auschwitz and other death camps and then deliver them triumphantly to Israel. But trip organizers have not yet responded favorably to Cholent. It may be that the narrative spun out in these pilgrimages — Polish Jewry is murdered and gone, Jewish vibrancy can be found only in Israel — cannot bear the lively contradiction that Cholent represents.
Cholent members have no delusions about their capacity to resuscitate a civilization developed during eight centuries by millions. “We have been born into a different reality, one where having 200 Jews in Krakow is a kind of success,” Malec said, “Since the Holocaust, we are the first generation that is free. We don’t have the fear of our grandparents, their memories are not ours and do not limit us. We can imagine something. There can be some kind of Jewish life here. We want to contribute to it.”