Jewish life has returned to a place infamous for its decimation – Oswiecim, Poland, also commonly known as Auschwitz – when dozens of young people from across Poland who recently discovered their Jewish roots came together on April 5-7, 2013 for a special weekend educational seminar. The gathering, which symbolically took place just ahead of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began on the evening of April 7th, was organized by the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel in commemoration of the revival of Jewish life in Poland.
“Our aim is to underline the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit,” said Michael Freund, Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel. “In recent years, a growing number of young Poles have begun to discover their Jewish roots, which Hitler and his henchmen so ruthlessly sought to erase,” Freund said, adding that, “By bringing these young people together to honor and explore their Jewish heritage, we are sending a message to the world that we are truly an eternal nation. Indeed, I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate that the Jewish people still live than by celebrating Shabbat with young Polish Jews in the shadow of the valley of death known as Auschwitz.”
Participants in the seminar were mostly young adults who came together to study Judaism and Jewish history, get to know new Jewish friends, and above all to celebrate and demonstrate pride in their Jewish roots. Over the course of the weekend, the group observed a traditional Shabbat, joined in prayers, heard lectures, and engaged in meaningful discussions on the future of the Jewish people. Services were held in the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue in Oswiecim, the only functioning synagogue that remains in the area.
“My friends were startled about my roots when I initially told them about it, but they encouraged me to discover my heritage more deeply,” said Karolina Wantuch, 25, PhD student of Cultural Ukrainian Studies from Krakow, one of the participants at the event. “Sometimes I’m afraid to talk about my Jewish background, which I discovered just recently, to people who I don’t know very well. This is why the Shabbaton in O?wi?cim is important- because it’s some kind of meeting with fragment of my family’s past, and an opportunity to meet people with a similar story to mine.”
Another participant at the event, Gzregorz Meisel, 45, owner of “Slodka Manufaktura Leona” handmade truffle company, shared his background saying, “My first encounter with the word Jew was many years ago when I was a boy- the children one day began to call me, “You Jew” and I totally did not know what they meant. I quickly forgot about it, but when I was an adult I became interested in family history and my family was very helpful until I discovered that our name is a Jewish one and that older people in the city have always known that we have Jewish roots, while my family was silent on the subject. I came to learn that my family had assimilated a long time ago and I wanted to learn more about what it means to be a Jew.”