JERUSALEM (JTA) — After Jerzy heard about frequent vandalism at an old Jewish cemetery in his home city of Gdansk, Poland, he decided to visit the graveyard.
It had fallen into such disrepair that “people would go there to drink beer,” said Jerzy, who gave only his middle name due to fears of anti-Semitism.
He made a few trips to the cemetery, meeting a member of the local Jewish community who invited him to come to Friday night services and Shabbat dinner.
“I liked Jews all my life,” said Jerzy, 32, who, although not raised Jewish, had worn a Star of David as a child. “It was the opposite of all of Poland.”
Around Gdansk, he said, he sometimes sees graffiti of a Jewish star hanging from a gallows.
As he learned more about Poland’s Jews, Jerzy began to research his own family history. He traveled to his father’s birthplace near Lublin to find his father’s birth certificate; soon afterward, he learned that both his father and his maternal grandfather were Jewish.
Around Gdansk, he sometimes sees graffiti of a Jewish star hanging from a gallows.
Three years later, Jerzy – whose arms are covered in tattoos – has across the back of his neck a huge Hebrew tattoo that reads “Shema Yisrael.” He is converting to Judaism to gain recognition from traditional denominations.
Jerzy was one of 19 participants to travel to Israel last week on a trip for Poles with newly discovered Jewish roots. The trip, according to Shavei Israel, the group that organized it, aims to teach participants about Judaism and to involve them more in Jewish life and support of Israel.
“The Jewish people are a small people, and there are these communities out there that were once a part of us,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “When someone discovers or rediscovers their Jewish roots, it makes them more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish causes, so it’s something we stand to benefit from [regarding] diplomacy and hasbara,” Israeli public relations.
Based in Israel, Shavei Israel also runs programs for those with Jewish roots in Spain, Portugal, India and Russia.
The two-week August trip took participants throughout Israel. They traveled through Jerusalem, to northern Israel and also to West Bank settlements such as Hebron and Mitzpeh Yericho, where they spent Shabbat. Freund said that the visits to settlements do not indicate that the trip takes political positions.
“We stay completely away from political messaging,” Freund said. “There is no political agenda here. The agenda is to give them an opportunity to see the land of Israel and visit important historical sites.”
The group also visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, to gain an Israeli perspective on a tragedy also etched deeply in Polish national memory.
Trip leaders did not discuss politics, participants said. Several said that their favorite part of the journey was the feeling of being in a Jewish society where they were free to wear kippot on the street and to try out their Hebrew.
After doing advanced coursework in Jewish studies, Anna, 35, learned two years ago that her maternal great-grandmother was Jewish – and therefore that she, her mother and her grandmother were as well, according to Jewish law. In Israel, “the first thing that struck me was you’re walking down the beach, and you have Jews all around you,” said Anna, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity. “It’s this safety you have, people greeting you with ‘Shavuah tov’ and ‘Shabbat shalom.’ ”
Like a few of the participants, Anna has started keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and learning Hebrew. She said Jewish life is sparse in her hometown in central Poland, but cities such as Krakow and Warsaw have more Jewish resources.
Approximately 4,000 registered Jews live in Poland, although community leaders suspect tens of thousands may not have identified as Jewish.
The Krakow Jewish Community Center has been a boon to Jedrek Pitorak, 23, who goes there for Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations and Hebrew classes. Pitorak, who has known he is Jewish his whole life, was one of the group’s most experienced Israel tourists. Unlike many who were first-time visitors, he came here in 2009 on Taglit-Birthright Israel, which sponsors free trips to Israel for young adults.
Pitorak is heartened by “how many small children we see here. It’s a bright sign.” Although he’s involved in the contemporary Polish Jewish community, he does not think his homeland will become a center of Jewish life, as it was before almost all of its Jews perished in the Holocaust. Approximately 4,000 registered Jews currently live in Poland, although community leaders suspect that tens of thousands of Poles may not have identified as Jewish.
“There are many old people, and the community is not growing,” Pitorak said of Krakow’s Jews. “If you come to the JCC, you see more volunteers and sociologists than real Jews.”
Participants said that they enjoyed Israel’s religious options, historical sites, beaches and food. But one of the features of Israeli life that Pitorak likes best may surprise Israelis and American tourists alike. He appreciates “how polite the drivers are to each other and the pedestrians.”