On Friday, hundreds gathered for what was claimed to be the first seder held on the grounds of the former Warsaw Ghetto since the Nazis razed it in 1943 – but, it turns out, though the seder was indeed a memorable one, it wasn’t unprecedented. In fact, it wasn’t even technically held within the former ghetto perimeter.
Conducted on April 19, the 76th anniversary of the onset of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which notably also fell out on the seder eve in 1943, this year’s Passover celebration was hosted by Warsaw’s Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the city’s Hilton hotel.
Hundreds of people attended, and the event was, by all accounts, a success.
But the Hilton is not located in the former ghetto itself — though the building does overlook its border. Furthermore, according to several community leaders, there have been public seders held on the grounds of the former ghetto during and after the decades of Poland’s communist rule, which collapsed in 1989.
“Certainly the communal seders held at the community headquarters at No. 6 Twarda Street every year since 1991 qualify [as being held within the former ghetto],” said Michael Traison, an American-Israeli attorney who has a home in Warsaw and who has been active in the city’s Jewish community for the last 27 years.
“The recent story of the ‘first seder’ conforms to the preexisting belief of many that there was no Jewish life in Warsaw,” Traison told The Times of Israel. “But since 1992 I have observed the continuing development of a Jewish community many thought did not exist. Under Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Warsaw Jewish community has built upon the foundation work of [communist-era] activists like Prof. Stanislaw Krajewski and journalist Kostek Gebert.”
Gebert told The Times of Israel that with the exception of 1944 and 1945, he believes that there have been communal seders held in the Polish capital every year since the Warsaw Ghetto’s destruction – some inside the former ghetto, some not. He added that he found the specific location of the seders to be unimportant.
“It’s absolutely insignificant whether or not a seder was held there,” he said.
When asked, Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told The Times of Israel that he has conducted Passover seders within the former ghetto confines before, in the “White Building” at No. 6 Twarda Street next door to the Nozyk Synagogue. But, he said, the symbolism of the location mattered less than the fact that Jews were turning up to the seder at all.
“I started doing seders in 1991,” Schudrich said. “By 1992, 1993, we were having 100, 120 people at the first night’s seder, which was held outside of the ghetto, but we also had great attendance at the second night’s seder, which was held at the White Building.”
“In fact,” Schudrich said, “The reason we left the White Building was because we had too many people. It could only fit around 40 or 50. I mean, that’s a wonderful problem to have.”
Schudrich said that this year he hosted 150 people, mostly locals, at the Marriott hotel outside the ghetto lines. But he stressed that Passover celebrations were much more diverse than just the large public seders in the capital.
“We also had at least one, maybe two Reform seders here,” Schudrich said, “and additional seders in at least 11 communities around the country. Some of the smaller communities are getting 70, 100 people, in a place where you wouldn’t think there were any Jews. Gdansk had about 80 people, there was a big seder in Poznan, and of course in Krakow.”
Chabad Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler told The Times of Israel that his group had “no intention to ignore what others do,” and that “the more that is written about Jewish revival in Poland, the better.”
“I think that the big news of our seder is that many families from abroad, including descendants of those who were in the ghetto during the uprising, have chosen to celebrate the Passover seder in the Warsaw Ghetto area,” Stambler said.
Schudrich agreed. “This year, just like in 1943, the seder night fell out on April 19, which was the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We know the young men and women in the uprising literally still had the taste of matza in their mouths when they went out to fight. And that’s what’s important — the taste of matza is still inspiring Jews today to be Jewish.”
Three million Jews — 90 percent of Poland’s prewar Jewish population — were murdered in the Holocaust. The following decades under communist rule provided additional challenges for the Jewish community.
Through it all, said Gebert – an activist and Jewish community leader who was one of the main organizers of the Flying University, which educated people on subjects forbidden by the Polish government – Jewish life persevered.
“From 1967 there was an anti-Semitic campaign – it was supposedly anti-Zionist, but in actuality it was anti-Semitic – that caused 15,000 Jews to flee the country and sent mainstream Jewry underground,” Gebert told The Times of Israel.
“There were no rabbis then, and the only public seders were held at the soup kitchen — where it was assumed that at least one or two of the guests would report what went on at the event to the secret police,” he said. “Mostly these drew people who had nowhere else to go – pensioners, people with no family, and the like. Anyone else made a private seder at home.”
“But then, in the late 1970s, there was a movement of mostly assimilated young Jews who decided to reclaim their identity, and they were led in large part by Stanislaw Krajewski, who organized the first clandestine seder in 1979 or 1980,” said Gebert.
“I led seders the following two years, beginning in 1980 or 1981, and these were held in the area of the former ghetto completely by coincidence, because we happened to live there. But it certainly wasn’t any sort of statement,” he said.
Gebert said that in the late 1980s, the taboo against Jewish practice began to thaw, paving the way for a brief stint with an Israeli chief rabbi from Bnei Brak, and then Schudrich’s arrival in the early 1990s.
Today, there are around 8,000 people counted as part of the Polish Jewish community, though it’s estimated that there may be tens of thousands more unaccounted for. To that end, outreach plays an important role for all of the diverse communities in Poland.
“You see more Jews doing more Jewish things, and that to me is the most significant, that the response to destruction is rebuilding,” said Schudrich.
But Gebert said that it’s not necessary to focus on precisely where that rebuilding is taking place. Jews have a history of living all across the city of Warsaw, with the exception of the years they were confined by the Nazis, he said.
“In any case the ghetto, set up by the Germans, only existed from November 1940 until May 1943, and its fetishization is morbid,” he said.