WARSAW — On the face of it, Maciej Pawlak is an unlikely Jewish day school principal.
Born in Szezecin, in northwestern Poland, he was raised in an atheist household and did not even realize he was Jewish until he was a teenager.
“I suspected I had Jewish roots,” he said in a recent interview in Warsaw. “There was basically no religion in my home,” he added. “My family story is similar to many other family stories in Poland. I know many people like myself.”
Today the head of the Lauder Morasha Jewish Middle School in Warsaw, Pawlak believes his parents concealed his Jewish ancestry from him for so long because they wanted him to feel comfortable in a staunchly Catholic society. But also, to protect him from anti-Semitic outbursts.
When he was 14, his mother finally leveled with him.
“Maybe she thought I was ready,” he said. “She confirmed what I had suspected. It was a good feeling.”
His mother also told him that his late maternal grandparents had escaped from the Nazi ghetto in Warsaw, and that his father’s family had sought refuge in the Soviet Union during World War II.
In 1992, his parents sent him to a Lauder summer camp in southern Poland to explore Judaism.
‘I knew zero about Judaism when I went there’
“I knew zero about Judaism when I went there,” Pawlak said. “I made many friends and returned to the camp in the following year.”
He also visited the synagogue in Szezecin, whose Jewish population stood at about 30 as of a few years ago.
He was hooked: After graduating from high school, he studied at a yeshiva in Israel.
“My parents were supportive,” he said. “They understood I was doing something I wanted.”
Returning to Poland, he took business courses in a Warsaw college. And then, with the support of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the encouragement of Poland’s American-born chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, he continued his Jewish studies in New York City.
Pawlak says he accepted the job at the Lauder school out of a sense of purpose and responsibility.
“I really wanted to do something for the Jewish community, which has changed since I was a boy,” he said.
And by any standard, he has succeeded.
Poland has experienced a Jewish revival since the end of the Communist era and the advent of democracy in 1989. There is no better symbol of that phenomenon than Pawlak’s school, which is marking its 22nd anniversary this year.
In 1939, Poland’s Jewish population was 3.3 million, compared to some 7,000 today
Part of a network of Lauder-financed Jewish schools and summer camps in Poland, it has an enrollment of 240 students from the ages of three to 16 and a staff of 80, including 50 teachers.
Although partially supported by grants from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the Warsaw municipality, the school levies a tuition fee of $4,000 per student per year to cover remaining costs.
Housed in a pre-war Jewish seniors’ home, the school was officially opened in 1994 in the presence of Warsaw’s mayor and Poland’s prime minister, who described it as “magnificent proof” of the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland. In 1939, Poland’s Jewish population was 3.3 million, compared to some 7,000 today (though today’s unofficial census is probably much higher).
“No one knew whether the school would grow,” said Pawlak. “But I’m glad to say it’s been successful.”
Warsaw’s only Jewish day school, it began as kindergarten in 1989 with a handful of students, evolved into an elementary school with 17 first graders, and eventually morphed into what it is today — a full-service institution which offers a secular curriculum and a menu of Jewish studies courses and Hebrew language instruction, all accredited by Poland’s Ministry of Education.
Of late, the school has also offered online courses to students living in other towns and cities in Poland.
Pawlak, the first citizen since the Holocaust to be ordained as a rabbi and continue to live in Poland, said that a small proportion of its student body is Catholic. He believes that the Christian parents who send their kids to his school do not want them to be exposed to Catholic liturgy.
The vast majority of the school’s graduates go on to university and remain in Poland, said Pawlak. A few graduates have immigrated to Israel.
While he cannot ordain the future, Pawlak intends to stay in Poland and continue working for the school.
“Many people are surprised that there is something going on Jewishly in Poland,” he said. But, he added, they shouldn’t be surprised at the resilience.
Like Poland, the Jewish community has evolved over the past generation and continues to thrive.
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