Growing up in communist-era Poland, Leslaw Piszewski had only vague hints about his background. As a young man, he pressed his father to tell him more.
Only then did he learn the full story that his father was Jewish, had survived the Holocaust in hiding and had been reluctant to reveal his identity even to his children in an era when communists had suppressed Judaism and had pressured many Jews to leave the country.
The revelations prompted Mr. Piszewski on a journey of return to the faith of his roots. Along the way he connected with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, a transplanted New Yorker who had moved to Poland soon after the fall of communism in 1989 and was helping many Jews in similar circumstances make sense of their rediscovered heritage.
Now president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, the central organization for Jewish life in the Polish capital, Mr. Piszewski was in Pittsburgh this past week with a delegation from Warsaw that also included Rabbi Schudrich, now the chief rabbi of Poland. They were here for a series of meetings at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh with counterparts from Pittsburgh and Israel.
The Jewish communities of Pittsburgh and of Karmiel-Misgav in Israel have had a sister-city relationship for more than two decades, and now they are bringing Warsaw’s small but growing Jewish community into the partnership.
“It really gives us connection to the outside Jewish world,” Rabbi Schudrich said of the partnership, which conveys a feeling “that they’re somebody out there that really cares about us.”
Debbie Swartz, the Pittsburgh federation’s Israel & Overseas Planning associate, said when the Pittsburgh and Karmiel-Misgav groups learned of the Warsaw group’s interest, they studied the issue and made a trip to Poland. After that trip, “We just felt like, how could we not do this?”
For American and Israeli Jews, though, the discovery of a vibrant Jewish community in Poland was almost as surprising as it was for Polish Jews who began learning about their suppressed identities after the fall of communism.
A large Jewish population with a culturally and religiously rich culture lived for centuries in Poland. But of the approximately 3.3 million Jews living in Poland before World War II, up to 90% perished in the Holocaust.
Most subsequently emigrated, particularly amid communist persecution in the 1960s.
As a result, when Jews from other countries visit Poland, it’s often to visit landmarks such as pre-war synagogues, or to take part in Holocaust-remembrance events at Auschwitz or other former death camps that the Nazis placed on Polish soil.
“In Warsaw, you cannot escape the history,” Ms. Swartz said. “It’s right in front of your face all the time. But at the same time, there’s this community that is really trying to emerge and wants to be again a part of the Jewish family.”
The existing Pittsburgh partnership with Karmiel-Misgav includes cultural, educational and other people-to-people exchanges. Now the three locations’ representatives are in the planning stages for incorporating Warsaw into the exchanges.
The Israeli contingent also was looking forward to the new arrangement.
Lilach Vaxman Rana of Karmiel said Israeli Jews grow up learning about Poland’s Jewish community mainly in the past tense, and some Israelis might assume that any remaining Jews there would want to emigrate to Israel. But, the Karmiel-Misgav team stressed, that’s a decision for Polish Jews to make.
“We will do anything [to help] people in Poland feel free to live the Jewish life without being afraid, to build communities, to bring back the properties of the Jewish people, to rebuild synagogues, to clean the cemeteries, to talk to the young generation about the opportunities they have to be connected,” she said. “And to understand that it’s OK to live and to build your own Jewish community in any other country and still [be] connected to Israel and be strong.”
Agata Rakowiecka, executive director of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, hopes that as the partnership grows, visitors will not see “Poland from the perspective of the past, death or the political issues, but actually to see that there are living Jewish people in Poland.”
She said that while no one knows for sure the number of Jews in Warsaw, the center serves about 1,000 people regularly, both Jewish and non-Jewish. “There’s more and more people who find out that they’re Jewish or decide to do something about it,” she said. The JCC seeks to help. While it doesn’t have the fitness equipment or swimming pools of its American counterparts, it hosts a variety of cultural social activities for Jews of all types of religious observance or who are secular. “They’re trying to explore their own Jewish narratives which are relevant to them,” she said.
Mr. Piszewski, who previously served as leader of a national Jewish organization, said that growing up, he never could have “imagined representing the Polish Jewry inside the country and abroad.” Nor could his parents, but they were able to witness his embrace of his roots as he took a leadership role in the reborn Jewish community. Before they died, he said, “They told me they were proud of me.”