A Passover seder on the Baltic is a rare chance for isolated Jews to celebrate together.
Gdansk, Poland – Marianna Grochola left her home at 11:30 a.m. last Monday for a 6:45 p.m. seder.
A widow and retired accountant, a child survivor of the Holocaust who grew up in communist Poland, Grochola took a bus to her railroad station in Slupsk, a small town 120 miles west of Gdansk. Then she took a slow train north, then walked a few miles from the main railroad station here to the city’s sole extant synagogue, the site of the first-night seder.
For a few hours she helped a dozen members of Gdansk’s small Jewish community, college-age to senior citizens, set up for the seder. Then, in the cavernous second-story auditorium of the synagogue, after sharing her life’s story as other workers put plates and Haggadot in place at long, tablecloth-covered tables, she sat for a few hours during the seder I conducted as a volunteer.
Dressed in a wool skirt and matching gray sweater, she recited brochot and sang and clapped and laughed with some 70 other members of the Jewish community in Poland’s northern Baltic area.
At 73, Grochola is the face of post-communist Polish Jewry.
Like many Polish Jews – the number is an estimate, from as few as a couple thousand to as many as tens of thousands, depending on who’s doing the counting – she discovered her Jewish identity as an adult.
Like many, she has embraced her “Jewish roots,” joining the Jewish Community of Gdansk, traveling here several times a year for holiday celebrations.
Like many, she has little idea about the depth of Jewish knowledge but is interested in learning.
While a Jewish revival that has powered a slow-but-steady rebirth of Jewish life in large cities like Warsaw or Wroclaw has been widely documented, Gdansk is still catching up. This is the story for many Jews who grew up as atheists or Christians in Eastern Europe since World War II, returned since the fall of Communism to Jewish affiliation, but live in areas where there are few Jewish resources or fellow Jews.
In larger communities, especially the capital cities, it is more proper to speak of a Jewish community than of a Jewish revival, Jewish leaders in the region will tell you. In the remote, remotely Jewish areas, a Jewish revival is still taking place.
The Jewish-born Grocholas of various ages are becoming Jewish, again or for the first time.
As throughout former communist countries, Passover is always one of the most popular events on the Jewish calendar, giving often-isolated Jews a chance to shmooze and celebrate together and take home a box of matzah.
It’s especially popular with some older members because it is a Jewish-only event – no non-Jewish “friends of the community invited” – and many of them, who grew up looking over their shoulders at their neighbors, are still nervous about publicly identifying themselves as Jewish in front of outsiders.
This is especially true in a smaller Jewish community, like Gdansk, whose seder last week was the first, full-scale communal seder held in the synagogue for more than 70 years.
‘Second-Level’ Jewish Community
There was only one community-wide seder because members of Gdansk’s community, unfamiliar with Pesach traditions – especially on a weeknight – would come to only one.
Offering neither a large Jewish population nor a hallowed Jewish history, neither landmark Jewish buildings nor recent decades of charismatic Jewish leadership, neither a full-time rabbi nor regular Jewish visitors from the West, Gdansk typifies the challenges facing small Jewish communities in Poland and in the region’s once-communist countries.
Gdansk, says Michael Schudrich, the Long Island-born chief rabbi of Poland, is on the “second level” of Polish Jewish communities, ten years behind the larger, more-successful communities in its rebuilding stage.
“Fifteen years,” says Konstanty Gebert, a longtime Jewish activist in Warsaw and columnist-foreign correspondent for the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.
The Gdansk Jewish community, which includes the neighboring seaside cities of Sopot and Gdynia, is 100-150 people, according to most estimates. That figure, as elsewhere in former Eastern Bloc lands, includes individuals with “Jewish roots” (Jewish relatives on either the mother or father’s side) and members of their immediate families (who don’t necessarily identify themselves as Jewish.)
The size of the city’s Jewish community has remained fairly constant since Communism fell two decades ago and the danger of publicly acknowledging one’s Jewish identity disappeared, says Michal (ME-khow) Samet, chairman of the community for seven years.
As members of the community die or move away, they are replaced by others who suddenly learn they are Jewish or decide to come out of the ethnic closet. “A small miracle,” says Samet, who has spent some time at a yeshiva in Israel and serves as a combination administrator/halacha advisor/kashrut supervisor. “We have a future.”
“Mir zeinen du” – we are here, he says in a rare display of Yiddish.
Like other small Jewish communities, Gdansk’s depends on a small cadre of dedicated leaders, and is too small to be self-sustaining without outside help.
Like other small communities, it finds finances a constant problem. Its members, often pensioners on fixed incomes, have little money, and philanthropic American-based organizations like the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, can not underwrite the expenses of every community.
Gdansk’s, which operated for several recent years out of the ground floor of the 83-year-old, two-story synagogue that had served as a furniture warehouse and music academy, took back full possession of the building six months ago.
Now there are weekly, sparsely attended Shabbat services and a Sunday school, and occasional classes.
The restoration of such buildings often strengthens a local community’s pride and finances in the long run, but utility bills of the Gdansk synagogue so far are an economic drain. Plans are in discussion to rent out space or maybe sell the building.
The site of Jewish settlement for nearly a millennium, Gdansk was known as Danzig, its German name, for most of its history, and was under German – or Prussian – rule for about half of the last two centuries. As a semi-autonomous, League of Nations’ Free City after World War I, it maintained its close cultural ties to Germany; the city was 98 percent German when World War II started in 1939, and reverted to Polish control after the war.
About 1,200 Jews lived there in 1939, the year the Great Synagogue shipped many of its precious items to the Jewish Museum in New York for safe-keeping; the year some 200 Jewish youngsters departed for safety in England from the railroad station as part of the Kindertransport movement; a year after Kristallnacht pogroms destroyed most of the city’s synagogues.
This was where the first shots of World War II were fired (at the Westerplatte military garrison), where the first concentration camp outside of Germany proper was established (Stutthof, where about 85,000 Jews and non-Jews died) and where the last concentration camp was liberated (Stutthof, on May 9, 1945.)
After the war, 350 Jews lived here. Many left soon; more, after the 1968 wave of anti-Semitism. Some of Gdansk’s remaining Jews were active in the worker-led Solidarity movement that brought down the country’s communist regime and started the process that overthrew Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In Polish society, Gdansk, a prominent seaport and shipbuilding center, is “symbolic” as a place of bravery and independence, says Rabbi Schudrich.
So the eyes of Poland are on Gdansk.
But that does little to inspire a Jewish renaissance here, Gebert says. “There is no Jewish mystique to continue,” as in the fabled shtetls further south in the one-time Pale of Settlement.
Gdansk’s synagogue, out of view in a courtyard behind a florist shop and bank on Grunwaldzka Boulevard in the middle-class Wrzeszcz neighborhood, two miles from downtown, is a minor presence for most citizens.
Partially destroyed by Gdansk residents in 1938, it is, for the Jews of the surrounding area, the Jewish presence. It is Grochola’s only link to Jewish life.
Born in a village near Poznan, she was raised by her secular Catholic father and fervently Catholic stepmother. Her Jewish mother had died.
Grochola, who never learned growing up that she was Jewish, remembers hiding from the Nazis in a church and garden as a child. She remembers her father also hiding, her maternal grandmother reciting Polish prayers she now calls Jewish. But she never thought of herself as Jewish.
When she was 43, she heard one son, who had visited Israel, saying a prayer that sounded familiar.
“When did you meet my grandmother?” Grochola asked – her son was saying prayers like her grandmother had recited.
“Mother, don’t you know that we have Jewish roots?” her son answered.
Grochola’s father confirmed that his first wife – and his daughter – were indeed Jewish.
She wanted to find out what being Jewish meant. “I didn’t know where to go.” It was a “very difficult road,” she tells me through an interpreter, Kasia Mazurkiewicz, an active member of the community.
Grochola tried a seniors group in Warsaw, but it was too far away for regular visits. Finally, she discovered the Jewish Community of Gdansk, the nearest one to her home. She joined in 2002. She comes to the seder each year with another son, Micha.
“It’s my desire,” she says. “I feel close to God.”
Foreign Seder, Familiar Setting
The seder last week was a typical Gdansk Jewish activity, a roomful of Polish names and Polish faces, with Polish language posters from a recent Kinderstransport museum exhibit lining the walls.
The seder basics seemed foreign to most of the crowd.
“How many people here are at their first seder?” I asked early in the evening. Half the hands went up.
No one even knew Dayenu.
As is my practice when leading a seder for Jewish neophytes, I did little reading of the Haggadah and lots of summarizing, lots of theatrics. I passed out prizes and awards – donated by J. Levine Books & Judaica, Manhattan Judaica and Lisa and Rabbi Leonard Levy, friends from Forest Hills – to anyone who participated. I had Grochola open the door for Elijah, She was in her element. Among Jewish friends.
Her neighbors in her town, Grochola says, don’t know that she is a Jew. “It’s not easy,” she says. “You have nobody to talk to” about things Jewish.
In her home, she says, she lights Shabbos candles weekly and a menorah on Chanukah.
Next year, Grochola says, she plans to make the trip to Gdansk for the seder again.
“To remember,” she says. “You have to remember how you got freedom.”
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