Cracow, Lodz, Warsaw—cities synonymous with vibrant Jewish populations that would find their bitter end in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, draw thousands of Jewish visitors today. They come from Israel, Europe, the U.S. and everywhere else. The come to do business, and they come to visit. Either way, the thought that not too long ago it was here that the cruelest violence was committed against our people, can never be too far removed from the consciousness of a Jewish visitor to Poland.
It is of course a different Poland today. The government is more than cooperative with efforts to rebuild Jewish life here. A number of cities have functional Jewish infrastructures. There’s an annual Jewish book fair in Warsaw that attracts both Jewish and gentile guests. A summer Klezmer festival in Cracow sponsored by the Polish art establishment seeks to reacquaint itself with a prewar Jewish form. There is a small survivor community in Poland, and a large Jewish immigrant population. Estimates of the Jewish population in Poland range anywhere between 5,000—20,000.
Surely, there is a sense of triumph and defiance in the reemergence of Jewish life here. And perhaps what motivates Jews to visit the sites of Jewish destruction in Poland is the catharsis that comes from meeting evil—in this case, the memory of evil—on a level playing field. But from the perspective of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, who himself spent time in prewar Poland, it is for the chance to restore yiddishkeit to Jewish people who reside here today, for the chance to uncover a ray of light where abysmal darkness once reigned, that one might return to Poland.
That’s what the Chabad Chanukah Menorah lighting ceremony in Warsaw, a first for Poland, aims to do early next week. According to Meir Stambler, a Chabad resident of Israel who does business in Poland, possibilities for uncovering light here are numerous. “One of the reasons that it’s hard to get an accurate count of the Jewish population here,” he says, “is because many Jews are afraid to register as Jews. A public menorah lighting ceremony such as the one we are planning sends a very strong message of Jewish identity and Jewish pride.”
What’s more, it is the responsiveness of the municipality to this event that tells Jews living in Poland today, that they need no longer hide. When Rabbi Stambler approached the Warsaw city authorities with a proposal for a public menorah in the city center, he says he received a “wholeheartedly positive response.”
The head of the City Cultural Department, Mrs. Naimska, suggested that the menorah be placed it at the Palace of Science and Culture, in the center of the city. Sponsored by the Stambler family in cooperation with the office of Merkos at Lubavitch World Headquarters, the festive ceremony will be attended by Warsaw’s President, Mr. Lech Kacyzinski, who will greet the guests, and by Poland’s Minister of Culture, Mr. Waldemar Dabrowski. The event will feature a concert inside the Palace of Culture by renowned father and son cantors, Chaim Eliezer and Srulik Hershtik. Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger, Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Mr. David Peleg, and various other European Parliament members will attend. In addition, menorahs will also be positioned and kindled each night at major thoroughfares and at the arrival and departure terminals at the Warsaw Airport.
The event has generated a lot of attention and positive publicity in Poland, and will be covered by Polish national media. Rabbi Michel Shudrich, Chief Rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, spoke enthusiastically to Lubavitch.com about this event. Although menorah lightings have been conducted in the past here, he says, they were on a much smaller, communal scale. “Warsaw has experienced so much darkness in terms of the history of the Jewish people and this public menorah lighting on Monday, will show all the Jews who are still hiding in darkness–in fear of the past–that Chanukah is like Judaism. It is all about light. And the bigger the menorah, the greater the light.”
In Lodz, the Jewish community will also be hosting a public Chanukah menorah ceremony. Chabad will be assisting Mr. Symcha Keller, Chairman of the Lodz Jewish community who is “doing a fantastic job in Lodz,” says Rabbi Stambler.
The Stamblers have opened a Jewish center adjacent to their business office, where year-round, Chabad rabbinical students conduct Torah study classes, Shabbat dinners, daily services, and a wide range of Jewish outreach activities.
Hundreds are expected to attend the two grand menorah lightings. In Warsaw the event will take place on December 13, the anniversary of Polish Martial Law, and, says Rabbi Stambler, “it will be a good occasion to show that the history is changing, and that light always comes after darkness.”