Jewish Rebirth in Poland: A Conversation with Genevieve Zubrzycki


Jan 02, 2014 Bookmark and Share

If you’re Jewish, mentioning Poland likely brings to mind a few dark words: Auschwitz. Death. Anti-Semitism. Ashes.  

U-M Frankel faculty associate Genevieve Zubrzycki, an associate professor of sociology and director of the Copernicus Program in Polish studies at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, thinks of something else: Jewish revival.  

“Poland is not what we think it is,” she says. “There’s a Jewish revival, and it’s not just a fad. It’s not commercialism. It’s not just selling klezmer music. There’s something meaningful that’s going on.”

Zubrzycki, who will be speaking on January 9 about Jewish rebirth in contemporary Poland, tackles her unusual topic with authority and unabashed enthusiasm. She also does not shy away from controversy: In her award-winning book, The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland, Zubrzycki explored the fierce debate that ensued when Catholics erected crosses outside Auschwitz in 1998. 

For the past two decades, she has been visiting and researching Poland, during which she has witnessed extraordinary change as a rigid Communist and Catholic country transformed into one striving for openness and pluralism. Over the course of those years, she says, the number of Jews in Poland grew from approximately 1,500 during the 1990s to the present figure of about 40,000.

“Those are small numbers,” admits Zubrzycki, and she notes that the figure is debatable, since it depends on how one defines being Jewish. 

Nevertheless, signs of Jewish growth in Poland are remarkable. Zubrzycki relates that Poles who concealed their faith for years recently began to identify themselves as Jews. In 2008, a Jewish community center opened in Cracow, followed by the Warsaw JCC in 2013. Recently, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened its doors, and Zubrzycki is currently working on developing academic ties between the museum and the University of Michigan.

She is most fascinated by the many Polish non-Jews who are curious about Jewish culture, and volunteer for Jewish organizations, study Jewish languages, and write about Jewish topics. These are people, she says, who “have no roots, but are seeking roots.” For example, she tells of Poles who locate and restore Jewish cemeteries, or who create Jewish art.

“It’s soul searching,” Zubrzycki explains. “It’s about trying to understand the past, what happened, and how people can build a new Poland.”

She also notes that studying Jewish rebirth in Poland gives insights into how national identities are constructed. “How can you build pluralism and multiculturalism in a place where everyone is the same?” she asks. “That’s what we are seeing in Poland. People are resurrecting the Jew, and it’s partly to build pluralism.”

Professor Genevieve Zubrzycki will be speaking on January 9, 4:00 p.m., at 1080 South University Street, Room 1636. The title of the lecture is “`With One Color, We Cannot See,’: Building Pluralism Through Jewishness in Contemporary Poland.”