Poland’s Jewish renaissance brings to light ‘underpinnings’ of Judeo-Christian Western culture

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

June 28 will mark the start of the 23rd annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, whose closing event is a concert that routinely draws 20,000-25,000 people and exemplifies the re-emerging broad appeal of Jewish culture in a country that was home to 3 million Jews who died during Holocaust.

Click photo to download. Caption: San Francisco-based and Poland-born philanthropist Tad Taube, whose foundations committed $16 million to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Credit: Koret Foundation.

“Probably less than 10 percent of the people that are at that concert are Jewish,” San Francisco-based and Poland-born philanthropist Tad Taube tells JNS.org.

But now, the Jewish Culture Festival is not alone as a symbol of Poland’s Jewish renaissance. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews—for which two foundations Taube heads, the Koret Foundation and Taube Philanthropies, have made commitments of $16 million in total—opened to visitors this April in Warsaw and according to Taube is beginning to deliver the message that “1,000 years of Jewish history serve as the underpinnings of our own Judeo-Christian Western culture.” Much like the Jewish Culture Festival, Taube expects the museum to appeal to audiences well beyond the Jewish community. After it opened in April, the museum saw 15,000 visitors in its first three days and 45,000 in its first month.

“I think our studies right now show that we’re going to have in excess of a million people a year visiting the museum, and probably no more than 200,000 would be Jewish,” Taube says. “So it’s going to be a major global attraction. And the [attendance] model that we have is something that exists already, which is the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.”

Taube recalls a conversation he once had a Polish consular official who noted, “In 1939, the population of Poland was 35 million, and roughly 10 percent of that population was Jewish, but the contribution to Polish culture was probably more like 75 percent. So, when the Nazis murdered the Jews, it was as if Polish culture had been amputated.”

Click photo to download. Caption: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Credit: Mamik via Wikimedia Commons.

The consulate official’s point is why Taube believes Polish culture at large—not just Polish-Jewish culture—is being revived through the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Taube says the “unfortunate aspect of modern thinking about the Holocaust” is that it “tends to obscure a great culture that existed for a millennium in Poland, and which had an enormous influence on Western culture.” While the Holocaust occurred in a relatively short time frame, Jewish history and culture in Poland goes back 1,000 years.

“[The Jewish community] brought to Poland a great deal of art, music, theater, literature, philosophy, law, charity, family values, community values—all of the things that are embraced today as part of Judeo-Christian Western culture, and it brought those [elements] to Poland and to Jews as well as mostly non-Jews, because the Jewish population in Poland was always the minority, although a very large minority,” Taube says.

The most recent chapter of pre-Holocaust Polish Jewish history involved the late Poland-born Pope John Paul II, whose hometown of Wadowice was more than 40-percent Jewish before the Nazis annexed the town in 1939. John Paul II left Wadowice in 1938 to study at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, but would frequently return later in life, including three times as the pope.

Among the current efforts to rediscover Poland’s rich history is the School for Dialogue Among Nations, a yearlong learning program through which students in Polish high schools learn about the Jewish history of their local regions. Last winter, JNS.org reported on how these efforts are being implemented in the pope’s hometown.

“Poland has been for many, many years a predominantly Catholic country, and the Polish Pope John Paul II and the Polish people were essentially unified in terms of their thinking about religious issues,” Taube says. “And what Pope Johan Paul II did in terms of his impact on the Jewish people, is he took it upon himself to go to Poland, condemn anti-Semitism, commemorate the Holocaust, and establish diplomatic relationships with Israel. On another trip to Poland in 1979, he knelt and prayed at Auschwitz, which for Jews is very, very sacred territory.”

John Paul II’s most important to Jewish-Christian relations was “that he delivered the message in Poland that the Jewish people were not responsible for the death of Christ, and also delivered the message that anti-Semitism was a sin against God and the Church,” Taube says.

Taube explains that his motivation for contributing to Poland’s Jewish renaissance doesn’t have a lot to do with his Polish birth, even though he lost a large segment of his family in the Holocaust.

“I became involved in Jewish community life to a fairly significant extent starting about 40 years ago,” Taube recalls. “And I became concerned that what I saw was rather defensive in nature. I thought some of the Jewish organizations and in fact their Jewish leadership, were I would say eager to manifest their Jewishness, but at the same time in a very narrow context. You might have a philanthropist that gave a significant gift to a Jewish organization, but maybe 95 percent of that individual’s gifts would go to non-Jewish organizations. And I started wondering, ‘Why?’”

The answer, according to Taube, involves the Holocaust, which “obscured Jewish thinking in the sense that it dominated our perception about ourselves, and what was lost in the process was the contribution that the Jewish people made to Western culture, a very important contribution.”

“Indeed I would say that Jewish people, and our culture, and our history, serves as basic foundations of Western culture,” Taube says. “I’d much rather talk about that than talk about the Holocaust. So, it has been my view that we want to give my people back the heritage that we rightfully claim, instead of making that heritage part of a systematic process of murder.”

Following the devastation of the Holocaust, Poland is now a “very young country,” Taube says, stressing the importance of events such as the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow engaging a young demographic.

“Those aren’t 85-year-olds that are dancing in the streets [at the Jewish Culture Festival],” Taube says. “[Young Poles] celebrate our Jewish events with us with great excitement and enthusiasm, and Poland emerged today as a pretty open society, free of a lot of the issues that it had to face before the war. As a matter of fact, most of the people that were facing those issues are dead.”

As the Jewish renaissance in Poland moves forward with efforts such as the culture festival and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Taube says having a “tolerant Christian population” is crucial.

“Having a tolerant Christian population that understands Jewish issues and understands Jewish history and culture, and acknowledges that we’ve played a very fundamental role in helping to shape their value systems—I think all of those things bode well for moving towards a [Polish] society where there is less hatred,” he says. “We need to teach people how to love one another and we need to stop looking for excuses to hate.”

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Posted on June 17, 2013 and filed under Features, Holocaust, World.