Seventy years after WWII, the third generation of Jews in Warsaw wants to liberate themselves from the stigma of history. In their eyes, Jewishness is more than just the Warsaw ghetto and the holocaust. Is this an understandable act of rebellion or an insensitive behaviour towards those Jews who were branded and repressed in Poland over seventy years ago?
When Antonia Samecka returned from her first trip to Israel at the age of 13, she was wearing the Star of David around her neck and proudly presenting it to her grandmother. But her grandmother was terrified and told her to remove it immediately.
“She thought it was too dangerous to show people that you are Jewish. That was the moment when I thought: We have to change this. I don’t want to hide it.“ Today, Samecka, who was born and raised in Warsaw, is the co-founder of the fashion label ‘Risk made in Warsaw’. She offers clothing that proudly depict Jewish symbols like the Star of David or the Menorah on it.
She thought it was too dangerous to show people that you are Jewish.”
Samecka’s light-flooded office has huge windows, a high roof and floorboards. It resembles a flat in the old buildings of Berlin. A huge office table stands in the middle of the contorted room, where design magazines are properly arranged.
Although there is not a lot of furniture and even less decoration, the details and composition makes it special and gives you the feeling of being at a creative place.
Samecka has keen blue eyes and a calm, but also determined character. She wants to alter the mindset when it comes to being Jewish, especially for young Jews in Poland.
In her eyes being Jewish should not only be a stigma, it should show that Jews are cool, humorous and modern. It should also be a signal that it is possible to have a good life in Poland as a Jew.
She gives us the example of her friend, Tomecz, who wore a kippah in public for a whole month. “Nothing happened to him, here in Warsaw – not even an anti-Semitic gesture. Warsovians were even really friendly, saying ‘Shalom’ when he was entering the market. I think there are really wrong opinions, that being Jewish in Poland isn’t safe.”
The discovery of Jewishness
Poland is a different place for Jews now. That is why even the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, is supporting ‘Risk made in Warsaw’.
He explains in the labels YouTube-channel, “We have a situation today were especially young Poles and young Non-Jewish Poles have this interest in ‘What is the Jewishness about?’ And out of this curiosity for some a really serious commitment has grown to preserve Jewish culture and patrimony.”
Indeed the numbers of the last census in Poland in 2011 have shown a significant increase of Jews living in Warsaw. The number rose by more than eight times the previous over the course of ten years.
Dr. Erik Petry, Head of Centre for Jewish Studies at University of Basel, names two main reasons for this. On the one hand side, more Polish Jews don’t fear to reveal their heritage anymore, which was not a matter in times of communist and post-communist era. On the other hand, many young Poles discover that they are Jewish.
“The question then however is, what do you do with the new gained knowledge and what does it trigger inside yourself.“
For Samecka this is nothing new: “A lot of my friends didn’t know they were Jewish. They found documents of their grandparents and realized they are Jews. Their grandparents never told them. After the war people didn’t like to expose that. Now more people discover and reveal it and want to know more about their roots.”
Anna Tenenbaum is an example for this. She is also a Jew in third generation and for a long time she had no idea.
“My grandparents never spoke about the war. My parents did not talk about the subject either. By the time I was ten, I did not even know that the name Tenenbaum is just not as Kowalski and our family is a bit different than most families of my friends.”
Today the 26-year old is studying Cultural Studies at the University of Warsaw. Beneath supporting ‘Risk made in Warsaw’, she is also a member of JDC Poland, a Joint Distribution Committee which is a Jewish organization supporting Jewish society and culture.
The burden of history
Still, not everyone agrees with the way Samecka and Tenenbaum think. Particularly, the way that “Risk in Warsaw” is using the Jewish symbols to show their commitment is spreading criticism. The Star of David added to clothing was symbol for the oppression of millions of Jews, who were marked in the Jewish Ghettos or concentration camps.
To bring the Star of David on fashionable dresses these days is like trying to belittle the whole gruesome events that happened.”
Janusz Wlosiak, who worked in Auschwitz with holocaust victims for over thirty years, was shocked, when he first heard about it.
“This should not be okay,” 54-year-old Wlosiak says, while shaking his head. Although he was calm and thoughtful, his reaction showed consternation and incomprehension towards that.
Siegfried Müller, an elderly visitor, who overheard our conversation, came up to me afterwards, complaining that this story is not only disgusting but also despicable. The teacher from Germany went on, saying, “To bring the Star of David on fashionable dresses these days is like trying to belittle the whole gruesome events that happened. I think the Star of David must definitely not be brought on clothing anymore!“
Dr. Petry from the Centre of Jewish Studies does not see the use of the Star of David being reprehensible, “because the symbol is not holy and also used by sport clubs, e.g. Maccabi Tel Aviv. The way the Star of David is used by the designers is not comparable to way the Nazis did – yellow, with blue stripes and on the left side.”
For him, it is a positive development that young Jews use these symbols again and he does not think that that harms the remembrance of the victims. Dr. Petry believes the conscious use of these symbols will lead to a discourse, which can be helpful for the Jewish community. “You can just hope and encourage these young people to maybe get back the interpretational sovereignty of this symbol and be brave enough to lead the debate about it.”
The struggle of the third Jewish generation in Warsaw
Both Samecka and Tenenbaum want to see Warsaw the way it is today – a modern city that has more than only one face. There is the decent beautiful old town in the center, there are skyscrapers, promotion signs and noisy traffic jams next to it and then there is Praga – a former deprived area and creative quarter north of the Vistula. As with its quarters, Warsaw is shaped by history, and wants to look into the future with a growing creative scene.
It is no longer a question of rebuilding Jewish life in Poland as for the second generation. To these young Jews this is home. For Samecka Wasaw is even so important, that she brought the city name into her brand – ‘RISK in Warsaw’.
“I think Warsaw is a vivid place were people have so many ideas inside them. Due to politics we had this historical gap between 1939 and 1998, where people had to be careful about what they say or do.“ Samecka says, referring to the time where Poland was first occupied by the Nazis in 1939 and afterwards bonded to the communist Soviet Union.
“Now we have this freedom to do whatever we want. People can create their ideas. This freedom reminds us to experiment with everything: theater, fashion, art or design.“
What does it mean to be Jewish?
“Poland is one of the countries with an exceeding dynamic young Jewish generation,” Dr. Petry tells me.
“The paradigm shift of ‘hiding ones Jewishness’ to ‘being proud of ones Jewishness’ has started now. Still it will need some time until ‘Being Jewish’ is something to reveal in the Eastern European societies and Germany.” However, he believes that the normal interaction with Jewishness is what the civil society needs.
You can just hope and encourage these young people to maybe get back the interpretational sovereignty of this symbol and be brave enough to lead the debate about it.”
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews captures the issue of Jewish identity in Poland in its current exhibition. One of the exhibition pieces is huge LED-cube with questions aiming on the identity of Polish Jews, e.g. ‘Is there a future for Jews in Poland?’ or ‘What does it mean for you to be Jewish?’
Samecka and Tenenbaum are two figuring it out for themselves right now. Seventy years after holocaust the third Jewish generation in Poland is looking for freedom and self-fulfillment, where their grandparents and parents faced bondage and cruelty.
For that reason they are an example for the change of Jewish identity and a new perspective on Jewishness. Knowing that there were unforgettable crimes on Jewish people, this generation wants to focus more on the positive aspects of being Jewish.
This is still hard to understand by older generations, who don’t want these crimes to be forgotten or downplayed.The core question is at least: Does focusing on something good consequently mean allowing oneself to forget something bad?