For his bar mitzvah, American chooses his grandfather's Polish birthplace

Jacob Wisnik holds the covered Torah during his bar mitzvah in the Zamosc Synagogue in Poland July 3. (Photos by Krzysztof Galica)

Jacob Wisnik holds the covered Torah during his bar mitzvah in the Zamosc Synagogue in Poland July 3. (Photos by Krzysztof Galica)

by Donald Snyder

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There has not been a Jewish service in the Zamosc Synagogue since before the Holocaust. But on July 3, the Renaissance building in this Polish city once again became a synagogue when 13-year-old Jacob Wisnik from Westchester County, N.Y., celebrated his bar mitzvah.

More Catholics than Jews attended the event, as there are no Jews in Zamosc. Of the 70 guests, 55 were non-Jewish Poles, and most had never attended a Jewish service. Some had never met a Jew.

Among the non-Jewish guests were members of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a nonprofit organization that fosters Polish-Jewish conversation, promotes tolerance through education, and seeks to eradicate anti-Semitism.

In 2013, the forum invited Jacob's parents, Eva and Robert Wisnik, to Poland on separate visits. Both are of Polish-Jewish descent. Eva and her parents came to the United States in 1968 when the Polish communist government launched an anti-Semitic campaign. Robert's family came from Poland to the United States in the 1920s.

For both Wisniks, the trips fostered an appreciation for the country's Jewish history. Their experience with the forum influenced the family's decision to hold Jacob's bar mitzvah in Zamosc, where Eva's father was born.

Jews had lived in Zamosc since 1588. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, there were more than 12,000 Jews in the city, almost half its population. Today, Zamosc has no Jews among its 70,000 residents. Its synagogue, once home to a vibrant community, is now devoid of Jewish life.

Built between 1610 and 1618, the Zamosc Synagogue was severely damaged and vandalized during the Nazi invasion. It was used as a carpenter's shop, and then used as a public library during the communist era until 1989. In 2009, a major restoration began under the auspices of the Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. The synagogue is now a cultural center that's used for lectures and concerts.

But the sounds of Torah chanting have not been heard there for 75 years. No one has read from a sacred Torah scroll or intoned ancient prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic since before the Holocaust.

Jacob chose Zamosc for his bar mitzvah to honor the memory of his maternal grandfather. "My grandfather, Abram Szlak, who was born in this town, would have become a bar mitzvah in this very synagogue if not for World War II," Jacob said in his bar mitzvah speech.

Jacob's grandfather, born in 1935, escaped the Nazis as a small child when his family fled to the Soviet Union, as did approximately half the Jews then living in Zamosc, located 154 miles east of Warsaw near the Ukrainian border. The Nazis murdered those who remained in the city.

In his speech, Jacob referred to his Torah reading, from the Book of Numbers: "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel." People have tried to destroy the Jews for thousands of years, he said, as the Nazis tried during the Holocaust, but his bar mitzvah in Zamosc was proof they hadn't succeeded.

Rabbi David Holz, from Temple Beth Abraham in Westchester County, said the message is that the Jewish people have survived and thrived despite many attempts to destroy them.

"Jake, you are the newest link in the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition through 3,000 years, from Moshe [Moses] to this day," the rabbi said.

Jacob's father, Robert, noted that all the family ancestors were from Poland, where Jews lived for a thousand years until the Holocaust. "Jake, all of your ancestors are proud of you today," he said.

The bar mitzvah was a new experience for Zamosc high school teacher Beata Pisarczyk-Zabiciel. "I thought it would be more formal," she said. "I was surprised by the guitar a lot, and the clapping and singing. It was so joyful. I wanted to sing along."

Pisarczyk-Zabiciel's student, Ewa Broszko, 18, said she'd read about Jews and Judaism, but actually seeing the bar mitzvah made her studies real.

Following the bar mitzvah and a luncheon celebration, Pisarczyk-Zabiciel's students led the guests on a tour of Zamosc that focused on its Jewish history. The tour included former homes of renowned Jewish intellectuals and politicians, and the Rotunda fortress where the Germans murdered thousands of Jews.

The idea for the tour came from the forum, which through its School of Dialogue program sends educators to Polish towns and villages to teach young people about the Jewish history of their hometowns.

There were 3.3 million Jews in Poland before the Holocaust. Today there are 10,000. Most young Catholic Poles have never met a Jew and are ignorant of the Jewish life that once existed in Poland. The forum's goal is to help form relationships between the youngest generation and descendants of Jews who lived in Polish towns and villages before the war.

The forum also fights anti-Semitism, which remains a problem in Poland. With a population that is 95 percent Catholic, Poland is Europe's most Catholic country. It's also one of the most anti-Semitic, opinion polls show.

A majority of respondents in a recent national survey, conducted by the Center for Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University, believe there's a Jewish conspiracy to control international banking and the media. At the same time, 90 percent of these respondents say they've never met a Jew.

The study also found an increase in traditional, religion-based forms of anti-Semitism, such as blaming Jews for the murder of Jesus Christ and the belief that Christian blood is used in Jewish rituals.

Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on Zamosc Synagogue in September 2013, said Monika Krawczyk, who attended the bar mitzvah and heads the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. In June, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on another synagogue in a town 50 miles north of Zamosc.

Such incidents underscore the importance of the forum's work in teaching Polish Catholics about the Jewish religion and the country's rich Jewish history. With Jacob's bar mitzvah, this history came to life for one day.

Proud of his roots, Jacob is hopeful for the future. "Perhaps my bar mitzvah is the first of many more in Zamosc," he said.

[Donald Snyder is a freelance writer who worked at NBC for 27 years as a news producer. He retired from the network in 2003.]

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 26-Oct 9, 2014 print issue under the headline: Jewish life returns to Polish synagogue.

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