Some 150 people from across Poland who have only recently discovered their Jewish roots took part in a special conference in Krakow earlier this month aimed at strengthening their connection with their Jewish heritage.

The gathering, the first of its kind, was organized by Shavei Israel (, a Jerusalem-based group that reaches out and assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people.

Polish Jews finding their Jewish roots (Jacek is on the right)

Shavei Israel

"Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, an increasing number of Poles have begun to uncover their families' Jewish ancestry, which was often hidden out of fear of persecution by the Nazis and, later, the Communists," according to Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund.

"But now that Poland has embraced democracy, people feel freer to delve into their past, and many are unearthing the fact that their parents or grandparents were Jews," he said.

The conference took place in Krakow's historic Kazimierz district, where the city's Jewish quarter stood for centuries, and included lectures, talks and panel sessions, as well as traditional Sabbath services and festive meals. Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich participated in the event as well.

Among those in attendance was Jacek, a 23-year old from Wroclaw, Poland, who discovered his Jewish identity two years agowhile watching a television program about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together with his mother. Her offhanded remark, "Now you know why my nose is so large" awakened the knowledge of his true ancestry.

Jacek's maternal great-grandfather had been a German soldier who served in the Wehrmacht in World War II. But he had married a Jewish woman, making their children Jewish according to Jewish law. The couple had a daughter, who grew up and gave birth to a girl that would later become Jacek's mother – making him Jewish as well. Jacek now wears a Star of David around his neck and attends Sabbath services each week at Wroclaw's synagogue.

The three-day Krakow conference culminated with the launch of the first Polish-Yiddish dictionary to be issued since the Holocaust. The volume, which contains over 35,000 entries, including phonetics, was compiled by Yiddish scholar Julia Makosz, who spent the past eight years painstakingly putting it together. It was edited by Dr. Przemyslaw Piekarski, a professor at Krakow's prestigious Jagiellonian University, and published jointly by the Krakow-based Szolem Alejchem Editors and Shavei Israel.

Yiddish-Polish Dictionary

Shavei Israel

"For centuries, Yiddish served as the lingua franca of Eastern European Jewry," said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund at the ceremony marking the launch of the dictionary. "It was the language in which they loved and dreamed, pondered and philosophized, as well as argued and clashed, forging a culture and civilization all their own. More than six decades ago, that was all nearly extinguished by the Germans and their collaborators."

"But now," Freund added, "as more and more Poles begin to rediscover their Jewish roots, it is our hope that this book will serve as a bridge to a world that has all but vanished, reconnecting them with their priceless heritage."

A young conference participant who returned to his Jewish roots

Shavei Israel

Freund noted, "We can not bring back those who were murdered, but we can preserve their legacy, and I pray that this volume, in some small way, will help to keep their memory alive for many generations to come."

Shavei Israel currently has two full-time emissaries in Poland: Rabbi Boaz Pash, who serves as Chief Rabbi of Krakow, and Rabbi Yitzhak Rapoport, who is the rabbi of Wroclaw (formerly Breslau). To learn more about the Polish-Yiddish dictionary, and about Shavei Israel's efforts to assist Poland's "hidden Jews", send an email to: [email protected].