Rebirth in Wroclaw

When Curt Fissel stomped on the glass after his wedding in the southwestern Polish city of Wroclaw, the congregation erupted into loud applause and a resounding chorus of “Mazel tov!”But the joyous response went far beyond heartfelt good wishes to Fissel and his bride, Ellen Friedland, both of Montclair, N.J.

Their emotional nuptials took place Sunday in the historic, partially reconstructed White Stork Synagogue, which just four years ago was a ruin. It was the first Jewish wedding there in 36 years, and it marked a symbolic milestone in the life of the small but reviving local Jewish community.”This is a sacred moment in Jewish history,” said Rabbi Michael Monson of Montclair’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah, who traveled to Wroclaw (pronounced VRAW-slav) from New Jersey to perform the ceremony.

“It is a statement to the world that the Jewish people, wherever we may be, are alive and well.”Fissel, a photographer, and Friedland, a political reporter for the New Jersey Jewish News, decided to marry in Wroclaw to make their personal joy a public celebration – not just of a united Jewish peoplehood, but of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland since the fall of communism a decade ago.The near-capacity congregation included as many as half of Wroclaw’s estimated 600 to 1,000 Jews, nearly 200 non-Jewish townspeople and about 30 friends and family of the bride and groom from the United States and Israel.

“I’ve never been to a synagogue and wanted to see a real Jewish wedding,” said Anna, a 19-year-old Catholic student who attended with her parents and aunt. “It was beautiful, amazing – there was more passion, love and friendship than in my church.”

Also present were representatives of local Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches, as well as the U.S. consul from Krakow and the German consul from Wroclaw.

Local television, radio and newspapers covered the event, which began with the signing of the ketubah – the wedding contract – and ended with a party featuring klezmer music, Israeli dancing and a kosher buffet prepared in the Jewish community kitchen.

“Our wedding is about more than a personal union bridging different lives and families,” said Friedland.”It is also about a union bridging different Jewish communities, and it is about a union bridging different times in Jewish history,” she said. “In the small marriage of two people lies an intangible, optimistic and enormous hope.”

Friedland and Fissel first came to Poland about four years ago. Like most American visitors to Poland, they expected to learn only about Jewish death: the annihilation of 3 million Polish Jews during the Holocaust; the death camps; the devastated shtetls, cemeteries and synagogues.

They were amazed to find small Jewish communities that had begun emerging, like seedlings through ashes, after the fall of communism.

Fissel, born a Christian, reclaimed his own distant Jewish roots and converted to Judaism.”My Jewish roots are seven-and-a-half generations back,” he said, “but with my conversion I reconnected my Jewish soul to Judaism.”

Their documentary film, “Poland: Creating a New Jewish Heritage,” was completed in 1997.During their work, the Jewish community in Wroclawand particularly the White Stork Synagogue became powerful symbols of the destruction and revival of Jewish life in Poland.

“Why Wroclaw? We don’t know,” said Friedland. “When we started coming to Poland, we felt the spirit of the 3 million dead Jewish souls, and they brought us here, specifically here, to this synagogue and this Jewish community, at a time when the synagogue had no roof and no floor and there was little apparent hope for the future.”

Thanks to a grant of more than $1 million from a German foundation, the synagogue has a new roof and its ground floor has been restored, though its two balconies and exterior still need reconstruction.

Before World War II, Wroclaw was part of Germany. Then known as Breslau, it was home to some 30,000 Jews, the third largest Jewish community in Germany. It was a center of the Reform movement.The neoclassical White Stork Synagogue, completed in 1829, was designed by the same architect who designed Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. The famous Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary was located across the street.

During World War II, Wroclaw’s Jews were herded into the synagogue’s courtyard before being deported to Nazi death camps. The synagogue itself was desecrated and used as a stable.

After the war, Wroclaw became part of Poland. Over the decades, the synagogue became a ruined shell.Jewish life began to revive in Wroclaw after 1989, as young people began to claim Jewish identities amid new religious, social and political freedoms.

Today, Wroclaw has Poland’s second largest Jewish community after Warsaw’s.Nearly 45 children will be enrolled next year in the Jewish school, run by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and community leaders are seeking a rabbi for the congregation.

The Jewish community took back ownership in 1996. Ambitious plans foresee turning the synagogue and the adjacent, rundown Jewish administrative buildings into a full-service Jewish community center. “It will be a real, living Jewish center,” said Kichler.