In the shadow of the Auschwitz. The reawakening of Messianic Judaism in Poland

Oświęcim is a town very much like any other town in southern Poland; busy streets, narrow European buildings, and modern shopping centres. There is even a local KFC restaurant. Life goes on unabated. But at the city’s outskirts lies a memorial to one of the greatest tragedies of history. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Nazis converted an old Polish army base into a concentration camp for Jews, Poles, and other prisoners. In time this camp was expanded until it became the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, responsible for more deaths than any other concentration camp. Over one million Jews (in addition to over 100 thousand other victims) were killed in this location alone, the majority in the gas chambers and crematoria. This place has been memorialized in history as a synonym for horror and death, although it is better known by the German name for the town: Auschwitz.

     Poland was once the heartland of European Jewry. Prior to World War II, Poland had over 3 million Jews, one of the world’s largest Jewish communities at the time. It is no surprise, therefore, that Poland was also a huge centre for Messianic Jews. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s brought a revival of Jewish people to faith in Yeshua. According to one set of statistics, there were close to 200,000 Jewish believers in Eastern Europe prior to the Holocaust.1 What was remarkable is that these Jewish believers, rather than assimilating into mainstream Christian churches, were beginning to form their own distinct communities that retained a Jewish flavour and culture, forming the seeds for what would later become the Messianic Torah movement as we know it today. The country of Poland was home to many of these Jewish chaverutim (“fellowships”). None of these fellowships, however, survived the Holocaust.

     This was my first time visiting a Holocaust memorial site. It is difficult to comprehend the number of lives that were destroyed here. And as I looked at the photographs of Jewish prisoners, the lists of names, and the thousands of shoes and other items on display that were plundered from the corpses… I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these victims were faithful followers of Yeshua. It caused me to see the Holocaust in a new light, and how utterly evil was this plan to attempt to exterminate the Seed of Israel. Even though this plan was, in the end, unsuccessful, and God has proven His faithfulness by preserving the Jewish people in spite of what happened, the Holocaust did effectively bring an end to the Messianic movement in Poland. It would be many years before Poland would again see believers in Yeshua who desire to walk in faithfulness to the Torah.

     Only 100 kilometres from Oświęcim, a significant event took place this year. Near the small mountain village of Koninki, a large gathering of Polish Messianic believers was held to celebrate the Biblical feast of Shavuot (Pentecost). This was the fourth annual Wspólnota Mesjanska (“Messianic Community”) conference in Poland. I was privileged to participate in this event because my father-in-law, Rabbi Eugene Emet Banak, is the main speaker and coordinator for these conferences. He has a heart to reach his native country with the message of Yeshua and Torah. Although he and his wife have lived in Canada for over 20 years, they feel a call to reach out to Poland because of the great need for resources and teachings. People are hungry for the truth, but there are very few Messianic resources available in Polish.

     My father-in-law started a Polish website in 2009 providing video and audio teachings from a pro-Torah, Messianic Jewish perspective. The following spring he planned the first Wspólnota Mesjanska conference in the town of Rogoźno, a four-day teaching seminar and Shavuot celebration. This year, 2013, had the greatest turnout so far, with over 100 people in attendance. Many of these people live in areas where they are the only Messianic believers they know. Many do not live close enough to a community to meet together on a regular basis. For these believers, the opportunity to spend an entire week with other like-minded believers, listening to Torah-based teachings and singing Messianic praise songs, is like a taste of Paradise. This is their one chance in the year to become spiritually energized in their faith.

     It was a great blessing for me to take part in this conference and see the hunger that these people have to learn and grow and fellowship. Being the only non-Polish speaker there, I had to rely on my wife and her parents to help me overcome the language barrier by translating, although I was grateful to meet several people who knew a smattering of English. The excitement these people had was contagious. Hearing familiar Hebrew songs being sung with a Polish accent, watching everyone dance with all their might, from little children to seniors in their 70’s, hearing people share their testimonies – it was all such a beautiful experience. Towards the end of the conference, several people decided to do a public mikvah (immersion) in the nearby stream as a sign of the change and commitment they had made.

     Throughout the conference, we asked several people what they thought the greatest need for the Messianic movement in Poland was. There was one answer we kept hearing over and over again: more resources and good teachings. This is, indeed, a great need for Poland. In Canada and the United States, we have so many Messianic Jewish resources available. There are so many books, periodicals, websites, and audio teachings available in English. In the Polish language, however, there is next to nothing. They do not even have a Messianic siddur. There are only a small handful of Messianic books and practically zero online resources aside from Wspólnota Mesjanska. As English speakers we have so much to be grateful for in this regard.

     Prior to the work of Wspólnota Mesjanska, there was a small movement of Messianic believers in Poland represented primarily by three congregations in different areas of the country. These communities, however, have been strongly influenced by so-called “Arian” theology, ascribing to the ideas of the fourth-century church heretic named Arius which essentially deny the deity of Yeshua. There are also those who teach that the Torah is for Jews only, while Gentiles are to keep the Noachide Laws.2 Wspolnota Mesjanska is unique as a ministry in bringing a strong pro-Torah, Yeshua-centred message to Polish believers. People at the conference expressed gratitude for the balanced teachings and the encouragement to follow the whole Torah, and not just part of it.

     Following Torah in Poland is not easy. Poland does not have the same sort of pluralistic multicultural attitude that characterizes North America. Catholicism is extremely dominant, and pervades all of Polish culture and even government. People in general tend to be less accepting of other cultures or religious convictions. Messianic believers often find themselves alienated from family and friends and shunned by former church connections. There is also less tolerance in the work-place. We heard several stories of individuals who lost their jobs because of their conviction to keep Shabbat or the Festivals. While the Canadian government, for example, has laws to protect employees who seek time off work for religious reasons, Polish believers have little support. This is no small sacrifice, as jobs are hard to come by. An employer is less likely to humour a Messianic believer’s request not to work on Saturdays when there are scores of other people eager for that same position who would gladly work every day of the week. These believers have to live by faith, trusting that the Father will provide.

     Anti-Semitism is also prevalent in Poland. This is surprising, for several reasons. Poland (like many European countries) has mandatory Holocaust education and sends students on field trips to concentration camps. The horrors of the Nazi occupation are still fresh in Polish memory. Today there is only a scarce Jewish presence, as few Polish Jews survived World War II. Many survivors then left the country either for Israel or North America. Perhaps because of this, Poland has a curious fascination with Judaism. Every year in Krakow there is a Jewish festival in the old Jewish section of the city, where Gentile Poles listen to Jewish klezmer music, look at Jewish artifacts, and buy Jewish trinkets from Gentile vendors. Yet in spite of all this, there is a pervasive anti-Semitism that lingers in Polish culture… At the same time that there exists a fascination with Jewish culture, the Jewish people are objectified in jokes and slurs.

     In Poland, large families with conservative values really stand out. We met a home-schooling family with seven children, and they shared with us some of the struggles they faced in choosing this way of life. The children begged the parents to home-school because of the bullying they received at public school for their beliefs and practices. Home-schooling is not very common in Poland, and it isn’t easy. The standard of education is quite high, and many parents feel intimidated to prepare their kids at home to the level of testing required by the school board. It is also a financial sacrifice. Raising even a small family on a single income is difficult, as the average household income in Poland is only about $15,000 USD per year, less than half of what it is in North America.3 But there are families who believe that the sacrifice is worth it. Teaching your children is part of Torah.

     Fellowship with other believers can also be hard to come by. Many Messianic believers live in areas where they have no one else to gather with on a regular basis. We met one young lady at the conference who lives in a city with a population of 600,000 people. As far as she knows, she is the only Messianic believer in her city, and once a month she travels four hours to visit a congregation for Shabbat. (She was very excited to find out at the conference that there may be another Messianic believer who lives just outside her city.)

     After seeing the sacrifices that believers in other countries are willing to make, it is hard not to feel that we in North America are like fat sheep: We have an abundance of green pasture, but we are also lazy. While we have much to share with other countries in terms of resources, we also have much to learn from them. Stories of God’s work in other countries ought to inspire us and spur us on to do more for God’s Kingdom.

     The goal of Wspólnota Mesjanska is to restore the First Century Messianic Jewish heritage and fellowship to Polish believers. Part of my father-in-law’s ambition is to help raise up communities and train leaders. So far, there is one public congregation and two home fellowships that have formed under Wspolnota Mesjanska, in addition to many individuals throughout the country. He ultimately desires to see this become an autonomous organization that is self-run by the believers in Poland, which is already in its beginning stages. Abba willing, it is a dream to see it one day become registered as a denomination with the Polish government.

     The work in Poland is only just beginning. Being at the conference offered a small glimpse into the work that the Father is doing in the hearts and lives of people there. Near the end of the conference, my wife asked a young man about his story. He was 22 years old, and the only member of his family that was Messianic. He came to an understanding of Torah and Messiah about two years ago, and attended the Shavuot conference last year. My wife said to him, “I’ve noticed that a lot of people here say they began this walk about two years ago. There must have been a revival around that time.” He smiled. “Yes,” he replied, “and there still is.”

Endnotes:

  1. HughSchonfield,The History of Jewish Christianity (Duckworth, London, 1936), p. 166.
  2. TheNoachideLaws are the seven laws supposedly given to Noah in Genesis 9. In rabbinic theology these laws function to judge those from the nations, while only Jews are accountable to the 613 commandments of the Torah.
  3. www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/poland

By Ben Frostad, Canada / In the Shadow of Auschwitz (petahtikvah.com)

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