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Poland rediscovering its Jewish past

From Fred Pleitgen, for CNN
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Poland's Jewish revival
  • Poland's Jewish past was all but forgotten under Communist rule
  • Jewish Cultural Festivals are gaining popularity
  • Warsaw is building a museum of Jewish history

CNN's new series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In June, we visit Poland focusing on changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric.

Bialystok, Poland (CNN) -- Seventy years after Poland's large Jewish population was virtually wiped out in World War II, their culture is making a comeback.

Poles are today exploring their country's Jewish past and forging links that were unthinkable a generation ago.

Before the Nazi invasion in 1939, Poland had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. Almost all were killed or fled and their culture was all but forgotten under Communist rule.

Since the end of Communism the revival has gradually gained speed.

Krakow's Jewish Culture Festival started as a small scholarly meeting more than 20 years ago. It now has 100 events over 10 days including music, dance, films, exhibitions and workshops on everything from cookery to Hebrew calligraphy. The grand finale concert attracts 13,000 people from all over the world.

Krakow is close to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, the most famous symbol of the Holocaust.

Gallery: Poland's Jewish culture celebrated

A smaller Jewish Festival has more recently been launched in the eastern city of Bialystok.

Before World War II, more than half the population of Bialystok was Jewish. Today only five Jews are known to live in this city of almost 300,000.

The festival's organizer Lucy Lisowska said: "We would like to show Bialystokers how wonderful Jewish people used to live here before the war, and how beautiful Jewish music is."

A memorial now stands on the site of Bialystok's former synagogue, which was burned down by the Nazis in 1941 with 2,000 Jews inside.

We have this urge to find out who Jews were, what they meant and how important they were.
--Rafal Bentalyewski, artist
  • Poland
  • World War II
  • Religion

In Warsaw, a Museum of the History of Polish Jews, is being built on the site of the former Jewish Ghetto. It is due to open in 2012.

Artist Rafal Bentalyewski has started an interactive project to trace Jewish life in Poland, where people send photos of places Jews used to live.

"Right now in Poland we have this urge and need to find out who Jews were, what they meant and how important they were." said Bentalyewski.

"You have to understand that for a lot of time -- for the whole communist era -- this subject did not exist."

Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said: "There are a lot of emotions that need to be worked out and that is happening. Whatever the situation was in 1938 and 1939 between non-Jewish Poles and Polish Jews, that was one thing.

"Today in 2010 we need to recognize that Poland is now one of the greatest allies of Israel and a friend of the Jewish people."

The size of the Jewish population is also growing, according to The Economist, which reported that children sheltered in secret by non-Jewish families are rediscovering their roots.

It also said American and Israeli Jews with Polish roots wanting to live, work or study in the European Union have fueled a surge in applications for Polish passports.

Catriona Davies contributed to this report.