The Jewish community in Poland made history this week with Vice President Jaroslaw Kalinowski's hosting a Chanukah menorah lighting in the Sejm, the Polish parliament.

Kalinowski, whose country has had a mixed history in its relationship with the Jews who have called its lands home since the Dark Ages, was given the honor of lighting the shamash candle Monday night by Rabbi Shalom Stambler, the co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Poland who organized the event.

"It is highly symbolic for Jews and non-Jews alike that the Chanukah candles could be illuminated from the very halls from which Polish laws are made," said Stambler.

Jewish communal officials noted that of late Poland has had a "public fascination" with Jewish life, which in sheer numbers pales in comparison to the country's pre-World War II years. Then, Poland was home to the world's largest Jewish population of some 3.5 million people; but after some 3 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, widely accepted estimates put the current number of Jews living in Poland at between 8,000 and 12,000 people.

But Jewish life is thriving, as made clear from this week's menorah lighting and one last year held in the presidential palace with President Lech Kaczynski.

During his speech, Kalinowski praised the work that Jewish organisations like Chabad-Lubavitch have been doing to promote a renaissance of Jewish life in Poland.

"For me, it is a wonderful sign of our democracy that Jews have again begun calling Poland their home," said the vice president. "I hope that this first-ever, historical lighting of candles in the Sejm will be a sign to all Jews in Poland that they can live their lives here in tolerance and peace."

Turning to Stambler, Kalinowski thanked him for "creating a framework from which Jews could live out their cultural and religious heritage."

In his remarks, the rabbi focused on the meaning of the Chanukah menorah in general. He also saw meaning in the particular menorah used: a 19th-century candelabra adorned with an eagle. The bird also sits atop the Polish coat of arms.

"The menorah, particularly the one we are using today, symbolises freedom and independence for both Jews and their fellow Polish countrymen," stated Stambler.

Looking to the Future

One guest, who wished to remain anonymous, stressed that the menorah "symbolises the centuries-old relationship between the Polish state and its Jewish inhabitants. And let us not forget that Poland would never have had so many millions of Jews had it not been for the many centuries of relative tolerance that accompanied Polish-Jewish history."

During the 25 minute ceremony, Stambler also recounted the story of Chanukah.

"Despite having had no army, Jews have consistently been able to regain their freedoms from centuries of periodic subjugation," he said, indicating that the Jews of modern Poland were slowly regaining their confidence.

"Most Jews that come out and celebrate Jewish life in Poland today would not have dared do so five years ago," explained the rabbi. "Many are still afraid that outing themselves as Jews might bring negative repercussions in their work and social environments. However, our public display of traditions is certainly encouraging many to rethink their shyness or fears."

Stambler pointed out that Poland's last three foreign ministers were Jewish and asserted that official estimates of the Jewish community's size may be sorely off base. He said that he knew of many Jews in important political positions who were still not ready to publicly declare their identity.

"Polish Judaism will soon flourish," he said. "Perhaps with each new candle we will light in the future, we will show each Jew a way to live as Jews."