WARSAW, Poland - Poland's president celebrated the start of Hanukkah by visiting Warsaw's main synagogue yesterday, a gesture the city's Jewish community greeted as a historic step in its revival.

Lech Kaczynski's visit marked the first time the head of state has attended a religious service at a synagogue in Poland, whose Jewish population was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust and later suffered from communist-era repression.

The visit "means we're in a normal country . . . a country that treasures that it has citizens of different religions and of different backgrounds," said Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich.

As Kaczynski entered Warsaw's century-old Nozyk synagogue just after sundown, the congregation rose and a group of Jewish children sang "Shalom Aleichem" - "peace be upon you."

Wearing a yarmulke, Kaczynski strode to the front of the synagogue, where he sat as a choir sang the Polish national anthem and a song in Yiddish - the language spoken by many of the nearly 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland before World War II.

Poland was a haven for Jews for nearly 1,000 years, and was home to Europe's largest community before the war. Most were killed in the ghettos and death camps that Nazi Germany set up after it invaded Poland in 1939, at the war's start.

In the nearly 20 years since communist fell, the community has enjoyed new vitality, with Jews returning to their roots and shaking off old fears of anti-Semitism.

Kaczynski visited the synagogue in his former role as mayor of Warsaw. He also promoted a planned museum on Jewish history by donating city land to the project. For the past two years, he has marked Hanukkah with candle-lighting celebrations at the presidential palace.

Kaczynski mingled with members of the community, drinking red wine and eating latkes, potato pancakes that are a tradition during the eight-day festival of lights. *