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Chasing Ghosts, Reviving Spirits: The Fall and Rise of Poland’s Jews

By the fourth day of my weeklong reporting trip to Poland, I was struggling to make sense of the crushing contradictions.

I had felt the palpable excitement unleashed by the newly opened exhibit at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a rich, sophisticated retelling of the Jews’ thousand-year sojourn in Poland, built on the very site of the Warsaw ghetto, a bold statement of renewal and intent. But the day after my visit to the museum, I heard a chilling presentation on the extent to which Polish anti-Semitism retains a stubborn hold on a populace essentially devoid of Jews.

I had walked along the streets of Warsaw, a city nearly entirely destroyed during World War II, now pulsing with energy, its skyline punctuated by construction cranes and renovation projects, the former headquarters of the Communist Party transformed into the stock exchange. But the new Warsaw is built on the graves of Jews, one-third of the city’s population before the war, now only a ghostlike presence. One sign of Poland’s dynamic economy, the tall, sleek MetLife tower, rises from the very spot where the Great Synagogue, once the largest in the world, had stood until it was blown up by Nazis in 1943.

I heard from academics who were pessimistic about the prospect that Poland would soon welcome back its Jews, and from activists willing it otherwise.

And this was before I met an inspirational group of high school students, all non-Jews, who were voluntarily researching and unearthing the Jewish history of their town.

And before I went to Auschwitz.

On that fourth day, the contradictory experiences coalesced in a lecture hall at the University of Warsaw, where at a conference memorializing Jan Karski, the heroic Polish resistance fighter and diplomat, a stage full of scholars debated if and how and why the Jews are still a problem in Poland.

Really. That was the theme of the keynote speech: “The Jews as the Polish Problem.”

And while many well-meaning things were said — and other not-so-well-meaning things were hinted at — it was a surreal feeling to listen to scholars speak about my people, my extended family, in the third person plural when I was sitting right there, as if Jews were an abstract concept, a theoretical problem, not actual human beings with a history both proud and horrific on Polish soil.

It struck Konstanty Gebert as absurd, too. He’s a prominent, outspoken journalist, one of the very few people I saw that week wearing a yarmulke in a public place, and I caught up with him after the panel discussion concluded.

“I tend to take exception to people who say I don’t exist,” he said dryly. “Don’t bury me just yet.”

I visited Poland with a small group of Jews from the United States and Australia brought together by the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, an admirable organization begun 16 years ago to promote reconciliation between Poles and Jews. (The Forward paid for my transportation and lodging.) I was there the first week in November, just as the luminaries who had gathered for the museum’s grand opening in late October were returning home, and the bonhomie they left in their wake still lingered. Poland did not seem as bleak as I had expected. The weather was unusually mild. I was even able to go for a run on a couple of mornings in Warsaw.

The timing of my trip was exquisite in other ways. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in Poland, and the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising — both monumental events in the Polish psyche and the formation of national identity. It seemed to be an inflection point on so many levels.

And, indeed, many Poles I spoke with recognize that this moment presents an opportunity for them to explore their complicated, often tragic history and their fraught relationship to the Jews who once were neighbors and fellow citizens. At the same time, children of Holocaust survivors are streaming to Poland to excavate the stories of their families’ pasts before their parents’ generation moves on. I bumped into the mother of my daughter’s college roommate in the hotel dining room in Krakow, doing just that.

Revivalists: The task of reclaiming Jewish history in Poland is largely undertaken by non-Jews, such as these high school students participating in a program run by the Forum for Dialogue in Radom (from left), Kasia Dolega, Agata Filipczak and Martyna Sliwinska. Image by Beth Kraft

Me, I wasn’t looking for my roots; my father’s family left Poland well before World War II, and besides, the towns from which they hailed are now in Ukraine. Mine was a journalistic inquiry. I wanted to see if a Jewish renaissance really can take hold in a nation with hardly any Jews, to see if it was time to write a new narrative, even to forgive a country and a people many Jews blame as much as the Germans for the atrocities and destruction of European Jewry in the 20th century.

But an unexpected thing happened. The more I sought to understand what was happening with Jews in Poland, the more I realized that their story poses a challenge to us as well. There is something quietly subversive about the movement to resurrect life in the home of the death camps. It upends the narrative that Israel — or the golden streets of America, take your pick — are the places where 21st-century Jews belong. Poland was where we fled from or died, not where we are supposed to claim a future.

And more: Some of the Poles I met take not just Jews but also Judaism way more seriously than many American Jews do. One of the leaders of Krakow’s remarkable Jewish Community Center studied Yiddish at YIVO in New York. One of the leaders of the Forum learned Hebrew in Israel. And neither of these women are Jewish.

The way they are grappling with faith and identity and history puts to shame the nonchalance that characterizes many American Jews’ superficial connection to their heritage.

Who gets to carry forth Jewish culture, anyway? And if we do cede that task to these dedicated outsiders, for whom this is an intellectual pursuit and a personal cause, but not a religious or a tribal obligation, can the culture be sustained?

And then a piercing thought: The Poles have had only 25 years, since they overthrew the yoke of communism in 1989, to openly confront the Holocaust, and it’s obvious that the hard work already undertaken by, say, the Germans has not fully begun here. We still look at the Poles as perpetrators and enablers of genocide. They see themselves as victims of occupation alongside the Jews.

Are there not echoes of this same dynamic in Jewish history as well?

One of the fascinating questions in Poland today is whether a single museum can shift the national narrative. It’s a question the Poles have asked themselves before.

The focus now is on POLIN: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which has opened in stages since 2013, the latest debut being its vast core exhibition, stretching back in time a thousand years and rapturously received by critics (including the Forward) in late October. The theme coursing through the exhibition is identity — Polish, Jewish and any combination thereof.

“We avoid presenting the history of Polish Jews as a footnote,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the indefatigable scholar in charge of developing the core exhibition, told our group one afternoon. “We have one integrated story, period. We didn’t want an apologetic history. We are not proving a Jewish worthiness. That’s not good history.”

Judaism isn’t presented as a subject to be studied, but rather as, in her words, “a lived reality.”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is a force of nature in the cultural world, a petite woman with an outsized presence and a fierce intelligence, who has thought about these issues for, it seems, her entire life. (She’s 72.) You can see how the improbability of the museum’s very existence motivated her. It was a challenge to overcome — a first-ever collaboration between the Polish government and private donors, opening up all sorts of anxieties and fears among Poles who worried about how their controversial story would be told.

Besides, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said of the shimmering museum, “Who builds a glass building on the site of genocide?”

The museum has secured a grant from the government of Norway to bring every child in Poland on a visit, she said, and is developing a “mobile museum” to travel around the country. Clearly, it has an ambitious domestic agenda. But the museum also challenges Diaspora Jews to look at Poland, then and now, with more nuance, less anger and more compassion.

“A thousand-year history cannot be reduced to a lesson in intolerance,” she said.

Street Art: Near the Jewish quarter in Krakow is this building covered with Art Deco-style graffiti. It says ‘broken finger’ in Yiddish. Image by Beth Kraft

This isn’t an abstract point. Over and over, I heard Poles, Jewish and otherwise, complain about the “March of the Living” narrative — the story line that says Jewish life was destroyed in Poland and found safety and salvation in Israel. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett called it the “instrumentalization of the Holocaust”; there’s a widespread, if perhaps idealized, expectation that the museum will change that perspective.

Maciej Kozlowski, a former Polish ambassador to Israel, spoke of this resentment over dinner one night. “The Israelis are told that Poland is a dangerous place. They are seeing only Holocaust sites. This museum will change that,” he asserted.

The next day, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Rejak, the special envoy to the Jewish Diaspora — yes, Poland has such a position — echoed the same theme. “Do you really want to instill in youth a picture of Poland as a hostile country?” he asked rhetorically. “Why officially depict Poland as a place where the worst can happen?”

Well, the worst did happen here, but I take his point. Poland today is relatively free from overt acts of anti-Semitism. (The persistence of bigoted attitudes toward Jews is another matter, which I’ll get to in a moment.) And beyond the propaganda that a government minister might spout is a valid argument that it’s time for Diaspora Jews to move on.

“Sometimes we make the mistake of basing too much of our Jewish identity on the Holocaust,” Jonathan Ornstein told me over coffee one morning. The energetic director of the JCC in Krakow, one of the stars in the new Polish Jewish firmament, Ornstein was traveling in the States when I was in Poland, so I caught up with him later in Manhattan. He’s from Queens — you can still hear a trace of accent — and arrived in Poland 12 years ago via Israel, a circuitous route that gave him firsthand knowledge of Diaspora and Israeli sensibilities.

“The Holocaust is so huge for us, it’s hard to see past it. But instead of torturing ourselves about it, we need to see that there’s a country in the world that likes us,” he said. “The two places doing well by Jews in Europe today are Germany and Poland. That’s obscene in a certain way. But Jewish history has taught us that irony has a central place in our story.”

Indeed, when it comes to irony, I later realized that there’s more security at the JCC in Manhattan than at the one in Krakow.

If the new museum presents a message that is fundamentally subversive for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora — and I believe it does — how much more so for Poles who have become accustomed to the absence of Jews, and anyone else for that matter. (Poland is now nearly entirely white and Catholic.) For sheer dramatic contrast, do as we did and visit the Warsaw Rising Museum after being wowed by Polin.

The Rising museum opened a decade ago, on the 60th anniversary of the battle against the Germans, and it remains today the most popular museum in Poland. For a foreigner, it is, frankly, a horrible experience — dark, loud and confusing, I spent most of my time there watching grainy file footage of life under siege, filmed by the partisans for posterity, I guess. Watching the determinedly heroic images, you’d never guess that the Poles lost. Really badly.

By that time in 1944, the Germans, who had occupied Poland since 1939, were in retreat and the Soviet army was approaching. Rather than be “liberated” by the Soviets, the Polish Home Army fought to liberate itself. Vastly outnumbered and out-resourced, they were slaughtered — as many as 200,000 soldiers and civilians died during the 63-day uprising, while the Soviets essentially stood idly by.

It was certainly tragic, perhaps foolhardy. But haltingly in the decades since, the uprising has taken on a nationalistic narrative: a young and noble cadre of resisters fighting against German barbarians, a struggle which eventually gave rise to Polish independence.

In trying so hard to push this narrative, the museum exposes a deep vein of Polish insecurity. Consider its name. In Polish, it is “Warsaw Uprising.” But in English, it is simply “Rising.” Why? Because too many people outside Poland conflated the uprising in 1944 with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a year earlier, when the last Jews remaining before deportation to the camps staged a valiant and also futile fight not for liberation — they knew that was a pipe dream — but to prove to the Germans that Jews could resist.

And even though a few remaining Jews fought in ’44, “the museum reflects the mindset that Jews are somewhere else. The Jewish story is missing,” Joanna Wawrzyniak, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw, said during a conversation one day over lunch.

Traces of that missing story are everywhere in Poland, but only if you look for them. In Warsaw, the outline of the ghetto walls is carved into the sidewalk, barely noticeable as pedestrians tread over the words. Traffic streams by the Umschlagplatz, the haunting memorial built on the spot were 300,000 Jews were deported in railroad cars from the ghetto to almost certain death. On a busy thoroughfare, it seems forgotten.

Poland has yet to conduct the sort of therapy forced upon the Germans. There were no Nuremberg-style trials here. The atrocities committed by Poles against the Jews, including pogroms after World War II, were left unpunished. To publicly acknowledge what happened to the Jews diminishes the Poles’ own sense of victimhood.

The historian Jan T. Gross — who ignited controversy in 2001 when he argued that Poles, and not Germans, massacred Jews in the town of Jedwabne — also spoke at the Jan Karski conference. His words have lost none of their bite.

“We continue to live in fear that someone in the world will write the truth,” he said.

Those Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and sought to return to their towns and villages faced deprivation and renewed anti-Semitism, so many fled to Israel, America or wherever they could find an open door. Jews fled again when the communist government made life especially miserable — in 1956 and 1968. As a result, many of the “Jews” in Poland today barely meet the traditional definition of Jewishness and are entirely secular. Intermarriage isn’t a new and growing challenge, as it is in the States. It’s the norm.

You are not going to find these would-be Jews in a synagogue or at an AIPAC meeting. Reaching non-traditional seekers is the animating goal of many Jewish organizations here.

So on my second day in Warsaw, our group walked through a lovely courtyard to a modest storefront that is the latest attempt at identity building: the Warsaw JCC, opened only a year ago. We met two inspiring women who are deeply involved in the Jewish community. Even if they aren’t so sure that they are Jewish.

The only “Jewish” thing that Marta Saracyn did as a child was go to the Jewish cemetery where her maternal grandfather was buried. Religion was repressed, an embarrassment. Now it defines her life, as the program director for the Warsaw JCC. Still, she said, “I don’t feel comfortable enough to call myself Jewish.”

Monika Elliott had a similar trajectory. “I always knew I was Jewish but it never actually meant anything. My mother kept it quiet. It was just a fact, without meaning,” she said. “My father is not Jewish. One day he took me to Krakow and said, ‘Look at this place. It’s the same as before the war, but what’s missing is the people.’”

Elliott started paying attention to family stories, reading books and attending lectures to educate herself. She’s now the program coordinator for the Joint Distribution Committee in Warsaw; her 5-year-old son is enrolled in a Jewish school. Even so, she is not sure that Jewishness will ever “come from the bones.”

I was struck by the seriousness with which these women defined identity. It was something to be chosen, acquired, not a free gift from the parents to be used when convenient and discarded when not. At the same time, their professional work disregards labels and traditional definitions to meet curious would-be Jews where they are. “It’s all outreach,” Elliott said.

Ornstein told me that nearly all of the members of the Krakow JCC are intermarried. “When someone is a half, a quarter Jewish, we work to make them feel included. We are forced to do it because that’s our reality. Our role is making people feel welcome,” he said.

One of the most hopeful developments I heard about came from Elliott, who runs the Polish version of Limmud — the annual conferences that are popping up wherever Jews want to learn, a worldwide movement run largely by young volunteers.

Limmud in Poland is so popular that this year’s session in late November sold out in six hours. Eight hundred people were expected, demonstrating a tremendous hunger for learning and connection. The theme: What it means to be a Jew. “The identity problems have always been there,” Elliot said, “but we’ve never talked about them. It’s like a therapy session.”

This Jewish awakening is accompanied by a wave of philo-Semitism that may be well intentioned, but left me feeling objectified. On Szeroka Street in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter in Krakow, rows of restaurants broadcast a kind of Jewish-Israeli kitsch. “Hummus and happiness,” a place called Hamsa advertised. One of the eateries served “Jewish-style” pork.

There are now Jewish studies programs in universities all around Poland, mostly taught by non-Jewish scholars to non-Jewish students, and I know I should feel proud and even honored by this sincere interest. After all, the Forum for Dialogue was begun by Andrzej Folwarczny, whose grandfather, a Lutheran minister, was sent to Dachau. Ornstein said that every Shabbat at the Krakow JCC, about 50 non-Jewish volunteers serve the kosher chicken and clear the plates.

Sober Visit: Listening to the guide (center) at Auschwitz were, from left, Jane Eisner, Hilda Chazanovitz, Henry Pinskier, Robert Kraft and Winne Sandler. Image by Beth Kraft

Can non-Jews be tasked with transmitting Jewish culture? Is that sustainable? Poland is host to a huge experiment. At this point, outcome unknown.

Hilda Chazanovitz stood in front of Rynek 16, facing the old square of Radom, a city of about 200,000 people in central Poland. The building was being restored, so its façade was shrouded with construction materials. Only a curved window above the door hinted at what had been.

We had stopped in Radom to view firsthand the remarkable educational program that the Forum runs with students from the local high school. We stopped there, too, because of Chazanovitz’s painful connection to that very place on Rynek Street.

An accomplished marketing and nonprofit executive in New York, Chazanovitz waited many years to make this journey, not at all sure what it would bring. Her mother was one of six children raised in that building; only three survived, she after years in forced labor and concentration camps. Her father came from a nearby town, and survived Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

“I am struck by issues of silence,” she told me afterwards. “The Poles have not had the conversation about their past. Growing up, we didn’t have that conversation in our house, either.”

Now the silence is gradually evaporating. In Radom, that is thanks to the Forum.

The Forum works in 130 cities and towns throughout Poland to engage high school students in voluntary research about the Jewish history beneath their feet. Guided by Forum-trained educators, the students unearth the past and then present their findings on walking tours to townspeople and visitors.

“I didn’t know anything about Jewish here,” Agata Filipczak, 17, told me as we left the Kopernik School, along with about 20 of her fellow students on a brisk afternoon. “We learn about Jewish in all of Poland, about Auschwitz and Hitler, but nothing about the Jews of Radom. It was strange to think that Jews were living here. It was a big shock for me. You were very important for 400 years and now you are gone. Very sad.”

At each spot that the students stopped to make a brief presentation, it felt as if we were chasing ghosts. In a backyard courtyard was the fading remnant of a sign that advertised a kosher restaurant and hotel. At a pretty square was the place where Jewish residents were rounded up before deportation to Treblinka. The synagogue, gone. (Someone actually built a small replica of it.) There were two ghettos in Radom, their walls now a faint memory.

Through the students’ research, we learned that the street near Chazanovitz’s mother’s home hosted a tailor, a bakery, a dry cleaner, a brewery and a clothing store. Once a vibrant commercial district, it is now boarded up, covered with soot and graffiti, awaiting refurbishment and radiating gloom as dusk fell.

Our tour ended, almost defiantly, in a plaza that during the Nazi occupation bore Adolf Hitler’s name. It’s now a lively thoroughfare filled with shops and restaurants, an elegant fountain, and strollers taking in the pleasant evening. Music blared from a nearby café as Chazanovitz addressed the students.

“Thank you for giving me a much more positive story about Radom than I had before,” she told them. “I now have an appreciation for the wonderful life my family had before the war.”

The power of this educational exercise cannot be underestimated, not only because of the effect it has on the students’ consciousness, but also because of the legacy of facts and documentation they leave behind. Still, the tour made me angry.

As in so much of Poland, persecution of Jews didn’t begin with the Nazis. Centuries earlier, Radom was protected by a wall and a moat to keep out “dangerous people, wild animals and Jews,” we were told.

At other times, Jews were a central part of Radom’s life — 40% of the population in the 1920s — until they weren’t. If not for the Forum program, Agata and her classmates would have never met a Jew. They don’t encounter black people, or brown people, or Asian people, either. Poland is determinedly homogenous, racially and religiously, unused to dealing with the Other. It may stave off social unrest, but at what cost?

I had been to concentration camps in Germany and the Czech Republic. Nothing compared to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The drive there, little more than an hour from Krakow, passed through tidy towns framed by trees brushed with gold and orange, a lovely autumn scene but for the secrets held beneath the forests. Fittingly, the sky was gray. The mood in our van was subdued.

I won’t take you on a tour of Auschwitz. Elsewhere, in history books and searing memoirs, you can read about its barracks, crematoria, guard houses, latrines, showers, train tracks, railroad cars, about the exhibits of shoes, spectacles, suitcases, prayer shawls, dishes, pots, prosthetic limbs, children’s toys and human hair taken from unsuspecting prisoners on their way to an ugly death, about the sickness and stench and cruelty that made life unbearable, and the mechanical horror that murdered about 1.1 million people, 90% of whom were Jews.

I’ll just say this: Auschwitz left me humbled. I will try never to use the name glibly. It represents genocide on such a massive scale that it defies comparison. Every Jew sent there was expected to die. So efficient was the process that it took only half an hour to kill 2,000 people.

The ashes from the crematoria were dumped into eight ponds. Our group said Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, by one of them. Other than a faint sound of traffic from a nearby road and the murmuring of other visitors, the sprawling camp was quiet, starkly beautiful and disturbingly calm.

Here’s what I had trouble absorbing: A Polish family lives in a trim, white house next to a crematoria where thousands of bodies were burned. On the day we visited, a white van was parked outside.

This is the paradox of Poland. Lurking beneath the stirring Jewish renaissance is a stubborn anti-Semitism, grown in a land fertilized by ashes.

Image by Beth Kraft

Michał Bilewicz is vice president of the Forum and the coordinator of the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, a tall man who expresses himself with a solemnity befitting his subject. One evening we discovered that our families hailed from the same town — Kolomyja, once in Galicia, now in Ukraine. I admired Bilewicz not just for his past, but also for his clear-eyed look at the present.

His research divides Polish anti-Semitism into three categories: traditional (Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus Christ); secondary (Jews abuse our feelings of guilt); and belief in a Jewish conspiracy (that we want to rule the world). It is, of course, “anti-Semitism without Jews,” since there are only about 20,000 to 25,000 Jews in the country. (There were as many as 3.5 million before the war.) Bilewicz’s research shows that 90% of Poles have never met a Jew. Still, the prejudice runs deep.

For example, 23% of Polish adults expressed traditional anti-Semitism in 2013, an increase from a previous survey in 2009. Expressions of other forms of anti-Semitism held about steady from 2009 to 2013, but at a frightening intensity — about 60% of adult Poles harbor contemporary resentments of Jews and believe in a global conspiracy.

And while a comfortable majority of Poles believe that Israel has a right to exist, more are sympathetic to the Palestinians each time the poll is conducted every few years.

What does all this mean? Bilewicz argued that anti-Semitic attitudes do not correlate with religiosity; rather, they tend to flourish during an economic crisis. His research also demonstrates a thoroughly depressing trend: A still small but growing percentage of Poles believe they were victimized more during the last war than the Jews. Consistently over decades, nearly half of the public believes that Poles and Jews suffered equally.

“A big part of Polish identity is to be a victim,” said Adam Leszczynski, a columnist for the highbrow Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. Poles will tell you that tens of thousands of their countrymen helped save Jews during the war, that they suffered intensely under Nazi occupation, that German brutality was much worse in the East.

All true. But the other part of the story — the story of Poles as perpetrators and enablers — has been kept secret here for too long. In the end, it is in the Poles’ best interest to confront their tortured past, if only to more confidently face their future. The nation’s birthrate is 1.3, far below replacement level. Poland didn’t just lose its Jews; it lost the vibrancy and economic potential of a multicultural society.

On my last day there, I made a point of interviewing Henry Pinskier, a doctor and businessman from Melbourne, Australia, who was part of our Forum group with his wife Marcia. Normally filled with Aussie swagger and volubility, Pinskier was noticeably silent the day before in Auschwitz, where members of his family died and one uncle survived.

As we stood on Krakow’s cobblestoned Szeroka Street, across from a restaurant named Ariel and the refurbished Old Synagogue, I asked Pinskier for his assessment.

“We’re 25 years too early in this experiment,” he said. “If you come back then and see a thriving community in Krakow, if it’s good to live as a Jew here, then we will know that Polish society would have accepted Jews, number one, and minority groups, number two. But it’s too early in the process to tell.”

Contact Jane Eisner at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Jane_Eisner

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