Are We Guilty of Gross Prejudice Towards Poland?

The ubiquitous ‘lucky Jew’ found all over Poland

by David Jacobson

In the ashes of Auschwitz we lost more than Jewish lives – we lost an integral part of our historical memory. If we truly want to ensure Jewish continuity for tomorrow’s Jews, then we have to reclaim the positive history of Polish Jewry today.

Mention Poland to most Jews and their immediate association is with Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and the brutal murder of some 6 million Jews. I have recently returned from two weeks in Poland attending the 24th International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship with a group of 40 young Jews from around the globe and I witnessed personally the deep psychological wounds that are still alive today in today’s generation of Jews. Even though these Jews are two or three generations removed from the horror of the Holocaust, members of the group broke down at various stages during the week-long conference, weighed down by the living, haunting memory of their families’ stories. Whenever something went wrong, if a computer crashed or a meal was late, the standing response was: “It’s Poland.” And behind this jocular response lies a real pathology. Poland has assumed a uniquely nefarious status in the collective Jewish psyche – Poland represents death, destruction, hate and unbridled, brutal antisemitism. It is seen as Jewish black hole.

And until my recent visit, that was indeed the image I held in my mind and heart. Although I fully understand its genesis and there is a sane substantiation for it, everything I saw and heard convinced me that Poland has been unfairly portrayed by the global Jewish establishment. This has created dangerous prejudices and stereotypes (generalisations of an entire people); ironically these stereotypes are of the very same ilk that was the thought-generators of the rampant racism that laid the foundation for the genocide that took place during the Shoah. We brand the Polish people as ‘brutes’ and ‘eternal antisemites’ and we send tour after tour of young Jews to the death camps and they march defiantly through Poland, blinkered to the multitude of memorials to Jewish history and Jewish life and legacy that literally litter the streets of Warsaw and Krakow. By doing this, we are not only perpetuating a cruel bigotry, but we are also cheating these young Jews of a remarkable opportunity for Jewish growth and regeneration.

During my two weeks in Poland, I learned about and witnessed another side to this much maligned country – a side that should shine light on the shadow of the valley of death that is the perpetual Jungian mirror for most of us. I heard from Professor Moshe Rosman, an internationally distinguished Professor of Polish Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, about the great Jewish civilisation in Poland and its legacy that was eradicated in the Holocaust and that has largely been forgotten, even by the descendants of Polish Jews who emigrated before World War II to the United States and Israel. Indeed, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants in the United States know more about the Native Americans than about their Jewish antecedents in Poland. I heard about 1000 years of uninterrupted Jewish history that is arguably unparalleled in the annals of our people – a history that produced the Lublin Yeshivot and Jewish greats like Rabbi Moshe Isserles and Rabbi Yosef Schneersohn, not to mention contemporary Jewish giants like David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin.

I also heard from Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Programme Director at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is being erected in Warsaw, who described with great passion the different historical periods of Polish Jewry and their rich cultural achievements. The historical scope and reach of Polish Jewry was gargantuan and cast an imposing shadow over the rest of the Jewish world.

But the reach of Polish Jewry is not only a matter of history. I had occasion to spend time with Magda Koralewska, the 29 year old co-founder and president of Beit Krakow – a newly created Reform community in a city that once had 64 000 Jews, but was reduced to 3000 in 1945. Her and other young Jews like her are doing remarkable work in recreating Jewish life out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the death-grip of communism. Magda is a “Jew by choice” – a voluntary convert to Judaism.

“Discovering Judaism made me feel Polish for the first time,” Magda explained.” I finally had something to be proud of as a Pole – the contribution of Polish Jews to the history of Poland and the world.” And Magda does not stand alone. There are a slew of young Jewish Poles who are reinventing their community, redefining their Jewishness and reinvigorating the proud legacy of Polish Jewry.

I also witnessed a remarkable attraction and affinity to Jewish culture in Poland. We forget that pre-WWII, one in every three Warsaw residents was Jewish. Thus in many ways, Jewish culture and Polish culture are inextricably linked. At the Krakow Jewish Festival, a festival now in its 22nd year, thousands of non-Jewish Poles stream to listen to Klezmer music and Chazonis, or to attend lectures on Jewish topics or to view art with a Jewish theme. Haunting reverberations of Yiddish songs fill the streets and restaurants.

I visited Kazimierz Dolny during the annual Klezmer festival, and was treated to a burst of Jewish culture unlike anything I have ever encountered in the streets of Cape Town or Johannesburg. The audience was filled with not Jews but ordinary Poles – Poles of all ages and all sizes, drawn to this Jewish culture that they feel is as much theirs as it is ours.

This is not to suggest that there is no antisemitism in Poland. There is. Pop into almost any curio shop in in Krakow or Kazimierz and you will find the ubiquitous “Lucky Jew” in both figurine and poster. This is a caricature of a Hassidic Jew in full garb, with a prominent nose, holding onto a coin. Poles buy them as they believe it will bring them good fortune. It is a somewhat bitter reminder of the deep and dangerous prejudice that still exists within Polish society.

But this ugly stereotyping is hardly unique to Poland. So while we should not disregard it, we should also not dismiss our Polish heritage because of it. For Poland is so much more than merely a Jewish nightmare. Professor David Shneer, an expert in post-Soviet Eastern European Jewish communities, explained: “The most important thing we can do is stop seeing Poland simply as a graveyard of the Holocaust and to start seeing it as a potential new site of Jewish life.”

My intention is in no way to demean the memory of the Shoah or trivialize the real pain of people for whom Poland does signify horror and destruction. The seething distaste for Poland and the deep wounds that exist are part of a collective post-traumatic stress disorder that is a natural and inevitable response to the greatest genocide every committed. And we must continue to teach our youth both the horrific facts of the Holocaust and its universal and eternal lessons, lest we ever forget.

But at the same time, we must be careful not to create an unhealthy cult of death and decay. We need to constantly make the prophetic choice of choosing life.

And I saw Jewish life aplenty in Poland – life that has given me great hope for the regeneration of Jewish culture and Jewish continuity, not only in Europe, but right here in South Africa.

David Jacobson is the executive director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies and is an advisor to the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship that operates out of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York. He is also an active member of The Jewish Diplomatic Corps and is passionate about Jewish continuity.