By Liam Hoare
“Why are there any Jews left in Poland?” Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich proffered this question to a group of twelve students from Stanford University, seated in the Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw, on the second day of their weeklong tour of Poland in September. Even if they could not answer Schudrich immediately, this question would become one of the underlying themes of their trip, as they explored the Jewish past and Jewish present and were confronted with the bifurcated themes of extinction and renaissance.
This particular tour – made up of Jewish and non-Jewish students – was the first in a series of five coordinated by Stanford Hillel in conjunction with Taube Jewish Heritage Tours. Their program – which divided its time between Warsaw and Krakow along with a day-trip to Auschwitz and another to the birthplace of Pope John Paul II – was based on past itineraries used by POLAND/POLIN Study Tours and previous Taube Jewish Heritage tours created for Hillels such as those at Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, and Michigan.
The program oscillated between Jewish and Polish history, prewar and postwar, and connected Poland’s physical Jewish heritage (or, in the case of Warsaw, where the built heritage ought to be) with in-person testimonies, whether that meant meeting with members of Hillel in the Jewish district of Krakow or spending time with Eugeniusz Tyrajski, a veteran of the Warsaw Uprising, following a walking tour of communist Warsaw. For the students, whether Jewish or otherwise, this particular blending of stories and perspectives threw up a lot of issues surrounding identity – about religion, culture, and ethnicity.
“Learning about the Jewish community here and how they worked to preserve it and present their history to people” sparked many new thoughts for Victoria Lee Powell, who studies economics at Stanford, including “what I can do for my own culture and community as a Native American, because our history is very fraught with tensions as well, to display our history to people and also bring in communal involvement in the way that they do in Jewish communities.” It was specifically meeting with local Jews in Warsaw and Krakow that opened up this avenue of thinking, she said.
“Based on our takeaway conversations, the students came to understand more about history, but most importantly, more about circumstance and context,” Helise Lieberman, director of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, told me. Being in Poland on this particular Jewish heritage tour “made them aware of certain realities and certain narratives. They had an opportunity to think about themselves and their own identities and values and now they want to participate and engage not only when they get back to Stanford but with the wider world.”
Jewish heritage tourism, being another form of tourism, does not have an intrinsic value. There is good tourism and bad tourism, and therefore, there must be good and bad Jewish heritage tourism too.
Value here means the vacation offers the tourist enlightenment, the possibility of some sort of improvement or change. It can be said of certain forms of tourism – a week in a resort, for example – that while pleasant, enjoyable, or restorative, they do not have value for the participant cannot say that they were intellectually or emotionally challenged. To stand before a transcendental work of art or throw oneself into a city or country whose history, culture, and language are entirely alien, however, at the very least gives the visitor an opening to something new, something stimulating and thought-provoking.
The act of finding birthplaces and homes, synagogues and cemeteries has a worth all of its own, of course. “I came on this trip hoping to learn a little more about my personal heritage—I have one grandparent from this region – and I’ve learned a lot,” Ben Strauber, who studies neuroscience at Stanford, said. “I went and met with a genealogist and she uncovered all these things about my grandfather’s family that I’d never known before, including that some prominent figures from Jewish history like [Emanuel] Ringelblum and [Shai] Agnon are from his town.
“Then in the Book of Names at Auschwitz, I looked for my last name and found an entire half page of people with that name, and some of them were from my father’s town,” Strauber told me. “In my family, we never thought we had anyone who had been killed in the Holocaust. It was never really talked about and that was very shocking to me. I still haven’t really finished processing it, but all of these things together have been very meaningful on a personal level.”
Beyond that, valuable Jewish heritage tourism should in some fashion change how visitors understand Jewish Europe. Poland itself is a special case. It has a place in the American Jewish imagination all of its own, on the one hand because occupied Poland was the staging ground for the Holocaust’s network of death camps and on the other hand because around 75 percent of American Jews can trace their origins back to Poland. These two factors create a sense of ‘unease’ and ‘discomfort’ around Poland, crystallizing certain preconceptions, Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, explained.
This was not necessarily the case with the students who came with Stanford Hillel, it should be said. Likely because they were young and a mixed group, a great many of whom arrived with no preconceived ideas about Poland whatsoever – which in the end is likely why so many could be said to have been transformed by their experiences. Shana Penn, executive director of Taube Philanthropies, has found that young people on heritage tours “seem to more readily encounter a modern, dynamic European nation and peers who are dedicated to growing Jewish life.”
In general, though, Ornstein believes that in order to overcome or challenge preconceptions, it is essential for people on Jewish heritage tours of Poland to meet with local communities. It can help get across the somewhat counter-intuitive message that there is a resurgence of Jewish life taking place in a country which was also a place of so much Jewish death, Jewish dislocation. On that front, Ornstein has witnessed a tremendous change in recent years.
“Now for the most part it has become unacceptable to come to Poland as an organized group and not connect to the rebirth of Jewish life, whether in Warsaw or Krakow,” he said. In Krakow specifically, the Jewish revival, centered on Kazimierz, is very accessible. “People can get a good picture of the revival” and the strength and resilience of the local community. It gives the chance for visitors to “reexamine their own Jewish identity,” Ornstein says. “We take things for granted in the Jewish world. We have to understand that being Jewish is a gift.”
“For many decades, Jewish trips to Poland were limited to a narrative of death, to an illustrious Jewish past destroyed by the Nazis and Communists, without a focus on the miraculous revival of Jewish life today,” Agata Rakowiecka, JCC Warsaw CEO, told me. “Despite remnants of this, there has been definitely a shift of thinking on many levels and there are more and more groups and individuals who are engaging with Poland’s Jewish community and learning about the everyday lives of our Jews.”
Dagmara Mańka-Wizor of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews (which the Stanford group visited on day one of their tour) argues on the other hand that while organizations like March of the Living and Taube Jewish Heritage Tours do bring their groups into the museum, there remains reluctance in general to do so. Agencies and tour groups either don’t know about the museum or don’t believe it would augment their heritage tour if they were to visit, Mańka-Wizor believes, and the museum is considering how best to change that mentality.
“Part of our mission is to remind and make people conscious again of Polish Jewish history, which was very much forgotten for political or historical reasons” until recently, Mańka-Wizor told me. Precisely because so many American Jews can trace their origins to Poland, they are one of the museum’s most important audiences. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is potentially an important resource, in that sense, not only in terms of understanding Polish Jewish history but contemporary American Jewish life too, its habits, history, and traditions.
“Jews in the diaspora and Israel still have a tendency to speak of the Polish Jewish community only in terms of memory, but Poland’s living Jewish culture reflects resiliency, depth, and beauty,” Penn told me. While Holocaust education is strong, she believes there are gaps in American Jewish knowledge when it comes to “great Yiddish literary figures, Hasidic dynasties, or Jewish social and political movements.” Thus, heritage tours should explore Poland “as a cultural landscape of Jewish identity and belonging.”
In speaking with the Stanford students, it became clear that alongside their visit to Auschwitz, their most transformative experiences arose out of meeting with members of local Jewish communities, especially in Krakow. “When I thought of Poland, I didn’t really think about Jewish life at all and so this trip has been very illuminating,” Matthew Libby, student of symbolic systems, told me. One of the main reasons he wanted to come to Poland was to learn more about this contemporary aspect. “There’s been a vitality of life in Poland that I wasn’t expecting in general but especially in the Jewish community. I’m very inspired by it.”
“Living for a couple of days in the Jewish quarter, with that idea or phrase of the phoenix rising from the ashes, going to different synagogues and Jewish restaurants, and feeling that even through there’s so much pain in the past in Poland, there are still remnants of a very vibrant life to be experienced was pretty incredible,” Malaika Elizabeth Murphy-Sier told me on the final day of the tour. “It was amazing to see and gave rise to a very hopeful kind of feeling.”
There are bound to be limits to this intercultural understanding, simply because the reality of what it means to be an American and a European – and by extension an American Jew and European Jew – are so different. It is asking a lot for someone whose identity is hyphenated, a prefix, to comprehend what it is like to live as a religious minority in a nation-state. Similarly, there is a general awareness both of Jews and Judaism in the national culture of the United States that simply doesn’t exist in Europe and especially in central and eastern Europe, where Jewish communities were so diminished by the Holocaust.
Finding the balance between the three chapters of the Polish Jewish story – the thousand years of Jewish history, during which Poland was a center of European Jewish civilization; the Holocaust, during which that civilization was destroyed; and the modern Jewish revival – is also a difficult business. To focus only on the Holocaust is to minimize Jewish life past and present, in doing so ignoring that Poland gave the world David Ben-Gurion and the Baal Shem Tov. Yet along with the advent of Zionism and the Haredi counter-reformation, no single event defines the modern Jewish world as much as the Holocaust.
Yet all the parts must be there, somehow, and a Jewish heritage tour to Poland can be a wonderful safe space where conceptions of Poland, both truths and prejudices, inherited and informed, are discussed and argued out. Rabbi Schudrich’s question, “Why are there any Jews left in Poland?” is one every tourist who enters Poland on a Jewish heritage excursion should be trying to answer or consider by the time they leave. Visitors ought to come closer to comprehending the complexities, compromises, and contradictions of Jewish life in Poland today. There is no singular Polish Jewish experience, after all. Jewish Poland is polyphonic.
The author was a guest of Taube Philanthropies and the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland Foundation.