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“Go back to Poland”

Shabbat shalom, Good Shabbos, dear reader. I hope you are well and safe. One of the anti-Semitic catcalls at Columbia University is “Go back to Poland!” Let’s reflect upon this. We have to go back a long way.

Christianity became the dominant faith of the Roman Empire over the course of the fourth century: in his writings, St. John Chrysostom castigated the synagogues as satanic dens frequented by actors and homosexuals (which actually sounds kind of fun), and the Pauline Christian church was anti-Semitic in a way that the Jerusalem Church of James and Peter, which it superseded, had not been. Jews living in our homeland under Byzantine rule were subject to various restrictions, but a flourishing community remained. The Islamic conquest of the Land of Israel led to an economic crisis as old trading ties with Christian-held lands of the Mediterranean basin were severed. Many Jews migrated then, just to make a living for our families. Communities in Italy, Spain, England, France, Germany, and other lands had existed since the Roman period and even before. Many of the people of Anatolia (today’s Turkey) were converts to Judaism: they seem to have been the core of the nascent Christian community of Armenia, which became the world’s first and oldest Christian polity and endures to this day.

Mediterranean society has generally been accepting of human culture and faith in its various forms, but as the centers of power in Christendom moved northwards there was less of la dolce vita, less of what we might today call diversity and multiculturalism. (Those terms have been so abused that the meaning has been leached out of them. But you get the idea.) Jews were massacred in the Crusades, expelled (a rough and ready form of expropriation) from Western Europe, then Spain. In the north, Jewish communities moved eastwards, into Poland and other countries, bringing our dialect of Middle High German enriched with Hebrew and Aramaic. It acquired new Slavic elements, and came to be known as Yiddish or mame loshn (“mother tongue”). That was the language of my father’s family, who came from Poland— actually, from the great region called Galicia that is now divided between Poland, the Ukraine, and several other states.

The exiled Spanish Jews— my mother’s ancestors— migrated east, too, but to more southerly climes: Morocco, Turkey, Greece. Thus, my maternal grandmother of blessed memory was born in Salonica. Her family, the Saltiels, were there over four hundred years, but after the devastation of World War I some came to America: she married my grandpa, a native of Tetouan, Morocco, in New York City.

In recent centuries, the plurality of Jews were Ashkenazim (“Germans”) who lived in Poland and spoke Yiddish. The name of the country was crafted into a Hebrew phrase, Po lin, “Come spend the night here.” The idea behind the inviting, drowsy moniker was that the place was an inn on the road back home to the Land of Israel. Over a thousand years, our people created a wonderful and rich culture there: the “new” religious galaxy of Hasidism, the literature of Yiddish, the revival of spoken Hebrew. Ashkenazim jump started modernity, created Zionism: Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Theodore Herzl, Menachem Begin, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion, Trotsky, Lenin, Bruno Schulz, Julian Tuwim, S.Y. Agnon…

In the years before World War II, Jews accounted for one tenth of the population of Poland and a third of the population of the capital city, Warszawa (Warsaw). Poland after the passing of the enlightened liberator Pilsudski introduced restrictive anti-Semitic laws, but the end really came, of course, with the Nazi invasion. Although many Poles were anti-Semites, many were also “righteous gentiles”. Unlike, say, Norway with its puppet government— Quisling became a word synonymous with “traitor”— Poland never had a collaborationist regime. Hitler, may his name and memory be erased, wanted to obliterate Poland. Education was curtailed, to reduce the nation to the status of illiterate serfdom. Children were kidnapped to be raised as “aryan” Germans. The Nazis murdered Polish priests and intellectuals en masse.

The prewar Jewish population had been about three million. After the war only about thirty thousand remained, and most of that pitiful remnant were hounded out of the country in 1968, when the Communist regime manipulated popular anti-Semitism to distract and divert dissent. The Solidarity movement arose anyhow, and one of its leaders, Adam Michnik, was a Jew.

Today Poland is a member of NATO and the EU. There is anti-Semitism there, but the little Jewish community has synagogues, schools, a superb museum and archive in Warsaw. Poland does not welcome Muslim immigration and its society rejects wokism and the various other lunacies of political correctness. It is much safer and more pleasant for a Jew to walk in Krakow and Warsaw or study in Poznan and Gdansk than, say, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, or… New York and Los Angeles.

But that is not what the Columbia thugs chanting “Go back to Poland” mean. They don’t mean a café in the Glowny Rynek in Krakow or the quiet reading room of the Polin Museum in Warsaw. They mean Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. They want us all dead. This will not pass: they have only just begun.

***

About 100,000 people died of disease and starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940-41. In 1942, the Nazis rounded up and deported 300,000 to death camps. On Pesach 1943, when the Germans were planning to murder the 60,000 Jews who remained, we fought back. Our resistance lasted longer than that of Poland itself in September 1939. Though we knew most of us would not survive, we took down over a thousand of the enemy. Jews fought back, not only in Warsaw but in Vilna and many other places. In Belarus, the Bielski brothers led a partisan brigade. After the war, Ghetto fighters like Abba Kovner formed the backbone of the new Israel Defense Force. They built the Ghetto Fighters’ collective farm— Kibbutz Lochamei ha-Geta’ot.

I want every Jew in the world to live in Israel. But for those of us who are staying here: let us go back to Poland in our minds and memory and spirit. But not to the death camps where these Islamofascist academics and their vile swarm of young collaborators want to send us. No. To the example of our fighting heroes. To Anielewicz, to Kovner, to the Bielskis. American Jews, learn to defend yourselves. Be ready. Be strong and courageous and of good cheer. Our ancestors sang in Yiddish, Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letsten veg, “Never say you’re walking down the final road.” And with those who stood by us they sang too, Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła, Kiedy my żyjemy. “Poland is not yet lost, as long as we are alive!”

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.