Yes: I love Poland.
How to love a people who supposedly “imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk,” in the words of our new foreign minister, Israel Katz?
No matter how much time passes, Poland remains the place of our inconsolable pain. The grandfather whose name I carry, along with dozens of my family members, were transported and murdered there. The deep hatred against Jews that infected significant parts of Polish society even during and immediately after the Holocaust years lingers.
And yet a people deserves to be judged by its best sons and daughters, not its worst. And Poland’s best are among the very best of humanity, and among the Jewish people’s most trusted friends.
I love the Poland that gave us more trees on Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous than any other nation by far, even though the penalty for aiding a Jew was more severe in Poland than elsewhere in Europe — the murder of one’s entire family. There were Poles who betrayed Jews in hiding and murdered their Jewish neighbors. But I also remember Jan Karski, a devout Catholic and resistance fighter who twice smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto and then into a transit camp for Jews on their way to the Belzec death camp and traveled to the West to personally plead with world leaders, including President Roosevelt, to save the Jews. Somehow his Polish mother’s milk wasn’t infected with hatred.
I love the Poland I encountered as a first-time visitor in 1989, just as “Solidarity” was transitioning from dissident movement to the party of government, replacing the Communists and beginning the revolution that would soon bring down the Soviet Union. It was the moment when Poland delivered the posthumous reply to Stalin’s taunt, How many divisions does the pope have? The pope’s divisions were the Polish people, and they brought about one of the great miracles of our time. I had devoted much of my life to the movement to free Soviet Jews, and now, thanks in part to Poland, the Iron Curtain was parting. Soon thousands of Soviet Jews, then hundreds of thousands, were coming home to Israel. My joy and Poland’s were joined. Joy was not the emotion I had expected or perhaps even wanted to share with Poland. And yet the Jewish people and the Polish people had been on the same side against evil and, against all odds, we won.
I love the Poland of Pope John Paul II, the greatest friend we’ve ever had in the Catholic Church — not despite the fact that he was Polish, but because he grew up in Poland with Jewish friends who one day disappeared. It was John Paul II who turned the theological promise of Vatican II into reality — who reversed two thousand years of Catholic contempt and insisted that the Jews were not rejected by God, but remained His beloved people, the first pope to go on pilgrimage to a synagogue and who on every step of his incessant travels met with local Jewish communities, to signal to his own faithful that the Jews were, in his words, the church’s elder brothers.
I love the Poland of young people who feel the aching absence of the Jews who once shared their home and who clean Jewish cemeteries because there is no other tangible sign of Jewishness left in their towns and villages. How many are they? Even one would be worth noting. And there are many.
I love the Poland of Janusz Makuch, who had never met a Jew and yet, in 1988, still under Communist rule, founded a semi-underground festival of Jewish culture in Krakow. Janusz’s impulse was to preserve some memory of Polish Jewish culture, perhaps klezmer music and a few words of Yiddish. But then he traveled to Israel and fell in love with the lifeforce of the Jewish people and turned the annual Krakow Jewish Festival into an avant-garde celebration, bringing Israeli bands and filmmakers and American Jewish artists to the streets of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, .
I love the Poland where intense conversations on Jewish identity can happen in an instant, where the Jewish dybbuk haunting this land can suddenly appear in the most unlikely ways. The Poland where thousands of young people who barely knew they were Jewish or didn’t know they were Jewish at all are finding their way home — a whole new community of “de-assimilation,” in the words of Staszek Krajewski, a founding father of the Polish Jewish renaissance. The Poland where you can encounter someone like the professor I met in a Krakow café, who thought he may be Jewish, but had no proof, only an intense attraction to Judaism. Should I convert? he asked me. Are you Catholic? I asked in return. I love the Church and attend mass regularly, he replied. I told him to continue to be a friend of the Jewish people.
I love the Poland where, unlike much of Europe, anti-Zionism has not become an ideological fad, where even leftists will tell you that Poles who remember Communism know that “anti-Zionism” is a thin euphemism for Jew-hatred. The Poland where Israel is widely seen as a fellow heroic nation braving a difficult geography, and whose post-Communist governments have been among Israel’s strongest defenders in the European Union (which could of course change if Israel Katz succeeds in his mission as minister in charge of alienating Israel’s friends).
I don’t love the Poland that has tried to suppress scholarly inquiry into the shameful parts of its past, the Poland that tries to compete with us for the status of ultimate victim, and which has tried to appropriate as “Polish martyrs” the three million murdered Polish Jews, who in life were scarcely regarded as part of the nation, the Poland where expressions of the most vulgar anti-Semitism continue to taunt our deepest pain, the Poland where my liberal friends who had been dissidents under Communism now feel under assault again from their own government.
But I admit it: Having encountered the beautiful and tormented and holy soul of Poland, there is no hope for me. I am incurably in love.