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Is there a future for Jews in Poland?

If the rest of the Diaspora stays connected to the Polish Jewish community, then yes
Sara Zielinski, with her mother Elizabeth, center, and a volunteer at a pre-Shabbat program at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. Sara is part of the inaugural class of Frajda, the first pluralistic Jewish nursery and preschool in Krakow since World War II. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Krakow/via JTA)
Sara Zielinski, with her mother Elizabeth, center, and a volunteer at a pre-Shabbat program at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. Sara is part of the inaugural class of Frajda, the first pluralistic Jewish nursery and preschool in Krakow since World War II. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Krakow/via JTA)

It’s complicated. When I didn’t know much about the situation of the Jews in Poland, it was simple. But now that I know just a tad more, it’s complicated.

Today in Poland, anti-Semitism is showing up in the mainstream once again. It’s always been there, but the Polish government passed a law two months ago, the so-called Holocaust Bill, that makes it illegal to discuss Polish complicity in the Holocaust, which has let the genie out of the bottle. The Jewish community and the pro-Jewish Christian community in Poland are very unhappy with it, and they have been saying so. (So have Israelis and Jews around the world.) And that criticism of the government and specifically this law doesn’t sit well with the nationalists. It looks a lot like other countries where critics of the government are ostracized by nationalists and told to “love it or leave it.” So the Polish populists have pivoted their hatred, and are now targeting the Jews for being disloyal to the country.

Meanwhile, everywhere you look today, Polish Christians are coming out of the closet as Jews. People are learning that they have a Jewish parent or a Jewish grandparent, and they want to learn more about their Judaism. The JCCs in Krakow and Warsaw are flourishing and some of the best guides of Jewish Poland are not Jewish. Jewish professionals, including the chief rabbi of Poland, tell me that it’s a good thing the Holocaust Bill wasn’t passed five years ago because the Jewish community back then wouldn’t have been strong enough to stand up to it. But now Poland is in a different place. In fact, a few weeks ago, the president of Poland and his family showed up at the Krakow JCC to meet with its CEO, Jonathan Ornstein — and not just as a goodwill gesture, but to explore what they offer.

On the one hand, the women who work at the Warsaw Hillel told me that more students than ever are coming to Hillel for events because the anti-Semitism is making them stand up proudly to tell the world who they are. On the other hand, those same Hillel staffers told me that the Jewish “regulars” are now talking about “where to go,” discussing their possible exit strategies from Poland. One of the top Jewish scholars in the country told me she feels personally betrayed by some of her non-Jewish colleagues, who have risen through the political ranks by switching sides and supporting the Holocaust Bill, and she’s even thinking about whether she should be spending more of her time in other parts of Europe.

The anti-Semitic language being used by the politicians today is being compared to language used by the politicians during the Communist era of the 1960s. In fact, last month was the 50th anniversary of the Communist Purges of the Jews in Poland. So there is an exhibit at the Polin Museum commemorating the events of March, 1968, and at the very end of the exhibit, images of tweets from contemporary journalists and politicians stand side-by-side with those from 1968, and the language is nearly identical. A couple weeks ago, a well-respected academic gave a lecture on this topic and ever since then, he’s been a punching bag for the politicians and press who are unhappy that he’s shining a light on the issue.

At the same time, the Krakow and Warsaw JCCs are flourishing. Every day, groups from abroad fill the tiny rooms to see the revival of Jewish life happening in Poland. Every summer, thousands of people come to the Krakow Jewish Music and Culture Festival to celebrate this rebirth. There is no longer only one synagogue in Warsaw, but five synagogues, including a progressive minyan. Jewish life is truly coming alive in this country where it’s so hard to pull the “Jewish” identity out of the “Polish” identity for so many. The Polish national poets are Jewish. Some of the Polish national foods are Jewish, like herring, latkes and in Krakow, bagels. And so many here tell me they bristle at the terminology “Jewish-Polish relations” because it assumes one can split apart the Jewish from the Polish, and they insist you can’t divide them anymore than one can divide Jewish and American.

Nevertheless, when you walk down the streets, you can find kiosks selling paintings, drawings and tiny statues of Jews counting money—some even have actual coins glued to them. These images are keeping alive the old anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews and money. However, the local community thinks these images are good luck and they give them to each other as gifts. They believe the Jews are good business people and they want some of their good fortune to rub off on them. It reminds me of my meeting several years ago with the leadership of the government of Azerbaijan, who winked and whispered to me, “We know the Jews run the world, but we are okay with it. You do a good job.”

While there’s a new generation of Jewish leadership in Warsaw, in Krakow, the community has been controlled by one family for generations, and they do not seem particularly responsive to the needs of its members. I visited a former synagogue that’s been rented out and turned into a restaurant. The beautiful fresco paintings with sacred Hebrew writing are being chipped away by coffee drinkers who rub their chairs against the walls. And the area that held the Holy Ark has been removed so another entry to the restaurant could be blasted through the wall. While most of the Jewish community is upset with this arrangement, the Krakow government doesn’t want to get involved in the internecine fighting between the Jews, so the violation of some old Jewish spaces continues — by the Jews.

Yet when you visit places where the Nazis rounded up Jews, there are memorials to the victims. In places where the Nazis crushed rebellions, there are memorials to the fighters. In places where Christian heroes fought, defending Jewish lives, there are memorials to the heroes. In places where the uprisings were launched, there are memorials to the partisans. And in the heart of the city of Warsaw, a giant, beautiful, brand-new museum, Polin, honoring the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland was recently built with a combination of government money and Jewish money. On the one hand, this country is proud of its Jewish history and wants to shout it from the rooftops. On the other hand, there are people living today in the homes of the commandants who oversaw the concentration camps — eating in their kitchens and sleeping in their bedrooms — as if they are normal homes and not houses of horror.

I asked everyone I met if they believe there is a future for Jews in Poland. And they all said absolutely yes. Now maybe you think they have to say that because they’re the ones living there today, doing the tough work on the ground of rejuvenating Jewish life there. But I don’t think so. I think they really do believe there’s a future there. So my follow up question for each of them was, “What do you need from American Jews right now?” And they all said the same exact thing: Come and visit and see for yourself.

The Polish Jews need us to visit to stay connected to the rest of the Jewish world. To those who wanted me to cancel my trip as a way to send a message to the Polish government, I feel even more strongly that we travel there now that I’ve been there. If we don’t go, all we are doing is further alienating the local Jewish community. And ironically, that rewards the nationalist politicians by playing into their narrative, allowing them to say, “See, the Jews don’t really care about Poland; they only care about themselves.”

The Jews in Poland also want us to host more joint projects between their communities and ours in America. Programs that create greater cooperation build stronger peoplehood ties and could be essential for a strong future for Jews in Poland. Projects like the women’s leadership development program, Kol Isha, that the OFJCC in Palo Alto is creating with the Krakow JCC, along with the JCC of Manhattan and the JCC of Ramat HaSharon, could be great vehicles to build stronger ties and show our support.

Meanwhile, there needs to be more work done on the ground in Poland to build co-existence and break down barriers between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities — indeed, between the white, Christian Poles who make up 90% of the population and everyone else. During my weeklong trip in Poland, I saw only three people with darker complexions and one Asian family — and I think they were tourists. I saw no mosques and no one with Muslim head coverings, which really surprised me considering Poland is an EU state and all EU states are being asked to take in refugees from Muslim countries. (The Polish government replies to this by insisting they’ve taken in one million refugees already, Ukrainian refugees. But everyone knows the Ukrainians haven’t migrated to Poland; they’ve only come to work there because the economy is much better in Poland.)

At the end of the day, I am an optimist. For over 600 years, Poland was the center of the Jewish world, making some of the most vital contributions to our story. Now maybe those days won’t return any time soon, but I do think there could be a future for Jews in Poland, at least insofar as there is a future for Jews anywhere outside of Israel. Maybe it’s two steps forward and one step back, but that’s still progress. It may be slow. It may be painful. And it may not be a straight path. But I guess that’s why the Jewish people are a hopeful people; we always believe that the Messiah is just around the corner.

About the Author
Zack Bodner is the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, CA. Prior to joining the JCC, Zack served as the Pacific Northwest Director of AIPAC (based in San Francisco) for 14 years. He lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and three kids.
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