Krakow – Poland used to be the epicenter of European Judaism, home to more than three million Jews before the Holocaust. The Shoah decimated Polish Jewry; only ten percent managed to survive and many or most left for Israel. The post-war Communist regime trampled whatever else remained, persecuting believers of all faiths, out of a commitment to state atheism. When we as American Jews think of Poland, we too often think of it as a land of the past, a story whose end was tragic.
Poles have long acknowledged the Holocaust – but for many Poles and their government – as a Holocaust brought by the Nazis on the Polish people. And yes, they also admit, many Jews got caught up in it, too. But to them, these Poles, it was a holocaust of the Polish people, not of the Jews, per se.
Of course, revisionist as that is, it’s not exactly how we Jews – nor history – see it.
But that is not the whole tale. Not hardly. I had the chance this month to travel to Poland as a week-long guest of the very gracious Polish Foreign Ministry, invited to the country as I was, amid the extraordinary ongoing war in nearby Ukraine and the major refugee crisis that the conflict has sparked. What I saw felt almost miraculous.
A country largely remembered in the American Jewish imagination as hostile to Jews and all sorts of outsiders has become instead the principal haven for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict zone. Poland has only 38 million people but has taken in many more than a million Ukrainian refugees these past six or seven months. A country often blasted as nativist might now have the single largest share of asylum seekers among all the nations of the world. Polish society as a whole has mobilized to provide housing and basic services and to secure employment for these new arrivals. I was – and remain – completely awed by the common sense of purpose and the compassion that I saw on display all over the country. It’s nothing short of extraordinary.
There were no refugee camps, no tent cities along the border. These million or 2.000,000 Ukrainian refugees have seemingly been entirely absorbed into Poland by the Polish people (and their government). And mostly into their personal homes. It is truly heroic, unbelievable.
Jews are part of this story, too.
Ten of us spent days in Warsaw, visited and explored Lodz, and Auschwitz, and ended in Krakow.
We visited former ghettos and current universities, met with numerous think tanks, explored excellent and modern museums, and toured two Nazi death camps. We saw historic synagogues and Jewish centers and met at length with the impressive chief rabbi of many years. We also freely spoke our minds and asked everything. And we ate. (We ate a lot.)
This historic city, Krakow, nestled in the bend of a river, with a castle perched atop the environs, has seen the return of a robust Jewish community. The city’s Jewish Community Center hosts a full slate of programming, also becoming a seven-day-a-week distribution center for refugees who need food and access to social services. Yes, you read that right; Krakow has a thriving Jewish community center.
It’s but one tremendous example of the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland.
So far, 95,000 Ukrainians have received over 150 tons of necessary supplies distributed in their JCC building. They also offer 400 free meals a day, including a lively weekly Friday night Shabbat dinner event for Jewish refugees my colleagues and I were fortunate enough to attend.
This JCC embodies the city’s incipient Jewish culture, which melds older Jewish residents, millennials reconnecting to roots concealed or lost under Nazism and Communism, and non-Jews eager to learn more about Judaism.
Among other things, the JCC has sent truckloads of supplies into Ukraine since the onset of war and together with a partner are delivering tons of food and supplies to isolated towns and villages close to the front line with Russia.
They set up a summer camp in Krakow to teach 60 Ukrainian kids Polish and English, as well as self-defense, computer skills and arts & crafts.
They are supporting a large distribution center in southern Poland that has distributed 400,000 items of clothing to 80,000 Ukrainian refugees.
They funded 12 full-time psychologists who provided 1,400 hours a month of therapy in five locations in Krakow.
And so much more.
They have hired 40 new staff members. (Most JCC’s in America don’t even have 40 staff members.)
European Jewry is often described as endangered, but that was not what I saw in Poland. I witnessed a Jewish community whose horizons are limitless, benefiting from the support of both Polish officials and especially a broad civil society coalition, funded in large part by the (Tad) Taube Foundation and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation before it.
Poland has much to be proud of as a country, even as its ongoing failure to fully acknowledge its longtime antisemitism is more than disappointing. (Never mind its very disappointing near refusal to so much as seriously discuss WWII property restitution – the sole such country remaining.)
But in the past three decades, after two centuries of domination by other powers – among them the imperial Russians, Nazis and then the Soviets – Poland has managed to build a market economy and a functioning democracy. The narratives that we hear about this Eastern European powerhouse in the broader West are often wrong or incomplete. How is it that a country widely lambasted as xenophobic has become the world’s greatest safe harbor for refugees? How do you explain that a country sometimes admonished as a bastion of right-wing populism has become the tip of the spear in the fight for democracy against Russian aggression? Events (and my visit) show that we must engage more with Poland and appreciate it for the dynamic society it is.
As a Jewish-American, I am very pleased to say that Poland is not consigned to the past. It is a vibrant country of today and tomorrow, and one whose progress I will continue to track eagerly.