I began this article on a train in Poland, a train heading south towards Krakow. Being a Jew in Poland, on a train heading South – in the general direction of Auschwitz – I could not help but dwell on one question: How many Jews traveled over these same rails heading towards their death?
And yet, after eight days in Poland, it is clear that it’s impossible to see all of Poland through that prism alone. There were hundreds of years of Jewish history in Poland before World War II, and it has been 70 years since the Holocaust. There is a new generation of Poles who know of Jews largely through cemeteries’ – and to a lesser extent – through news reports about the Israel they heard of while growing up.
My own roots are clearly Polish. Three of my four grandparents were born in Poland. However, this was not a journey to discover my roots. I did that trip with my Mother 23 years ago. This time, I was in Poland to produce an app on behalf of Moreshet, Mordechai Anielevich Memorial Holocaust Study and Research Center. a resource to be used by anyone visiting Poland. This time, my 21-year-old daughter (who just got out of the Israeli army) and I were guests of the Polish government.
Our trip’s itinerary was not all that different from the travel plans of the thousands of Israeli and American Jewish youth who visit Poland. We went to view all the major extermination camps, and the major cities that had been home to strong Jewish populations. However, our trip was very different, in an important way. We were not in Poland for the emotional experience. Our guides (all provided by the Polish government) were there to help us in any way they could. They were not there to influence us. Since it was just the two of us, we had the opportunity to get to know our guides and understand who they were as Poles and often as Jews (2 of our 4 guides were Jewish). I also had the pleasure spending time with a Lodz resident, who I had met several months earlier online, as a result of our mutual involvement with Apple Computer products. He is the editor of the largest Polish Apple website and online magazine. This young man is not Jewish. Though it turns out, he has a strong emotional connection to the Jewish community. He ended up spending a full day with us. In the evening, we had the opportunity to spend time discussing our shared mutual technical interests.
How are we supposed to relate to Poland and the Poles? It is, after all, the place where so many of our people met their deaths – for the most part, not at the hands of the Poles, rather at the hands of the German Nazis. Were the hands of the Poles clean? Obviously not. Could they have saved more Jews? Without question. However, I kept telling myself the Polish government and citizens did not perpetrate the Holocaust. They were witnesses, witnesses who had lost their war with the Nazis.
The Poles have a long history of anti-Semitism, (as is the case with so much of Europe). However, as I traveled Poland through dozens of small towns (Apple maps and Google tend to direct you in very interesting ways) one physical fact stood out – Every town, both big and small, was dominated by its Catholic church. We tend to forget that until Vatican II, Catholics were taught that we Jews were “Christ killers”… and the Poles (especially the rural ones) take their religion very seriously. Generations of Poles were brought up on the story that we killed their god. That alone is enough to explain (albeit, not excuse) their generations of deep anti-Semitism.
Recently, there was a posting by Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, published after visiting Aushwitz as part of the March of the Living. Rabbi Flanzraich objected to the fact that a Polish Priest, named Maxmillian Kolbe, was chosen to be a Saint for his efforts trying to save Jews. Rabbi Flazraich did believe that Kolbe was a great man. However, he questioned why one Catholic Priest should be named a Saint, when so many Jews died anonymously. By coincidence, the next day I too visited Aushwitz and saw the place where Kolbe was confined and died. Later that day, I discussed Rabbi Flanzraich’s article with my non-Jewish guide in Kielce, who was surprised at the criticism. To him, Kolbe, who had already been famous in Poland before the Holocaust, (for his missionary work in Japan) was a true hero.
There continues to be a dispute among Polish historians regarding the role of the Polish government and people during the war– questioning how much they did – or did not – suffer. The Jews who live in Poland today seem especially sensitive to this problem. They, together with many Jewish visitors, believe that the Poles are guilty of ignoring the true Jewish nature of the Holocaust. They are, of course, partly right. Since in Poland – especially during Communist rule – the narrative taught was about the crimes committed by the Germans to the Poles – contending that Jews made up just one segment of the Polish population. Many Poles, particularly those educated before 1989 under Communism, still have that mindset today. By and large, students in Poland are taught today that the Holocaust is a tragedy that was perpetrated primarily on the Jewish people.
Wherever you go in Poland there are memorials to the Poles who fought the Nazis, and in some cases saved Jews. This veneration is taken to an almost absurd point, in that Lodz maintains a memorial dedicated solely to righteous gentiles, even though not one of the people memorialized was from Lodz.
Many Jews are disturbed by this attempt to create Polish heroes from the Holocaust. They worry that the Holocaust loses some part of its Jewish uniqueness when actions like these are taken. I, as a visiting Israeli, actually understand the Polish need for Holocaust heroes. There is no question that the Holocaust was perpetrated, first and foremost, against the Jewish people. However, we do not live in that blood stained land. We do not have concentration camps as some of our biggest tourist attractions. We do not raise our children in Lublin, with the Majdanek Concentration camp within its borders.
It was noted in a recent ADL poll that 56% of Poles think Jews spend too much time thinking about the Holocaust. This finding was considered by the ADL to constitute a sign of anti-Semitism. However, why should this statistic surprise us? Almost all of the Jews that Polish residents encounter in Poland are interested in one thing … visiting the sites at which so many of our people were annihilated.
So, now, as my plane continues it southward journey home – to a place where we are free; a place conceived of to avoid a Holocaust, (sadly coming into being a little too late) … I cannot help but think that it’s time we have a dialogue about our complicated relationship to the Polish People. Yes, we need to continue visiting the extermination camps – where so many of our relatives were murdered. However, we must find a way to understand we are not coming to a place devoid of real people. We cannot ignore the Polish people who live today in a country nearly free of Jews. I believe it would behoove us to find the proper ways of interacting with each other.