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The poor Poles look upon the Valley of Dry Bones

'The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones,' Gustave Doré - 1866. (Wikimedia Commons)
'The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones,' Gustave Doré - 1866. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Yahweh set me down in the middle of the valley, a valley full of bones. He made me walk up and down and all around among them. There were vast quantities of these bones on the floor of the valley, and they were completely dry.”

For many Poles who gaze upon the destruction of the European Jews, the view becomes utterly paralyzing. As if all were now frozen, Ezekiel chapter 37 no longer moves on after its first two verses. No sinews are put back on the bones. No flesh made to grow. No new breath is given. And there certainly is no recognition that the subsequent prophecy has since come true: “I shall raise you from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel.”

Instead, many would seem to nod with professor Barbara Engelking, the director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, when she said, “My bed is among the dead” (Psalms 88, 6). No doubt many even agreed when, elsewhere upon receiving the St. George Medal in 2018, she spoke about discovering that “evil is more powerful than good,” adding,“Researching the Holocaust has taught me the futility of existence.”

Other of professor Engelking’s words from that speech initially seem to suggest a way forward from the chilling past. “I contrast care with the recently popular category of memory, which is historical, sealed off, concentrated on the past. Care is living and current. It belongs to the present.” Nevertheless, what little clarification of such care actually follows leads straight back to the past – specifically, to “andragogy,” as she puts it, which seems to entail instilling adults with the paralyzing view of the eternally dry bones.

“I can’t warn anyone, rescue anyone, nor restore anyone to life.”

* * *

Just a few months ago, Dara Horn, Jewish Studies scholar and novelist, published the provocatively entitled book People Love Dead Jews, whose opening words develop the title in a hardly surprising direction: “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.” Punctuated by a cheeky style that does not mask a burning rage, Horn’s book decries the morbid, institutionalized obsession with a universalized evil that makes the ethnicity and religion of its actual victims incidental to reflections on theodicy – and blinds to the reality of living Jews.

Among the many telltale examples Horn gives are two from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The first concerns how in 2017-18 the museum banned a young employee from openly wearing a kippah: “The museum’s managing director told newspapers that a live Jew in a yarmulke might »interfere« with the museum’s »independent position«. The museum finally relented after deliberating for six months, which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.”

Horn then shares a story from a year earlier at the Anne Frank House, one indicating not unrelated accidents, but a mindset. The museum’s audioguide, in line with standard practice around the world, included little national flag icons for the languages one can choose. Japan’s flag next to the button for Japanese, Italy’s flag next to Italian, etc. But visitors noticed there was one, single exception – the choice of Hebrew language had no accompanying Israeli flag. A climate of discomfort over living Jews had evidently caused “erasure,” as Horn puts it.

Before presenting a list of virtual copy-paste examples from contemporary Polish institutions, it bears stressing that liberal betrayal of the Jews is hardly an anomaly. One could start earlier than with Theodor Herzl, but – as his most important biographer, Jacques Kornberg, explains – it was precisely Herzl’s wrenching disillusionment with Viennese liberals that brought about his “conversion” to Zionism.

Of course, it’s usually rightist antisemitism that most captures the media’s attention and is justly denounced by political and church leaders, NGOs, etc. Like the recent ugly case in Kalisz, when a group led by a notorious antisemite publicly burned a copy of the famous Statute of Kalisz, 1264, which granted far-reaching privileges and protections to the Jews – or that of the pile of rubble dumped in front of the Israeli embassy last June by Polish far-rightists in protest against Jewish property restitution. However, many people – myself included – are convinced that the “leftist-liberal” antisemitism present at the museum in Amsterdam, and especially what parades as “valid criticism of Israel” (e.g., Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain, the “Commission of Inquiry” at the UN, intersectionalists and the anti-Zionist left everywhere), is the more deserving of attention. Particularly inasmuch as it means that Israelis are facing the mésalliance of the global delegitimization campaign and genocidal, nuclear threat.

Again, “Living Jews, not so much” – an irony even more nauseating when, as in Amsterdam, it hails from nominally philosemitic institutions and milieux.

* * *

As insiders know, neither the Germans nor the Russians nor any other nation wends in the soul of the Poles like the Jews do. Or rather, no other nation tunnels – “with a small red lamp fastened to his forehead,” as the Nobel prize winning poet Czesław Miłosz wrote in “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” from 1943.

Poles manage that tunneling in the most sundry ways, if only to mention – from an enormous list – just the more healthy ones: thorough-going historical research; the recent intensive construction of museums; events commemorating the fate of the Jews during the Nazi occupation; grassroots campaigns to restore Jewish cemeteries (10,000 Polish volunteers got involved in this in 2021); and countless Zoom conferences during the pandemic on such topics as commemorating the shtetl, Catholic dialogue with Judaism, the desired progress of feminism in the rabbinate… All, however, at a time when Israel is under assault. From Gaza, of course – though above all from Iran, a topic which hardly seems to exist in public discourse in Poland.

No, it’s not quite the same as “Campo di Fiori,” another poem by Miłosz about the Jewish Ghetto Uprising in Warsaw, 1943 – and the Ferris wheel for Varsovians right outside the ghetto walls (“Happy crowds laughed / on that lovely Warsaw Sunday”). Though the problem today also resoundingly bespeaks denial and neurosis. It may be a little like my friend from way back, who, whenever his old beater broke down for whatever reason, did one thing: he panickedly changed the oil, as that was all the mechanicing he knew. It may also be like that person in the joke known to all of us about the man who’s lost his keys while walking home from a wild party, but who nonetheless walks on ahead to the nearest streetlamp to search there. ‘Cause the light’s better.

Whatever the case, Israel, together with the Zionist movement that gave birth to the Jewish state, is roundly forced into hiding. Jewry is reduced to the ghastly years of World War Two, its antisemitic prelude in Poland – and its antisemitic hiccups here afterward. This myopia shuns Israel from view, from honest portrayal – and in a way that again recalls Miłosz’s poem: “I’m afraid, so afraid of the guardian-mole.”

* * *

The anecdotal evidence of this pained erasure of Israel is overwhelming in Poland. But start somewhere we must – and with recent examples. This past November the Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH) announced the award of twenty-four (24) small grants totaling nearly 135,000 złoties. Most of the topics concern the Holocaust, restoring Jewish cemeteries, the insurgents of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, etc. Each of the topics, I need stress, is laudable on its own. The problem is that not one of the 24 grant-recipients means to examine or portray the long-standing, vibrant Zionist movement in Poland. This, despite the fact that the two by far most important events in the history of the Jews over the past centuries are, tragically, the Holocaust – and, happily, the creation of modern Israel in the ancient Jewish homeland. ŻIH’s choice of grants casts an invisibility cloak over the latter.

About POLIN, in turn – the Museum of the History of Polish Jews – I’ll never forget the time I met the doyen of Israel’s Zionist scholars for lunch in Warsaw a few years ago. She had just finished her tour of POLIN and I found her shaking in anger, repeating to me how she just couldn’t believe the museum had given such short shrift to Zionism. Later I mentioned this to someone involved with the museum, and he told me: “About there being too little at Polin’s exhibition about Zionism – there’s too little on every other topic, as well. I’ve heard dozens of such complaints…” Not all oversights, however, are equal: again, in the past millennium of Jewish history, the Jews’ national revival eclipses all but the Shoah itself.

This mindset – which, as pervasive as it is, seems to operate unknowingly – is also evinced in POLIN’s educational program on Jewish heritage, the stated mission of which reads: “To safeguard memory and shape the future – that’s the educational mission of POLIN, as well as the mission of the project Jewish Cultural Heritage. They rise from the faith that encountering the history of Polish Jews strengthens the historical awareness of Poles, Jews, and Europeans, as it is part of the history of Poland, Europe, and the Jewish Diaspora.”

It’s equally part of Israel’s history, and so skipping past that fact compels one to wonder if the term “Jews” in the previous series of three also excludes Israelis.

POLIN’s statement then goes on to explain that “The aim of the project is to safeguard and popularize the heritage of Polish Jews via educational and cultural programs, in accord with the conviction that encountering the rich and dramatic history of Polish Jews not only deepens knowledge, but also teaches respect for people of different faiths and cultures, countermands xenophobia, and prepares the young for life in the modern, diverse world.”

It’s beside the point that teaching corollary respect is all too often delusional (as the recent rise in leftist antisemitism has forced many to concede). Rather, the rub is that the passage omits how popularization of the heritage of Polish Jews can, if suitably presented, foster healthy ties with Israel.

Suffice it to add that the recent 6 finalists for the POLIN 2021 Award, all of them of course very deserving nominees, were people focused on the Holocaust and preserving memory of the shtetl. Things are only slightly different, though still screamingly imbalanced, with POLIN’s new Heritage Gallery, among whose 24 figures is a single, lone Zionist: David Ben-Gurion.

Numerus clausus would admit more. Which is to stress that professor Engelking’s protest made a few years ago on TV – “Poland’s history is not a smorgasbord from which we can pick only what we fancy” – remains in the realm of desiderata.

The Polish Council of Christians and Jews also pursues a policy of reluctance toward engaging with Israel. For instance, last May the Council said nothing when the rockets being fired from Gaza were indiscriminately striking Israeli towns. But when just a month later far-rightists dumped a heap of rubble in front of the Israeli embassy in Warsaw (with a little sign saying “here’s your property from WWII”), the Council vehemently denounced that. And rightly so. But then why no condemnation when Jewish civilians were being bombed and outright killed?

What is also highly telling, the Polish Council includes several old-line Protestant Christians, despite the fact they believe that God renounced the Biblical covenant with the Jews. This is of course at sharp variance with Catholic doctrine since Nostra Aetate from 1965, a position forcefully restated in 2013 in Evangelii Gaudium: “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for »the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable« (Rom 11:29).”

The other problem is that the Polish Presbyterian Church (Kościół ewangelicko-reformowany) purportedly numbers just over 3,000 people, which (even if that were accurate) may unkindly be placed within the scope of statistical error. In fact, I’m quite sure the real number is but a fraction of 3,000. Today in Poland the Kościół ewangelicko-reformowany has only two active churches – in Warsaw and Zelów. And when, as rarely happens, I attend the one in Warsaw, I’ve never seen more than 70-80 people.

This cannot be squared with the fact that Polish Evangelicals are not represented on the Council. True, their numbers in Poland are also tiny, though with approx. 50,000 people in churches all throughout the country they are incomparably more significant than the Presbyterians. Indeed, the Evangelicals’ absence in the Polish Council is all the more astounding as – in line with Evangelicalism the world over – they’re fervently pro-Israeli. Of course, old-line Protestants also have a “fixation” with Israel – namely, a fixation with Israel’s short-comings. Indeed, the Presbyterian Church in the US (in which, full disclosure, I was raised) supports the BDS movement, much to my displeasure.

Thus the membership of one set of Protestants, and the disregard of others does help to understand why the Polish Council has not, for instance, appealed to the Polish authorities to condemn Hamas and Iran’s nuclear threats at EU and UN fora. This also helps explain why the Jews whom the Council addresses (or imagines) often seem incorporeal, and without lives lived in Israel.

The Polish Catholic Church’s annual “Judaism Day” this year (Jan. 10-20) offers yet another example. The Jewish figure honored was rabbi Akiva Eger (1761-1837) of Poznań. True, “the supreme Talmudic scholar of his time” (Jody Myers), but someone utterly dwarfed in history by his pupils Eliyahu Guttmacher and Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer of Toruń. After all, those two rabbis laid the foundations of Zionism and the Jewish state. Rabbi Eger, in turn, vehemently rejected the Zionism of rabbi Kalischer, and thus he can hardly serve Polish-Israeli relations – though rabbis Kalischer and Guttmacher eminently can.

Instead, the choice was made again this year to better understand Christianity’s spiritual roots in a Judaism disembodied from modern Israel. After all, living Jews – excepting of course well-known leaders of the Jewish community in Poland – are hardly necessary for the reflections on self-identity promoted within Judaism Day: “This initiative is intended to help Catholics to discover Christianity’s Judaic roots, to deepen their awareness of what John Paul II stressed – namely, that the Jewish religion is not a reality external to Catholicism, but internal to it.”

Cases like these, ones of notionally philosemitic organizations and campaigns shunning Israel, continue to pile up as we glance around. Let’s take, for instance, the website of “Otwarta Rzeczpospolita: Stowarzyszenie Przeciw Antysemityzmowi i Ksenofobii” (Open Republic: Association Against Antisemitism and Xenophobia), where, regarding Israel, one may again read about the scandal in Kalisz and that wheelbarrow of rubble. There’s also “Israel Sunday” (at the… Presbyterian church in Warsaw) and a piece entitled “A breakthru for the LGBT community in Israel! Transgenderism has been eliminated from the list of illnesses” – though there seems to be nothing whatsoever about resisting the delegitimization campaign against Israel or calling attention to Iran’s genocidal threats, etc.

The refusal to engage with Israel also comes up with Stowarzyszenie “Nigdy Więcej” (the “Never Again” Society), whose Brunatna Księga (~Book of Brownshirts) chronicles i.a., antisemitism. Nonetheless, one is dumbstruck noting that “Never Again” boasts its role in the republishing of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, although her Zionist novel Daniel Deronda (1876), uniquely among European languages, has yet to be published at all in Polish. This, despite (because of?) the fact that Daniel Deronda was one of the most important sparks that lit the first Zionist movement, i.e., Hovevei Zion of the early 1880s.

To close this cursory list, last August I joined friends in Falenica who had invited me to take part in the anniversary observances of the Nazis’ liquidation of the town’s ghetto. The moving ceremony at a little square was followed by a lengthy evening of readings from survivor accounts. They had been written down as part of the activity of the onetime widespread organizations in Israel that gathered people who shared places of origin, mostly in the lands of Central and Eastern Europe. In the case of Falenica’s survivors – Israelis from Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem – the selected readings were, as to be expected, exclusively about what had happened during the occupation. Afterward at a small party, a couple of the long-time organizers began to lament that the event had become stale. But what else could be done? The formula is fixed. I offered that the event could also showcase the hitherto ignored postwar stories of the many survivors from Falenica (Otwock, Józefów, etc.), and how they established their families and pursued careers in the newly created Israel. In fact, I had the impression the idea may have stuck a little.

* * *

Not to be misunderstood, I again stress that the research, the observances, the plaques commemorating the onetime sites of synagogues, the meditation on theodicy – that’s all highly admirable in my view. Wearing bright-yellow daffodils in April, in remembrance of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, is a lovely new tradition – restoring Jewish cemeteries is also highly praiseworthy. But vastly less so when such efforts recall the recent satire “Don’t look up” or when they involve performative brooding paired with willful or neurotic blindness to the Jewish state’s existential threats.

Anti-Israelism is of course an important strain of antisemitism, typically a sublimation of negative anxieties regarding the Jews. This statement hardly needs justification concerning a part of the world where the very terms Zionism/Zionist were used by the communist regimes as camouflage for antisemitism. Indeed, to this day the term Zionism is tainted in Poland, as I recently (though not for the first time) experienced regarding a planned lecture in Śląsk. Namely, I was asked to remove ‘Zionism’ from the title of my presentation, as “the word »Zionism« connects too strictly with Gomułka [the communist ruler of Poland who in 1968 expelled the majority of the country’s remaining Jews] in academic circles – and besides, I don’t want to conjure up demons from the past.”

The available statistics here are relevant. Recently the “Action & Protection League” (purportedly “Europe’s leading organization for combating antisemitism”) published an important study of 16 European countries. Antisemitic Prejudices in Europe found that so many as 74% of Poles age 18-75 express anti-Israeli antisemitism, which places Poles just behind the Austrians, who topped the list at 76%.

Deep pessimism about the negative attitudes toward Israel is therefore altogether justified, all the more so as anti-Israelism is structural (a word I use sparingly, and outright reject in “structural racism” regarding the US). After all, for decades the whole breadth of institutions here – from scholarly and literary to museal and the myriad NGOs – have narrowly funneled virtually everyone interested in things Jewish into the Holocaust and/or antisemitism. Naturally, those are the topics institutionally reigning supreme, though this does not justify the fact that other areas of inquiry (e.g., the history of Zionism, modern Israel) are like needles in a haystack.

Worse still, one has a growing sense that these, “innocuous” to some, examples of leftist-liberal anti-Zionism in Poland will soon deserve description by Dara Horn. After all, they bespeak the lack of viable firewalls against the broiling, caustic anti-Zionism of the progressive West, whose postulates are altogether infectious here in Poland already.

* * *

I had never, ever been to a march in my life. Not until last spring, when some Polish Christian Evangelicals I know invited me to a demonstration out front of the Israeli embassy during the attacks from Gaza.

What struck me the most during the event there in Warsaw was when Pastor Edward Ćwierz had everyone turn to the embassy and chant in Hebrew, “Am Israel Chai!, Am Israel Chai!” – the People of Israel Live! The contrast with virtually everything else here in Poland – where all that’s discerned are, well, “dead Jews” – was revelatory.

It prompted me to wonder anew when Ezekiel 37 will ever become unfrozen after verse 2. “And you will know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people, and put my spirit in you, and you revive, and I resettle you on your own soil.” When, moreover, will we in Poland finally betray any pleasure over such news as Israel and countries of the Arab world forging peaceful relations? The Abraham Accords, the joint military maneuvers with the Emirates and Bahrain, the historic deal with Jordan to exchange water for enormous solar-energy farms, the presence of a Palestinian Arab party in the current government… These dramatic recent news stories met with little but apathy, it seemed.

When will we hear in the news: “Decided – Poland will move its embassy to Jerusalem.” Or, “The Polish Government has tabled a measure in Brussels to condemn Iran’s production of enriched uranium”, or, “The Museum POLIN invites one and all to its new permanent exhibition devoted to the Zionist movement in Polish lands” – “Come to Toruń for the Rabbi Kalischer Festival and visit the newly opened mini-museum commemorating him.”

Instead the gaze is fixed backwards on the valley of dry bones. Meditation on that tragedy and commemoration of a lost world blot out today’s. “We are ourselves only thanks to our memory of the past,” wrote Jan Błoński, thirty-five years ago in his still-ringing essay, one that nonetheless deepened the thanatic ruts of Polish mentalité. All the easier is it therefore to erase living Jews. And all the harder is it to discern positive breakthroughs in Israel – and, worse, the forces that pursue its destruction.

About the Author
Philip Earl Steele is an American historian based in Poland, specializing in the history of Christian Zionism.
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