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Does Antisemitism Still Exist in Poland?

So what is left of Jewish culture in Poland today?    In Krakow, there is one operating synagogue (Remuh) with a congregation of about 150.    Estimates of the number of people with Jewish roots who are still living in Poland run … Read More

By / September 22, 2009

So what is left of Jewish culture in Poland today?   

In Krakow, there is one operating synagogue (Remuh) with a congregation of about 150.    Estimates of the number of people with Jewish roots who are still living in Poland run into the tens of thousands, but very few of those actually identify with being Jewish.  Why is that?  I’m not entirely sure.  Some were probably never told of their roots or have lost the connection by living in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish society for so many generations.  On occasions when I have heard a young Pole talk about his or her Jewish grandmother (or Roma or Ukrainian grandmother for that matter), it doesn’t sound like either pride or shame; it’s presented as a benign curiosity, as if they are telling you they are double-jointed or have a twin. So without a significant Jewish population, is Poland ragingly anti-Semitic? I’m not Jewish, so of course, it could be possible that I’m just missing something.  But I think that in our world, it’s generally true that the worst prejudices reveal themselves behind closed doors, when people feel like they are among "their own kind."  I’ve been behind many closed doors in Poland, and I have to say that aside from a night at a bar where there was a group of skinheads (who also consider American expats a threat to the gene pool, by the way), I have never personally experienced anyone spewing hate.  (About Jews, I should add.  There is still plenty of bad blood for Germans, Russians, and Ukrainians to go around, and once in a while, I will hear a comment about Africans or Asians that makes me turn around and check which decade I’m living in.) This doesn’t mean that intolerance for Jews isn’t still out there skulking around.  I just googled and found a Polish-speaker out there spreading his venom on the Internet.  And as in other countries in Europe, every so often you’ll catch a whiff of the Zionist conspiracy theorists, the skinheads, the soccer hooligans and their bottomless cans of spray paint, and those who have just generally been brought up to hate.  The point is that the anti-Semites and the racists comprise a very small percentage of the population now, and they are generally disdained for their prejudices and thought of as uneducated.  In the case of the aforementioned venom-spreader, I found several successive threads from Poles tapping away at their keyboards, telling the first guy off for his ignorance.   Part of this is due to the political and economic and social changes the country has undergone in the past twenty years.  Today’s young Poles have been through a relatively modern school curriculum.  They have studied the history and literature of the Holocaust.  They have learned at least one other language.  About two million Poles have worked somewhere else in the E.U. in the past five years, and vacationing abroad is now much more common than it is among Americans.  To them especially, racism and anti-Semitism tend to be viewed as archaic and backwards.  

Added to that is the fact that over the past several years, Jewish culture has become…well, trendy.  The center of this phenomenon is the district of Kazimierz in Krakow.  Up until September of 1939, Kazimierz contained a thriving, self-governed Jewish community of over 60,000.  When I first arrived in Krakow in 1994, it was a neighborhood where it was best to watch your back if you were out at night.  Now, it’s the most expensive real estate market in the city, and a hub for hipsters, artists, expats, tourists and locals, who flock to the cafès and restaurants, most of which reflect the Jewish origins of the neighborhood in the food, music and decor.  Klezmer music has made its way into pop music and movie soundtracks.  Even in the case of those persistently ignorant soccer hooligans, part of the reason that the Cracovia squad is the subject of anti-Semitic chants and the ubiquitous "_yd" scribbled on the side of buildings is because, like Ajax in the Netherlands, Cracovia fans wear their team’s Jewish origins as a point of pride.   More significant changes have occurred as well.  In 1994, the old synagogue was a shell of a building, overgrown with weeds, and my friend and I had to convince a lone caretaker that we wanted to go inside.  Today it has been completely renovated, and houses a museum of Jewish culture, a central point for the constantly rotating schedule of Jewish festivals, concerts, art exhibits, educational programs, and cooperative cultural exchanges that take place throughout the city.  The other synagogues have been renovated as well.  New plaques and memorials have been erected.  Old cemeteries and memorials have been properly maintained, including, of course, the site of Auschwitz, which is about an hour and a half drive from Krakow.   Cynics and non-Polish-speakers might tell you that this Renaissance is just for the tourists.  But under the new facades and the event posters, there is an actual conversation going on.  Two, actually.  The first, an extensive collaboration between the Jewish and Polish organizations and individuals who have made this all happen, and the second, among Poles themselves.  As near as I can tell, it began in the late 80s with an article in a Catholic magazine urging Poles to take greater moral responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust, and it resurged in 2001, with Jan Gross’s book (Neighbors), about the 1941 pogrom in Jedwabne.  Many articles, forums, documentaries and books have followed.  The individual discussions open and close, but since the fall of communism, the accuracy of the historical record of the Holocaust and the war has been one of the major themes.   So although the permanent Jewish population in Poland is very small and not likely to increase any time soon, I still think that Poland serves a few crucial roles for Jews today.  First, to continue their collaborative role in preserving the physical sites and the documentation of the Nazi atrocities, and to continue to draw people from all corners of the globe to witness the past and reinforce the covenant to never forget.  Second, Poland, and especially Krakow in the last decade, has become a place for Jews and non-Jews to gather together for the celebration, revival and renewal of Eastern European Jewish culture.  And finally, the traces of Jewish existence in Poland and the holes that have been left in Polish society can now serve as tinder to start (or continue) important conversations, both within Poland and across borders.

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