Why the AJC Is Going to Poland
I grew up in a home that was hardly pro-Polish. Poland was seen as a country where antisemitism was historically widespread, and — at times — lethal.
So how did I go from such a home to leading a global Jewish organization that is at the forefront of writing a new chapter in Polish-Jewish relations? And how would my family feel about the fact that, in late March, more than 100 American Jewish Committee (AJC) leaders from across the United States will gather to celebrate the opening of our newest office — AJC Central Europe — in Poland’s capital?
As I tried to understand my own evolution, I realized that there were four factors that shaped my shifting engagement with Poland.
The first was World War II. While I was born after the war ended, it has heavily shaped my outlook on life — both because my entire family was engulfed in it, and because it became a universal morality tale, where the forces of good and evil did battle.
And how could one understand the war without grasping Poland’s central place during those fateful years of 1939-1945? The more I studied the war, the more I began to appreciate that, though woefully outmatched by the Nazi German forces, Poland fought valiantly against the aggressor, far more so than many other European nations.
I also learned that even after defeat and occupation, Poland’s resistance movement — which was impressively detailed in Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State — was unrivaled in Europe for its organization and effectiveness.
And speaking of Jan Karski, I came to idolize this wartime hero and underground courier for his efforts to alert a largely indifferent world to the fate of European Jews at the hands of the Third Reich.
I also readily admit that when I was younger, I couldn’t quite grasp the distinction between “Nazi German death camps in Poland” and “Polish death camps” — perhaps because of that earlier childhood association of Poland . On my first visit to a death camp, however, this distinction became abundantly clear.
That’s not to say that I lost track of the long history of Polish antisemitism during and after the war (as evidenced by Jan Gross’ powerful account of the massacre at Jedwabne), but it became part of a larger, more complex picture.
Second, my mother and her family were refugees from the Soviet Union. Our home was fiercely anti-Communist, a place where Yalta became a symbol of Western capitulation to Soviet designs in Eastern Europe — especially in Poland.
I grew to admire the Polish spirit — especially as a Polish Pope, John Paul II, deftly challenged the Kremlin and kept alive the Polish yearning for freedom. At the same time, the Polish opposition helped lead the way to the fateful events of 1989-1991.
Third, my family taught me about the gift of democracy, something that perhaps can only be truly understood by those who have been denied its blessings. As Poland emerged from the darkness of Soviet control, I was rooting for its success as a nation finally able to chart its own destiny, connect with its European neighbors and rediscover its Jewish past.
And, to its credit, Poland quickly became a success story. True, the transition was not easy — and in some ways it continues today, as it does in other post-Communist countries. Shedding decades of a state-run economy, secret police, rampant corruption and programmed minds takes years, if not generations, but Poland has in so many ways been an impressive leader in charting the path forward.
Fourth, I found myself — as a Jew — increasingly identifying with something quite intangible about Poland.
To many Jews, this may sound strange. But, as I came to discover, there is something in the spirit of the Polish nation that is quite familiar to me.
Perhaps it is best expressed in the embodiment of two sovereign countries — Poland and Israel — that today enjoy a strategic partnership.
Poland disappeared from the world map for 123 years — from 1795 to 1918, but the Polish people never lost their yearning for statehood, or the political, literary and military symbols of that burning desire.
And thus the Polish people have a deeper grasp of the precariousness of life, the significance of nationhood and the vagaries of human behavior.
Frankly, the same could be said of Israel and the Jewish people. We, too, have PhD’s in history — not necessarily from great universities, but rather from the experience of life itself. We know that Israel’s security is only assured if we take threats seriously, and don’t suffer from a failure of imagination. And we know that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and independence.
It is therefore,with anticipation and excitement that the AJC will be opening our newest office in Warsaw.
And perhaps most important for me, I think my family understands why we are establishing roots in Poland. Rather than allowing ourselves to be captives of history, we seek to be authors of the future, with its liberating possibilities.
David Harris is the CEO of the AJC (www.ajc.org).