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June 5, 2019 8:14 am

Whither ‘Poland’s Jewish Renaissance’?

avatar by Harold Brackman


Jews from all over the world participate in the “March of the Living,” seen at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marks annual Holocaust Memorial Day on April 16, 2015. Photo: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90.

In 2015, after the massacres at Charlie Hebdo’s offices and a Paris kosher supermarket, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “If 100,000 Jews leave France, France will no longer be France.”

President Emmanuel Macron has also tried to make amends for continuing antisemitic outbursts by reinforcing the national outcry: “Enough!” But in 2018, the President of the Confederation of Jews in France sadly predicted: “In a few decades, there will be no Jews in France.”

My focus is not the ongoing aliyah of French Jews to Israel or their immigration to the US, but the Quixotic attempt to encourage a movement east to Poland. Polin in Hebrew etymology means “here shalt thou lodge.”

After the medieval and early modern expulsions of Jews from England, France, Spain, and parts of Italy and Germany, Poland became the center of European Jewish life. Despite antisemitism, especially promoted by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community of Poland-Lithuania achieved economic dynamism, a last flowering of Kabbalah, new religious creativity among the Hasidic movement, Jewish self-government through the kehilla system, and Jews fighting for Poland in both the anti-Russian Revolutions of 1831 and 1863.

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Though the world of the pre-World War II shtetls will never be revived, Holocaust survivors have tried to replant Jewish roots in newly-independent Poland starting in the 1990s. Beit Warsawza, a Reform synagogue, was founded in 1995. The Galicia Jewish Museum was inaugurated in 2004. The museum joined the Auschwitz Jewish Center to create the exhibition, “Polish Heroes,” focusing on the Polish Righteous Among the Nations.

But after the 2006 Lebanon War, a Pew poll showed 36 percent of Poles are antisemitic, with only Spain’s percentage higher.

The hopes for a Polish Jewish Renaissance have declined with the rise of Poland’s political right — the ruling Law and Justice Party, Fidesz, and other extremist movements. According to the ADL, Poland harbors the fifth highest number of skinheads after Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the US.

Poland’s Law and Justice Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, a former banker, was recorded making antisemitic remarks about “greedy … Americans, Jews, Germans, Englishmen, and Swiss” who run hedge funds. In 2018, when this tape surfaced, Morawiecki doubled down by equating some Jewish Holocaust survivors with Poland’s Nazi collaborators. More recently, he stated that restitution to Polish Jews for property stripped from their families as a result of the Holocaust and then nationalized by Poland’s communist government would be “a victory for Hitler.” In contrast, successive Polish governments have approved restitution to the Catholic Church for property seized both during and after World War II. Participants in large antisemitic demonstrations have called Jews demanding restitution “hyenas.”

The Law and Justice regime also prosecuted for libel Jan T. Gross, a historian with a Jewish father, who now teaches in the US, because his controversial scholarship has emphasized Polish antisemitism during and after World War II. The Simon Wiesenthal Center accused the Polish government of “a political witch hunt” against Gross. Poland’s new law criminalizing any mention of complicity of “the Polish nation” in the crimes of the Holocaust was passed in January 2018, despite international protests, especially from Israel. Over half of Poles believes that Polish Christians, not Jews, suffered more during World War II.

All this in a country where the prime minister criticizes “Jewish perpetrators of the Holocaust,” puts flowers on the graves in Germany of Poles who fought for Hitler, purges Poland’s Auschwitz Museum of respected Jewish staff, and establishes a new museum — touted as “the Polish Yad Vashem” — that whitewashes as “martyrs” Polish antisemites during World War II.

A regressive, repressive political environment is causing “Poland’s Jewish Renaissance” to wither on the vine.

The Polish government is still not officially anti-Israel. But Jews and Judaism thrive most in democratic, tolerant countries. Poland is far from this.

Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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