When I was young, growing up as a member of a small Jewish community in a rural town, about 45 minutes out of Savannah, GA, my only recollection of the history of Poland was Fort Pulaski and Pulaski, GA, named for Casimir Pulaski, a Polish soldier who served as an American General during the Revolutionary War and died at the Battle of Savannah.
Then, I grew up, moved to Chicago and married into a Polish Jewish family that had emigrated during the 1960s. My knowledge of Poland was still poor at the time, but the overall feedback I had heard from other Jews was that Poland is terribly anti-Semitic and that there are no Jews left. My husband is unusual in that he still has family in Poland and has visited before a few times as a child.
I had an opportunity to visit Poland a few weeks ago with a small delegation of Jews from around the country with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Polish nonprofit with the mission of eradicating anti-Semitism and encouraging Polish-Jewish dialog. I was struck by how westernized the country is. It’s been over two decades since Communism fell and it is a different country than one envisions under the Cold War or after WWII and is not much different than visiting France or another central European country.
The Forum hosted us in an intense week of reviewing Polish-Jewish history, meeting with teens in a small town who are learning about their town’s once thriving Jewish population, touring Auschwitz and introducing us to Jews in Poland. We quickly learned that there would be no Poland as it is today without the influence of 900 years of Jews. For most Eastern European Jews, Poland is their place of origin (Poland’s borders often changed, so Russia is often substituted for Poland as a result).
None of the interactions surprised me until we met Jews who lived there. You will find a few Americans who have chosen to live in Poland and have become leaders in the Polish Jewish community. I met an Israeli who loves it and would not live anywhere else. But, more commonly, you might meet a young person in their twenties who discovers their Jewish roots on one or both sides of their families by accident as a teen. They might ask their grandfather who omitted sharing the information as they were growing up, but confirms it now when asked. This secretiveness is indicative of the older generation who has had to be silent to survive. But for today’s upcoming generation, there is an opportunity for openness and conversation that has never existed before. The question is whether we, as American Jews, are ready for this?
As a Jewish child growing up in the South, I became accustomed to addressing questions that might be considered offensive to some, but demonstrated the need for education to me. As a member of the Chicago Jewish community, I find that the more of us that live together in the community, the fewer of us often want to take the time to address questions by outsiders. In many ways, we have become very insular as a result of our growing numbers.
Now, Poland is at a crossroads and we have the chance to support those who are coming back to their ancestral roots and to help a country confronting its history. After the trip, I felt drawn closer to Israel because the connections between Poland and Israel are so deeply rooted in history and the Diaspora. I have to admit that I loved visiting Poland and that I came out of it with a sense of optimism, even as I lit a candle at Auschwitz. I hope that I can share this with my daughter as she confronts her family history.