On the eve of World War II, some 3 million Jews were living in Poland, making up between 10% and 20% of the population. A vibrant, creative and flourishing community, it published about 600 daily newspapers in Hebrew and Yiddish. It had 15 theater companies as well as countless political parties, spanning the gamut from the far right to the far left. Never before had Europe seen a bigger, more diverse, pulsating and creative Jewish community than the one in Poland. Barring the American Jewish community, which gathered most of its clout after the war, it is safe to say that Polish Jews formed the biggest and most powerful and glorious Jewish community throughout the history of Jewish life in the Diaspora. Poland’s Jews led a full life. Many of the cultural assets of the Jewish world germinated and flourished there, including the well-known term “shtetl,” the small Jewish towns in Eastern Europe.
Then the Nazis arrived. By the end of World War II, Poland had a few tens of thousands of Jews who managed to survive in the forests and other hiding places, in addition to the 250,000 that had escaped to Russian-held areas and then came back. Some 90% of this community was murdered in the crematoria and the concentration camps. It would be hard to describe what Polish Jewry would have looked like today had the Holocaust not taken place. It would be hard to describe Poland today, had its Jewish population not been taken away from it, together with other regions consisting of other ethnic groups. “Poland used to be a multinational, multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious country, and World War II robbed us of all of this,” Jacek Chodorowicz, the Polish ambassador to Israel, told me in a conversation we had in mid-October. The Polish people have lost the Jewish community, which was annihilated by the Nazis and their collaborators (among them many Poles). They have also lost the German and Ukrainian minorities that were annexed back to their countries. From being heterogeneous and diverse, Poland has turned into a homogenous and strictly Polish state. Some people love such processes. But the Poles, as it turns out, miss their Jews.
On Oct. 27, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski’s personal jet landed in Israel. He dispatched it to Israel as a special gesture by his government to fly Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, along with a beefed-up delegation and entourage, for a special visit to Warsaw. This was Rivlin’s first trip abroad as Israel’s president. Rivlin had an especially crowded schedule this week. On Oct. 27, the Israeli parliament began its winter session with a special address by Rivlin, and had the president taken a regular commercial flight, he would not have made it in time to attend the dedication of the new Jewish Museum in the city on Oct. 28. The Polish president decided to go out of his way and sent his jet to help his Israeli counterpart to negotiate this impossibly tight schedule.
One of every five Israelis is linked, in some way, to the culture of Polish Jewry — be it through blood relationship, marriage or some other personal connection. Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was born in Poland. So was former President Shimon Peres, who epitomizes the “ultimate Pole” in Israeli culture. Another famous Pole is late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Although he was born in White Russia (Belarus), Begin is considered a lofty Pole, given that he volunteered for Anders' Army, an exiled Polish military force that fought with the Allied Forces against the Nazis on the eastern front during World War II. Except for those born in Israel, almost all of Israel’s other prime ministers were born in Poland or its vicinities and raised in this rich environment of Jewish culture.
Inaugurated this week in Warsaw, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews stands out in the landscape of Jewish museums, monuments and memorial sites across Europe. For a change, this is not a museum commemorating the Holocaust. The Poles speak about this unabashedly: “It’s wrong to forget the Holocaust, but it’s unwise not to move on,” says Chodorowicz. “This museum sets out to commemorate 1,000 years of vibrant Jewish life in Poland — life of culture, commerce, trade and society. People forget that before the Holocaust there was a glorious and elaborate Jewish history in Poland.” According to Polish officials, it is high time to not only talk about how Jews died in Poland but also about what their life used to be like there. The Polish government and the Warsaw municipality donated the land and the impressive building that houses the museum. Located in the heart of the historic ghetto in Warsaw, it stands across from the monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis in 1943. It is also just steps away from the bunker where the leaders of that uprising — Mordechai Anielewicz and his people — were killed in 1943. “There are eight permanent galleries in the museum,” the ambassador says. “One of them is dedicated to the Holocaust. There is no attempt here to hide the Holocaust — on the contrary. But there are seven other galleries that feature the cultural wealth of millions of Jews who lived and thrived in Poland, and contributed to their own community and country.”
In recent years, there has been a sense of a revival of the Jewish community in Poland. Although only a few thousand Jews live there, the cultural wealth sets new records. Poland holds many annual Jewish culture festivals. Each year, the main festival in Krakow draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over Europe. Poland is inundated every year with tens of thousands of Israeli high school students and soldiers who come for visits in the setting of educational programs by the Ministry of Education and the Israel Defense Forces. They include visits to various concentration camps with the aim of etching the Holocaust in the memory of Israel’s young generation. These groups wash over Poland with huge Israeli flags, songs and great commotion, occasionally giving rise to anti-Semitic incidents. “The number of these incidents is steadily declining,” the ambassador said. “Compared with other countries like France and Germany, anti-Semitism in Poland is on a small scale. This is partly because we don’t have a large Jewish community and partly because there isn’t a large Muslim community either, so the potential for friction is low.”
“The real situation is quite the opposite,” Chodorowicz said. “There’s a great thirst by the Polish people to learn about Jewish culture. The revival of that culture here stokes great enthusiasm and is very positively embraced by most of the population.” As noted, the Polish government encourages this phenomenon and helps to promote it, while the government of Israel willingly cooperates. Rivlin’s visit to Warsaw this week reflects the growing cooperation between the two governments. Delivering the keynote address at the museum in Hebrew, Rivlin said: “As a Jew, even if you were not born in Poland, the mere mentioning of this name makes your body shudder and fills your heart with longing. This country was the bedrock of life for the soul of the Jewish nation, but to our regret, it also served as its largest Jewish cemetery. This is where the Jewish shtetl was born, and this is where it also died. … We will never be able to think of Poland with indifference. Even if Jews were cut off from Poland, it is hard or nearly impossible to cut Poland off from the Jews. One cannot erase such rich, full and so painful a history.”
It seems that today, nearly 70 years after the Holocaust and after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that symbolizes Jewish heroism against Nazi terror, and after the murder of millions, Israel and Poland are setting off to a fresh start. From Poland’s perspective, this is clearly an attempt to clear its conscience and turn over a new leaf in its relationship with the lost Jews. The Poles have a lot to be ashamed of when it comes to the Holocaust. Many of them enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis. But they also have something to be proud of: About a third of the Righteous among the Nations — those few who came to the rescue of Jews — were Polish. I believe that Chodorowicz phrased it rather well: It’s important to remember, but it’s equally important to move on.