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.