Out of the Display Case
Will Polish Jewry be anything more than a novelty in the 21st century? by Ethan S. Burger 14 March 2007
In October, I was in Warsaw to present a paper at a conference on Belarus. I had one free night, so I decided to attend Shabbat services. Initially, I thought to visit the Nozyk Synagogue, the only one in Warsaw from the pre-Shoah days that is fully active; other synagogues have been restored and are used for special events but are essentially memorials. I ended up attending services at Beit Warszawa, the first congregation in Warsaw to be founded since 1939.
Throughout the world, many Jews ponder whether there should and can be an active Jewish community in Poland. Some of them regard Poland as a huge cemetery of the Jewish people; others treat the country as a kind of museum. For a large share of world Jewry, Poland is the European land of origin. This raises the question: Can a Jewish community survive and even thrive in Poland?
It would be an understatement to say that it is difficult in a few words to summarize Jewish history in Poland. In the minds of many, Poland is a land full of anti-Semites – even now when the Jewish community is thought to number fewer than 30,000. Ironically, today many Polish Catholics are discovering that hidden in their lineage are Jewish roots, family secrets that were never discussed in the past. Some of these people are interested in learning more about that aspect of their own and their country's history. But without an expansion of the Jewish community in Poland, it is reasonable to wonder whether it can survive. Indeed, many Jews believe that all of Jewry should be living in Israel, or at least in safe democracies like Australia, Britain, Canada, or the United States.
POLISH JEWS, JEWISH POLES
Nearly a thousand years ago, many Jews came to Poland on the urging of Polish monarchs who hoped to stimulate the country's economy. Many Jews who arrived fled oppression elsewhere in Europe. Poland was a vital sanctuary for the Jewish people. At the same time Jews played a vital role in the development of the Polish economy. Jews came to make up one in 10 of the population that inhabited the Polish lands, but a much higher percentage in its urban centers. Krakow, Vilna (Vilnius), and Warsaw became major centers of Jewish culture and scholarship.
While not without difficult times and by no means generally prosperous, over much of their common history in Poland, the Jews were largely accepted by their Catholic neighbors, despite episodes of tension born of economic and other factors. When Poland re-emerged as an independent country after World War I and had to fight for survival against Soviet Russia, Jews fought alongside Catholic Poles to repel the Bolsheviks.
Poland between the wars was a heterogeneous country, with large German, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Jewish, and other communities. Identity among members of the Jewish communities was heterogeneous as well. While the largest group probably comprised Yiddish speakers who might be labeled "Polish Jews," others might be more properly characterized as "Jewish Poles." Not a few Jews intermarried with non-Jews or converted to Catholicism (and at times Protestantism or Orthodoxy).
With the spread of fascism across Central Europe, Poland, too, adopted rules restricting certain rights of Jews that had been in place for centuries. Yet the threat to Polish soil again brought members of all faiths together. Jews served in Polish partisan units, and while there were entirely Jewish anti-Nazi units, many of which did not have good relations with certain Polish Catholic partisans, some Jews fought valiantly in the Polish Home Army's rising against the Nazis in 1944, a year after the Germans had obliterated the Warsaw Ghetto.
Yad Vashem honors more Poles among the righteous than any other nationality, but then Poles had more contact with large numbers of Jews than any other country occupied by the Nazis. By the war's end only about 450,000 of the 3.5 million Jews in Poland had survived the Shoah. A large share of this group sought to establish new lives in Palestine. Others, after initially seeking to re-establish lives in Poland, reconsidered their decision in light of the postwar situation, typically deciding to emigrate to Britain, France, Israel, or the United States. Still others chose to remain in Poland, usually giving up or hiding their Jewish identity.
A source of tension in the postwar era was that the Soviets recruited into the secret police a number of Jews who had been in concentration camps or lived out the war in exile in the Soviet Union. In the minds of many Poles, who had perhaps forgotten that the first Bolshevik secret police chief, Felix Dzerzhinsky, was a Pole, the Jewish survivors were now allies of the Soviet Russian occupiers. In any event, in a new wave of anti-Semitism in 1968, most of the remaining Jewish community in Poland left the country.
Is anybody home? Interior of the Wlodawa, Poland synagogue. Photo by Jurek Durczak - Creative Commons licensed
Polish attitudes toward Jews and the Jewish community itself changed significantly with the end of the Cold War in 1989. Suddenly, there was a mini-explosion of interest of the history of the Jews in Poland. At the same time, the Polish patriarch of the Catholic Church revolutionized the church's stance toward Judaism. John Paul II declared anti-Semitism a sin, was the first pope to visit Israel (where he renewed ties with childhood friends), and established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel.
This is not to suggest that all outstanding issues between the state and the Jewish community in Poland have been resolved. While Jewish communal property has been returned, little progress has been made in resolving private restitution claims. This is a complex matter not only because the westward shift of the borders of Poland after World War II meant that much property once owned by Polish Jews was now located in Belarus, Ukraine and elsewhere, but also because the absence of records, the passage of time, and the change of regimes makes the task difficult and potentially politically explosive.
At the same time, Polish-Israeli bilateral relations are excellent. Poland almost always votes with Israel at the UN and sent peacekeeping troops after last year's Israeli incursion into Lebanon. Most Poles support the concept of a strong Israel, perhaps because its survival means that Jews will not be returning to Poland in large numbers.
Polish governments consistently seek to cement the country's position in the West. Poland is now a member of the European Union. But it tends to stand with the United States on most major foreign policy issues including Afghanistan and Iraq, and has sent troops to both countries as part of the U.S.-led coalition. Perhaps Polish politicians recognize that for relations with Washington to be successful, their country must be viewed as a friend by American Jewry.
Yes, Poland hosts Jewish festivals and governments go out of their way to squelch manifestations of anti-Semitism and encourage dialogue among faiths, promote the study of Jewish culture, and lure Jewish tourists and investment. But these activities will not lead to a resurgent Jewish community in Poland.
Although controversial both in Israel and Germany, in recent years Germany established policies to facilitate and financially support the emigration of Jews to Germany, even those with no ties to the country. German policy in this area, going far beyond the mere payment of reparations, is a significant development in the unfinished reconciliation process.
Today about 250,000 Jews live in Germany. Granted, this is not a huge number, fewer than the number of Jews who live in the greater Washington, D.C., area, but the gradual return of Jews to Germany is proof of the country's honest efforts to put the past behind it. In 2004, a year when 11,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union went to Israel, almost twice as many emigrated to Germany. Concerned about the numbers of Jews choosing not to come to Israel, the Israeli government made its anxiety known, and in 2005 Germany instituted unprecedented measures limiting immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to those who are under 45, fluent in German, and financially stable.
As political and human rights conditions worsen in Russia and Central Asia, there is a new source of potential emigrants from the former Soviet Union. This group tends to be less educated than prior Jewish emigres. They may be reluctant to move to Israel, may have difficulty getting permission to emigrate to the United States, and apart from new hurdles to emigrating to Germany, many might not want to live there for emotional reasons.
If Poland wished to get serious about facilitating a new Jewish community, politicians might consider adopting immigration policies similar to those in place for some years in Germany, still an attractive destination in spite of the new, tougher law in place since 2005. No one knows how many Jews might be interested. It could be only several hundred. It could be tens of thousands.
Of course, there would be significant political and psychological obstacles for any Polish government to adopt a comparable policy. Unemployment remains high in Poland, and the Polish government lacks the financial resources to establish a potentially expensive resettlement program. Yet if Poland really desired to demonstrate its commitment to democratic values and human rights, it might consider such a step.
There might be certain long-term benefits to increasing the number of Jews in Poland. An influx of population from the Soviet Union’s successor states might offset the exodus of Poles to Britain, France, Germany, and other EU states in search of a better material life. It could serve as the basis for the further strengthening political and economic ties between Poland and Israel.
Poland historically has been a sanctuary for the Jewish people. Poland has an opportunity to move beyond symbolism in reconfirming its ties to the Jewish people. While there may be considerable domestic opposition at first, true statesmen might see the benefits, both moral and practical, in opening Poland's doors to Jewish settlers. After all, the precedent goes back nearly a thousand years.