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Poland Reveres Its Jewish History and Population, Anti-Semitism Is Nowhere to Be Seen

As a lifelong Jew, I found no anti-Semitism when I visited Poland this February. Instead, this Eastern European country reveres its Jewish history and population, promoting historic sites and preserving Jewish culture.

The Jewish people have been part of Poland for hundreds of years, since the tenth century, when they were invited to live in Poland to use their skills of commerce. Special laws protected them, and many Jews from Western European countries, where they were persecuted, came to Poland. Chassidism, a very important movement in Judaism, had its roots here. Up until World War II the Jewish culture in Poland was thriving.

World War II ended the lives of millions of Jews in Poland. The majority of the death camps and concentration camps were built here. But, as one Lublin resident put it, “the camps were built by the Germans, and not the Polish people. In fact many non-Jewish Poles were incarcerated in the camps as well.” In Yad Vashem in Israel, trees are planted for those that tried to save the Jews. There are many trees planted for Polish people who did just that.

However, because of the war, the Jewish population in Poland was decimated. Today, only a small remnant of that population lives here. The figures are murky, but perhaps twenty thousand live here now, predominately in Warsaw and in Krakow. Some of the Jewish population had converted to Catholicism.

Many Jews suspect anti-Semitism is rife in Poland. There are some Jews, like a cousin of mine, who would never visit Poland because he feels that too many Jews were killed on its soil. A Holocaust survivor said she would never return to its blood-soaked grounds. Apparently during the war, there were Polish non-Jews who turned against their Jewish neighbors. There was the horrifying instance of a town where the non-Jewish half murdered the Jewish half.

There were also a few years of anti-Semitism after the war, and horrific attacks on Jews, but at this point there seems to be not only an acceptance of Jews within Poland, but an actual attempt to preserve the Jewish past and its culture. One of the best award-winning museums in Europe is the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, visited by Jews and non-Jews from Poland and across the world.

Jewish sites are preserved wherever possible and many of the tourist attractions are not just the infamous camps, but also the pre-war synagogues and historic Jewish places. The Polish tourist bureau lists and promotes these historic Jewish sites. Before the war, there were several hundred synagogues, many of them made out of wood. Now about 250 remain, many used for purposes other than prayer. About fifteen houses of prayer are open in various parts of the country.