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.
In Warsaw, there’s not only a Yiddish language newspaper, but a Jewish theater in which non-Jews also participate. Kosher food can also be found in Poland for observant Jews.
As a lifelong Jew, I myself found no semblance of anti-Semitism. I traveled to Poland in February with three nephews, two of whom were dressed in traditional Chassidic garb, with beards and side-locks. We traveled all over Eastern Europe, even to two small towns to visit the graves of our ancestors, and we were never even given strange looks. We stopped at local gas stations and supermarkets all along the way and found only courtesy.
In one Polish small town near Warsaw called Ozarow, the cemetery which houses several dozen of my ancestors is taken care of by a local non-Jewish townsperson, without any charge. He has a key to the cemetery, as does the mayor of the town. A sign on the cemetery gate states that anyone who wants to visit the cemetery can call him or the mayor. My nephews and I visited the cemetery at night without any negative incident at all. One nephew who said he’s visited Poland about two dozen times said he’d never encountered an anti-Semitic incident.
There actually is now a great respect — even a pride — among Polish non-Jews for the great Jewish rabbis and famous Jews of Poland’s past. My Polish guide in Krakow took me on a tour of the Jewish area and proudly pointed out the Reform synagogue and took me to the 16th century Orthodox Ramu synagogue. When she found out that I was a direct descendent of the Ramu she expressed a respectful wonder. She also pointed out the apartment that Helena Rubinstein had grown up in and the homes of other famous Polish Jews who had come from Krakow.
The area was lively and Jewish signs were clearly visible. A huge menorah dominates one building. Now 200 Orthodox families belong to the Ramu synagogue. She also told me that every year a huge Jewish arts festival is held in Krakow.
In Lublin the Jewish population which had once been half the city now has an extremely small amount of Jews, or so I was told by a member of the tourist bureau. There was nevertheless a Jewish restaurant in the Old City which played Yiddish music and served Israeli wines, but was not kosher.
The city of Lublin has erected a tallm elegant memorial lamp in the area which had once been the Jewish quarter, to remember the Jews of Lublin. It is lit 24 hours per day and stands as a reminder of the slain Jews of Lublin. The nearby concentration camp of Majdanek is a grim reminder of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jewish population of Lublin. It is completely intact with the barbed wire, sentry posts, crematorium, and barracks — looking as if it were just abandoned. It is a must to visit.
Within the walls of the Old City is an office devoted to the history and culture of the pre-war and post-war life of the Jews of Lublin, so visitors can learn about it.
Probably one of the most impressive buildings in Lublin is the Chachmei Lublin building. Before the war it housed 500 Yeshiva students. Now in the huge building there is a museum and a Jewish hotel called the Ilan (in Hebrew, the tree). In winter, you can get a room for two and a kosher breakfast for only $53.
There are about fifteen synagogues that are open for prayer in Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, and other cities.
Despite all of this positive attitude towards the Jews and the Jewish heritage in Poland there is a potential set-back. As the Jewish Chronicle reported, “The current Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), is about to pass a legal amendment that threatens to prosecute anyone in the world who accuses Poles or the Polish nation of participating — even partly — in the crimes committed by Germans on occupied Polish soil during the Holocaust.”
While Poland will most probably never have the same richness of Jewish life it once had in the small towns (known as shtetls) or its once huge population, it does seem to now appreciate the Polish Jewish culture, and is trying to keep it alive in one way or another.