Traditionally, Zionism rested on a foundation of mass, lethal Jew hatred, with Polish-anti-Semitism as a central building block. Today, with a thriving Jewish state, and most Jews living in freedom, Zionists should be secure enough to move beyond justifying a Jewish state through Jew-hatred. Zionism is now about perfecting our state, and embracing it, wherever we live, as a vehicle for Jewish self-fulfillment, individually and collectively. Zionists now face a test: are we confident enough to acknowledge new realities, including the new Poland that supports Israel and has many non-Jews engaging Poland’s Jewish heritage?
“Why are you going there?” my uncle asked just days before my recent – first ever -- trip to Poland, reminding me that the Nazis murdered 700 Jews from his father’s village in the nearby forest in 1941.
I understood his concern. I grew up believing Poland was one big Jewish graveyard. My grandfather, Leon Gerson, who fled the Polish army and Poland in 1918, hated Poland. He denied even knowing Polish. His Polish Jewish narrative described a people apart repeatedly victimized by hooligans. Even though I was visiting his village to honor his memory by seeing what he saw, he too would have condemned my visit.
I realized that I learned to view German anti-Semitism as highbrow and Polish anti-Semitism as lowbrow. Germans were the sophisticated, enlightened killers, mass-producing murdering with lethal efficiency; Poles were the peasant vulgarians, unibrowed, square-jawed, dull-eyed, killing more personally. Germany’s anti-Semitism showed how brutish enlightened people could be; Poland’s anti-Semitism showed how brutish brutes could be.
Visiting Stawiski darkened my mood. After centuries of Jewish life, the village was now Judenrein, Jew-free. The Nazis succeeded. My grandfather’s birth records were burned. The synagogue was razed. Even the cemetery was destroyed. The only tangible marker I found was that marker in the forest, where 700 Jews died in July, 1941.
My visits to Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau confirmed the bleakness. The night I left a friend dropped off an envelope instructing me to open it in Poland. It contained dirt she had collected from the flowerpots in front of our home in Jerusalem. As I sprinkled this dirt on Treblinka’s stone markers and Auschwitz’s train tracks, the gesture made me think that Jewish life in Israel was flourishing like our colorful Jerusalem geraniums, but in these sterile death pits, the rich soil became dead dirt.
This depressing narrative is the standard approach to Poland. I grew up on it. I was living it in Poland. I felt what my Birthright colleague Dr. Zohar Raviv calls the “presence of absence” – until I started meeting young Poles – and young Polish Jews.
Today’s Poland is not my grandfather’s Poland. It is a liberated democracy that has changed its approach to Jews. “Poland is not our enemy anymore,” insisted an educator at the extraordinary new Polish Jewish museum – emphasizing 1,000 years of Jewish culture. “Poland has become Israel’s best friend in Europe because we understand Jewish suffering – and we appreciate our special relationship with the Jews,” my tour guide named Yakub, a non-Jew going out with a non-Jewish woman named Esther, explained.
Many young Poles understand that Jews constituted ten percent of the population before World War II. They are embarrassed by historic Polish anti-Semitism, horrified by the Holocaust, and traumatized by decades of Communism. The young non-Jewish Poles I met – many of whom are studying Jewish studies, learning Yiddish, working for Jewish organizations – explained they were embracing Jewish culture to “fill the void.” “I want to see Jewish culture from the inside,” one young woman explained. “This is our answer to Communism and Nazism,” said another.
These Poles were rebuilding not just repenting; pioneering a new, vibrant Polish culture that fuses the elements in Poland’s mosaic, including Jewish culture.
And that is why 20,000 people – mostly non-Jews – sing, dance, clap and hum at the annual Jewish culture festival in magical, medieval Krakow. And that is why so many other manifestations of Jewish culture are popping up, especially in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, which in 1939 were more Jewish in population and orientation than New York has ever been.
This enthusiasm is contagious – and has fueled a Polish Jewish revival triggered by young Jews. Young Polish Jews are exploring their roots, discovering their Jewish ancestry, and launching their own Jewish journeys. Hearing how these once-modern Marranos, hiding or unaware of their pasts, became Jewish activists and change agents, was inspiring. It is a great Jewish story. Without ignoring Auschwitz, and without Poland’s surviving anti-Semites, Jews are doing Jewish in Poland again, openly, proudly, freely.
Polish Jews are writing a new chapter in Jewish history, bringing color back to a story that for too long has been told only in black and white. Their story uncovers 1000 years of life while charting an admittedly uncertain future. Poland’s Jews are rebuilding – and starting to inspire the rest of us.
These are Jews – I heard repeatedly – who don’t take their Judaism for granted, but see it as a gift. Most of these Jews are not religious but deeply Jewish. These Jews can teach their peers – in Israel and abroad – that young people generated many Jewish transformations – from Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, to the Ghetto uprising in 1940s, to the Resistance to Communism in the 1980s -- and that Judaism thrives best when you take responsibility for your own Jewish journey rather than feeling guilted into it by your parents.
My trip to Poland broadened my Jewish narrative. I arrived in Poland wondering why those anti-Semites had never apologized for their crimes. I left wondering whether we as Zionists were ready to accept the New Poland’s tshuva, repentance, and help these young Poles pioneer an exciting, meaningful future.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and the Chairman of the Birthright Israel International Education Committee. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!