Auschwitz 300 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Growing up Orthodox in Brooklyn, New York, I had images of Poland as being
filled primarily with small villages where Jews once made up a large percentage
of the population but are now all but gone. People of my generation were also
given to the impression that these villages were filled with extremely religious
Christians who still believe in blood libels and blame the Jews for the death of
Jesus. I recently took my first trip to Poland and have had my eyes
In place of the tiny villages filled with anti-Semites of all
stripes, there are large, charming cities such as Krakow, Wroclaw and Warsaw,
places with modern, Western- style economies and where people were fascinated
when they learned I was from Israel. Far from being anti-Semitic, these people
would go out of their way to make me and my traveling companion feel
Poland today seems to be undergoing something of a
transformation. While the country is virtually bereft of its Jews (estimates
today range from 3,500 to as many as 15,000 though pre-World War II, there were
3.3 million) it seems to wish to explore and remember what once was.
Krakow, the Jewish quarter is almost like the Disneyland of Judaism. At least a
dozen restaurants had Yiddish names and many even had menus in
Klezmer music can be heard playing at many of these places and
yet not one of the restaurants is kosher or even owned by a Jew. It is as if the
Polish people want to experience the Judaism that existed in the past but
because there are not enough Jews to help them do it, the Poles have recreated
it for themselves.
It is easy to dismiss this renaissance as nostalgia
for the past in the same way that someone who grew up Orthodox but has since
left the fold might still have fond memories of chulent and kugel on Shabbat.
However, it seems to be something more than that. For example, the University of
Wroclaw in Western Poland recently decided to expand its Jewish Studies
department. This in and of itself is interesting and
However, what is even more fascinating is that there is not
a single professor in the department who is Jewish.
The professors there
all came together based on a shared need to learn about and understand the
Polish Jewish experience and then pass on their newly acquired knowledge to
Another interesting development was the opening just last month
of a museum of the Jewish shtetl in a tiny town in the Polish countryside. The
museum was created by a local parish priest and is dedicated to remembering the
Jews who were there and to recognizing that there is at least some Polish
responsibility for the fate of Polish Jewry.
However, the most bizarre
and eye opening experience for me had to be my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The
site has become synonymous with the Holocaust because it is one of the few death
camps that is still largely intact. The fact that Auschwitz is largely intact
has led to a strange confluence of experiences.
On the one hand, the
museum and the remaining buildings of the camp have educated millions of people
around the world about the horrors of the Nazi extermination effort. On the
other hand, like Krakow’s Jewish quarter, the camp, in attempting to teach so
many, necessarily ends up seeming less than what it should be.
numerous concession stands offering cold drinks and snacks along with a book
store filled with Chinesemade souvenirs, the place almost takes on the feeling
of a tourist trap, as opposed to a somber memorial. A good way to illustrate how
this seems to have affected the experience at the camp is to mention that our
tour group included a family who came with their daughter, a little girl who
couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. My traveling companion, who
is studying at Haifa University for his master’s in Holocaust Studies found this
in and of itself disturbing.
He felt that children so young should not be
brought to the death camp because they could not possibly understand what it’s
However, what was truly disturbing for me and indeed for both of
us was the cavalier way in which this family conducted itself. They took family
photos in front of all the most horrible places in the camp, including the
crematoria and gas chambers. The two of us also looked on aghast as mother and
daughter sat down and posed with huge smiles on their faces on the railroad
tracks next to the platform in Birkenau, the place where more than one million
men, women and children came to be sorted and then exterminated.
short, it seems that Poland is much more complex and much more interested in
preserving and presenting its Jewish past than many of us ever realized. That
said, one can only hope that some effort can be made to avoid the Disneyesque
feeling that one gets from some of the efforts to preserve Jewish culture in a
place with such a complex history.
The author is a freelance writer and
journalist based in Haifa. He can be reached for comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.