Remembering the dismembered culture of Polish Jewry

If even a small amount of the cultural and spiritual testament of the victims live inside us, then perhaps it will be enough to carry on their living memories to the next generation.

April 16, 2015 11:37

The author's Jewish ancestors from Poland. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In recent years with the advancement of Holocaust research already reaching all regions and achieving permeation within Israeli society, we are beginning to drop off into a flat line in regard to public discourse.

To our peril, the vast majority of conversation today consists of the horrors of the Holocaust itself and the lessons to be gleaned solely from this one aspect. However important the study of the genocide and atrocities committed by the Third Reich is, the image that we receive often falls short of including a snapshot of Jewish life in Europe before the war.

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It goes without saying that it is important to remember and recall the events of the Holocaust and to derive from this the necessary lessons for us as a people. But the size of our loss as a people cannot be fully recognized without the knowledge of the size and scope of Jewish culture that was dismembered both before and during the war. As the circles of academically focused discourse grow and other circles are steadily eroded, the memory of the victims as flesh and blood who lived full, rich lives even on the eve of the Holocaust, fades away. Today’s youth delegations that routinely travel to Poland lack depth and lend to a public discourse that lacks urgency and relevance. There is no doubt that sending these delegations to see the camps carries with it an educational message of the first order. But in recent years, as large groups of Israeli youth flock to the camps armed with the only educational aspects they have been exposed to, that of the systematic extermination, they are missing a broad base of understanding of a now-extinct Jewish way of life as it was.

This point relates to all the Jews of Europe, but is especially relevant to Eastern European Jews, Poland being the best representative sample of Jewish culture on the eve of World War II. At the onset of the war there were approximately 3.5 million Jews in Poland, forming the largest Jewish community in Europe. The Jewish community there was molded by a distinct thousand-year history and cultural richness. It was not for nothing that Jabotinsky called the Jews of Poland- “the crown head of world Jewry.” It’s uniqueness among world Jewry was, at that point, at the core of its existence. It was a Jewish community consisting of Jews from all walks of life, truly representative of the various sects of Eastern European Jewry of the day.

Indeed, Jewish life in Poland between the two World Wars was characterized as the Golden Age, comprised of cultural situations unprecedented in our history and unlikely to be seen in our foreseeable future. The ideological spectrum that made up this vibrant community was larger than one would dare imagine. There was a strong culture of Orthodox Judaism that studied Torah and kept mitzvot and was divided into innumerable sects and schools of thought, the most prominent of which were the Hasidim, the Lithuanians who were the direct continuation of Rabbinic-Talmudic-based Judaism, and the “Mizrahi” camp.

Those tens of thousands of sons and daughters of Israel, who went to their deaths in the ghettos, fire pits, and gas chambers, gave their lives as true Jewish martyrs! And not just as a figure of speech.

Judaism is characterized by study, a full and meaningful interpretation of the codes of the “Shulchan Aroch,” and it is formed by its communities and synagogues. “Shtetyls,” each an autonomous community of a few thousand Jews, combined with secular Jews living in urban centers such as Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, and dozens of other cities formed Poland’s Jewish community. From the end of the 19th century up until the outbreak of World War II, Polish Jewry formed a cultural renaissance which was quite possibly the mightiest in our history. Jewish literary giants such as I.L. Peretz, Menele Mocher Sforim, and Sholem Aleichem, and others gained immense popularity. Theaters presented Yiddish and Hebrew works throughout Eastern Europe. Hundreds of Jewish newspapers were printed, representing a wide range of political ideologies. Young people were divided along the lines of Socialist Zionist movements like the “Hshomer HaTzair,” Beitar, Gordonia, HaHalutz, the “HaShomer HaLeumi” as well as a wide range of non-Zionist Nationalist movements, the largest and most important of which was the “Bund” socialists, who sought to maintain a Jewish cultural autonomy in Eastern Europe. The destruction of this great cultural tapestry was a loss to all the Jews of Europe.

A mighty institution, swallowed by fire. Half of those annihilated in the Holocaust, about 3 million, were among the Jews of Poland- men, women, and children. Similar wealth and diversity of culture was of coursed destroyed in Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany. It is unequivocally important to say that without a basic familiarity with the ways of life of the Jews of Europe before the war it is much more difficult to grasp the size of the loss and understand the term “Holocaust” to its full meaning.

A thousand-year-old Jewish culture came to a grinding halt and was eventually brought to extinction with the takeover of the Nazi beast in Europe. A thousand-year culture which influenced not only the Jewish people, but also had a large effect on general culture until 1939, came to an end in the pits and the death camps. We must remember this living, breathing culture that came to an end with the coming of the Holocaust. The underlying values of their Judaism, as they are in our Judaism, are fundamental to understanding these Jews and the ways they lived; scholarship, mutual responsibility, helping others, love of mankind, and repairing the world. These are the key elements for remembering those lost in Holocaust and for teaching the remembrance of the Holocaust to future generations. The more we talk to them, to remember and remind them, the deeper the understanding will be about the size of this loss. If even a small amount of the cultural and spiritual testament of the victims live inside us, then perhaps it will be enough to carry on their living memories to the next generation.

Dedicated in love to the families of my grandparents who perished in the Holocaust. The families of: Malberger, Englander, Gewandschneider, Kaleko, and Norman. May their memories be blessed.

Article by Itamar Aminoff Translated by Jason Barnett

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