Remember Poland for the Jewish haven it once was, not for its antisemites

“Holocaust,” “the hellish inferno of Europe,” “Shoah,” and “6 million” are loaded terms. No single word or drash will ever fill the emptiness and brokenness, the void left in the wake of the Shoah. Personal stories give voice to the victims and transmit much-needed emotional connections from one generation to the next. They also transmit history. However—as a rabbinical student, someone with a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide studies, and a student of history—I deeply fear that the Holocaust not only took away our families and loved ones but also murdered our historical bond and lineage in Europe.
My generation faces reconciling the survival, preservation, and continuity of our indigenous history to Europe. What makes the Holocaust so powerful is that it has not only diminished our people but also threatened to extinguish the product of nearly 1,000 years of development: a Jewish culture indigenous to Europe, a native history of Jews to the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.
Today Poland is the punch line of many of our jokes. Poland’s reputation as a Jew-hating haven has echoed internationally. Recently, Poland moved to legislate against the identification of Polish complicity and involvement in the Holocaust, rabbis—in a rare uniform agreement across movements, from Rick Jacobs to the Orthodox Union’s advocacy center—were swift in making public announcements condemning the Polish legislation. Poland’s move was insensitive and challenged historical reality.
However, this story involves more than the shallow waters of modernity. Am Yisrael’s connection to Poland runs deep. Poland has imprinted its name upon my last name: “Polin” reveals the words Poh and lin, meaning “dwell here.” According to Jewish legend, a divine voice revealed Poland’s name to exiled Jews arriving in the land. My name also bears a reminder that my family, at one time or another, resided in Poland. Poland was once home to 80% of the world’s Jewry.
As such, Gershon Hundert, an expert on Polish Jewry, identifies Poland as the primacy of East European Jewry. Hundert—along with other academics of Eastern European Jewry, including Michael Stienlauf—center the Jewish experience in Europe on Poland. Either academic would attest to the origins of Ashkenazi Jews in Germany, but both suggest that the experience in Poland redefined Ashkenazi Jewry. In many ways the 2 communities developed differently. As Hundert notes, Yiddish in Poland developed differently, adopting Polish and Russian words.[1] The Yiddish words tata and mame are likely familiar to some of us here today, but they are also Polish.
By the period of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, less than 10% of Poland’s Jewish population could be accounted for in Germany.[2] Contributing to Hundert’s arguments, Michael Steinlauf suggests that the tendency to overshadow the Jewish experience in the East by contrasting it to the Jewish experience in the West is suggestive of a Germanocentric narrative that extends well into a post-Holocaust period that involves many Holocaust reading materials, memorials, and museums. In his controversial essay entitled “Jews and Emancipation,” another academic, Salo Baron, also contributes to the argument of Polish primacy by noting that the Jewish population in the Europe grew exponentially, at a significantly steeper rate than that of its Christian counterpart. Hundert later expanded upon this idea, and he attributes the population growth to the favorable conditions for the Jews in Poland.
Poland was not always the hub of anti-Semitism and racism it became known for in modernity. Favorable conditions led to tremendous developments and cultural accomplishments for Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. The favorable conditions that allowed the population boom of Polish Jewry are expansive. Hundert provides economic, social, political, and explanations for the growth of Polish Jewry. In 1746, a Christian miller was convicted of murdering and robbing a Jewish family. He was hanged and beheaded, and a court ordered his skull to be placed on the gates of the town.[3] Jews were able to attain bishops’ permissions to build new synagogues.[4] Jews were economically indispensable to Poland.[5] They were granted semi-autonomous authority with the Council of Four Lands.
The embers of racism and anti-Semitism had existed in Poland as long as the Jews had, but they never consumed the Jewish people or never threatened their existence until the onset of modernity. Yes, Poland had claims of blood libel and host desecration.[6] Yes, Poland clearly limited Jews, granting them privileges but not rights as rights are understood in modern American legal doctrine. Limited to a world of their own and empowered by semi-autonomy, Jews developed a rich cultural milieu during the Polish-Lithuanian period. Polish autonomy, including Polish-Jewish autonomy ceased will the gradual dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 1700s. Poland did not regain autonomy until the modern era.
Modernity was a flash in the pan that ignited a fire that would spread across Europe. It threatened to turn into an inferno that could dry up an ocean of Jewish history. By the onset of the Second World War, over 3 million Jews constituted roughly 10% of the population of Poland. In 5 years, following the Nazi occupation, and only 30 years after Poland attained its independence, over 10% of its population was exterminated. My greatest fear is that, with the loss of these lives, our indigenous connection to Poland has died too. Books have been lost to time, authors have been blotted from our memories, names have been forgotten, translations from Yiddish remain untouched, and Yiddish and Yiddishkeit are being forgotten.
Poland’s Jewish history is being erased; it is evaporating before our eyes. It is being erased because the historical narrative has overwhelmingly shifted toward nationalism in two different directions. On one end, the narrative pulls toward Polish nationalism, and the other end pulls toward Zionism. Both narratives have arrived at the same conclusion: Poland is no longer the place it was when a divine voice called for exiled Jews to “dwell here.” Yes, Polish modernity has a sickening relationship with anti-Semitism. Poland’s latest laws exacerbate an already fragile ecosystem, staining a proud history and important relationship with the world’s Jewry.
Yom HaShoah is an opportunity for us to reach deeply into what remains of Polish Jewish history. It is an opportunity to delve into ourselves and our history—to reach back to a world nearly forgotten, nearly vanished. Part of it remains with us—2nd- and 3rd-generation survivors, the Shoah survivors, and all of Am Yisrael. We must not abandon our connections to Poland, Yiddishkeit, and Europe. For many of us, these connections are all we have left of a vanished world. This year, members of the Workmen’s Circle attended a march marking the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in Warsaw. Poles and Jews alike joined for the march. It was widely perceived as a response to Poland’s new Holocaust legislation. Poland continues to host the annual Jewish music festival in Krakow.
Young American Jewish musicians such as Daniel Kahn and Russian Jewish bands such as Gevolt synthesize an emerging high level of engagement between young Jews and Yiddish culture. Both musicians/groups appear in annual attendance at the Krakow Jewish Cultural festival. Yiddish music has found its way into Mishkan Tefillah, and CCAR publications recently published a booklet of women’s Yiddish poetry. Yiddish Farm has attracted a segment of Jews in search of a new relationship to Judaism that is founded upon eco-consciousness. A revival is ongoing. Poland has left its marks on each of these institutions, but Poland must not be remembered for 50 years of destruction. Its history runs deeper; our connections extend beyond our gravestone in Poland.
For over 1,000 years, Poland was the hub of Jewish civilization. It has left its mark on many Jewish institutions of modernity. Polish Jewish history is defined by unprecedented growth and achievements. Despite the horrific atrocities of the past, Polish complicity in the Holocaust, and Poland’s continued struggle with modernity, Poland must still be remembered for the haven it once was for its Jews, not for its anti-Semites. May our thousand-year collective memory of Polish Jewish history not be torn from us with its perished victims. Let our enemies and perpetrators not this satisfaction.