Disneyland Judaism and the Polish Jewish Renaissance

Poland is much more complex and much more interested in preserving and presenting its Jewish past than many of us ever realized.

Auschwitz 300 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
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 opened.
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 welcome.
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.
In 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 Yiddish.
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 encouraging.
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 others.
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.
With 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 about.
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.
In 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: [email protected]