This summer, I received an opportunity to travel to Poland, to study Jewish-Polish relations before, during and after the Holocaust, with nine other graduate students. The trip was three weeks. When I was asked what my plans were for the summer and I replied, “Three weeks in Poland,” the response was generally the same. “Three weeks in Poland?! What can you do in Poland for three weeks? That is so depressing. You only go to Poland to see the camps. You need one week, tops.”
But I was excited to go to Poland, to return to the Old Land. I felt that feeling that Jews feel when they go to Israel for the first time, like they are going home. I am, after all, a Polish Jew, somewhere down the line–so it really was like going home. And so, in this column, “Back to the Old Land,” I would like to share with you an experience in Poland. Three weeks in Poland–with days that were depressing, that did make me want to take the next flight back to Israel, but also days that were fun and days that really challenged how Jews see and connect with both Poland and Poles.
One story I kept hearing in Poland was why the Jews settled there. The story is that as the Jews were wondering east through Europe, they arrived in Poland. However, after discovering the name, Polin in Polish, they knew they were destined to stay. In Hebrew, Po lin means “Here we stay.” The land in Poland was once holy to Jews, and I wanted to find out, not only why, but if any of that remains.
It’s weird to think that only 100 years ago, the number of Jews in Israel was insignificant, especially compared to its population today. Yes, there were Zionists, but they were only the first dreamers, tilling a land that was still quite empty. 100 years ago, America was a growing Jewish center; it was the Goldene Medina (Golden Land), the New World for Jews.
The real core of Jewish life, just 100 years ago, was Europe. And straddling in eastern and central Europe was the core of the core: Poland. A country were 10 percent of the population was Jewish, a country with millions of Jews, living in both shtetls and Jews the major cities. In Europe, there were Chasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, religion-hating Communist Jews, socialist Jews, Yiddish cultural Jews and more.
But today, it’s almost possible to forget this. Jews live in Israel, they live in America, they live scattered through Europe, but they don’t live in Poland anymore. Because Poland, for us Jews, is the land of death, the land of our ashes: Determined firmly by Nazi concentration camps that still grace the Polish landscape. And every year, Jews from around the world remember this. They travel, in groups to Poland for a week or two, touring the death camps and the concentration camps, reciting Kaddish at mass graves and proudly singing “Hatikva,” with Israeli flags hanging off their backs. Against all odds, they are reclaiming the continuity of the Jewish people. When we proclaim “never forget,” what we mean is that we will never forget that there was an attempt to exterminate us. We will never forget so that we can be assured it will never happen again.
Despite these trips, the hundred of years of Jewish life in Poland is sometimes forgotten. After all, we’ve transported that which was important to our new homes. We’ve rebuilt the Yeshivas in Bnei Brak, Mea Shearim and Brooklyn. Jews are still cooking cholent on Shabbos, and you can find knishes, pickled herring and matzah ball soup in the heart of Manhattan. Bubbies and Zaidies are still distributing Jewish guilt all over the world. And the politics and religion that developed in the old country are happily developing in new places.
And so, for us, Poland is the concentration camp. It is used as the symbol of what can never happen again. And along the way, we quickly sweep over the past, both the good and the bad of it.