The Conspiracy

Poland: The Other Holy Land | Back to The Old Country

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.

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13 Older Responses to “Poland: The Other Holy Land | Back to The Old Country”

  1. Kamil
    September 22, 2011 at 10:58 pm #

    I am sorru but this article relly insults me, i don’t understand why you say that for you Jewish people Poland is considered to be a concentration camp, as if Poland starded WWII and build the concentration camps and decided to kill Jewish people in them. Maybe you should also say that Adolf Hitler was a Pole as well. I am sorry but natzis were Germans and they have invided Poland and killed 1/3 of the Polish population, we Poles were the first to fight the German aggrasion, Polish people died in Auschwitz as well and whole Polish famillies were killed when found to be hiding a jewish person in theair homes, in simple words Polish people grisked theair lives and lives of theair famillies just to save a jewish person. Another thing I like to inform you about is that concentration camps were Geraman build on Polish soil that at that time was occupied and inslaved by the natzi Germany. It is Germany, England,USA and France to be blame for holocust as they are the ones who sposored and gave money to Hittlers to start the war. Just For your Information US governemnet today owns and hides gold that was stolen from them by the Germans melted and shipped to US as Hittlers repayment to US banks, and before you write that Poland is a symbol of Jewish death maybe you should read a bit more of history. As a Pole I am very isnsulted by this article.

  2. Adam Twardowski
    September 23, 2011 at 2:09 am #


    I find it a bit strange that you refer to Poland as “the concentration camp” and a land of ashes while failing to mention even once the name of the occupying nation that conceived, organized, and perpetrated the Holocaust. This wrongly implies that the Holocaust was a Polish crime, when in reality it was a German one.

  3. P
    September 23, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    As a Pole, I think this is absolutely offensive. You don’t have a monopoly on death! You think my family wanted to die or be evicted from their homes never to return again with all their property seized? Don’t go to Poland if you’re not going to appreciate it’s culture and just keep talking about the concentration camps, which, by the way, were not built by us! A good friend of the family works with an organization that takes Jewish kids on excursions to the camps at which point they cry and then go party and get wasted completely forgetting what they came there to do. You weren’t the only ones hurt in the war so show some respect for the people who risked their lives to save yours!!!!

  4. Hailey Dilman
    September 23, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Ok- I’d just like to apologize, because the order of the blog got a little bit switched around, and in the process the meaning of what I was trying to convey at the end got lost. First- I did mention that the concentration camps were NAZI built. Please notice in the 6th paragraph I say “the Nazi concentration camps that still grace the Polish Landscape”. Trust me, I am quite adamant about stressing the fact that the Poles, in the war were also victims of the Nazis, many themselves taken, abused and killed in those same camps, side by side with Jews, homosexuals, Roma, Sinti and other undesirables, as defined by the Nazi regime.

    The idea I was trying to convey at the end is that popularly, like it or not, in Jewish culture today, in both Israel and America, this is how Poland is PORTRAYED (NOT IS). Groups, like I mention in the blog, coming mostly from America and Israel, go to Poland only to see concentration camps, and so for them, Poland is REFLECTED as one big concentration camp. PLEASE NOTE I WAS NOT SAYING THAT IT IS ONE CONCENTRATION CAMP, rather it is the perception of many trips that travel to Poland- (which I firmly believe is a grave mistake.)
    When I wrote, “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.”- I am trying to say, that it is a tragedy that this is the case, and that jewish groups tend to USE the ideas/sterotypes in order to further their own messages. (of Jewish continuity in Israel or messages agaisnt intermarriage) And when they use Poland as this symbol, they change history, and present relations between Poles and Jews! aka they sweet over the past, both the good and the bad of it.

    I’d like to apologize if this was perceived as offensive, this was not my goal at all. I hope you continue to read my blog about my trip to Poland because what I’m trying to do is confront these issues, and destabilize the many lies that are distributed to groups that go to Poladn. I went to Poland on a trip that wanted to not only see the concentration camps (after all, we were 10 graduate students in Holocaust studies) but also to experience POLISH CULTURE!! I can say, proudly after my trip that I love Poland, I think it’s an amazing country, and I can’t wait to go back. However, the issues that surround it are fascinated, and the way that each people is perceived to each other people is so deep and complex.
    On that note, I’m glad that you all reacted int he ways that you did, because you really hit on the point, of the sensitives and complexities that surround this issue. Again, sorry for offended anyone, but please continue reading, and see the ideas I’m trying to develop, and KEEP COMMENTING, so we can keep up a dialogue!!


  5. P
    September 23, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    I am glad that you took the effort to explain some points. I did see that you mentioned that it was the Nazis that commuted the crimes. You have to understand that Poles, just like the Jewish people, are very sensitive when it comes to the war. Also, the Poles lives in occupation by the Soviets, so there is a lot of pain and anger and it doesn’t take a lot to set someone off when talking about these touchy subjects. I have lived in the US three quarters of my life and I feel like I have to educate people (including my Jewish friends) about the realities that existed before, during and after the war. Maybe your next entry can be about Poland sans talk about the Holocaust. Its very interesting to read about what foreigners think of Poland besides the one thing that the West is obsessed with.

  6. David A.M. Wilensky
    September 23, 2011 at 11:35 am #


    I edited this post before it went up and Hailey told me after that she felt that the changes made may have distorted her meaning. However, to be clear, Hailey does not say that Poland is a concentration camp, but that many Jews feel that it is like a concentration camp. This isn’t a commentary on the Polish people; rather, it is a commentary on a terrible thing that happened in Poland.

  7. Adam Twardowski
    September 24, 2011 at 12:45 am #

    Thank you for the clarification. I hope that coming generations of Jews/Israelis and Poles will grow closer together.

  8. Hailey Dilman
    September 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    The purpose of my column for this blog is to talk about my trip in light of Jewish-Polish relations. I will not always focus on the Holocaust, but it is certainly a defining aspect of the relationship.
    I wrote a travel blog for Polad on a woman’s travel blog site: Pink Pangea. Here, I talk more about traveling Poland, and you might enjoy it coming from a foreigner’s perspective of Poland.

  9. American Living in Poland
    September 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    I’m an American without any Polish roots who has been living in Poland for over 4 years and this country is anything but ‘depressing’ as your blog post implies. It is green, beautiful, full of historically attractive towns and monuments, and full of nature. The Poles I met discuss the holocaust, history, and relations with great knowledge, respect, and honesty. The average American rarely knows fact from fiction / myth about what actually went on with the Jews and Catholics in German occupied Poland compared to what Europeans learn.

    What happened here during WWII was a tragedy first imposed by the Germans and then immediately by the Soviets. Even though the Soviets liberated the German camps, They later brutally occupied and suppressed Poland and its people for another 50 years subsequent to the war. Both millions of Polish Catholics and Jews were murdered during WWII, this is a well known fact. I stress ‘Germans’ because the phrase ‘Nazi’ isn’t enough to make it clear who instigated and initiated systematic mass murder on a large scale. Your theme surprised me because you fail to mention ‘Germans’ or ‘Germany’ even once, the main culprits of genocide during this time. Uninformed readers of this post will likely get the impression that Poles were responsible for what happened, which isn’t true at all. German-Nazi concentration camps do not “grace” the Polish landscape at every turn. You make it seem as though they are numerous and common sites in the landscape of this country. They are not, however, the scope of what took place in them was enormous and catastrophic.

    You stated, “…but they [Jews] don’t live in Poland anymore.”. This isn’t true. The actual Jewish community officially numbers approximately 20,000 members. Those who are Jewish but not practicing may number several times that figure. As compared to pre-WWII statistics, yes, it is small, but the community does exist and is quite active.


    Krakow, Poland

  10. Unhinged
    September 27, 2011 at 6:48 am #

    I think that you missed the point of the article, which is the feelings that Poland evokes in Jews that visit there. The dead are not an impersonal statistic; to all Jews they are family members – people with names, people we see in old photos – as well as a vibrant culture that was destroyed and can never be recreated. The visible symbols of this tragedy are mainly in Poland and although we know that the Germans are responsible and not the Poles, it is inevitable that a trip to Poland is depressing. The “green, beautiful, full of historically attractive towns and monuments, and full of nature” cannot cancel out this emotional response.
    Yes, there are Jews scattered around Poland today, but the comparison to pre-war Poland that was the centre of world Jewry only adds to the depression.

  11. Hailey Dilman
    September 28, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    First, thanks unhinged : you got the point of what I was trying to convey in the article, so Elizabeth, if you keep reading, you’ll see that’ I’ll deal with all those issues in the near future. This was an introductory blog to my column, where I wanted to define the existing perceptions that exist today within Jewish communities.

    Second, I prefer saying Nazi over German because it was under the Nazi Empire that Poland was taken over, by the Nazis, who, yes, were German, but it was under their empire and their leadership that it happened. I think it is enough, just like how you used “soviets” instead of Russians…

  12. slovak
    September 28, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

    what a joke, Poland: The Other Holy Land is not for jews, jews should forever forget about it and stay away from it. no visas ahould be granted as long as they occupy Plestine.

  13. Elise Eisenkraft Klein
    September 29, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    Hailey — (I know it's awhile after you commented, but just fyi) I see below that you got a number of negative responses to this article. In light of that especially, I just wanted to say that I really liked it, and I think this point is not spoken about enough in Jewish communities. Especially in the shadow of Israel/Zionism, Ashkenazi Jews both there and in North America (and elsewhere, but these are some of the largest communities in the world) tend to systemically think of places like Poland in this way. I often wonder what it is we are 'mourning,' or saying 'never again' about, if the most prominent thing we "remember" about these places in Eastern Europe is the Holocaust, and rarely what came before. How can we mourn something, when instead of mourning the life that was there, we mourn the death that came afterwards?
    Thanks for this.

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