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Poland's Fascination with Jews

Poland's Fascination with Jews

In a country with no more than a wisp of Jewish life, where does such an appetite for things Jewish come from?


KRAKOW, Poland - In a 1973 essay in Esquire magazine, Cynthia Ozick speculated on how Jews would be remembered if, like every other nation of antiquity, they had vanished long ago. As people speak today of "the glory that was Greece," she mused, the achievements of the long-gone Jews would be celebrated as "the genius that was Israel."

"How - if there were no Jews - the world would be enraptured!" she wrote. "The people that stood at Sinai to receive a desert vision of purity, the people of scholarly shepherds, humane prophetic geniuses, dreams of justice and mercy" - how admired they would be. In a world without Jews, the memory of Jewish civilization would be endlessly fascinating. "Christian ladies," Ozick imagined, would "study 'The Priceless Culture of the Jews' at Chautauqua in the summertime" or create Jewish prayer shawls at "a workshop on tallith making."

Of course Jews haven't vanished from the world. They have, however, all but vanished from Poland. More than 90 percent of Poland's Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and most of those who survived emigrated or were driven out long ago. The result is that a land that once was home to 3 million Jews - 10 percent of Polish society, the largest Jewish population in Europe - is now more than 99.9 percent non-Jewish. Millions of Poles have never knowingly met a Jew. But oh, how enraptured they are with the genius that was Israel!

I arrived in Krakow near the end of the annual Jewish Culture Festival, a nine-day extravaganza of concerts, lectures, films, and exhibitions - all with the aim, to quote a festival brochure, of "presenting Jewish culture in all its abundance." An elegant catalog, 160 pages long, lists a dizzying array of offerings. Among them: lectures on "Talmudic thought" and "Jewish medical ethics"; forums on European anti-Semitism and the Hebrew poetry of Haim Nahman Bialik; concerts of klezmer music, liturgical music, and "Songs of the Ghettos and Jewish Resistance"; workshops on Jewish cooking, Hasidic wedding dances, and celebrating Hanukkah with children.

Such a cornucopia of Judaica would be impressive in Los Angeles or New York. In Krakow, with just 200 Jews in a metropolitan population of 1.5 million, it is astounding. More or less as Ozick imagined in 1973, Jews and Jewish culture are being embraced far more ardently in their absence than was ever the case when they were such a visible presence.

On my second night here, I caught part of the festival's closing concert, a kind of Jewish Woodstock that grows more elaborate every year. In the heart of what used to be Krakow's Jewish quarter, before an outdoor stage dominated by a giant electric menorah, 10,000 exuberant Poles swayed, cheered, and even sang along as dozens of Jewish artists from Israel, Europe, and America performed. The concert lasted for seven hours, and was broadcast live on Polish TV. In a country with no more than a wisp of Jewish life, where does such an appetite for things Jewish come from?

For some Poles, interest in Jewish culture is simply fun, or a fad; several in the crowd told me they had come because the concert is such a popular scene, not because of its Jewish content. But others, like 26-year-old Ola, who attended with her two young daughters, were drawn by an inchoate attraction they couldn't explain.

"I can't imagine Krakow without Jewish culture," she told me. "Krakow loves Jewish culture." But when I gently pressed her to say what "Jewish culture" means - how, for example, would she explain it to her daughters? - she replied, vaguely, "It's more about feeling than knowing. 'Jewish' to me means a warm feeling."

Then there are people like Tomasz Sierkierski, a 30-year-old computer programmer who was one of a dozen Poles honored during the festival for preserving Jewish landmarks. Searching for a way to reclaim some of Poland's lost Jewish heritage, he discovered a forgotten Jewish cemetery in Skarszewy, a small town near the Baltic Sea, not far from Gdansk. "It was really destroyed," he said, "full of trash and weeds." He recruited a group of teens from his old high school, and together they spent the summer of 2004 carrying away the rubbish, cleaning and righting the fallen gravestones, and building a stone border for the cemetery.

Why do Poles like Sierkierski - and there are quite a few of them - go to so much trouble? Of all the causes to care about, why worry about Jewish memory?

"Because," he told me, "it is Polish memory too." He knows that nothing will bring back the rich Jewish culture that was once so much a part of Polish life. What the Nazis and Communists destroyed is irretrievably lost. But he wants at least to keep it from being forgotten.

When he first came to Skarszewy, he couldn't locate the cemetery. No one he asked knew anything about it. Eventually an elderly woman pointed him in the right direction, and he found the neglected graves.

"Before this project," Sierkierski said, "no one even knew a Jewish cemetery existed. Now the whole town knows." And that, the look on his face makes clear, made the whole thing worthwhile.

July 23, 2005

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 37

(34) elisheva, January 3, 2018 9:32 PM

In the UK Poles are the most incarcerated foreign nationals

Maybe they really are more violent than other nationalities.

(33) elisheva, January 3, 2018 7:53 PM

Immigrant Poles in England brutally attack local Jews in 2017, shouting Zhyd

Polish immigrant to the UK smashes 70 year old Jewish woman's head against a brick wall.

And here, "racially aggravated assault" also by Poles against British Jews. Somewhat ironically the newcomer attacker tells Jews to get out of England, in her broken English.

Apparently making Poland judenrein by murdering 3 million Jews didn't quench their thirst for Jewish blood. Now they've come for the English Jews.

And as there are so few Jews in Poland, what better than attacking easily identifiable Jews, just to be on the safe side. Why waste the exertion.
Israeli football team attacked by locals.

Yes there were incredible righteous Poles who risked everything to save Jews, but they did it despite the Germans and their fellow Poles. They were the exceptions. Many more Poles happily and voluntarily participated in the hunting down, the rounding up and the turning over of Jews, when not just murdering them themselves. The Poles even murdered hundreds of Jews who had the audacity to survive the Holocaust. Deeply entrenched, virulent and violent antisemitism just seems to be the name of the game for these people.

(32) Leon, March 21, 2017 6:47 PM

Many Poles risked their lives to save Jews during Holocaust

In the Holocaust museum in Washington DC I saw a book with lists of people who saved the Jews in their country during German occupation. I noticed that many more names were of people from Poland, than from any other country. It is known that many Poles were executed as penalty for saving Jews.

(31) Pessi, February 12, 2016 7:47 PM

Polish antisemitism exists to this very day.

Jeff, you don't know the Polish people, that's obvious. A little nostalgia on the part of Polish people today for their murdered citizens doesn't cut it for me or most others of Jewish Polish extraction.
My parent's ancesters lived in Poland for hundreds of years. They KNEW what the Polish goyim are like. They refused to let their children learn or speak the language.

In the early 1960's when we lived in Brooklyn, on a freezing winter day, my brother, about 10 or 11 years old, noticed a policeman who was wearing a new type of earmuffs. A piece of fabric from ear to ear held together in front by an elastic. He liked it an went over to the policeman to ask him where he bought it. He told him and my brother asked my mom to buy him the same earmuff as the policeman had. I will never forget what my mother said. She said, " Can you imagine? A Jewish boy goes over to a policeman to ask him something and doesn't get beat up? In Poland it would have been unheard of. Jewish boys didn't go anywhere near the police. They would have been brutally beaten if not killed.

My mother knew how to appreciate America. But, don't kid yourself, in any Polish neighborhood in America, you'll find the same antisemitism. But in America they don't have the power to harm Jews.

(30) Yente, November 11, 2013 8:19 PM

I am a Polish Jew and I am very sorry because of what I have read here. Don`t compare Poles to tigers. Go to yad Vashem and see the Polish trees. You appreaciate people from danmark and other countries who saved Jews but only in Poland Poles were executed with whole their families for hiding Jews. What we would do if we were in such a situation. How many Poles would we hide if we were to pay for it with our and our family life ???
Remember there are People and people everywhere- even in Israel. Besides, many young people do not know anything about their jewishness because their parents decide not to tell them about it. They want to protect them as they believe persecutions of Jews may come back any time and anywhere, therefore they believe it`s better not to be a Jew...

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