An evolving view of Poland

An evolving view of Poland

I love to read the web comments on articles we’ve posted, but am often surprised at the turns the conversations take.

There is, for example, a very strange and interesting discussion going on over an article that appeared in NJJN several weeks ago, about a Christian bus driver who was fired by New Jersey Transit because he wouldn’t work on his Sabbath. The article was apparently linked to a fairly conservative Catholic site, which drove a lot of the commenters our way. The readers seem most exercised over our characterization of Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath” and whether Scripture supports the idea that Christians must observe Sunday as the Sabbath.

Who knew that this is still a debate?

There is a similarly unexpected row over an article we posted about a New Brunswick synagogue’s recent mission to Poland. Congregants visited synagogues, Jewish museums, and communities in Warsaw and Cracow, and toured concentration camps at Treblinka, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Maidanek, and Plaszow.

Not surprisingly the trip aroused mixed and intense emotions, summed up in the words of trip organizer Sheryl Olitzky: “I absolutely believe there is anti-Semitism there, but there is a lot being done to increase Jewish awareness and Jewish life.”

Many of the comments that follow seem to have arrived via a Polish-American website, where the article was cross-posted and where Poland’s reputation remains a hot and painful topic.

“I find it odd that in the entire article there was no mention of the perpetrators of the holocaust….Nazi Germany,” writes “Marc.”

“These camps were German Concentration Camps,” adds “Brian.” “Go read some (actual) history books and lay off your Polonophobic bias.”

This kind of passion erupted a few months back, when President Obama referred in a speech to a “Polish death camp.” Poland’s prime minister hit the roof, and Obama’s critics suggested his failure to identify them as “Nazi death camps” demonstrated a lack of historical awareness or diplomatic seichel.

Most Jews, I daresay, reacted with a shrug, or at least a sympathetic nod at what the president and the Poles were getting at. In a subsequent op-ed, Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman acknowledged the “sloppiness” of the president’s language and wrote that “Poland was a victim of the Nazi terror machinery.” Yet he also writes that anti-Semitism was “an integral part” of Poland in the 20th century. He writes of the rise of fascist parties there in the 1920s and ’30s, the “combination of Polish complicity and indifference” to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews, and the massacre of Jews in Jedwabne during and Kielce after the war.

Thus history and personal experience have shaped Jewish attitudes toward Poland in the many decades since the Shoa. Despite the “righteous gentiles” who saved Jews, most of us remain ambivalent at best and antagonistic at worst toward the Poles and their descendants.

But that appears to be changing — an aspect of the article that its critics overlooked. “Poland wants to take ownership of its Jewish past,” Rabbi Eliot Malomet tells our reporter. “There has been an awakening over the last few years that this Jewish heritage is really part of Polish heritage, and on every occasion where we experienced Poles, there was a lot of graciousness.” The participants took note of Poland’s 20,000-strong Jewish community and the Poles who are rediscovering their Jewish roots.

Visits like these are transforming Jewish attitudes toward Poland. In an article posted this month at eJewish Philanthropy, David Jacobson, a Jewish leader from South Africa, reports on his recent visit to Poland and asks, “Are We Guilty of Gross Prejudice Towards Poland?” He too notes persistent anti-Semitism as well as the “remarkable attraction and affinity to Jewish culture” among Poles. “Everything I saw and heard convinced me that Poland has been unfairly portrayed by the global Jewish establishment,” he writes. “During my two weeks in Poland, I learned about and witnessed another side to this much maligned country.”

The balancing act, then, is to acknowledge the dark legacy of anti-Semitism and indifference as well as the glimmer of reconciliation and renaissance. Insisting on one to the exclusion of the other is a distortion of history.

* * *

When the writer David Rakoff died this month at age 47, I was struck by the fact that I never met him. Having heard his gentle, precise, somewhat mournful voice on This American Life all these years, I had a false memory of great intimacy. He also wrote regularly and intimately about the cancer that would eventually kill him.

I also “bonded” with Rakoff over a shared experience — at different times, we both found ourselves volunteering in a kibbutz chicken coop, or lool. He writes about the experience in his collection Fraud, recalling the “snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac, cheesy smell” of the immense corrugated coop, and the unthinkable task of rounding up chickens by “grabbing hold of the birds by one leg.”

I envied him his ability and opportunity to spin that night in the coop into an essay heard on TAL. His humor, heartache, and somehow life-affirming cynicism made me one of his regular readers and listeners. Moreover, we were both members of an exclusive fraternity: the Society of the Lool.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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