Celebrating the Jewish Renaissance in Poland: A European Story

It seems rare these days that good news stories about Jewish life in Europe make it into the mainstream media. And if such news comes out of Poland it’s as likely as not to be diluted by the usual stress on the depth and ubiquity of Polish antisemitism. So Jeevan Vasagar and Julian Borger’s 7 April article in the Guardian on ‘A Jewish renaissance in Poland’, which also provides evidence of the decline of antisemitism in the country, is doubly welcome.

Focused principally on Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter in Krakow, the home of a remarkable annual festival of Jewish culture that was first staged in 1988, before the collapse of communism, the article describes how what was primarily an interest among non-Jewish Poles in Jewish culture now has the added dimension of an awakening of Jewish identity among young Jewish Poles whose parents hid their Jewishness during the communist years. This is a process which Poland’s enlightened and far-sighted New York-born chief rabbi Michael Schudrich has done so much to encourage. But it has also come about because a handful of Polish Jewish leaders who were active in the Solidarity movement dedicated themselves to work for the revival of Jewish life in Poland and for Jewish-Polish and Jewish-Catholic reconciliation.

The article brushes nothing under the carpet. It acknowledges that difficulties remain in confronting some of the very troubling examples of Polish antisemitism during and after the war. But it rightly praises the late Pope John Paul II who, Schudrich says, ‘did more to fight antisemitism than anyone else in the last 2,000 years’. He made indifference to antisemitism ‘less acceptable in the Catholic mainstream’.

The authors also refer to the ersatz nature of some aspects of the Jewish cultural revival: Jewish-themed restaurants, kitschy figurines of black-hatted, long-bearded orthodox Jews that border on ‘racist caricature’ and the throwing together of the Krakow Jewish cultural highlights and the nearby Auschwitz concentration and extermination camps into the one tourist pot. And yet, as even local Jews acknowledge, some dodgy stuff at the edges is a small price to pay for the positive affirmation of the Polish-Jewish past and the possibility of a Polish-Jewish future.

What the article doesn’t perhaps sufficiently convey is the fact that the process of renewal and rediscovery of the Jewish past has been going on for more than two decades and actually predates the collapse of communism. It too often seems to be the case that articles of this kind, which are rare, purport to be discovering the Polish-Jewish renaissance for the first time; as if it’s a new phenomenon that the intrepid journalists have now brought to public attention. The Borger-Vasagar article doesn’t do this, but given the relentless stress on antisemitism in Europe and anti-Israel sentiment that is branded antisemitic, it’s not surprising that a narrative based on a sense of the continuity of the Jewish revival has not taken hold.

One key development the authors omit is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews now being built on the site of the Warsaw ghetto. The history of this multi-million dollar project, which was first proposed in the early 1990s, reflects the path that the Polish Jewish renaissance has taken: firmly upwards, but with hiccups along the way. A very substantial part of the costs of building the museum are being covered by the Polish government and the site was donated free by the Warsaw municipality. There have been many nay-sayers among Polish politicians and other sectors of Polish society, but a remarkable consensus at the highest political levels has been crucial in finally helping to bring the hugely ambitious project to fruition. Both the former Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, and the serving president who died in the 2010 Smolensk-North airport plane crash, Lech Kaczynski, who hailed from very different ends of the political spectrum, backed the museum. And the large sums raised by groups of Jewish supporters mostly in America and mostly of Polish-Jewish origin, which involved them becoming more closely engaged with contemporary Polish society, has contributed further to the general Polish-Jewish rapprochement.

The Jewish renaissance is a European story, not just a Polish one. It’s probably too much to hope that the full significance of this for Jewish life in Europe might now be given more consistent attention than is afforded to threats to Jews. There are threats, but the true danger they represent is often grossly exaggerated. What is happening in Poland does not cancel out antisemitism, but it shows that the Jewish reality today is complex, dynamic, diverse and inspiring and is more than likely to remain so.

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