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Jewish Journal

Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. How uncomfortable can you feel in Poland?

by Klaudia Klimek

July 25, 2012 | 4:01 am

The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Poland, interesting, isn’t it? The organization’s goals of breaking barriers and changing stereotypes, give the people contributing to the seminar and organisation, as well as its potential participants, an uncomfortable feeling of stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Maybe having been a conference participant, I should write about the conference itself?

There were lectures, discussions, professors and nice evenings—like the one spent in a jacuzzi with new friends from Australia, America, Ukraine and Israel. More than the course of the seminar itself, I am more interested in its location on the world map. So it happened that this one took place in the most anti-Semitic country in Europe − the Jewish cemetery, the place of bad memories. That was, unfortunately, the attitude of many conference participants from all over the world. Their negative feelings towards Poland are born out of bad memories of their grandparents or parents. All that, additionally seasoned with a visit to Auschwitz, colored almost every conversation and discussion.

As a Jew from Poland or a Polish woman of Jewish origin (anyway they classify me) I do not have such an attitude towards Poland and the Poles. I wonder why. Am I not Jewish enough to get caught by the stamp of bad memories or have I succumbed to the Polish propaganda and promotion? The Poles − friends of Israel? It seems quite hard to imagine as Poland, with regard to the Jewish question, is rather complicated. What do I mean? The truth is that the Polish history contains both glorious and inglorious events. Although I could mention several facts, I will not do it as there are other people in Jewrnalism who would do it better. I only would like to draw attention to the resonance of particular behaviours and the present discourse. Now, Poland the country and the Poles as a people, did much for the Jews before, during and after the war, but nobody talks about that.

In the memories of the Holocaust survivors, the help of the Polish people faded and is not relevant when compared to the magnitude of their tragedy. Larger or smaller percentage, who cares? A human can be either a good being or an evil one, no matter under which banner they stand − Polish, German or Israeli. It might seem that such issues should not matter. A human who commits crimes should be punished, the one who helped should be awarded or at least mentioned in a positive light. However, in the contemporary Jewish world, the devil is in the details, i.e. in the so called discourse. The banners do matter, and so for instance the Poles are, were and will be evil. What is more, characterised by innate stupidity, they would never invent Holocaust. Nevertheless, they are extremely grateful to the Germans that they liberated them from the Jews. And they, of course, helped them willingly! The Pole had to wait over seven hundred years for a charismatic leader in the person of Hitler who would help them murder almost one third of their own citizens. Indeed, the Jew also was a Polish citizen, ipso facto to a large extent they were also Poles. Although almost six and a half thousand Righteous among the Nations are Polish, that is the largest number of all other nations, this fact is not mentioned. Just as the events in Bulgaria where the trains transporting Jews were stopped. The pity is that the majority of people do not ask “why”. Well, the awareness of death penalty makes difference, dear sirs and madams. How many of us would sacrifice their lives just to rescue a stranger? Almost nobody − that is certain! And this is why heroes like Irena Sendlerowa should be remembered and praised, and the youth should be educated to never forget about them. The thing is, that in Poland there are still many people who saved and protected the Jews. Nobody talks about them because they’ve not asked for glory. Saving a neighbour, a Jewish friend, seemed a natural behaviour to them. Many lost their own lives, however many saved other ones. As they perceive it to be completely natural, they do not boast about it. For me, this is a reason to boast about, however after what I’ve heard from my foreign friends I claim that a gram or even better, a kilogramme, of self-promotion would come in handy. I am angry with Poland that She does so little to publicise the good deeds of the Poles, their participation in combat missions, the help during the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto or in Auschwitz. Instead, She stands open to the Jewish trips like a forgotten cemetery. She does not add to their education anything from herself, not changing, thus, the discourse and accepting the current status quo. Of course, the money from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is earmarked for building a bridge between Poland and Israel but why does everything, as always, fall on NGOs? It is obvious that no NGO would be as strong partner as the government.

Following this track, the Jew won’t spend the Jewish money in Poland. Full stop. The Pole did not deserve, what is more they still earn much on other tourist visiting the death camps. Camps such as Auschwitz seem to be bonanzas for Poland. Pity that no one mentions that Poland would rather send such places far, far to the moon. Not only do such places ruin our PR, because in the majority of cases we are associated only with six years of history, but also we are obliged to maintain them. Auschwitz is a museum not only for Poland, but for the whole world. We all should be responsible for it to the same degree. Especially when everything, aging, goes to rack and ruin and requires expensive conservation. Most of the Jews are convinced that such “disneylands” surely provide for themselves on their own so requests for foreign grants are at this point perceived as faux pas and proof of Polish greediness.

The problem, however, disappears when the Jew goes to Berlin, Hamburg or Munich. One can relax there well, enjoy civilisation and top level art. I, personally, do not have such a problem when I go there for holidays and spend money. With my character, however, I am able to spend it anywhere. But I am aware that both Siemens and Krupp are not saints and I think that this is the awareness in question. How did it happen that the Jew does not burn with hatred towards the Germans? Well, these are not the Germans but the Nazis, and that is a major difference. Secondly, they have already atoned for their sins. They fetched so many Jews from Russia and secured them financially that actually the right thing is to forgive them. One cannot blame everyone for everything, right? Nazis are Nazis are Nazis but the Germans themselves are not guilty. Another paradox in the contemporary world! This is an immensely irritating fact and also an alarming one because such relativism might hit us on the rebound in the future. Soon the Holocaust will be associated not with the Germans but with a narrow group of the Nazis who having developed a perfect plan of extermination, in cooperation with their Slavic brothers from behind the eastern border, introduced it into being with the use of not even the “so called” but simply − THE POLISH DEATH CAMPS.

Horror of horrors! I already see my children learning this version of history from Polish textbooks as the Polish government would allow everything. At this rate, Mein Kampf will be soon available − like in Germany.

Of course, I mainly play with the words and simplify various statements − a bit to diversify the text and make it more readable, and not to bore the reader to death. It is time, however, for me to finish so I would like to find a joyful point like “there is no anti-Semitism in Poland!”. This is a new declaration, willingly repeated by leaders of the Jewish community in Poland − a sort of a new Jewish “trend”. The truth is that anti-Semitism is present in Poland, but it is different from anti-semitism in other European countries. It can be observed in jokes, in memories of elderly people, in the stadiums and in the fights of pseudo graffiti painters who eagerly scrawl the Star of David on a gibbet, which should be related to the Cracovia football team − the so called Jews.

There were no physical abuses here or terrorism acts aimed at Jewish cultural institutions. We do not have as many neo-Nazis as other European countries and there are no such groups in our government. Our synagogues are open and everyone is welcome − one does not need to announce themselves in advance or to possess permission from the Community President. Our cultural events meet with great popularity − not only among the Jews. So from the logical point of view, the anti-Semitism surely exists in Poland, but it is very specific and we should remember that. However, the Jew does not have as bad a life in Poland when compared to before the war. It is important to understand this, sooner or later. Maybe then, the bad feelings towards the country would fade away.

The Museum of Polish Jews, being currently erected in Warsaw, seems to be a joyful point. I rest my hope in its educational activity. Our seminar group visited the construction site, as well as the centre of Warsaw. Did it help, did anything remain after that day in Warsaw? Maybe a couple of people hit on the idea that what they have heard so far is not fully true, but the rest decided not to have a good time in Warsaw and not to spend any money. What can I say − the doughnuts from Blikle were outstanding. Overpriced but still outstanding. Those who did not try should regret it.

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Jews visiting Central & Eastern Europe frequently come with stereotypes and prejudices about the region.  In particular, group heritage and education tours for young Jews...

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