By Paul Finkelman
This summer I spent nine days on a study tour of “Jewish” Poland at the invitation of the Polish Cultural Institute. The trip was enlightening, heartbreaking, sad, joyful, depressing and encouraging. And it was personally moving. Two of my grandparents emigrated from Poland more than a century ago. Two of my great- uncles by marriage left Poland at about the same time. Scores of relatives I never was able to meet died in Treblinka, Auschwitz, Majdanek and elsewhere in Poland.
On the eve of World War II, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, about 10 percent of the entire population. By 1945, about 90 percent had perished. Most of the survivors made their way to the United States, Canada and Israel. The remnant, about 1 percent of the prewar population, remained in Poland, only to be chased away by the Communist regime in 1968 in the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.
Throughout Poland there are historical synagogues and cemeteries, and of course many sites and museums — most importantly, Auschwitz, officially called the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Brikenau, Former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp — that remind us of the destruction of Polish Jewry. The tour of Auschwitz is chilling. A day at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum is central to understanding Jewish history, Polish history and the history of the modern world.
But Poland also has a living Jewish community. Beyond the Nazi extermination camps and the grim Holocaust history, Poland has functioning synagogues, kosher and kosher-style restaurants, klezmer music, Jewish community centers and a fabulous Museum of Polish Jewish history — the POLIN — in Warsaw.
The connection of the past and present is found in the Ringelblum Archive, housed in the Jewish Historical Institute. The archive contains thousands of documents produced by Jewish historians who recorded and chronicled everyday life and death inside the Warsaw Ghetto. The Institute contains exhibits about the Ghetto and sponsors research that allows Jews to connect to relatives they may not even know about. Indeed, today, Poland has a growing Jewish population with abundant signs of a Jewish culture renaissance.
Jewish Poland struggles over the question of who is Jewish. The JCC in Warsaw is dedicated to “all people having Jewish roots and background, for their families and relatives,” but also “for their non-Jewish friends.” The JCC in Krakow accepts members who have at least one Jewish grandparent or are relatives of someone who does. This makes sense in a nation where Jews went into hiding to survive, and children were raised Catholic to save their lives. One knowledgeable Pole told me that more than a quarter of all Poles have either some Jewish ancestry or relatives who do. The head of one Jewish organization estimates that there are 100,000 Poles who have at least one Jewish grandparent, but that the accepted estimate of “Jews” — that is people who identify as Jewish — is between 20,000 and 50,000.
Jews arrived in Poland more than 1,000 years ago, even before the country became Christian in the 10th century. Medieval Poland offered Jews religious liberty, significant economic rights and a great deal of cultural autonomy. Skilled Jewish silversmiths minted Polish coins with Hebrew lettering on them in the 12th century. Some of these very rare coins are in display at the POLIN.
Jews in early Poland participated in a complex economy.
Some cities and other jurisdictions proactively welcomed Jews, with laws guaranteeing them the same rights as their Catholic neighbors. A crossroads of commerce, Poland was also a crossroads of armies and empires. Russia, Austria, Prussia and France (under Napoleon) marched through the country, carving it up, taking land and plundering. Jews were often victims of invaders — manipulated, coerced and persecuted.
Jewish Poles were also Polish patriots. In an ill-fated war against Russian oppression, known as the Kościuszko Rebellion, a regiment of Jewish cavalrymen under the leadership of Col. Berek Joselewicz fought for Polish liberty alongside their Catholic and Protestant neighbors.
Kościuszko, trained in military academies in Poland and France, had come to Philadelphia at the start of the American Revolution, initially contacting Benjamin Franklin. He was George Washington’s most important military engineer. After the Revolution, he returned to Poland to liberate his homeland from Russia. He was exiled after his failed rebellion and briefly returned to Philadelphia, where he was an honored hero of American independence. Kościuszko envisioned a liberal democracy in Poland, where citizens of all religions would live in harmony and peace. Polish Jews fought and died for that ideal.
In 19th and early 20th century Poland, many Jews lived in poverty while others prospered. Textile magnates in Lodz became wealthy. Many were deeply religious, either as traditional Orthodox or followers of various Chasidic rebbes. But many became more secular, moving into cities, especially Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow, where Yiddish culture — especially literature and theater — flowered alongside secular Jewish entrepreneurs, intellectuals and social reformers. Marriage between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, especially in the cities, became more common. Meanwhile, a million or more Polish Jews emigrated, mostly to Germany, England, Palestine and especially the United States. Then came the Shoah.
The Nazis destroyed 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish culture, along with 3 million lives. The Germans also destroyed an important segment of Poland’s national culture. Poles who deny their country’s Jewish heritage and the close contacts between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles need only look at their national poet, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), who had Jewish ancestry and helped organize a Jewish Legion to fight against Russia in the Crimean War. Many Poles, including recent and current government officials, understand this, which helps explain the resurgence of Jewish culture.
Paul Finkelman is a historian and president of Gratz College in Melrose Park.