The Column | Mining Poland for clues of a changed nation

Sometimes I think it would be cool to be a geologist. I could hike a nature trail anywhere in the world, glance at the sedimentary layers along the hillsides and instantly read the history of the land, its risings and fallings, its tectonic twists, going back eons.

On the human landscape, however, historical strata do not always so clearly reveal themselves. Some excavation could be required. That’s what I expect next week when I make my first visit to Poland, a country that lost nearly every trace of its Jewish connections.

I will be in Warsaw for the April 19 opening of the Museum of the History of the Jewish People. It’s an epic event in Polish and Jewish history, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Standing directly across from the site of the ghetto, the 42,000-square-foot, $100 million museum is perhaps the most tangible representation yet of the revival of Jewish life in Poland.

I am grateful to the Polish government, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and the Koret Foundation (the latter two being the largest private donors to the museum) for sponsoring the trip and allowing me to cover the ceremonies.

In preparing for this experience, I’ve been reviewing my prior knowledge of Polish Jewish history, as well as carbo-loading on new information about the Jews’ 10-century sojourn in that country. Here’s what I had always believed to be true:

Prior to the Holocaust, Poles unenthusiastically permitted Jews to live in their country. Despite the scorn of their neighbors, the Jews went on to build what eventually became the largest diaspora community in the world.

But Poland, incited by a Catholic Church not yet ready to disavow its bedrock contempt for Jews, cultivated an especially virulent strain of anti-Semitism. So when Hitler set out to exterminate Poland’s 3.5 million Jews, it wasn’t all that hard to do.

I can never forget the grizzled face of Polish railway conductor Henryk Gawkowski, who, in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary “Shoah,” runs his finger across his throat as his train passes a death camp.

I also believed this hatred never disappeared. It simply went dormant, ready to reinfect Poland under the right conditions.

However, in light of interviews and reading I’ve done in recent years, I am now inclined to believe the Jewish renaissance in Poland is the real deal. It’s more than lip service, more than window dressing, more than a slick PR effort to convince the world Poland has changed.

Poland has changed.

With the fall of communism two decades ago, the Polish people have recast their country as a beacon of tolerance. Warsaw and Krakow are hip towns. Jews, along with Ukrainians, Byelorussians and other minorities living in Poland, have felt a resurgence of ethnic pride, something most Poles embrace as part of their rewoven national fabric.

So when Polish Catholics dance the hora at the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, they mean it.

I’m not sure how I’ll feel when I’m in the country. The thrill of visiting new places will certainly give me a lift, although I hope this vegetarian finds something to eat in the homeland of kielbasa. But to be honest, because my forebears came from Ukraine and Latvia, Poland has little personal resonance for me.

However, I think I know how I’ll feel at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

It’s one of the most solemn sites in Jewish history. It’s where a band of starving, poorly armed Davids, knowing full well they would die, took arms against a sea of unstoppable Goliaths, and for 28 days fought to the last.

Standing there as the bell tolls will move me deeply. And while there I will take the measure of the Poles I meet, to gauge as best I can how far they have come in eradicating an ancient prejudice.

Have the sediments of hatred simply been covered up by a thin layer of dust, or have the Shoah and the end of communism triggered a genuine cultural shift in Poland?

I am not schooled enough to know the full answer, but as I get ready to go, I feel optimistic that the Polish people have evolved, and that Jewish life in Poland can safely flourish. Perhaps for all time.

You’ll know when I know. Pozegnanie (farewell) for now. I’ll send a postcard.

Dan Pine can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.