Once, when a Jewish person announced plans to visit Germany, friends would ask, “Why would you want to go there?”
They were obviously unaware of Germany’s move from its past — evident in the handsome German-Jewish History Museum, the encouragement of new Jewish communities throughout the country and the opening of a touching outdoor memorial to European Jews.
And it is made most evident by Germany’s august Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has based her strong concern for displaced and desperate Middle Eastern refugees on her nation’s ugly history. Her determination to ameliorate this crisis has hindered her political career, but she perseveres — looking to the future, not the past.
Now Poland — whose shameful anti-Semitic past, in Communist as well as Nazi times — seems to be moving to where Germany had been.
Again, friends ask, “Why are you going there?” But there are answers. When you actually travel to the country and see a Jewish community working to rebuild — with the help of the government and private sources — you see Poland through different eyes.
You see that, while fully aware of the decimation of its pre-war Jewish population, the nation seems determined to try to recreate the communities which had produced a rich heritage dating to the Middle Ages. It is a slow process, with the small number of Jews, many assimilated, struggling to make a future for themselves and their children. But there is hope that it is happening.
If you are fortunate to be led by a unique Polish guide, as my husband and I were on a recent trip, you realize how many citizens of this increasingly pluralistic nation want the world to understand what is happening here.
Our wonderful Renata Guzera frequently varied our Smithsonian tour’s planned itinerary to show us what she called “special places.”
The first was Polin in Warsaw, the “new” Museum of the History of Polish Jews — founded in 2014, it’s a breathtaking modern edifice built on the grounds of the demolished Warsaw Ghetto. Throughout this exceptional institution you get the sense of the nation’s desire to bring back the past, where Jewish culture was such an important part of Polish life.
There were a number of other sites Guzera and Polish history professor Laurie Koloski showed us, giving us historical and current background.
Needless to say, we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, crowded as it always is with visitors from many countries. The warm, sunny day did not diminish the camp’s gruesome reality, nor did we expect that it would.
Our tour companions, primarily non-Jewish, were as respectful and sensitive as they had been throughout our trip. Later, they would ask us questions about the Holocaust, obviously needing to know more about the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, then and now.
One of the most significant places Guzera was anxious for us to see is a site I had no idea still existed: Schindler’s Enamel Factory in Krakow, converted a few years ago into a dark and cramped, but significant, museum.
Unlike Polin in Warsaw, Schindler’s building was hard to navigate and one was almost forced to turn away to get back downstairs.
But then we saw the man’s office, with the desk where he made his extensive plans to save the ghetto’s Jews — along with the very typewriter where survivor Stern sat with him to type the list of people chosen to work in the factory. Who can forget the moment in Spielberg’s film when Stern looked up at Schindler and said, with wonder, “The list … is life.”
Jewish Warsaw and Krakow have continually growing numbers of monuments and heritage sites. Synagogues, mikvahs and libraries stand near monuments to the ghetto heroes and the Jews and Poles martyred during World War II.
But modern Poland goes beyond the memorials to the past, as Guzera, a Krakow native, took pains to explain. Describing the street fairs, art exhibits and Klezmer concerts in the lively Kazimierz district, she told us that we had to come back when some of the annual Jewish events would take place. “Everyone turns out for them,” she said excitedly.
Coming back to Poland was nothing we would have considered before this trip, but now it goes on the list of places we have found interesting — and about which we need to know more.
Is the country perfect? Certainly not, especially with a new prime minister who is more conservative than Guzera and her friends would wish to have in power.
But one sees progress in the nation, more than the bricks and mortar of the physical structures. One sees people starting to come here to make a life, including expatriate American Jews — along with Polish gentiles, who want their children to learn about the lost culture, and help bring it back to life.
That’s because life is the operative word, as Stern said so long ago.
Guzera and her friends are the future of Polish life, in their caring concern to help visitors rediscover Polish Jewish civilization.
We can only wish them well and be grateful for their efforts to create a new Poland.
Margot Horwitz is a board member of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network in Philadelphia.