The first time I travelled to Poland, my aunt called me up to chastise me. “If your grandmother knew, she’d never forgive you.”
My maternal grandparents left eastern Europe for North America as a young couple with small children sometime between the end of World War I and the Great Depression. Within a few years, all of their siblings had joined them. The shtetl they left behind is located in present-day Belarus, but they always said they came from Poland. And once they left, they never looked back.
They weren’t nostalgic for the old country. They told few stories of the life left behind. What they valued – family, Jewish ways – came with them and took root on a new continent. What few tales they told were about crushing poverty and the precariousness of Jewish life. Although their English always remained an immigrant tongue and would lapse easily into a more comfortable Yiddish, from the moment they stepped onto the ship that would carry them across the Atlantic, they vowed never to utter another word in Polish.
My aunt concluded our conversation. “At least don’t spend any money there.”
My grandparents’ antipathy towards the place whence they hailed – an antipathy bequeathed to their progeny – wasn’t unique among Jewish immigrants of their era. After all, they weren’t expelled from their home. They made a considered choice to leave. They were happy to Americanize their young family, to acculturate to a place they saw as economically promising and hospitable to Jewish life.
And yet the judgment of history is less harsh. Coupled with a long record of anti-Semitism is also an equally long record of hospitality to Jewish culture and Jewish learning – so much so that the 16th-century Krakow Talmud scholar Rabbi Moses Isserles – known as the Rema – is said to have punned on the Hebrew word for Poland, Polin, asserting that God had led the Ashkenazi Jews to the area and told them, “Poh lin,” Hebrew for “Rest here.”
Recently, as I organized my suitcase for an extended field study trip that would end up in Poland, I couldn’t help but recollect the conversation I had had with my aunt. It wouldn’t be correct to say anti-Semitism has vanished in Poland. Far from it. Recent online discussions of the new ban on shchitah (ritual slaughter) of kosher animals reveals disturbing sentiments about Jews.
But my trips to Poland over the past decade have also shown me a finer side of the country. This summer marks the seventh anniversary of the extraordinary biennial program developed by my York University colleagues Michael Brown and Mark Webber – The Mark and Gail Appel Program in Holocaust and Antiracism Education – “Learning from the Past, Teaching for the Future.” We travel with a trinational group of students – Canadian, German and Polish – who spend one month learning about Jewish life, and the destruction of Jewish life, as well as about the rich Jewish culture, the decimation of that culture, and about the tenacity of Jewish life and culture, and its miraculous survival.
When we travel through Poland and Germany, we cohere as a group who interact with colleagues, educators, journalists, museum directors and curators, and memorial site workers. The Poles we study and work with are interested in Jewish life and culture, committed to facing up to Poland’s mixed record, and to forging relations with contemporary Jews. In this, they come to resemble their German peers, facing up to a past that contains unspeakable horrors, but also an intellectual and spiritual heritage that is still with us.
We all come with questions. To say that we come home with answers would be only partly true. We find some answers, true, but we develop more questions – questions that could drive a lifetime’s reading, study and research.
Call it an occupational hazard, but I have great hope for the current generation of young people – both those I have come to know on my own campus, and those I’ve had the privilege to work with in other countries. They show a great sensitivity to all sorts of racism and an idealistic desire to better the world.
I’ll be tweeting on behalf of our group as we make our way through Germany and Poland this month. You can follow our encounters at @prof_srh.