On July 20, tens of thousands of people stood in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw singing, “Freedom. I love and understand it. And I’m unable to give it up.” We were there to protest a series of unconstitutional bills designed to give Poland’s ruling party, the ironically named Law and Justice Party (PiS), absolute power over the judicial system.
This was not the first protest I had been to in Poland. There have been many marches, including one in support of Poland’s women, when PiS tried to ban abortion outright.My wife, Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska, a Polish-born Jew, has marched in many more than I have. For a time, it felt like she was on the streets at least once a week protesting some new, horrifying policy being passed by PiS. And when she isn’t marching, she is at conferences and meetings, helping build a new political movement called Inicjatywa Polska (Initiative Poland), led by left-wing thinker and politician Barbara Nowacka.
It’s been strange for me.
I joined my wife in Poland, moving from Canada, because of our mutual interest in helping to grow Jewish life in Poland, while preserving the memory of the country’s Jewish past. I was not particularly interested in the contemporary political system as much as I was in understanding the local Jewish community and its relationship with the past. In fact, this new government had become a bit of a nuisance for me, because it was distracting my wife from what we were actually here to focus on: the Jews.
It’s not that I didn’t care about contemporary politics, it’s that I’m more interested in what is happening in Canada. To be honest, since coming to Poland, I haven’t had any deep feelings about the government or its actions. I personally believe that Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the PiS party, is an autocrat masquerading as a democrat, and that his and his party’s actions are often unconstitutional, inhumane and idiotic. Perhaps it is because I never really felt as though the government’s policies affected me that I remained somewhat indifferent. I am, after all, a Canadian Jew, who’s here for other reasons.
But on the evening of the protest, my feelings started to shift.
The Polish people fought for their freedom throughout the Second World War and 45 years of communist rule. The Solidarity movement finally brought them liberty – and the current government is now trying to take that freedom away, in order to maintain absolute power.
One of two things is going to happen. The first is that Poland could be on the brink of regressing back into a communist-style dictatorship that will oppress its people well into the future. The country will either leave, or be kicked out of, the European Union, and may start to look similar to Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko.
The second possibility is that there will be a new Solidarity-style movement that reflects the words of the song we sang that night. Indeed, now that the Polish people understand freedom, they’re less likely to give it up without a fight.
On the fateful night of the protest, as I looked at the desperate, inspired people around me, I suddenly felt I could not stand idly by, as it is their hard-won freedoms that have allowed me the privilege of contributing to the country’s new Jewish growth.
Recently, my wife and I, together with American artists Maia Ipp and Jason Francisco, initiated a new alternative Jewish art program in Krakow, called Festivalt. We did so during the very popular Krakow Jewish Culture Festival that draws some 30,000 people annually, including Jews from around the world. This can only happen because Poland is now free. The Jewish community is growing, only because it is free to do so.
This freedom is incredibly important to me. It’s what has allowed Judaism to begin to grow once again in a place where it was supposed to be over. It’s what has allowed me to feel welcomed – even desired – in a country where three-million Polish Jews perished. Poland and its contemporary freedoms have become key to the growing revival of Polish Judaism, both from Poles discovering and embracing their own Jewish roots, and from Jews who are returning to Poland to explore and embrace their own Polish roots. This happened to me five years ago, and it’s helped me bring balance and spirituality back into my life. I believe it can help other Jews, as well, but we have to be free to do this. If the current government persists, this freedom will be threatened. It’s not that the government is a threat to Jews in particular – it’s a threat to all the people of Poland.
Before the war, many Jews cared deeply for Poland. This was something I didn’t learn until I began spending time here, as I always believed that Jews and Poles thought of themselves as separate peoples. Learning that this was not the case spurred me to start researching what it was about this country that Jews loved so much.
Contributing to the fight for Poland’s freedom has now also become a part of what we do. It is integral to the work we are doing in the Jewish community, and as a Polish Jew, I want my country to be free. While singing with those people – my people – that night, I came to understand that this means being prepared to fight for it.
Michael Rubenfeld is a Polish-Jewish theatre artist and cultural producer.