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WARSAW, POLAND — By the fourth day of my weeklong reporting trip to Poland, I was struggling to make sense of the crushing contradictions.
I had felt the palpable excitement unleashed by the newly opened exhibit at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a rich, sophisticated retelling of the Jews’ thousand-year sojourn in Poland, built on the very site of the Warsaw ghetto, a bold statement of renewal and intent. But the day after my visit to the museum, I heard a chilling presentation on the extent to which Polish anti-Semitism retains a stubborn hold on a populace essentially devoid of Jews.
I had walked along the streets of Warsaw, a city nearly entirely destroyed during World War II, now pulsing with energy, its skyline punctuated by construction cranes and renovation projects, the former headquarters of the Communist Party transformed into the stock exchange. But the new Warsaw is built on the graves of Jews, one-third of the city’s population before the war, now only a ghostlike presence. One sign of Poland’s dynamic economy, the tall, sleek MetLife tower, rises from the very spot where the Great Synagogue, once the largest in the world, had stood until it was blown up by Nazis in 1943.
I heard from academics who were pessimistic about the prospect that Poland would soon welcome back its Jews, and from activists willing it otherwise.
And this was before I met an inspirational group of high school students, all non-Jews, who were voluntarily researching and unearthing the Jewish history of their town.
And before I went to Auschwitz.
On that fourth day, the contradictory experiences coalesced in a lecture hall at the University of Warsaw, where at a conference memorializing Jan Karski, the heroic Polish resistance fighter and diplomat, a stage full of scholars debated if and how and why the Jews are still a problem in Poland.
Really. That was the theme of the keynote speech: “The Jews as the Polish Problem.”
And while many well-meaning things were said — and other not-so-well-meaning things were hinted at — it was a surreal feeling to listen to scholars speak about my people, my extended family, in the third person plural when I was sitting right there, as if Jews were an abstract concept, a theoretical problem, not actual human beings with a history both proud and horrific on Polish soil.
It struck Konstanty Gebert as absurd, too. He’s a prominent, outspoken journalist, one of the very few people I saw that week wearing a yarmulke in a public place, and I caught up with him after the panel discussion concluded.
“I tend to take exception to people who say I don’t exist,” he said dryly. “Don’t bury me just yet.”
I visited Poland with a small group of Jews from the United States and Australia brought together by the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, an admirable organization begun 16 years ago to promote reconciliation between Poles and Jews. (The Forward paid for my transportation and lodging.) I was there the first week in November, just as the luminaries who had gathered for the museum’s grand opening in late October were returning home, and the bonhomie they left in their wake still lingered. Poland did not seem as bleak as I had expected. The weather was unusually mild. I was even able to go for a run on a couple of mornings in Warsaw.
The timing of my trip was exquisite in other ways. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in Poland, and the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising — both monumental events in the Polish psyche and the formation of national identity. It seemed to be an inflection point on so many levels.
And, indeed, many Poles I spoke with recognize that this moment presents an opportunity for them to explore their complicated, often tragic history and their fraught relationship to the Jews who once were neighbors and fellow citizens. At the same time, children of Holocaust survivors are streaming to Poland to excavate the stories of their families’ pasts before their parents’ generation moves on. I bumped into the mother of my daughter’s college roommate in the hotel dining room in Krakow, doing just that.
Revivalists: The task of reclaiming Jewish history in Poland is largely undertaken by non-Jews, such as these high school students participating in a program run by the Forum for Dialogue in Radom (from left), Kasia Dolega, Agata Filipczak and Martyna Sliwinska. BETH KRAFT
Revivalists: The task of reclaiming Jewish history in Poland is largely undertaken by non-Jews, such as these high school students participating in a program run by the Forum for Dialogue in Radom (from left), Kasia Dolega, Agata Filipczak and Martyna Sliwinska.
Me, I wasn’t looking for my roots; my father’s family left Poland well before World War II, and besides, the towns from which they hailed are now in Ukraine. Mine was a journalistic inquiry. I wanted to see if a Jewish renaissance really can take hold in a nation with hardly any Jews, to see if it was time to write a new narrative, even to forgive a country and a people many Jews blame as much as the Germans for the atrocities and destruction of European Jewry in the 20th century.
But an unexpected thing happened. The more I sought to understand what was happening with Jews in Poland, the more I realized that their story poses a challenge to us as well. There is something quietly subversive about the movement to resurrect life in the home of the death camps. It upends the narrative that Israel — or the golden streets of America, take your pick — are the places where 21st-century Jews belong. Poland was where we fled from or died, not where we are supposed to claim a future.
And more: Some of the Poles I met take not just Jews but also Judaism way more seriously than many American Jews do. One of the leaders of Krakow’s remarkable Jewish Community Center studied Yiddish at YIVO in New York. One of the leaders of the Forum learned Hebrew in Israel. And neither of these women are Jewish.
The way they are grappling with faith and identity and history puts to shame the nonchalance that characterizes many American Jews’ superficial connection to their heritage.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/209962/chasing-ghosts-reviving-spirits-the-fall-and-rise/?p=all#ixzz3Kkn1W1Ou