Old hate dies hard, but things are changing

By Antony Lishak, January 24, 2014
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Sipping coffee in the Lauder Morasha School (Warsaw’s only Jewish school), an elderly gentleman smiles over his plastic cup.

“Jews and Poland — complicated? You’re right! Come, follow.” He goes into a hall decorated with giant menorah collages. There’s standing room only. It’s Sunday, but like children all over Poland, the students are staging musical events to raise money for children’s charities.

“These are all Jews. Many have only recently found out, but they are Jews.”

A boy begins to play the Chopin Nocturne from The Pianist that Wladyslaw Szpilman played 70 years earlier about a mile from where we are standing. “This is what we call a ‘Warsaw Moment,’” says the man.

“Heritage Tourism” is big business in Poland. Even in winter, groups of shivering Israelis gather around guides at the few remnants of the Ghetto. In summer, the array of languages makes Warsaw sound like the Tower of London.

“Too many of them come just to remember the past,” says Jagna Kofta from the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews. “They don’t want to see what is happening here today.”

She discovered her Jewish roots in her teens. “I knew I was different,” she explains. “I would go to friends’ parties and wonder why they had such large families. They had uncles, aunts, and grandparents. I didn’t even know what a grandparent was.”

Poles frequently refer affectionately to “our Jews” when talking about the Jewish revival that has been gaining a pace in recent years. Seen in the context of what happened here under Nazi occupation, such a sentiment could appear insincere.

Polish antisemitism has become a major component of the narrative that tries to explain the atrocities that happened here, but the picture is far more complex.

It is alarming to see images of money-counting Jews for sale in shops as signs of “good luck and prosperity”.

But such aberrations need to be viewed in the context of the fact that Jewish cultural and economic influence in Poland goes back almost 1,000 years before a single death camp was built here; that there is an old intimacy that is gradually finding a way to express itself.

Once the blinkers are removed you can see change everywhere: in the Shabbat celebrations at the refurbished Nozyk Synagogue (once a Nazi stable); in the ever-widening awareness of the 6,000 Polish righteous gentiles and in the shuls that are popping up all over the country.

And just like here, there are plenty of disputes between the different factions — a sure sign of the community’s maturity.

STARS, Antony Lishak’s latest book, is available on Amazon

Last updated: 11:45am, January 24 2014