That evening was 30 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. I was in Warsaw — still part of the Soviet bloc, back when such a thing still existed — on a trip that in those days was a novelty.
Its theme was the Holocaust, a visit to the sites where the attempt to annihilate the Jews of Europe took place.
I was one of about a hundred people taking part, one half drawn from Jewish youth movements from Britain and the continent, the other half from Israel. We were venturing into what seemed uncharted territory.
The visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau and to Majdenek were deeply affecting, just as you’d expect. So was the tour, on foot, around what had been Jewish Krakow. I remember the marks on every other doorpost, the traces of where a mezuzah had once been. “Shadows,” our guide called them.
But the memory that’s on my mind relates to an evening at the theatre. We were there to watch a production of the Yiddish State Theatre in Warsaw.
On stage were actors and musicians doing sketches and songs in the old tongue, every man a Tevye, every woman a Yente. The Israelis, many of them middle-aged despite their nominal youth movement affiliation, lapped it up, standing and cheering at the end. “Yiddish in Warsaw!” they marvelled. “You see, we did survive. Hitler did not destroy us.” It was the same message repeated by those who insisted on walking through Auschwitz draped in the Israeli flag, wearing it as a cape. “The Nazis wanted to exterminate us, but we’re back.”
I could not share that reaction. I sat in that theatre, watching that performance, caught between sadness and nausea. For next to none of the players on the stage, shrugging and mugging their way through all the old Yiddish ditties, was a Jew.
They were acting, having learned these strange, alien sounds phonetically. They were like a travelling troupe of anthropologists, engaged in a demonstration of the curious foibles of the extinct Jewish people.
The memory of it came back to me thanks to reports of a Jewish wedding earlier this month in the Polish village of Radzanów, 80 miles north-east of Warsaw.
In fact, it was a “wedding”, a staged re-enactment, involving a fake rabbi, a fake bride and a fake groom, in front of a fake congregation, made up of Radzanów villagers, some of whom wore fake beards and fake side-curls. After the ceremony, they formed circles and, fake tzitzit flying, danced, Fiddler on the Roof style.
It was not the first such affair in Poland, though it was said to be the most elaborate. Nostalgia for vanished Jewish communities is now something of a phenomenon in Eastern Europe. In Poland, for a while, “I miss you, Jew” became a familiar slogan, graffitied on walls. In Ukraine, you can pick up little figurines of Jews on sale in street markets, where they are offered as good luck charms.
What’s the motive behind this kind of remembrance? The organisers of the Radzanów wedding said they wanted to teach the villagers some of their history, so that they would know about the community that once accounted for half of the local population. For some, perhaps most, the driving sentiment seems to be a sense of loss. Others seem to be animated, however paradoxically, by a form of nationalism: seeking to reconnect with their past before Soviet rule. The irony of Polish nationalists embracing Jewish culture as part of their Polishness does not need to be spelled out.
The positive gloss on all this would be to say that, at long last, Poles and Ukrainians are recognising what was always true: that their societies and the Jews were intertwined for the best part of a thousand years. The villagers of Radzanów know they amputated a part of themselves when they stood by and watched their Jewish neighbours sent off to the Mlawa ghetto, never to return. That bizarre performance on the village green amounts to the twitching of a phantom limb.
Optimists will welcome that, seeing it as perhaps the first step towards an eventual reconciliation. But I can’t shake off the key fact that this month’s simulated wedding, like that show in the Warsaw state theatre or the flag-wearers in Auschwitz three decades ago, sought to skirt around. Put plainly, the Jews of Poland are dead.
In this respect, Hitler was not thwarted. He succeeded in destroying Jewish life in Poland and across most of central and eastern Europe. All that remains are traces, like those shadows on the door posts. And nothing confirms the deadness of that civilisation, the deadness of those millions of people, more than these macabre attempts at revival.
A living people does not have to fake a wedding. When those volunteers stick on their pretend beards, and dance their pretend dances, all they do is declare again that Hitler did not fail.
For look around: the Jews are gone.