A number of years ago, I led a group on a most memorable trip to Poland. As we were making our way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, following a moving Shacharit service in the restored Oswiecim synagogue, we were appalled to see a Polish bystander make a Nazi salute as we passed by. We shuddered to think that, so close to the site of the concentration camp that is a prime symbol of Nazi evil, rabid antisemitism was still alive.
Contrast that experience with an encounter that a friend of mine had in the Polish city of Katowice. After he concluded a business deal, a Polish accountant present asked to see him privately. The accountant asked him if he were Jewish. When my friend replied that he was, the Pole tucked his hand into his shirt and drew out a Magen David. “I am a Catholic,” he said, “and I will wear this for the rest of my life as a sign of shame for what my people did to yours.”
By now, many of us have returned, as visitors, to concentration camps and to the towns and villages of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. There we have seen fields that conceal mass graves, empty crematoria where Jewish bodies burned and towns that nave been regenerated from emptied ghettos. The silence of the present does not disguise the nightmare of the past. The Holocaust was not merely perpetrated by card-carrying Nazis alone — and the same is true of genocides since — they required, at best, popular indifference and, at worst, collaboration.
Despite the devastation, Jewish life in Europe has continued. Reconsecrated synagogues, rejuvenated communities and resplendent testaments, such as the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, indicate that European Jewry may, once again, be blossoming.
Germany is now home to the world’s fastest-growing Jewish community. Poland, where fewer than 10 per cent of its 3.48 million Jews survived the Holocaust, is host to a Jewish community growing in both numbers and identity in Warsaw. Europe has transitioned from complicity and denial, now showing a determination to rebuild its shattered Jewish communities.
Yet, in solemn conversations around dinner tables and in worrying news reports from Europe, there is room for concern. We recall the terrible shootings at a Jewish primary school in Toulouse, France and witness public salutes reminiscent of darker times there. We see the racist incitement by Hungarian MPs and a paramilitary organisation of racists and xenophobes on the streets of Greece. A bomb blast at the Jewish community centre in Malmö, Sweden, is merely the latest of many provocations. A new generation is recycling old hatreds and there is a simmering unease in Europe.
The warnings are there. Europe’s journey of progress risks derailment. It is always with hindsight that one can pinpoint a moment when the brakes should have been applied. I pray that we are not heading in that direction, but I trust that, should the moment come, the people of Europe will not falter. Apathy to vitriol and violence encourages its proliferation, whereas education, resolute proactivity on the part of governments and ordinary citizens can do much to cultivate tolerant and cohesive civil societies.
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, we are mindful of the Nazi salute which continues to be used today, together with the genuine friendship and support of many who identify warmly with the Magen David and the Jewish people. Our well-placed concern is accompanied by hope, promise and faith, and the knowledge that even the darkest of tunnels must open to light.