Why Auschwitz is not the only reason for Jews to visit my country

Poland’s ambassador to the UK says culture, history and science offer plenty of reasons for Jews to rediscover his country

April 19, 2019 07:05

On the quest to discover their roots, Jewish people often travel the whole world. Some end up in Poland, where many of their ancestors lived before the establishment of Israel.

In the 16th century, 80 per cent of the world’s Jewish population lived in Poland and the country was the birthplace of many Jews who went on to build Israel.

This strong presence remains to this day, with many Polish towns and cities preserving Jewish heritage through cultural institutions, synagogues and cemeteries. Meanwhile Jews integrated well into the society, with many speaking fluent Polish.

It is difficult to imagine modern-day Poland without Jewish heritage, which is why when visiting Auschwitz and learning about the camp’s tragic history, it is worth seeing other Polish places which reflect it.

The Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw is perhaps the next best known Jewish landmark in Poland.

Built on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, it celebrates the thousand-year history of Poland’s Jewish community and is a place where you can learn about past and present Jewish culture, confront stereotypes, and consider perils from today’s world —such as xenophobia and nationalistic prejudices.

Another institution where Jewish legacy is preserved is the Jewish Historical Institute.

It contains the 6,000-document Ringelblum Archive and is developing the largest Judaic library in Poland. Meanwhile, the Centre for Yiddish Culture works to research and preserve this rich heritage by familiarising the wider public through language courses, film and book clubs.

In the city of Lublin, you can see for yourself the horrors of the Majdanek, Bełzec and Sobibór death camps at the State Museum.

Also in Lublin is an educational and artistic centre based at the Grodzka Gate, which used to be a passage from the Christian to the Jewish part of the city, a meeting place of various cultures, traditions and religions.

About 40 miles away from Oswiecim is Poland’s former capital, Kraków.

It is home to the Kazimierz Jewish Quarter, which was a centre of Jewish life for over 500 years before its destruction during the Second World War.

The Old Synagogue, the oldest monument of Jewish sacral architecture in Poland, proudly sits on one of the area’s main roads.

Kazimierz is perhaps best known today for the Jewish Culture Festival, which this year will be held between 21 and 30 June.

One of the oldest and largest festivals of its kind in the world, it attracts over 30,000 people a year from around the world to take part in workshops, lectures, discussions and various musical events — with many more Poles able to watch it live on public television.

But a tour of Poland is not only about visiting places of Jewish heritage. In Warsaw alone there are dozens of must-see sites, including the National Museum, the Warsaw Rising Museum, the Copernicus Science Centre and the Fryderyk Chopin Museum.

The historic city of Gdansk, is where you can find countless places of remembrance, including the Museum of the Second World War, with a permanent exhibition presenting the Polish experience of the war in a European and international context.

In Gdansk you can also find one of the most important museums of modern history: the European Solidarity Centre, which celebrates the victory of the Polish Solidarity movement over the communist oppressor.

When visiting Poland, Auschwitz is the obvious choice. It is there that the country’s role as the inheritor and custodian of the memory of the Holocaust is best shown.

But to get the full picture of modern Poland and how it nurtures the long-standing Polish-Jewish relations and Jewish heritage I encourage you to go beyond the former concentration camp and explore. You will not be disappointed.

Arkady Rzegocki is Poland’s ambassador to the UK

April 19, 2019 07:05

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