When Israeli rock musician Uri Meizelman heard that Warsaw’s municipality planned to demolish one of the last remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, he flew from Tel Aviv to Warsaw with a message: “Preserve and remember!”
It was in this decrepit, brown brick building surrounded by grey, graffitied scaffolding where, seven decades ago, the Jewish-Polish poet Wladyslaw Szlengel chronicled the ghetto life before being killed by the Nazis.
Meizelman, the drummer in the Israeli rock band El Hameshorer – which held a Hebrew-language rock performance outside of the building in hopes of saving it – says that the timing is critical.
“It’s impossible that people become apathetic to the past,” said Meizelman. “Today, you walk around Poland, and it’s all shopping malls and chic restaurants, people are starting to forget.”
Among them, he says, are Israelis, who as tourists and as residents have been flocking to the Polish capital in recent years, drawn by business, shopping, and real estate investment opportunities instead of an urge to reconnect with their Jewish past.
Israel’s relationship with this country has changed drastically in recent years. Once it had the connotation of the Holocaust and was known best as the site for the Israeli high school “Journey to Poland” field trip, in which Israeli teens visited Nazi concentration camps and learned about the extermination of 3 million Polish Jews. Today the Israeli-Polish relationship is increasingly about Poland’s future rather than its past.
Roughly 500 mostly young and secular Israelis live in Warsaw, and a few hundred live in smaller cities like Krakow. They are a percentage of the thousands more who hold Polish passports through a law that enables Jews with Polish-born parents or grandparents to obtain national citizenship.
According to a 2012 study conducted for the Business Opportunities in Poland Conference, about 20,000 Israeli citizens hold a Polish passport, roughly half of whom applied for citizenship after Poland joined the EU in 2004.
Among them is 22-year-old Dan Ozeri, who dances with the Polish National Ballet and says that his future could not be feasible in Israel, where budgets for the arts are being slashed under the right-wing ruling government.
“I wanted to live in Israel, where my family is, where my life is, but it’s impossible,” says Ozeri at a café in the centre of Warsaw. “For me, my future’s in Europe.”
It’s a common refrain among the diverse, middle class Israeli brain drain scattered over the continent, many of whom say they had no choice but abandon Israel’s economic and political squeeze, as the price of living continues to skyrocket and the Palestinians conflict trudges on.
In Poland, the influx of Israelis has coincided with a recent Jewish renaissance, in which synagogues, Jewish kindergartens, and Jewish Community Centres have opened their doors, and the Jewish community is celebrating its resurgence after near-annihilation during the Holocaust.
But unlike neighbouring Germany, where tens of thousands of Israelis live and which has for years publicly apologised for the Holocaust, Poland’s ruling far-right party has allowed – if not encouraged – the rise of antisemitic sentiment.
Many, like Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz, have argued that it was solely the Nazis (or the Russians, or other groups besides the Poles), who were responsible for the atrocities against the Jews, despite mainstream Holocaust research shows that Poles did, in fact, murder Jews in large numbers during and after the war.
The parliament recently passed a law declaring that anyone referring to death camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland as “Polish” would be subject to three years in prison.
Last summer, Bogdan Rzonca, a lawmaker for the anti-immigration conservative Law and Justice Party tweeted, “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust” – a sensitive topic in a majority Catholic country that fervently opposes abortion.
Andros Tetreo, a 35-year-old Israeli working in Warsaw’s financial district, has lived in the city with his Polish wife and daughter for the past five years, and says that he has never encountered antisemitism.
If anything, in the relatively liberal metropolis of Warsaw, he says he’s been struck by a philo-Semitism, by which Polish neighbours have expressed interest in learning about Judaism and Jewish culture.
He has also been amazed as how “clean, quiet the city is, how there are no wars, which is something Israelis have to get used to.”
When he first arrived to Warsaw, Tetreo crossed the street if he spotted a tractor, or cowered when hearing loud noises.
It was the result of years living in Arad, in southern Israel, where rockets had landed from the Gaza Strip; and, later, from experiences with the Palestinian “lone wolf intifada,” in which young Palestinians used vehicles and other nonconventional weapons to carry out attacks on Israeli streets.
“In Israel, I realized you can either get killed in some terror attack, but [also in times of peace] you pay an exorbitant amount of taxes to get really nothing in return. It’s a rigged game,” he said.
“I’m a Zionist,” Tetreo added. “Which is what makes this so hard.”