Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Back to the Old Country Part II: Philosemites and Antisemites

My three week academic study trip to Poland, with 9 other graduate students, set off on Thursday June 30th. We were going, as students of history and the Holocaust, to look at modern issues concerning Jewish-Polish relations. We arrived in Krakow, smack in the middle of the 21st Jewish Culture Festival, which as we learned pretty quickly, is sort of a big deal in Poland. On our ride from the airport to our hotel, situated at the corner of the old city in Krakow, we caught glimpses of Jewish stars labeled with information for the festival- but it wasn't just a few signs, there were signs everywhere.

The Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow consists of tours of Jewish Kazimierz, Yiddish and Hebrew Language workshops, movies, lectures concerning history and present culture, Klezmer concerts (including a final "Jewish Woodstock" concert), Genealogist appointments, Shabbat dinner and services, open admission to Jewish museums, Jewish dance, Yiddish singing and more. Most events were offered in Polish and English, but there were a few in Yiddish and Hebrew (including a "Romeo and Juliet adaptation... in Yiddish). The festival itself, was widely attended, mostly by Poles, but also by Jews from Israel and the Diaspora. Poles, non Jewish Poles, were coming out in droves, to celebrate Jewish culture and religion. It was philosemitism at its best.

The Jewish Culture Festival is organized and was established by a non-Jewish Pole, Janusz Makuch. Most of the organizers are not Jewish. Most of the participants are not Jewish. It is in light of this, many criticize the festival as being unauthentic, or virtual: it lacks Jews. Ruth Gruber, in her book "Virutally Jewish" describes the festival, and also the renewed Jewish quarter Kazimierz, which now boasts Jewish restaurants, Klezmer music, and Jewish symbols. She describes the quarter virtual, because in some senses, it is just that: a Jewish area, devoid of Jews. One restaurant I passed by, called Ariel, has a big Jewish star accompanying the sign, and lists Jewish favorites on the menu, like "Chulent"- a slow cooked beef stew traditionally made on Shabbat, and also sweet fish- also known by Jews as gefilte fish. As you eat, a Klezmer band plays in the background. Yet, there are no Jews sitting inside: the restaurant is not Kosher. Similarly, the Jewish cultural festival, isn't completely "kosher" either: the final Woodstock Klezmer concert began much before Shabbat ended- so while all my non-Jewish friends were able to go to the show, me and my other religious friend, Alexandria, had to sit inside our hotel room waiting for it to get dark before we could wander out. I turned to Alexandria and asked, "How is it that only the Jews cannot attend the Jewish culture festival?"

As the rest of my group made their way back to the hotel after the concert, they encountered a telling scene: a group of religious Jews, were making Havdallah near their hotel window. They were dressed traditionally: black suits, black hat, women covering their hair and wearing long skirts. Across from the window, outside, were a group of Poles, with cameras, taking pictures of the Jews making Havdallah. The participants in my group were taken aback: The real Jews were being treated either like old relics in a museum, behind a plane of glass. So while crowds flocked out to a crazy final concert, Jews were stuck in their hotel rooms, or being stared at while they performed religious ceremonies. We were the museum pieces, and left out of the Jewish fun. Was it ignorance? Was it antisemitism? It reminded me of the little Jewish dolls you can buy in almost any tourist shop around Poland: traditionally dressed Haredi Jewish men holding coins or bags of money. We were relics you buy and place on your fireplace mantel- stereotypes, virtual.

And here all the contradictions came flying in my face: on the one hand, the Poles are philosemites, celebrating the best of Jewish culture. On the other hand, it's unauthentic, pushing the Jews to the sidelines. Why are they even interested in Jews in the first place? Why do they care about Yiddish, and Jewish dancing and songs? Why are there tours informing Poles of long history of Jewish synogogues in Poland? And art, made by non-Jews expressing Jewish issues? Weren't the Poles antisemites, an image that is often held by many Jews? Didn't they want us gone? Weren't these the same Poles who instigated pogroms, even after Hitler's war was over? And the ones who purged out the last of the Jews in 1968? Yet, the more I stayed in Poland, the more I began to learn, that despite the lack of Jews, the history of the Jews does not exclusively belong to Jews.

The truth is that Poles do care about Jews, Judaism and a Jewish piece of their past, that isn't only Jewish, but also Polish. The Jews of the past, the ones that made up 10% of Polish population, weren't a separate part of the culture and country- they were part of it. Jewish culture was Polish culture, and the the Jewish culture festival, isn't only about celebrating Jews, but celebrating Poles, and Poland itself. I think that this concept is sometimes hard to grasp, especially considering that the younger generation of Poles never really knew a Jewish Poland. The Jews left over 60 years ago, and the growing Jewish community today in Poland, does not even hold a candle to the past. Yet, they are the generation that grew up in a place where the ghosts of the past could be seen everywhere. A foreign language, peaking out behind layers of paint, indentations of Mezuzah on their homes, and old decaying buildings, laden with Stars of David. The Jewish footprint exists in Poland- it is everywhere.

In Poland, contradictions are part of the past, they are part of the present and they are part of the future. True, the Jewish Culture Festival has virtual and unauthentic aspects, just like the "Jewish" restaurants in Kazimerez, but what could they be based on? Poles are trying to put the pieces of the past together. On the other hand, antisemitism still exists in Poland as well. Just a few weeks ago, the memorial in Jedwabne commemorating Jewish victims, who were killed by their Polish neighbors during the Holocaust, was desecrated with Nazi slogans, and unforgiving statements. This action came in the wake of similar acts of hatred against Jewish memorials. But a few days later, in Bialystock, Poles marched in protest against antisemitism. They were protesting this wave of hatred. Clearly, the answer is not simple: Poles are neither Philosemites nor Antisemites. They are dealing with a past that is still present. A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the following quote from Janusz Makuch, who established the Krakow culture festival. In it, he expounds on the contradiction that define Poland Jewish relations today.

"My name is Janusz Makuch and I come from Poland. I come from a country of rabbis and tzaddikim, gaons and melameds, from a country of Jewish sages, writers, bankers, architects, painters, doctors, shoemakers and tailors, film directors and producers, physicians and politicians, scientists and Jewish soldiers, from a country of devout, good people. I come from a country of anti-Semites and goodhearted people, from a country of szmalcowniks (blackmailers and informers) and the greatest number of Righteous among the Nations, from the country of Father Rydzik and the country of John Paul II, from a country of anti-Jewish graffiti on synagogue walls, and a country where thousands of non-Jews study Jewish history, culture and religion, from the country of the German death camps and the country of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, from the country of Shmuel Zygelboim, Mordechai Anielewicz and Marek Edelman, and from the country of Jan Karski, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski. I come from the country of the Vaad Arba Aratzot, the Jewish Parliament of the Four Lands, from a country of countless shtetls, yeshivas and Hassidic courts, from a country of Jewish autonomy and pluralism and I come from a country of the numerous clausus, ghetto benches, pogroms and murder. I come from a country whose greatness was co-created by Jews who were Polish citizens. And I come from a country that after the war kicked out Polish citizens who were Jews. I come from a country of anti-Semitic madness where they burned Jews in barns. And I come from a country of Christian mercy where they hid Jews in barns. My name is Janusz Makuch. I come from Poland and I am a goy, and at the same time for more than 20 years I have created and run the largest Jewish culture festival in the world. I'm a Jewish Pole - and I'm proud of it."