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Poland is Complicated

Posted on Monday, December 18, 2017 by Richard Kasper

The views expressed in this blog does not necessarily reflect those of The Wexner Foundation.

Poland is complicated.  Since returning from a week in and around Warsaw and Krakow last summer, I’ve found that I can’t describe the trip without first establishing this basic fact.

A few months ago, I was among eight Jewish leaders from Phoenix, Los Angeles and Seattle who travelled to Poland together as guests of the Polish Consul General.  If not for this invitation, I doubt I ever would have visited Poland.  Like many Jews of my generation, I’ve viewed Poland as the world’s largest cemetery and consider Poland and its people partly to blame for the murder and destruction of what was once the center of worldwide Jewry.  It’s the place where generations of my own family lived and perished, many at the hands of their fellow Polish citizens.

The ostensible purpose of the invitation was to showcase a revival of Jewish life in Poland.  And without a doubt I witnessed the remarkable beginnings of new Polish-Jewish communities.  I encountered inspirational people in their 30s who only recently discovered their Jewish ancestry — which families suppressed out of fear and shame throughout the post-Holocaust and Soviet eras — and who are embracing their Jewishness, studying Hebrew, learning Jewish ritual and practices, and coming together to form 21st century Jewish communities where the world assumed Jews could never thrive again.  Jewish Community Centers with hundreds of members are growing in Warsaw and in Krakow, including a new Jewish preschool in Krakow, which is filled to capacity.  (One ironic sidenote: In Warsaw, the JCC sits on a busy corner, with an open door to the street, and no one seems to fear for their safety. My office is at the JCC in Scottsdale, Arizona and our safety requires visitor screening at the entrance, a police substation, routine lockdown drills and active-shooting trainings.)  Our visit overlapped with the last few days of Krakow’s annual Jewish Cultural Festival and included a stop at the restored Tempel Synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat, which was among the most moving experiences of the trip.  Following services, we joined more than 600 others for the largest Shabbat dinner in Poland since World War II. 

But Poland is complicated.  So despite obvious social and economic progress in the last 30 years, many contemporary Poles still struggle to reconcile their self-image in modern society, with an ugly and bloody not-so-distant past.  Unfortunately, much of the struggle doesn’t seem to include any significant aspect of accountability.  Within only a week in Poland, I lost track of the number of times I heard from well-meaning Poles that Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust era.  Like a practiced mantra, we heard repeatedly about the crimes of “the German Nazis” (i.e., not Poles), that Poles (i.e., not Jews) were victims, too, and that most Poles were good to the Jews in their midst.  The point of greatest sensitivity is the camps.  Evidently, there were no Polish concentration camps.  Rather, we were informed that the camps were built and operated in Poland by “the German Nazis.”  One well-intended museum docent confidently informed us that among the many reasons so few non-Jewish Poles attempted to help Jews in the Warsaw ghetto was that Warsaw’s Jews separated themselves from the larger community, didn’t do business outside the Jewish community and spoke their own language.  Never mind that Jews comprised fully 30% of Warsaw’s pre-war population and by most historical accounts were fully integrated into Warsaw’s public life.

To be fair, we encountered a number of non-Jewish Poles who acknowledge the truth about Polish responsibility, and one organization, The Forum for Dialogue, is partly dedicated to it.  On balance, the Polish General Consul achieved its goal of showcasing developments that were eye-opening and positive; I am even considering a return visit.  At the same time, Poland is complicated.  Among much of the population, there remains a disheartening willful ignorance of Polish culpability concerning the Holocaust along with a lack of understanding of Polish-Jewish history overall.

Richard Kasper is a Wexner Heritage Alum (Phoenix) and currently serves as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix. Previously, Rich was an attorney and partner at Ryan Rapp & Underwood, PLC. Rich has a long history of lay and professional leadership involvement at both the Federation and Community Foundation and additionally serving as Arizona Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League and on the board of Valley of the Sun JCC and Planned Parenthood.