Once, when a Jewish person announced plans to visit Germany, friends would ask, “Why would you want to go there?” They were obviously unaware of Germany’s move from its past — evident in the handsome German-Jewish History Museum, the encouragement of new Jewish communities throughout the country and the opening of a touching outdoor memorial to European Jews.
And it is made most evident by Germany’s august Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has based her strong concern for displaced and desperate Middle Eastern refugees on her nation’s ugly history.
Now Poland — with its shameful anti-Semitic past — seems to be moving to where Germany had been.
Again, friends ask, “Why are you going there?” But there are answers. When you actually travel to the country and see a Jewish community working to rebuild — with the help of the government and private sources — you see Poland through different eyes.
You see that, while fully aware of the decimation of its pre-war Jewish population, the nation seems determined to try to re-create the communities that had produced a rich heritage dating to the Middle Ages. It is a slow process, with the small number of Jews, many assimilated, struggling to make a future for themselves and their children. But there is hope that it is happening.
If you are fortunate to be led by a unique Polish guide, you realize how many citizens of this increasingly pluralistic nation want the world to understand what is happening here.
In Warsaw, the “new” Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a breathtaking modern edifice built on the grounds of the demolished Warsaw Ghetto. Throughout this exceptional institution you get the sense of the nation’s desire to bring back the past, where Jewish culture was such an important part of Polish life.
There were a number of other sites my guide Renata Guzera showed me, giving me historical and current background.
But modern Poland goes beyond the memorials to the past. Describing the street fairs and art exhibits in the Kazimierz district of Krakow, Guzera told me that I had to come back when some of the annual Jewish events would take place. “Everyone turns out for them,” she said excitedly.
One sees progress in the nation, more than the bricks and mortar of the physical structures. One sees people starting to come here to make a life, people who want their children to learn about the lost culture and help bring it back.
Margot Horwitz is a board member of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network in Philadelphia.