Sunset, Sunrise
Tue, 12/08/2009
Special To The Jewish Week
The most beautiful sunset I have seen in my life was above the rolling hills of Majdanek, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Orange grabbed peach, peach wrapped its legs around crimson, until all was gold, gold hovering over our weeping circle of Jews, gathered there to witness the worst of humanity. I was 18, out of America for the first time and thoroughly captivated by Poland, by its dark history but also by its Jewish renaissance, embodied that day in the radiant sunset. In college and beyond I thought of Poland. I dreamed of Poland. Somehow it appealed to me, made sense to me, in a way that Florida, that Israel, all the warm places where Jews ended up, did not. Something held my attention in Poland. I had always shied away from debates about American politics, preferring instead to take in other peoples’ opinions. But when it came to Poland, I argued. I read and learned, I asked questions and came to understand some history of Communism, what five decades of subsisting on hiding, bribery, underground religion and fake chocolate, can do to a people. Even on my trip driving dizzy through Warsaw, turned around like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, there was something grounding in that country, something I had to explore, something I couldn’t let go. For years Poland stayed in my mind. I figured when things got bad in New York, when I had nowhere to live, or no job, or no boyfriend, I would slip its bounds and steal away East. Everyone said Jewish girls don’t move to Poland. Jewish girls don’t quit their jobs in New York City, leave their sprawling apartments, steady jobs and go to live in Krakow. And in the end, things were good: I had a good job, a good apartment, a good boyfriend. And still I wanted to go. I was told Poland was a horror, Poland was a wasteland, Poland was no place for a young Jewish girl. Despite everything I’d been told, I went back. Poland is not a place where a young American Jew can go incognito. Even when I wore clothes purchased from the market square, my hair cut by the local fryjzer, I didn’t have to open my mouth for everyone to know I was foreign. Unlike New York City, where any attempt at English will get you your pizza slice, MetroCard or directions to Central Park, when I tried speaking Polish more often than not I was met with blank stares — “what is this foreign creature doing butchering our language?” everyone seemed to be saying with their eyes. There was little Jewish or Holocaust education in Poland before 1989, and even since then it has been slow and sporadic, left to teachers who often know few of the facts themselves. People my age grew up knowing almost nothing of Judaism and what they were exposed to was more myth than truth. Some were told that the Jews “emigrated” from their towns during World War II; others didn’t understand the concept of a Jew at all, so steeped were they in Catholicism. Now, 20 years after the fall of Communism, the philo-Semitism that flourished in Poland among Jews and sort-of Jews and non-Jews in the years when they could first begin to explore has formalized into stable, if small, Jewish communities in several cities and towns around the country. There are Polish-born rabbis, Jewish studies programs in universities, and a true, meaningful commitment to Judaism both religiously and culturally. Polish Jews today tell me that their children, born after Communism, think it’s pretty close to normal to be a Jew; the complications of the past are, slowly, being ironed out. Even though I’d desperately wanted to move to Krakow, it took me a long time to figure out what I was doing there, other than working part-time as a reporter and an English teacher. During my first Yom Kippur I remember walking one night with a young chasidic man visiting from Borough Park. He wore a long coat, hiding his traditional black suit, and a kipa. Crossing the street, a rambling, drunk woman glanced at him and shouted, “L’Chaim!” raising her arm as if in a toast. I stopped, bracing myself for an anti-Semitic encounter, a confrontation, wondering if I should move away from him, wondering if he could handle himself in a language he didn’t speak any better than I. But he just smiled, and called back, “L’Chaim!” as if he meant it, as if she had, as if there was Jewish life in Poland to toast on that dark street. What was missing from Jewish life in Poland when I arrived and began covering the community close up, of course, was Jews. The Jews who lived there, who made Eastern Europe what it is, were long gone, and those who had stayed had changed their traditions to be almost unrecognizable from the days when 30 percent of the doorways in Krakow held mezuzahs. And the Jewish renaissance was certainly a different world from what I grew up with in a Conservative congregation in Philadelphia. There were more people enrolled in Jewish studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow than there were Jews in the community, but this was the norm there, this was progress. Yet the presence of absence abounded: Teatr Bagatela, Krakow’s largest repertory company, performed a version of “Fiddler on the Roof” — in Polish — at all times during the two years I lived there. Krakow’s annual Jewish Culture Festival attracts thousands of people, mostly non-Jewish Poles, for 10 days of dancing, music, food and discussion each summer. It was hard to get my mind around the complicated Jewish absence and presence in Poland. Sometimes I couldn’t bear it, couldn’t accept it. But I had to; it was our reality now. So I looked to the small shots of light around the country. The burgeoning progressive congregation in Warsaw, which now has an American-born Reform rabbi and welcomes anyone who wants to know about Judaism. The friends who asked me questions and questions when they found out I was Jewish. And the students of Jewish history who remember the past and who are the future of Jewish religious life and culture in Poland. Beyond the people who are discovering their Jewish roots, and sometimes converting to Judaism, there are many students who devote their university careers to learning about Judaism but are secular, or Catholic, in their private lives. At a party once I listened to friends calling to each other “Lila Tov,” Hebrew for “good night” as they were leaving, and when I asked why they had eaten turkey and cheese sandwiches, they looked at me incredulously: “We’re not kosher,” they said. “We’re not Jewish.” Polish/Jewish relations are anything but easy. Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, suggests that we American Jews should know that anti-Semitism in Poland is not as bad as we would like to think, while at the same time Polish people should know that their understanding and acceptance of Jews in their country, now and historically, is not as advanced as they would like to think. I like this. I like to live in the gray; it’s why I went to Poland in the first place. Because it’s easy enough to walk into a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Jewish renewal, secular humanist or any other congregation in New York City — we are blessed with choice here. Yet to see a grass-roots movement define religion, spirituality and community from the ground up, was a moving, authentic experience, one I had to be a part of, had to write about and witness up close. Poland’s martyrology about its wartime and Communist history cannot compare to or compete with our Jewish losses, but the country can no longer be considered a mere graveyard for the Jewish past. It is vibrant, funny, beautiful, intense and ever changing. It is worth exploring, and I’m so glad I did, because to explore a new place is also to explore oneself. And yet today I live in Brooklyn. The menorah I was given when I wrote a story about a former Communist steelworks factory manufacturing them sits atop a bookshelf, next to a statue of wartime Jews carved by one of the few Holocaust survivors to remain in Krakow. I had to go to Poland, and eventually I had to leave. Maybe you can go home again. Maybe that’s exactly what I did.   Carolyn Slutsky, a former Jewish Week staff writer, was JTA’s Poland correspondent from 2003-2005.