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KRAKOW, Poland — “Warsaw,” I said, skittish about my impending travel plans. “I mean, it’s got the word war in it,” I told my brother. “And saw,” he added.
In fact, my reaction seemed pretty typical. It seemed each time I told someone I was off to Poland, eyebrows would climb in response as if to say, “Really? Why?”
A family friend joked: “What’d you do?” Wrong, that is.
In other words, Poland has the reputation that the country is exotic in a bizarre way, still haunted by the Holocaust, and Communist ugly.
As a freelance reporter, I was brought there by the San Francisco-based Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture on one of its Jewish heritage tours this summer.
Helmed by Tad Taube, a Krakow native who fled Poland as a child, the group is dedicated to reconnecting American Jews with Poland, where, according to the group, 75 percent of American Jews can trace their roots. The definition of Poland here is a liberal one and refers to “Polish lands” which, given shifting boundaries, stretch from Ukraine to Hungary. (Poland, per se, didn’t even exist between the wars.)
About 250,000 of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews survived the Holocaust, says Shana Penn, the foundation’s executive director. And for many American Jews, Poland conjures hell and barbed wire, not the thousand years of Jewish history that preceded it.
But, as Taube puts it, Jewish history was murdered along with 6 million Jews — and reconnecting Jews with their lost heritage restores a sense of pride in their ancestors’ landmark achievements. Poland, in fact, was the center and birthplace of Ashkenazic Jewry and rich with Yiddish theater and Jewish scholars whose culture permeated the country.
Taube, through a variety of efforts, namely his Jewish heritage tours, wants to make that link. He wants Jews from Poland to think more of themselves than just having “cheated death.”
His efforts are supported by Poland itself.
In the aftermath of Nazi exterminating, Communist whitewashing and two decades of democracy, Poland is searching for its soul, and finding that it’s deeply Jewish. In some cases, individual Poles are discovering and celebrating their personal Jewish heritage.
Today’s Poland hosts Jewish community centers, schools, and plenty of preservation projects — including a new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, slated to open in 2011 on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. The museum includes a reconstructed “virtual shtetl” project that has Poles submitting artifacts about Jewish life in those small villages.
And Krakow boasts a Jewish Culture Festival that’s among the largest in Europe.
More than 200 events packed the nine-day program that had this city bumping the first week of July. Advertised on blue banners draped across Krakow’s cobblestone streets, the festival drew some 30,000 guests, according to organizers. Most of them are not Jewish, while the entertainers mostly are, leading courses in Jewish cooking, Hebrew calligraphy, and performing concerts. The audience turned out in throngs for the festival finale, jamming the plaza of this city’s old Jewish quarter to hear Klezmer music and songs in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews.
In fact, the festival is such a big deal that when I entered a local shop in search of a disposable camera, the clerk explained they were all out: “Sorry, it’s the Jewish festival,” he said.
Now it was my turn to hike an eyebrow and wonder if I’d heard correctly.
This is Poland?
Before this trip, I had sized it up as the site for a pilgrimage to the concentration camps.
And I did see Auschwitz and Birkenau; in some way, I feel fortunate to have witnessed the crime scenes.
At Auschwitz, there were a group of squawking black birds overhead, and I wondered if they were singing or laughing, and what the prisoners would have made of them 60 years ago.
Inside brick barracks, glass cases housed gruesome displays — grey human hair and a sample of the tapestry it was weaved into, along with shoes, prosthetic devices and eyeglasses. I thought I might be sick to my stomach.
Birkenau was worse. Strictly a death camp, it held ashes and rubble, the eerie emptiness of tracks and mean, flimsy barracks.
We left these places for the nearby Auschwitz Jewish Center, which has a different mission — to tell the story of the town of Oswiecim before WWII. Renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis, it was one of many densely Jewish villages in Poland.
But this center, which opened in 2000, represents the story that’s beginning to be told more often as Poland pieces together its past and allows for a different future.
We saw glimpses of the future in a variety of places, like the revitalization of Polish culture and economy. Warsaw is actually lush — packed with parks — with a lovely, reconstructed Old Town. And Krakow, though the word sounds like something stuck in one’s throat, is as charming a city as you would find in old Europe. Its town square, lined with cafes, seems to embrace the city’s whole population at night for the European art of dining and people-watching.
And the picture of Poland, then and now, emerges in the joy of the Jewish Culture Festival and the preservation work for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, and by the Poles — newly discovering their personal Jewish identities — at this city’s new Jewish Community Center.
The richness of Polish Jewish life before the war doesn’t lessen the pain of the Holocaust. But taken together, as these layered histories unfold, there’s a new way of seeing Poland, and for Jewish visitors — ourselves.
By RACHEL POMERANCE
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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