Warsaw skyline
Warsaw skyline

Jewish Poland today by: Leslie Bunder


For the past 60 years, Jews have been returning to Poland and remembering their past, remembering those who died and remembering the destruction of communities and culture, but now Jewish life is once again emerging and looking to the future.

If you go on some Jewish tours of Warsaw, you will be subjected to three hours explanation of how the Jews were virtually erased from the city, you will be shown places where people were killed and you will probably end up feeling there's really nothing in Warsaw or indeed Poland of interest to Jews.

You may even feel like shooting yourself after the 180 minute depressing tour as there's only so much negativity a human being can take about a place. Sure there were the killings, but Jewish Polish life did not start in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and the ghetto was not the place where Jews always lived.  But go on a tour and you would be led to believe this, there's no references to the wonderful creativity of Polish Jews both before, during and now after the war.  It's like the Jewish tours were created to make Western Jews feel depressed. 

But delve a bit deeper and talk to the people living there and you will discover that they've had enough of being seen as victims, they've had enough of Jewish tourists only coming to see the destruction and they are busy rebuilding.

Over the last five years new projects and new initiatives have been created. In 2004, an annual Warsaw Jewish Film Festival was established and in 2005 over 300 films were submitted for inclusion in the festival from comedy through to drama. Last year saw a number of the younger Jewish community start to get together and network ideas for setting up an alternative arts centre which would be a home to creative Jewish music and theatre.  All around Warsaw, you can see steps being taken by the community to reclaim their past and show pride in what Jewish Poles achieved yesterday and what they can achieve tomorrow.

"We hope that one day, the festival will not need to have to show films about World War II," said Radoslaw Puchalski, organiser of the Jewish Film Festival.  "Jewish Poland is much more than just what happened during the Second World War."  

For years there has been a feeling among Jews that they should blame the Polish for what happened. Jews have traditionally pointed fingers at Poland without understanding what really happened.  Poland was invaded by Nazi Germans, they were subjected to terrible treatment, they died in their millions too.  But to blame them for what happened?  As one young Jewish woman told me in a humorous ironic way:  "Do you really think the Poles could organise the destruction of the Jews with all the advance technology that was used at the time?  Have you seen the way we organise things ourselves?"

Like the Jews living in Poland today, the Jews living outside of Poland also need to stop the morbid fascination with what happened in the past. Stopping does not mean forgetting, we should remember, but we should also now start to help contribute towards the people and projects being developed.  

Jewish Poles do not want to be continually seen as victims. One young Polish man told me, "For our generation, don't people realise how embarrassing and insulting it is when tourists come here and look at us with pity.  We live here because we want to, we don't want pity from people anymore."

And it's this new generation of young Jews in their 20s and 30s who are trying to re-establish their community and move away from the stereotypes of past.  They want to be treated as equals, not as victims.  They want Jews to come and visit their country and cities and see for themselves, there's life in Poland for Jews and they are trying to emerge from the past.

While there may be some in the Jewish community who want to stay in the past, the vast majority want to move forward with the future.  They have the ideas and enthusiasm to make things happen.  They want other Jews to show support to projects that celebrate living Jewish Polish life.

And that for me is what Poland is today. A place where Jews are living and enjoying life. A place where they have come to terms with their past and are moving forward and a place where other Jews should visit and have an open mind.