A Jewish Revival

For European leaders, the recent inauguration of three Jewish schools in Central Europe symbolizes far more than a Jewish revival.

They also reflect hopes for a return to normalcy in the heart of Europe more than 50 years after the Holocaust — and 10 years after the fall of Communism.

In this context, the schools — and their message of Jewish renewal in Germany, Austria and Poland, the countries where the Holocaust raged most fiercely — are feathers in the caps of local governments. They exemplify the ideals of a pluralistic, democratic order, not to mention a brighter future. At the same time, though , anti-Semitic political stirrings continue to attract followers. For example, shortly before the dedication of the Lauder teacher training center in eastern Berlin, the city’s biggest Jewish cemetery was seriously desecrated.

Meanwhile in Poland, while senior state and Roman Catholic church officials took part in the dedication of a monument to commemorate the Kristallnacht pogrom in Wroclaw, anti-Semitic militant Catholics defied church and government orders to remove a forest of crosses they had erected at Auschwitz.

In effect examples of political goodwill are taking place, but they coexist schizophrenically with widespread lingering prejudice.

Nevertheless, the presidents of Austria and Poland recently presented Ronald Lauder, whose foundation funds the schools and many other activities aimed at promoting Jewish life in the region, with high state awards honoring his work in strengthening Jewish life and in fostering local relations with Jews.

The homage paid to the new Lauder schools is just the latest in a long series of pro-Jewish actions, gestures and policy on the part of state and local authorities in many countries, part of the volatile mixture of politics, memory and history that are at play in this region.

In the wake of the Holocaust, and over the past decade in the wake of communism, official attitudes toward Jews and Jewish issues have frequently been used (by Jews) as a way of gauging the status of democracy, tolerance and civil rights in the region.

Starting in the early 1950s, official West German policy consciously attempted to make amends to the Jewish people, an ongoing process known as “coming to terms with the past.”

In Austria, such self-examination and confrontation with the past began much later.

In former Eastern Bloc countries, “filling in the blanks” that communism had created in historical memory has been a central motif over the past decade. These include gaping “blanks” about Jewish history and the Holocaust.

Under Communism, Jewish life was stifled, anti-Semitism was often state policy and study or discussion of Jewish topics was taboo. Most Communist states broke relations with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.

The new post-Communist governments quickly moved to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel, encourage Jewish study and open discussion of the Holocaust, including an examination of local involvement.

In all these countries, much of this activity has represented a sincere attempt to make amends and come to terms with the past. But there have also — inevitably — been many examples of lip service, cynicism and exploitative image-polishing.

Even before the fall of communism, some Eastern Bloc regimes in the 1980s openly co-opted or demonstrated support for Jewish causes in order to win support from the West — or from what they believed was a powerful Jewish lobby in the West.

But, the lofty ideals of officialdom have not fully trickled down to the mass public, where xenophobia is on the rise in some countries.

At the Lauder-Chabad school dedication in Vienna, for example, electoral gains by the far-right, anti-foreigner Freedom Party triggered international concern and threatened to sour relations between Austria and Israel.

It is worth quoting, however, Poland’s recent ambassador to the U.S., Drzysztof Sliwenski: “Our authorities are very much conscious that if Poland wants really to become a full member of the family of democracies, it must not just transform its political system and economy, but also the less-well-developed sphere of minority rights, human rights, et cetera.”