Poland is the safest place in Europe for Jews today

I survived the Holocaust in a sub-cellar in Tarnopol (Ternopil), a city now located in western Ukraine that once had a thriving Jewish as well as Polish population.
September 23, 2014

I survived the Holocaust in a sub-cellar in Tarnopol (Ternopil), a city now located in western Ukraine that once had a thriving Jewish as well as Polish population. Before coming to the U.S., I grew up after the war in France when philo-Semites like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Pierre Mendès France, the country’s second Jewish prime minister, were luminaries. Jewish origins have been an important part of that nation’s genius from Montaigne to composers as different as Giacomo Meyerbeer and Jacques Offenbach; to painter Camille Pissarro; to the inventor of sociology Emile Durkheim; to the writer Marcel Proust; to the philosopher Henri Bergson; to the actor Sarah Bernhardt; to the movie superstar Jean-Pierre Aumont; to the groundbreaking writer Georges Perec; to the multitalented Serge Gainsbourg … to mention only a few. 

Today I am under the impression that France has forgotten about its Jewish cultural roots. The televised events from the streets of Paris and Marseilles fill me with sadness and consternation. In the middle of July, thousands of Muslims, along with some anti-Semitic French Catholic demonstrators, walked through the center of Paris shouting “death to the Jews.” They burned cars, vandalized Jewish stores and, as reported by the press, a number of them, armed with knives, threw stones and bottles at the Isaac Abravanel Synagogue not far from the Bastille.

I read that the polls indicate that as many as 40 percent of French Jews hide Jewish symbols. It is not surprising, as so many incidents of anti-Semitism happen daily in France.

It is not better in other parts of Western Europe. A bomb was planted in the new synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany; swastikas were painted on stores in the Jewish quarter of Rome; Israeli soccer players were attacked in Austria. These are but a few examples of the daily realities faced by European Jews. It is not just a one-time eruption of anti-Semitism by Muslim immigrants caused by the actions of Israel in the Gaza Strip. The hatred of Jews in Western Europe has been growing for many years. More and more, it is expressed by elites and the educated middle class.

Italy’s most popular philosopher and inveterate anti-Semite, Gianni Vattimo, told interviewers on Italy’s Radio 24 that he wanted Europeans “to buy Hamas some more rockets” to “shoot those bastard Zionists” because Hamas’ current arsenal is limited to “toy rockets that don’t really kill anyone.” He wants to forget and not have to apologize for his fascist grandparents’ atrocities committed in Abyssinia, Guernica, the Balkans and Greece. One of Spain’s most popular playwrights, Antonio Gala — an obvious anti-Semite — has written justifying the historical Jewish expulsions with the implication that Western Europe should become Judenrein again to punish Israel for supposedly slaughtering innocent Palestinians. He seems to ignore the fact that after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, his country slid into scientific and intellectual obscurity. Today Spain, with a population 25 percent larger than Poland, boasts fewer than half of Poland’s Nobel Prize recipients.

The problem has been noticed and taken up by world media. From a Newsweek cover story, to newspaper pieces titled “The Next Kristallnacht” or even “The Next Holocaust,” the stories about current and future prospects of European Jewry are extremely grim.  A month or two ago, the Economist magazine ran an editorial arguing that, all things considered, Jews were safer in Europe than in Israel. Of course, that was before the latest eruptions of “violent anti-Israel riots threatened to turn Paris into the West Bank.”

If history repeats itself, then perhaps the unthinkable — an exodus, under threats of physical harm to Jews — will again become thinkable. I want to propose the hypothetical question: If Western Europe’s Jews need to leave again, en masse, in what direction should they go? And where would they find the most hospitable welcome? I assume here, for the sake of argument, that they would not choose to go to an embattled, unsafe and crowded Israel.

Let us focus first on whether America would offer safe haven, as the New World sometimes has for half a millennium. I myself was among the fortunate survivors ultimately embraced by the U.S., where I advanced to the Ph.D. candidacy in French literature at UCLA in the early 1960s before going into business and becoming a  hotelier. If you had asked me when I first came to America as a young man whether America would provide safe haven to a new mass Jewish influx — a subject in which I developed a keen interest — I would have had grave doubts.

Let us not forget that in America levels of anti-Semitism were sky high both before World War II (when Father Coughlin was admired by tens of millions of radio fans for his anti-Jewish diatribes) and during World War II (when it wasn’t safe for Jewish youngsters to walk the streets of Boston). Rafael Medoff, in his latest book, has documented the political timidity and/or prejudice that caused FDR not to “lead from behind” on the refugee issue like President Obama is now doing, but not to lead at all. Remember that open German immigrant quotas were unfilled during the 1930s because of anti-Semitic U.S. consular bureaucrats. Remember also the fiasco of the 1938 Evian Conference, when the U.S. and Britain refused Hitler’s offer to deport as many Jews as they would accept, and the turning away in 1939 of the doomed SS St. Louis, which the Coast Guard prevented from landing on the shores of Florida. 

Even immediately after the war, U.S. polls reflected strong opposition to admitting large numbers of Jewish DPs (displaced persons). This was “the post-Final Solution” proposed, for example, by anti-Zionist Jews who vainly promoted it as an alternative to creating the state of Israel. 

Only later did the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution of 1956 begin to change attitudes in a big way, making admitting non-Jewish anti-communist refugees fashionable, and after 1960, when JFK sold himself as president of “a nation of immigrants,” a vision that posthumously triumphed in the Immigration Reform Act of 1965. Then in 1967, Israel’s underdog victory in the Six-Day War electrified Christian as well as Jewish Americans, and anti-Semitism began to ebb dramatically.

I would argue that America is still passing through a half-century window of opportunity for a Jewish haven, beginning in the 1960s, when American Jews, though declining as a percentage of the population, achieved unprecedented success and influence in the intellectual, economic, cultural and political realms.

However, I think it is appropriate to pose the uncomfortable question: Is the current window of favorability toward Jews — and probable hospitability of the U.S. sheltering a new Jewish influx, if that proved necessary — destined to last forever? If Jewish-Muslim conflict continues at a high level in the Mideast; if the American Muslim population increases over the course of time from 2-3 percent to 8-10 percent, on the order of France now; and if New York and Washington politically take on the coloration of Paris, will the favorable window to a new Jewish influx persist — or will that window close to a mass influx of Jewish refugees?

This leads me to my last question and challenge. Should European Jews cover their bets, not by abandoning Europe, but by moving east the way their ancestors did when expelled in the hundreds of thousands from practically every part of Europe from the 13th to the 16th centuries? Despite the reality of anti-Semitism promoted by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community of Poland-Lithuania, from the time of the Statute of Kalisz (1263), achieved an unprecedented level of communal autonomy. This translated into economic dynamism; a last flowering of kabbalah; new religious creativity among both the Chasidic and the anti-Chasidic movements, including both traditionalists and modernizers; Jewish self-government through the kehillah system;  and Jewish-Polish cross-fertilization reflected, for example, in Jews fighting for Poland in both the anti-Russian revolutions of 1831 and 1863. During much of these long centuries, Poland was the only country in Europe to willingly admit Jews — for that, we Jews owe Poland an everlasting debt of gratitude. Also inadequately understood is the degree to which Jews reciprocated this hospitality by enriching Polish intellectual and cultural life.

Today’s March of the Living, during which young American Jews renew their Polish family roots before visiting Israel, has some unfortunate side effects. One is to reinforce the current view of Polish-Jewish history as a white versus black affair generating nostalgic sentiment for the shtetl, on the one hand, and nightmarish recoil from the Holocaust on the other. There was much more richness, complexity and nuance to Polish-Jewish history over more than 700 years than suggested by shtetl sentimentality versus Holocaust horrors.

I believe that Poland, once again, could become a beacon for West European Jews wanting to start over in a safe family environment but not to abandon Europe. Poland could even serve as a haven and headquarters country for European Jewish business elites whose interests are global. Some reasons are the hospitality of the Polish people, despite residual prejudices kept alive by a slow-to-reform Catholic Church; the openness of the Polish economy to Jewish entrepreneurship; and Poland’s receptivity to Jewish culture, as reflected in the concept enunciated by Polish intellectuals and journalists of the phantom limb. The once-thriving but now near-extinguished population has been compared to the missing limb of an amputee that no longer exists but still has feeling. Many intellectuals and students paraphrase the greatest Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who may himself have had Jewish roots — Jew, “you are like health, cherished only once it had been lost.”

But there is another reason. Let us be candid — Anti-Jewish Islamization hasn’t happened and isn’t expected to happen during the next half-century the way it has in Western Europe and may even happen in America. It is also reassuring to know that Poland’s neighbor to the west, the most powerful country in Europe, is its ally and the ally of Jews and Israel. For generations now, Germany has taken upon itself the task to oppose anti-Semitism in Germany and beyond and has staunchly supported Israel and its right to exist. Germany has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews, has encouraged further growth of its Jewish population and would have great allure were it not for its large and growing Muslim population that is not immune to radicalization.  All of this creates a new Polish “window of opportunity.” 

Among other benefits to Poland, the returning Jews would bring with them their experience of teaching at the highest level of academia and further enhance the Polish institutions of highest learning. (It is worth noting that about a third of the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences are Jews.)  Their knowledge of economics, international trade and business in general would help turn Warsaw into a major European financial center. Jews have a highly developed sense of responsibility for the community at large; an example of which would be Leopold Kronenberg’s construction in 1875 of the Warsaw Business School and later the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, for which he was the initiator and one of the main benefactors. The presence of a significant Jewish community would no doubt spur the creation of hospitals, schools, museums, theaters and music venues, as has been done in other parts of the world.

Once again, history repeats itself. Centuries ago, Jewish folklorists, feeling secure in Poland, played creatively if inaccurately on the etymology of the word “Poland.” They argued that it derived from the Hebrew word “polin,” meaning “here find a haven.” One Jewish folktale related that when Jews first came to Poland, they found a wood, the forest of Kawęczyn, in which on every tree one tractate of the Talmud was carved.

Maybe the time has come to dust off the bark of those trees.

Severyn Ashkenazy was born in Poland in 1936 and survived the Holocaust with his parents and brother. He founded and is past chairman of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. He founded Beit Warszawa Association, Heritage and Rebirth, Beit Polska and Beit Warszawa foundations as well as Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland.

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