Lost For Words: When the Jew in me argues with the Pole

At my work there are moments when I need to take a break; when I cannot take it any longer. I cannot take reading about what happened to the families I am looking for.

It usually starts innocently, but I know that the history will repeat itself. I start with nothing more that the name and sometimes, if I am lucky I manage to find out the town or a city the person in question made Aliyah from. For the purpose of the search I like to know what I am dealing with so I often have a look at the city or town, read about its history and, especially, to what happened to its Jews; because every town and city in Poland had its Jews.

It had its pets that were disposable anytime a scapegoat needed to be found. So now I am looking at yet another family from a small town the name of which I have always heard, but never knew about what happened in it. This was mostly the case because the history lessons in Polish schools tend to focus on what the Nazis did in and to Poland, not what the local people did to those who lived amongst them for Centuries.

And here I am, yet again, with my heart in my throat, tears in my eyes, sick in my stomach and a hand over my mouth, reading about a neighbour-to-neighbour slaughter of every Jew (men, women, children) at the hands of not just the Nazis (I’m sorry, all of my history teachers, you have been white-washing the history while indoctrinating us with false patriotism, talking about the Polish pride, golden freedom and your righteous code), but their own neighbours, who took kitchen knives in their hands, entered the houses of their Jewish neighbours and within less than a week slaughtered every single one of them. Five thousand Jews were slaughtered in that pogrom. In that small, tiny village that means absolutely nothing on the map, the representatives of three different nations (German, Polish and Ukrainian) managed to find determination and unfailing strength in their arms to lift their guns and knives at people who were defenseless. Love your neighbour like yourself, the commandment that is central to Christianity, just at it is central to Judaism, didn’t apply here. Chas v’shalom.

I know where to look for the said family now – in Yad vaShem.

I am at war with myself most of the time. On one hand, I grew up in Poland. I had friends there. My family still lives there. My brother studies at the university near the town I am reading about at this very moment and he has friends too. Sometimes I call my Mum to say: “Hey Mum, I’m now in X”. She answers usually: “Oh, that’s next to us”, but she never asks for details.

Poland gave us place to grow and fend for ourselves. My mother managed to open a well-prospering business regardless what our roots are. Actually, she’s one of the most successful people, who literally came from zero to hero, who I know of. Dad also managed to place himself in a well -respected position, despite his background. They are both involved in their local community – Dad in charge of collecting food and clothing for those that need it and Mum cooking food for the homeless. My siblings go to school there and are not harassed by their peers. Actually, there are sort of celebrities, with my sister pretty much reaching the status of an Instagram Queen (because these things apparently matter these days). Mum always told us to respect the country that gave us a chance, whatever the history.

And the history of Poland is that of a very complicated nature. Just yesterday I was at a Shabbat meal with people living in my area in Jerusalem and when someone asked about the anti-Semitism in Poland I stood, as I always do, in the middle. I told them about the changing history and nature of Poland. I told them about years of religious freedom where every other country in Europe persecuted everyone who wasn’t Catholic, Jews included. Poland became a safe haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Now, as I am sitting in my office, in Israel, living in freedom in a country guarded heavily from people who pick up their kitchen knives to do the same thing as the local people did in Poland all those years ago, I am choking on muffled anger. I cannot comprehend what happened between the safe haven and the Shoa. Why would people, who had in in their hearts to protect their own children, slaughter someone else’s?

Somehow my role in life is to always see both sides of the story. I cannot truthfully say – yes, Poland is an anti-Semitic shit-hole (I apologise) and everyone who is Jewish should leave immediately and have nothing to do with it. Israelis shouldn’t travel there. There is nothing to see, but death and camps. Yet, I can’t say that, because it’s not true. But today, out of all days, I wish I could say it out loud. I wish it was truth. I wish truth was black and white, because it would make sense right now for me. For everyone. But I bloody can’t.

And that makes me angry beyond belief.


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