I spent one week in Poland six-and-a-half years ago.
Poland. The burial ground of the three million Jews who lived there. Poland. The birthplace my family fled from in fear of their lives, never to return. Poland. A rite of passage I had to make, but approached with total dread.
Poland. Warsaw. Krakow. Lublin. Treblinka. Auschwitz. Birkenau. Majdanek. Ghettos, work camps, death camps. I saw glimpses of the Jewish life that had existed there, but was extinguished. Jewish businesses. Jewish schools. Jewish villages – shtetls. Jewish families. Jewish friends. Jewish organizations. Jewish lives. All reduced to piles of ashes. Poland. A place that declared a hatred of Jews. Poland. The name itself made me shudder, but it was a country I had to see. Poland. When I left, I vowed to never forget and to never return.
I spent forty hours in Warsaw, Poland last week. I just was passing through on the way home from a business trip to Minsk, Belarus. But this time, I was intrigued. Could it possibly be true that a Jewish renewal was taking place in Poland? Were the new synagogues of Beit Polska – eight across Poland – attracting and engaging those who wanted to reconnect with their Jewish roots? Were things finally changing? Was Warsaw really boasting a museum – built and financed by the City of Warsaw and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, right in the heart of what was the Warsaw Ghetto – that recalls a thousand years of Polish-Jewish history?
Poland. It looked and felt different from the moment I got off the plane. The airport was bright and energetic with hurrying travelers tapping into free wi-fi. The first billboard I saw was advertising the new public opening of the POLIN Museum of History of Polish Jews. City streets were wide and clean with modern cars of recognizable brands (Audis, Toyotas, BMWs, Mercedes…and there was no honking.) People were polite, friendly, and fashionably dressed. The Bristol Hotel, a jewel of a boutique type, and its entire staff were perfectly delightful. And the local restaurants offered much more than potato pancakes and borsht.
Poland. It also was the graveyard of three million Christian Poles who called the country home. Poland. By the hands of the Nazis and the Soviets, all of the Polish people suffered. It was a land of millions of individuals – not just Jews – who endured terror, destruction, and death.
Poland. A place where all people want to learn, understand, and heal.