U.S. President Donald Trump, in his first visit to Poland this Thursday, stood before a massive, cheering crowd in Warsaw and told them exactly what they wanted to hear. Polish people are wonderful and the heroes of WWII. Trump will need their help to end terror, money-laundering and cyber warfare. He will free them from Russia’s meddling. He will give them troops and he’ll give them God. Through it all he praised the Polish spirit and strength, calling Poland the “soul of Europe."
But the darkest corner of Europe’s soul is in Poland; a shameful legacy of betrayal. The largest Jewish community in the world was destroyed there, and one Pole in every ten. There are so many small memorial sites to the Holocaust around Warsaw and Krakow that they're nearly impossible to avoid. The fact that Trump successfully dodged them all boggles the mind, but it's not surprising given the climate of denial in Poland’s current government.
Polish President Andrzej Duda and other right wing politicians have been peddling a slightly diluted Holocaust narrative for years, making war with historians and survivors over the facts. In August of this year, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro proposed legislation that would criminalize the use of the term "Polish death camps," to be punishable with up to three years in jail. In 2016, President Duda publically threatened historian Prof. Jan Tomasz Gross for his book about a Polish village massacre of Jews in WWII. In December, the director of the Polish culture institute in Berlin Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska was removed from her position for including "too much Jewish themed content," according to German media reports.
Combating this growing stigma are Poland’s only two Jewish community centers, one in Krakow, the other in Warsaw. The elder of the two, JCC Krakow, is just nine years old. Poland’s Jewish population is about eighty thousand. The community's now-miniscule size contrasts with the over 115 JCCs representing 7 million Jews across the United States and Canada.
As Poland’s Jewish youth work to rebuild what was lost, they fight more than just politically motivated denial. It’s not uncommon for grandparents, after years of practicing alone in secret, to admit being Jewish on their deathbeds. Jewish mothers and fathers, inheriting the fear of their own survivor parents, usually baptize their children as protection. As a result, most Polish Jews today have no inkling of their family history until they reach college age. As their history gets steadily erased by Poland’s leaders, it's hard to imagine it getting any easier to 'come out of the Jewish closet.'
One member of the Trump clan did make it out to a memorial: Trump’s diplomat to the Jewish world, Ivanka. She visited the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial, only a short distance away from her father’s stage, long enough to snap a quick photo. If she spoke with any local Jewish groups, which I doubt, it was not publicized. Heaven forbid she be asked to engage with living, breathing Jews.
Last month I went to Poland with the Global Leadership Institute. On the last day of the trip, after visiting both JCCs and countless memorial sites, we were asked to list the challenges facing Poland’s Jewish communities today. The question felt impossibly vast; what role do other governments play in preserving Poland’s Jewish heritage and memory? The answer is certainly not to ignore it completely, even if the host government of the day would prefer silence.
Trump acknowledged in his address that "Polish Americans have greatly enriched the United States.” He even listed a few Polish street names in Washington as proof. Yet the New York business mogul avoided mentioning the biggest subgroup of Eastern European immigrants: Jewish Poles fleeing anti-Semitism.
Despite all odds, the Jewish community in Poland is getting a second wind. JCC Krakow puts up posters all over the city with colorful graphics of dreidels and challah bread. A friendly invitation at the bottom reads: “If you’ve seen these around the house, come see us!”
Chloe Rose is a graduate of the BFA Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. She has written for Macleans, Lilith Magazine, The Garden Statuary and The American Pilgrims Association and worked at Haaretz in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @chloerosewrites
This article has been corrected to state that one Pole in every ten was killed during World War II.
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