By Sarah Ansbacher
The first time I ever spoke to someone from Poland was in London when my husband and I were still dating. Bundled up in thick coats and hats on a crisp November night, we were walking beside the River Thames when a tourist stopped to ask us for directions, so we helped him.
“I’m visiting from Poland,” he said.
“‘We hope you have a great time here.”
Neither of us expected what came next. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”
Without words, a look passed between us and an inherent understanding: unease, the hint of a threat, a fear passed down through generations. Neither of us answered the Polish tourist, but he took our silence as confirmation. “Hitler was right. He should have gassed the lot of you!”
Those horrifying words left a scar and reinforced a stereotype of Polish people as antisemites.
But an encounter with some tourists at the museum changed my perspective.
“Do you have a synagogue here that we could visit?” said the man who stood outside the door with his wife and another couple who had two young children. “We would like to see one.”
“Yes, there’s one upstairs,” I said. “You are welcome to come in for a visit.”
The rest of the group had already drifted inside, the exhibits having caught their attention. The husband joined, and before we continued to the synagogue, I gave the group a short, guided tour.
“I once saw a synagogue in my hometown and I’ve been to Israel before, twelve years ago. But this is the first time in Israel for the others and none of them have ever seen a synagogue.” His manner was friendly and with a cheerful smile he said, ‘We are from Poland.’
Something froze inside me. It was a visceral reaction, a throwback to that disturbing conversation all those years earlier in London. I tried to keep my emotions in check and smiled back.
The two men donned kippot (skull caps) out of respect, and we entered the synagogue. They listened with interest as I gave them an explanation and showed them around.
We lingered for several more minutes and I turned to the one who had asked for this visit. “What brought you to Israel?”
“The warm weather, cheap flights, and the culture,” he said.
“How come you are interested in Jewish culture?”
“Once there was a large Jewish community in Poland, perhaps the biggest in the world, until the big tragedy.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of that interesting turn of phrase.
“There isn’t much of a community left now, so how do you know about it?” I asked.
“We learnt about it in school. We regard what happened as a loss for ourselves, too. Back then there wasn’t the State of Israel. They weren’t just Jewish people; they were Polish too.”
His statement confounded me. “So, you regard it as a tragedy for you as well?”
“Yes. They were our people too.” His words were heartfelt. He seemed eager to converse further, and it felt right to discuss this. I gathered my courage and asked:
“Weren’t some Polish people also responsible for the death of Jews?”
“Yes,” he said, without hesitation. “That happened too. Some Poles killed Jews. They were Catholic and antisemitic. Although the Germans started the Holocaust, some Polish people also joined in.”
It reminded me of the recent media coverage about the proposed Poland Holocaust Law, and I asked his opinion.
“I don’t understand why it has upset people in Israel,’ he said. ‘The law is only to prevent people from calling the camps Polish death camps rather than German death camps in Poland. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the Holocaust or even say that there were also some Poles involved.”
“From the articles I’ve read, it implied they would forbid a reference to any Polish involvement.”
“No. I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“Do you regard the law as a good thing?”
“It’s good that it has raised the subject.”
“Perhaps it is time we were all able to have more open and honest conversations with each other about everything?”
“I’ve spoken to a few German tourists who have visited the museum, and it has impressed me how Germany has faced up to their actions. Do you think Poland has done the same?”
“No,” he said with breathtaking honesty. “A lot more still needs to be done.”
He continued by sharing some of his personal experiences. “Even though my family were Catholics, some of them also suffered during the war.”
The woman with the young children had been following the conversation and now joined in. “The Nazis shot my grandfather and kicked out my family from their homes.”
“I didn’t realise that Polish people also suffered in that way.”
At that moment, I felt a sense of remorse that I had not been aware before of their hardships, but they just seemed to appreciate the chance to tell their side while I listened.
“Although some Poles collaborated and murdered Jews, many other ordinary Polish people, like our families, suffered too.”
“What about the pogrom that took place in Poland after the war when they murdered survivors who returned from the concentration camps?” I asked.
“Kielce, 1946.” He understood the reference. “That was a terrible crime. In recent years there has been an official admission of guilt and apology for what took place.”
Together, we walked back downstairs, and he continued, “Please consider that until 1989 we were under Soviet rule. They dictated the school education. But, since then, there has been a vast change in education and children in school are now learning about the Holocaust in a lot more detail.”
We touched on the school trips from Israel to Poland. “I’ve heard that before they go, the teachers warn all the school children to be careful and not speak to any Poles because it could be dangerous.” He looked anguished. “Please believe we aren’t all antisemites. We’re Roman Catholic: some people are very conservative, and things need to change, but we aren’t all like that.”
I did my best to reassure him. “I’m sure not all the schools do that. Perhaps some learn that from home if their family members went through the Holocaust.”
He signed the visitors’ book and said, “You should come and visit Poland sometime. They’ve now launched a lot of cheap flights.”
“Maybe I will one day.”
It was the first time I had ever experienced an open exchange like that. We parted on warm terms and I think we both came away with something positive. I know it changed some of my perceptions.
Nothing can ever change what happened, and we must never forget. But perhaps with dialogue, ‘never again’ can really mean never again.
(Reprinted from “Passage From Aden”: Stories From A Little Museum In Tel Aviv by Sarah Ansbacher – with permission.)
About the writer:
Sarah Ansbacher is a writer and storyteller. She also works at the Aden Jewish Heritage Museum in Tel Aviv.
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