Last month I visited the Old Country for the first time. Poland. Land of my grandmother and grandfather, burial ground of countless unknown relatives. For six days, I wandered the country, and for six days I marinated in a deep nostalgia for a Jewish past I have never lived but have always felt far more connected to than, say, the Zionist-dominated present.
In one particularly moving episode, I walked the still-cobblestoned street where my grandfather walked as a boy, a narrow lane of Bialystok called Czysta Street where he, his parents, and eight siblings all lived [old homestead is pictured, below].
In another, I celebrated, cake and all, what would have been my great-grandparents’ 118th wedding anniversary. I visited the synagogue in Tykocin where one of my great grandfathers might have prayed. And I roamed the overgrown cemeteries of Warsaw and Bialystok, wondering which of my relatives were buried there, marveling at the tangled breadth of what once was, mourning its loss, and puzzling over why, if we’re going to insist on having some kind of a “homeland,” so many Jews demand that it be Israel when it so clearly should be Poland. Poland, land of latkes and bialys. Poland shel zahav.
This, of course, isn’t the reaction you’re “supposed” to have. In the popular Zionist narrative, the Old Country – and the unspeakably murderous brutality that Jews suffered there – is the (non-Biblical) justification for the state of Israel. It’s the narrative stepping-stone that gets people from anti-Semitism to Eretz Yisrael, from colonization to justification, and a whole industry of books, teen tours, and UJA-style delegations has sprouted up to help cement the connection.
And yet, when I returned from my trip and one of my more Zionist relatives asked the inevitable question – “So now you understand why Jews need Israel, right?” – I still couldn’t say “yes.” For me, the Old Country opened up a very different set of narratives.
Let’s start with some basic facts. Jews have a long history in the sprawling eastern European basin that is and has been Poland. Some say this history stretches back over 1000 years, and almost all agree that there have been bona fide Jewish settlements in Polish lands since at least the 11th Century. These Jews seem to have come, at least initially, from the wilds of Western Europe, driven by the rabid Jesus-freakery of the crusaders into the relatively tolerant arms of the emerging Polish kingdom (and the word “relative” really does need to be emphasized). It was hardly a picnic, but Poland’s comparative merits meant that Jews kept coming for decades and then centuries. By the mid-16th Century, as much as 75 percent of the world’s Jews on Polish soil, and by the eve of the Holocaust, Poland was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe. My own grandfather’s shtetl-town was a solid 70 percent Jewish in 1939; my grandmother’s town, Warsaw, was one-third Jewish. And as of 1998, it was estimated that more than three out of four American Jews could trace at least once grandparent to pre-Nazi Poland.
As one of these three-out-of-four American Jews, I can attest to the enduring power of my Old Country roots. My childhood was Roman Vishniac photographs and The Fools of Chelm (along, oddly, with unhealthy doses of WASPy Victorianism courtesy of my all-girl private school). It was Yiddish-accented great-aunts and uncles who’d never managed to slough their Bialystoker ticks. It was an ethos of always needing to prepare for the worst – for famine, plague, or pogroms – despite obvious security and plenty. And it was stories, lots and lots of stories, of my grandpa Harry, né Osher, a small man who barely reached 5’ 4”,who had little more than an eighth grade education but amply made up for it with sechel and chutzpa, who was generous to a fault, and who believed, profoundly, that the fate suffered by Europe’s Jews meant that you did everything possible to prevent other people from suffering the same thing.
Or, put differently, if I have any cultural proclivities at all other than those of the deracinated modern-day American, they clearly belong to the Yiddishe world of Jewish Poland – not the aggressive, militarized one of modern Israel.
This sense persisted – pecked at me, really – throughout my Polish sojourn, and by the time I was half way through the trip I’d begun to nurture a stubbornly-elaborate fantasy: rather than settling in Israel, Jews had instead migrated en masse to the Polish Old Country where they re-claimed their homes, land, synagogues, and streets. What’s more, these Jews were joined in my imagination by Romany, gay folks, all the “undesirables” of the Nazi regime along with any other oppressed and dispossessed. After all, wouldn’t that have been a far more just resolution and rebuke to the powers of European racism and brutality – creating a refuge for the persecuted right in the bastards’ back yards – than creating a distant Jewish nation on Palestinian soil? Than repeating the war’s dark lessons of nationalism? And let’s be honest, if there was a land to which Jews had a legitimate, strong connection, wouldn’t it have been the one where the majority (though not all) had spent hundreds upon hundreds of years?
No doubt any Zionists or ultra-religious folk who might happen to be reading this are probably frothing at the mouth right about now, yanking at their beard hairs. “You’re romanticizing the Old Country!” they’ll shout (even as they romanticize Israel). “The Bible makes no mention of the land surrounding the Vistula and beyond,” they’ll cry. And then they’ll accuse me of the greatest crime of all: of failing to understand the lessons of the Holocaust, of shrugging off centuries of hate.
In fact, I would argue that it’s just the opposite (though, if we’re talking guilt, I will cop in this instance to a certain regrettable Ashkenazi-centrism, though I’d also like to think this is more polemical than actual).
Like most Jewish kids of a certain time and place, I grew up with the Holocaust as a kind of cosmic microwave background, glowing radioactive in the distance. From the time I was tiny, I could recite many of the essential, horrendous details the way some young Jews can recite Talmud: six million, Hitler, Mengele, Auschwitz, Einsatzgruppen, gas chamber, death march, Final Solution. And now, having actually had the chance to visit Poland, I suspect I’ll never fully recover from the sucker-punch of the experience: from Auschwitz, Treblinka [where the author is pictured below], and the utter obliteration of an entire way of life. The Nazis (with later help from the Poles and the Communists) really did do a smash-up job of erasing a whole culture. Where there were once homes, synagogues, and artisans’ shops there are now parks, churches, and ruins. Where there were once towns full of families, there are now mass graves. And where Yiddish music and theater once thrived there is now, as we discovered one distressing afternoon in Tykocin, the Polish equivalent of minstrel shows: young Varsovians dressed as if they’d raided the wardrobe department of Fiddler on the Roof – in peyos, tzitzit, black vests, and caps – doing the sorriest wedding-dance I’d ever seen.
But far from freeing me to embrace Israel, this just made me more disturbed – more ragingly angry, frankly – by what Israel has done, and continues to do, to Palestinians. Again and again, as I stared at the remnants of ghetto walls, I wondered, baffled, how a people that was forced to live – and die – behind walls could force another people to live – and die – behind walls? Or how these same people who were pushed from their homes could push another people from their homes? Or force them to cross checkpoints, carry I.D., waste from hunger, dig tunnels to get food, and die at the blunt end of an Israeli missile? These are things I simply cannot understand. And as powerfully as I felt them before going to Poland, I feel them more powerfully now.
So in an attempt to re-wire the discourse just a bit, I would like to reclaim the Old Country from the jaws of Zionism. Instead of tours that whisk young people from Auschwitz to Israel, I would like to see trips that go from the Warsaw ghetto to the Jabaliya refugee camp. In place of a Jewish mainstream that looks only – and mistakenly – to Israel for its identity, I would like to see Jews who reach across time and space, to old countries and new countries, for a sense of who they are – and might be. But above all, if I can’t see an all-inclusive Yiddishe utopia resurrected in Poland, I would at least like to see the true lessons of “never again” enshrined in a single, consummately-inclusive Israeli-Palestinian state – a state that serves, through its unparalleled openness and respect for the rights of all its residents, as a true rebuke to the forces of hatred and genocide. I’ll admit that I don’t know exactly how to make it happen; policy often eludes me. But I do know that every reality begins with the notion of its possibility.