8/07/2007

Poles Complain about Obnoxious Jewish Tourists

A recent incident in which 35 Hasidic Jewish tourists forcibly entered the museum of the Majdanek concentration camp after the facility's closing time, removing gates from their hinges and breaking into one of the barracks, has highlighted the misunderstandings so prevalent in the hugely complicated relationship between modern Jews and modern Poland…

…the incidents have also underscored that these travellers often understand little about the Poland of today. Many Israeli tour groups arriving in Poland greatly restrict their contact with Polish society, and security guards are a standard feature of package travel. To Poles it often seems they are uninterested, even uncivil, in their relations with locals. Moreover, the message they send is clear: Poland is the land of the Shoah, and little more.

(from the Warsaw Business Journal)

On one hand, as the article points out, Jewish tourists to Poland really have little or no interest, in general, in modern Poland. Visiting Poland is, for young Israelis, a rite of passage, and, for them and most others, akin to visiting a cemetery. While there, strong emotions tend to be running high, and as such there is a tendency for individuals and groups to become very inward-focused and, consequently, very selfish.

Since Jews began visiting in droves with the fall of the Iron Curtain, there has been no small measure of ambivalence toward these journeys. On one hand, their impact on these young Jews is unassailable. On the other hand, very few people are terribly keen on ‘pouring money’ into Poland. In the eyes of many Jews, justifiably or not, Poles are held partially accountable for the catastrophe that was perpetrated on their soil. There is a tendency to keep away from the Poles, remain insular, bring one’s own food, and limit expenditures in Poland so as not to ‘reward’ it for its role in the Holocaust.

There is ambivalence from the Polish perspective as well. As an emerging economy, liberal democracy, and a recent addition to the EU, it is one of the most rapidly Westernizing countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Although it is home to an ancient culture and heritage and some beautiful historical sites, Jews represent a serious chunk of its tourism industry as they visit the huge number of Jewish-related sites in Poland. Thus, they want to encourage the continued visits by Jews from around the world. At the same time, many Poles struggle with the heritage of the Holocaust as well, though perhaps not as much as Germans (perhaps they don’t need to as much as Germans). There are over 6000 Poles that have been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations”, more than any other nationality by far. Granted, they had more opportunities than other nationalities. Nevertheless, there is a real heritage of peasants hiding Jews in barns which is as long, if not as weighty, as their tradition of assisting aggressors. The documentary film “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust” makes this point better than I ever could.

It is therefore no surprise that the encounter between these two populations is somewhat bumpy. In fact, it has been surprisingly smooth. The fact that other countries have been complaining about the obnoxiousness of Israeli tourists for many years attests to the fact that, to the credit of the Jews, the Poles, or both, the situation there has been somewhat better. Nevertheless, these are two groups which carry serious prejudices against each other (there is an old Polish fascination with Jews, who were present yet Other for most of Poland’s millennium-long history, which has renewed itself in recent decades). Confronting these feelings, inwardly or together, would benefit both cultures. I cannot speak for the Poles, but I think that it would behoove us as Jews to strive for an understanding of Polish attitudes toward the Holocaust and toward the richness of Jewish life there which remains a treasured part of Poland’s cultural and historical legacy.

I still remember the absolute fascination of my Polish tour guide with my tefillin on our March of the Living bus (I overslept that day and davened shacharis on the bus). He was completely enthralled with all things Jewish, and although he acknowledged that his friends thought he went a bit overboard in his Philosemitism, he did not think it was terribly out of the ordinary. And as much as he learned from us, we learned a lot from him, too, both about Polish history, Jewish history in Poland, and contemporary Polish attitudes. I remember that we got a lot of stares and a ‘Heil hitler’ as we walked to shul on Shabbat morning. I also remember seeing an ad in a Polish magazine for Kosher vodka, and that it was a very popular brand in Poland then (1994). Yet, our general attitude toward the Poles was similar to the distrustful one I outlined above. In hindsight, I believe that the experience would have been enhanced by a more open encounter with the Polish people (though in a controlled environment), to discuss how the Holocaust has shaped our respective identities, and to think about how these two groups, who lived together for so many centuries, can move forward together in a productive way.

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