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. [continued…]