My mom sent me an article this morning, and at first I set the email aside for a rainy day. It was only when she nudged me that I actually checked it out, finally spotting the title: “Once unthinkable, a Jewish community thrives in Poland.”
I was lucky enough to go to Poland as part of IST 2009. Most of the group would probably agree that “lucky” isn’t exactly the right word, considering that most of what we did over those four days was visit the remains of Nazi camps. For me, however, our time in Poland was one of the most powerful experiences of the trip. I consider it extremely lucky that we were able to go to a country that for many years has hidden behind an iron curtain, in order to see scars of times long gone.
The only thing I truly regret about our time in Poland is not spending more time there. No, that does not mean schlepping out to Treblinka or any of the other camps we left out of our tour. We had only one day of just walking around the old Jewish part of Krakow. We only toured the streets of Lublin for half a day. Warsaw was a half-day’s blur of cemeteries, monuments, and the old ghetto.
We saw what Jewish life was, but we did not see what Jewish life is. Aside from the people we met in the Chabad Center in Krakow, the grumpy Chasidim at the Yeshiva in Lublin, and some aged strangers at a shul in Warsaw… we didn’t see any modern Polish Jews. We didn’t speak to anyone about what Jewish life in Poland is like now. We didn’t ask anyone to share a story about Polish-Jewish life in the six-odd decades after the war, or to tell us their hopes for the future. Our Polish guide wasn’t Jewish and our Jewish guides weren’t Polish. We left Poland with the feeling that there are fewer Jews there than there are in Boulder.
Perhaps it was for artistic reasons. They wanted us to go to Israel and see that Israel is where Jewish life is. After all, the trip is called the Israel Study Tour. Perhaps they only wanted to go for four days because that’s all the average person can stand.
On reflection, I feel like our time in Poland missed an opportunity. We didn’t engage anyone, or participate in community service projects with Polish-Jewish kids. We didn’t ask anything of the people there, and they never asked anything of us. We were like ghosts, wandering the streets and visiting the camps but leaving nothing to remember our visit by. (Okay, fifty-five loud, obnoxious, sidewalk-hogging teenage ghosts. Maybe that was a bad analogy.)
Back to the article. I was sort of surprised to read about the thriving Jewish community over there, having heard nothing but bleak statistics when I was there. I would have loved for our group to meet the author of this article or to visit the school, kindergarten and shuls it mentioned. I would have loved to dance and sing in a shul full of people, instead of the empty one we danced and sang in. I would have loved just one more day, a day in which to see that Jewish life still continues in Poland. I would have traded a day of hiking for that.