The Best of Times or the Worst of Times
Mar 11th 2015

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

The words of Charles Dickens reverberate in Jewish life and our time.

The holidays of Purim and Pesaẖ clearly identify the dangers facing our ancestors. Haman’s accusation echoes through the ages: "There is a certain people... whose laws are different from those of every other people’s... it is not befitting the king to tolerate them (Esther 3:8).” On Pesaẖ, as we recall the enslavement in Egypt, the Haggadah reminds us, “in every generation, there are those who rise up to destroy us”. Yet these crises brought us “from bondage to freedom, from darkness to a great light.”

Josette and I visited Poland after the killings in Paris and before the shooting in Copenhagen. We came to Israel after skirmishes at the border with Syria and before the Israeli elections. During our trip to Warsaw and Jerusalem, I frequently reflected on the Jewish past and present, asking myself whether we face the spring of hope or the winter of despair.

Josette and I explored the bold new museum that presents the complex history of Jewish Poland, investigated the remnants of the historic ghetto and glimpsed the future of the community at a time of great anxiety in Europe. The eight galleries of Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews present the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews from their first arrival in Poland through the present day.

The museum presents the first arrival of Jews in Polish lands, why they stayed, the tremendous creativity and growth of the community (over 3.3 million before the Holocaust) and the near total annihilation during the Shoah. Without eliding over past crises, the museum points to the unbroken presence of Jews as part of Polish history (something that our Weisfeld lecturer, Moshe Rosman will discuss when he visits at the end of April), a story of “cooperation and competition, coexistence and conflict, separation and integration.”

Rather than see the Holocaust as the end of Polish Jewish life (there now may be as many as 25,000 Jews in the country), the museum reviews the complex post-Shoah question of whether to stay or leave, the period under Communist rule and the post-1989 small-scale renewal of Jewish life after the revolution. We visited the Lauder-Morasha School with over 240 students, ate in kosher restaurants and saw the home of the Jewish Theatre.

My friend, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, tells me that each week he counsels Poles who have just discovered their Jewish heritage and seek to determine what that means to them. Many go, as we did, to the Jewish Historical Institute for genealogical research. This was especially rewarding for us as I was able to trace my Kohl family back to 1788 and Josette was able to get documentation about her great- grandparents from 1862!

Although the community is small, there is an enormous Jewish presence in Polish consciousness. In addition to Holocaust memorials (we stood at the umschlagplatz from where many of Josette’s family were sent to Treblinka), there are festivals of Jewish culture, Christian-Jewish dialogue efforts, courses in Jewish studies and artistic projects. The present Polish government has a zero-tolerance for anti-Semitism.

At a time when we see Jews killed in France and Denmark along with criticism of Israel from many governments in Europe, it is important (and ironic) that the two strongest European allies of Israel are Germany and Poland. After the worst of times during the Holocaust, it is not yet the best of times, but Poland is no longer simply a bleak landscape.

In Israel, our attention shifted to the challenges and uncertainty of the present as well as to the hope for the future. We joined the leadership mission of CIJA (Centre for Israel and Jewish Advocacy) to update ourselves on contemporary diplomatic, internal and strategic issues facing Israel.

Whether from the Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or independent security experts, attention was constantly directed to the general instability in the Middle East and the insecurity at borders because of hostile Hizbollah (in Lebanon), Hamas (in Gaza), ISIS (near the Golan Heights) and al-Qaida/Muslim Brotherhood (in the Sinai). Everyone agreed that the greatest threat was Iran which seeks a Shi’ite sphere of influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, sponsors terrorism and negotiates in the international “bazaar” while developing the potential for nuclear weapons.

Media commentators and political leaders from various parties and perspectives pointed to the strategic withdrawal from the region of American power and influence, as well as to the Palestinian decision to shift from direct negotiations to the international legal arena, effectively stalemating any possibility of a two-state solution. As one person dryly commented, “If you think too much about all this, it could ruin your weekend.” Is this the worst of times?

While not minimizing the severity of the dangers facing Israel, a number of the speakers who briefed us, pointed to many more positive developments. Tal Becker, Legal Advisor to the Foreign Ministry, has helped to craft the Hartman Institute iEngage Project (which we use in our Congregation). He reminded us that Israel is a strong state with the determination and creativity to thrive and flourish. Jonathan Medved, a venture capitalist, pointed to the many successful technology ventures in the “Start-up Nation.” Even during the Gaza conflict last summer, the Israeli economy continued to grow.

Israel has come a long way from the time when all desserts were mousse and visitors brought coffee, clothing and other supplies to their relatives. Now Israeli food is excellent, restaurants are exported (think Aroma), women in our congregation look for clothing “made in Israel,” and Waze guides drivers on the 401. On a personal note, we spent time with our grandchildren, watching, with pride and anticipation, their growth in an exciting country filled with a zest for life. This may not be the best of times, but it is far from the worst of them.

As we remember our deliverance from the ancient Haman and Pharaoh, as we pray for safety from contemporary anti-Semitism, terrorism and Iranian nuclear missiles, let us also celebrate the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland and the hard-won miracle of Israel, its many successes and exciting future. 

~~~~  Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute