After a few weeks of decompression, I am finally able to sort through some of my feelings about last month’s commemoration ceremony in Radom. At times solemn, while at other times celebratory, the event was a reflection of how present day Catholic Poles choose to confront Poland’s complicated relationship between Christians and Jews.
Poland’s internal and external struggles to reconcile its past were highlighted by the incongruity of a klezmer band playing music at the entrance of the Jewish cemetery, and by the reverence demonstrated when a Holocaust Survivor spoke about his fond pre-War memories, followed by a concert of a well-known Polish performer. While one can say that this combination of somber commemoration and entertaining celebration reflects the merger of past and present, not all of us are ready for the journey. Poland’s past has a long way to travel before it catches up to present day Jewry. At least, 75 years later, Radom, as well as other cities and towns across Poland, are making valiant entrances.
The words that come to mind in response to these efforts are: hopeful, family, new friends, what’s next. The energy and resources put forth by the Radom government to create a meaningful event for Radom’s residents, as well as us – Radom’s diaspora Jews – was impressive, giving me hope for a future that continues to recognize the contributions of Radom’s pre-War Jewish community to the city’s development and stature. New bonds were also created amongst Radom’s Jewish descendants from France, Israel and the U.S. as we shared our families’ stories. Our tribe was expanded beyond our own personal boundaries.
Yet as Radom moves forward to reveal and slowly embrace its Jewish past, Poland’s right-wing government turns backwards. Steps to bolster Jewish history throughout Poland are met with either resistance or exaggerated emphasis about acts of heroism by non-Jewish Poles. The desire to distinguish Polish national pride from the history of Polish Jews has the effect of treating diaspora Jews as “the Other,” thereby maintaining the legacy of two separate Polish countries within one landmass. Reducing Jewish Poles to eternal visitors, while Christian Poles are the “real” citizens, serves the national government well by always providing a scapegoat when things go wrong.
But we “Radomers” have learned our lessons well. We are empowered by our memories to move forward against denial, to bring our ancestors’ pasts into the present, and have everyday Poles walk amongst the spirits of their forgotten landsmen, who fought side by side in early wars to keep Poland free and independent, sharing traditional culinary dishes, speaking a common language, and on occasion, saving each other.