A trip to Poland just days after Hamas’ attack on Israel was a ‘disquieting’ journey for a professor of Holocaust literature

The fence surrounding the reconstituted Jewish cemetery in Ostrowiec, Poland. (Credit: Gary Gottlieb)

It felt ominous, leaving for Poland on Oct. 11, four days after the Hamas attack on southern Israel. The trip had been planned for some time—a heritage tour that would venture into a difficult past—but now that past seemed all too present.

I had never wanted to visit Poland. On previous trips to Europe, I had always avoided the country where so many Jews had perished. Having been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, I believed there was no need to see Auschwitz and Majdanek to feel the suffering they held.

I changed my mind when I learned of an academic conference scheduled for October 2023. The event would mark the centenary of Chava Rosenfarb, a Yiddish writer from Łódź who was incarcerated in its ghetto and survived several concentration camps. In 1950, she settled in Montreal, where she wrote fiction set in wartime Poland. The recent translation of Rosenfarb’s novels into Polish was sparking local interest in her work.

As someone who teaches and studies Holocaust literature, I decided to attend the conference and use the opportunity to tour the country. I was relieved when my husband agreed to join me. All four of his grandparents had immigrated to Toronto in 1920, so his roots are in Poland. I wouldn’t have embarked on this pilgrimage without him.

As soon as we landed in the country, we experienced a heightened self-awareness. The news out of Israel was dire and suddenly we felt conspicuously Jewish.

Our tour began in Krakow, an exquisite city on the Vistula River. Krakow had surrendered in September 1939 and then served as the capital of the General Government run by Germany. So, unlike most cities in Poland, it was saved from destruction. Even Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter, remains intact. Today, it hosts weekly markets and an annual Jewish Culture Festival.

Our first day was spent walking and talking as our guide recounted the rich and complicated history of Poland. We admired Krakow’s immense Market Square and strolled its medieval Sukiennice Cloth Hall, took in Wawel Royal Castle and its (actual) fire-breathing dragon, a statue known as Smok Wawelski. We tasted delicious obwarzani—a cross between a bagel and a pretzel—and drank coffee in the ancient cellar turned café of Jagiellonian University. It was a bright day, darkened only by the news we watched that evening back at our hotel.

That darkness followed us the next day to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a distinct narrative about Polish Jewry emerged. Our guide explained that Jews had lived in Poland for 1,000 years and had integrated into the fabric of society. Before the war, they formed 10 percent of what he described as Poland’s multicultural population. As we tread the grounds of the former concentration camp, we were informed that during the occupation Poles and Jews alike had been victimized by the Nazis and that many Poles had tried to help Jews.

 Later we learned that to claim otherwise had been made illegal in 2018. Laws now prohibit the use of the term ‘Polish death camps’ and the allegation that Poles were either responsible for or complicit in Nazi crimes.

My husband and I were troubled. We knew the history of persecution, which would seem to offset the insistence that Poles had not participated in violence against Jews. Moreover, outside of the venerable cemeteries of Łódź and Warsaw, it was tough to uncover evidence of the former Jewish presence in Poland.

This perspective was reinforced wherever we went. At the conference in Łódź, the next stop on our itinerary, the convener took a decidedly sanguine approach to the subject of Holocaust writing. When one panelist confessed that the city of Łódź dwelt in her mind in “black and white,” she was invited to comment further on the “white” side of things. The general tenor of the conference was, indeed, to nudge participants toward the light.

And we tried, my husband and I, to move in that direction. In Krakow, we enjoyed a lively Sabbath dinner at the Jewish community centre. In Łódź, we stood on the loading platform of Radegast train station, a befitting memorial to the Jews who were transported out of the city to concentration camps. In Warsaw, we explored the renowned POLIN Museum, which recalls the history of Polish Jewry.

We even located a tiny reconstituted cemetery in Ostrowiec, the town where my husband’s forebears once lived. We leapt a fence to read its one bronze memorial plaque, and when we realized that it bore his family name we sensed the press—and pain—of history.

We also tried to see the Polish point of view. We accepted the continual reference to ‘German Nazis’ when it was explained that the designation was necessary to counter a tendency to conflate Poles with Nazis. Less defensible was the anachronistic retention of German to identify the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. To our minds, and in keeping with the experience of its Yiddish-speaking inhabitants, it ought to be known as the Lodz Ghetto.

Our guides were all young adults who engaged thoughtfully with the history of their country. They were interested in past and present Jewish life in Poland and sought to share their knowledge with us, even as they admitted that, in doing so, they were living and working in “a bubble.” We appreciated their openness and their warmth. In the end, our trip was edifying, as well as disquieting.

At Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, which houses the incomparable Ringelblum Archive, we connected with our only guide who was Jewish. Remarkably, Moshe could trace his family back four generations, and he lived with them still. He was 21 and planned to make aliyah as soon as he completed his studies. He looked forward to serving in the Israeli army.

Moshe made this declaration in the immediate wake of the Hamas attack, as the hideous images of hostage-taking, ravaged homes, burned out cars, and falling rockets were haunting our screens. He had travelled to Israel a number of times and each visit had deepened his desire to move to a country where he felt at home and could live freely as a Jew.

Two days later, we boarded our return flight to Toronto. This is what I carried with me: the memory of a fourth-generation Polish Jew saying he must leave Poland for Israel, where he hopes at last to join community and find refuge.

Ruth Panofsky is a professor of English at Toronto Metropolitan University.