Sunday, February 28, 2010

Changing Face in Poland

Adam Lach for The New York Times

There’s an interesting piece in the New York Times this week about a former Polish neo-Nazi who discovered his Jewish roots as an adult and now has become ultra-Orthodox. As he acknowledges in the article, “he was drawn to extremes.”

The piece brings up more questions than it answers. First of all, there is no discussion about how Pawel (or Pinchas), this article’s protagonist, has been received by the Orthodox community. How do they feel about having a former neo-Nazi in their midst? Have they seen this kind of conversion before? And does Pawel feel like he has been accepted by this community that he used to hate? Moreover, the article talks about his now being the subject of anti-Semitism taunts. How does he respond? Is he involved with any type of outreach to try and affect how Jews are seen in Poland?

Second of all, there was little discussion of why he became a skinhead in the first place. The journalist writes that Pawel used neo-Nazism to break out of the Socialist mold. But I would have liked to know more about what drove him in that direction when he could have chosen less violent and hateful ways to rebel.

Lastly, I was struck by the quotes from the Chief Rabbi in Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich. At one point he says, ““Before 1989 there was a feeling that it was not safe to say, ‘I am a Jew.’ But two decades later, there is a growing feeling that Jews are a missing limb in Poland. The level of anti-Semitism remains unacceptable, but the image of the murderous Pole seared in the consciousness of many Jews after the war doesn’t correspond to the Poland of 2010.” It is interesting that the Chief Rabbi is so optimistic in his assessment of Jewish life in Poland when Piotr Brozek, a 22 year old non-Jewish Pole responsible for Henio’s Facebook page, still is quite pessimistic. In my conversation with him, he told me that it is only people of his generation who want to change the anti-Semitic mindset that exists in Poland. The older generations, he believes, are unwilling or unable to break out of that mold. So who is right? And why do Jews and non-Jews hold such disparate views?

While Pawel’s story is certainly engrossing, it is also frustrating. It focuses on the sensational, at the expense of the quotidian. Where are the stories about ordinary Polish Jews? Who are they? Where are they? Between articles like this one and ones about young Poles attending Yiddish festivals and listening to Israeli hip-hop (neither of which makes them Jewish), we learn nothing about the typical life of a contemporary Polish Jew.

This kind of information is equally, if perhaps not more important, than the sensational stories. Why? Because there is still a great deal of suspicion and fear within the larger Jewish community towards Poland, as Rabbi Schudrich points out. Few American Jews, for instance, experience Poland outside of its death camps. There is very little understanding or acknowledgement that Jewish life is once again growing there. Articles like this one do little to change the narrative arc. I would like to see more pieces about Jewish youth movements or about a Bat/Bar Mitzvah class--something that would offer a fuller, more nuanced, picture ofJewish rhythms of Poland.

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