Facing the recent history of Jewish life in Central and Eastern European typically produces two opposite reactions.
One is to become embittered from witnessing the remains of genocide and the attitudes toward that past.
Poland and the Czech Republic are making efforts to support the rejuvenation of Jewish life. Yet, what I found frustrating there was how people I talked to focused on their country only as victims of the Nazis.
They could not or would not see that a country can be both victim of Nazism and, at the same time, have a history of being perpetrators against Jews as well. Facing history is about facing the truth about ourselves as a nation.
The second reaction I experienced was a great sense of hope and admiration that the remnant Jewish communities in Prague, Warsaw, Cracow and Berlin are working to revitalize and reinvent Jewish life.
I cannot think of a better lesson for instilling hope for a Jewish future in Europe. True, Hitler and his followers almost succeeded in annihilating the entire Jewish population of Europe. Hitler and his generation failed and are gone, but the Jewish communities in these countries, albeit small, still exist.
I taught a class in Berlin with a group of about 25 adults on a Sabbath afternoon at their synagogue. That particular Saturday night would begin the fast day Tisha B’Av to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in ancient times.
I could feel the irony between the past and the future as my students were mostly young adults living in Berlin and trying to revitalize Jewish life. They live every day in a nation that committed the most horrid crimes in history. Yet this nation, Germany, has not tried to deny its past and its responsibility for the crimes of genocide.
We know that many former Nazis were never brought to trial. Yet, the German government has over the decades worked with the Jewish community, provided security at services and financial support to rebuild old synagogues and Jewish communal institutions.
Is there still anti-Semitism in Germany? Of course it thrives from the those who have migrated recently from the Arab world into Germany. It also exists from the next generations of neo-Nazis on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Many advised me that if I wore a yamulke or religious head covering in public I could subject myself to harassment in the streets. Clearly, the work continues for Germany. At the same time, to listen to the new generation of Berlin Jewry’s hope and enthusiasm about building a Jewish future gave me great inspiration.
What is also interesting in these countries are the numbers of people who are discovering that they have Jewish roots.
Let’s not forget that these countries were occupied by communists under Stalin after the Nazis were defeated. Being a Jew in a communist state was not something people readily acknowledged. The anti-religion policy in these states also suppressed anyone’s desire to be recognized as Jewish. Some cases were due to intermarriage and in other situations children were given up by their Jewish parents in the Nazi period to Christian families and raised in those faiths or without a religion.
Now things are different. Since the end of the Cold War and communism rule, people are able to seek out their roots and discover that they had a Jewish parent or grandparent. Some of these returnees to Judaism are becoming the base of new Jewish communities. Again, there is hope after all.
Visiting these communities and the concentration camps led to asking difficult questions where there may not be adequate answers. At the same time, there is hope that people can move forward and not repeat the same mistakes.
There is hope that governments do learn lessons because the world cares today. Granted, it is a fragile hope, but it is one at least that Jewish people today in these countries are gambling is worth their time and effort.
I left this journey with mixed feelings. I am not so naive as to imagine that hate and anti-Semitism are gone in Europe. I am also not cynical enough to give up hope for a better life for the Jewish communities in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
The Talmud says, “As long as there is life there is hope.” I believe in this idea as much as I believe in God.