75 Years ago across Nazi occupied Germany and Austria, Nazi paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians carried out a pogrom that would signal the beginning of the end of Jewish life under German rule across Europe, and in some places, the end of Jewish life until this day.
The pogrom all began on the night of November 9, 1938 and became infamously known as Kristallnacht, or “the night of broken glass.” The term comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had their windows smashed and vandalized.
Lasting into the next day, at least 91 Jews were killed in the attacks while some 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Thousands of Jewish homes, hospitals, schools and synagogues were ransacked and the buildings demolished while the police and authorities looked on. In many instances, the authorities even helped even helped.
More than 7,000 Jewish owned businesses were destroyed or damaged. The event was widely reported by international journalists, and sent shockwaves around the world.
Following the attack, life plummeted downhill for Jews all over Europe as the Nazis continued to conquer the continent. Jews were openly persecuted and thus began the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis often had help from the local populace, and no place more so than in Poland, where the open hatred and anti-Semitism that the Polish people showed toward the Jews reached new heights during and after the war years.
Now with the recent resurgence of hatred, intimidation tactics, Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism sprouting their ugly heads across Europe, it is surprising to see the exact opposite taking place in the neighboring Poland.
Once known as the hotbed of European anti-Semitism, Poland and its people are now taking a strong interest in Jews and Judaism. The Polish nation has become very interested in learning more about a culture which their ancestors were all to happy to help die.
Israel Returns emissary to Poland, Rabbi Avi Baumol, told Breaking Israel News about the dramatic about-face that is currently taking place in Poland. “It is as if the current generation of Poles have a ‘phantom limb’. There is a people who were here, who should be here, but are not here. There is a strong interest in learning more about those missing people. Finding that missing part of their culture,” he said.
Baumol illustrated his point by mentioning that there are currently 50 non-Jewish volunteers who work on a day-to-day basis running the Jewish Community Center in Krakow. “These are 20-year-olds, students, who simply want to know what was,” he said.
But that is small golumpkis (Polish traditional stuffed cabbages) compared to some of the other endeavors that young Poles are undertaking in order to reconnect with the Jewish presence that once was.
A second group of about 10 Polish students have created an educational program called Mifgash (hebrew word for ‘meeting’), wherein they go to Polish high schools and teach about Judaism for free.
“When they pitched the idea to over 22 schools” Baumol exclaimed, “every single principal said ‘please come’! The group who does not charge for the classes, have spoken to thousands of students and are creating a groundswell of interest in Judaism across the country, and they do it for free, simply because they feel it is that important”.
The Jewish Community Center of Krakow, which has over 500 members, is housed in a large four-story building and boasts a highly active seniors club. The center was a gift of sorts by Prince Charles of England, who visited the community in 2002 and asked to meet with Poles of various communities. He was awed by the simple fact that there were still Jews in Poland, and after meeting with members of the community offered them their own community center.
The Prince of Wales enlisted the help of the World Jewish Relief Fund as well as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and secured the funding for the community center which was finished in 2008.
The community center is one of the few across Europe that publicly announces its Jewish function and heritage and has no guard. “It simply has a sign that says ‘Come by and say hi’ in Polish,” said Baumol. “It’s astounding.”
The resurgence of Judaism and Jewish interest in the country has made it “cool” to be Jewish, so much so that it is in vogue to date Jewish people, even Israelis. Poles are looking into their heritage much more than ever before to find out if there is a Jewish ancestor or connection in their past. Many study Judaism and some even convert.
Among this generation, Poland has ceased to be a “Jewish graveyard”. On the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, that is some very good news.