To read the recent headlines from what most Americans blithely refer to as Eastern Europe — an expanse of territory that more accurately is Central and Northern and Southern and parts bordering on Western Europe — one might think that the cauldron of Nazi-era anti-Semitism is boiling over again.
A Hungarian legislator invoking the centuries-old blood libel accusation. Neglect of a small Jewish cemetery in the former Yugoslavia. Restaurant patrons in Ukraine who get hats with attached side curls that mock payot.
To talk to some Jews here, one might think that World War II had never ended. “What the hell are they still doing there?” one friend asked me the other day when I talked about my plans to go to Poland to lead the seder for one community of Polish Jews. He imagined that the country’s Jews live in fear of identifying themselves.
Appearances – at least the appearance of festering Jew hatred in places where Jews clearly were not welcomed not that long ago – are deceiving.
I returned last week from a Passover trip to Poland, my seventh trip there in the last two decades, and again I observed, and heard, what I have repeatedly in recent years. A Jewish community, while a shadow of its pre-Holocaust size or prominence, which is flourishing, which calls itself the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world (Germany, the beneficiary of a wave of émigrés from the former Soviet Union, also lays claim to this unofficial title), which shows no fear of publicly asserting itself.
I, as usual, walked the streets of Warsaw and Krakow without thinking to cover my kipah. Other obviously Orthodox men do the same. Jewish institutions, openly identified as such, open their doors to visitors, with, it was pointed out to me, less visible security than in most Western European countries.
Young Jews who grew up in Poland – and in the other parts of the region – have decided to stay there because those lands, simply, are their homes. While the Shoah is an integral element in their emerging Jewish communities’ background, it is not the prime factor in the individuals’ Jewish identities, as we in the States or Israel would presume it to be. The Holocaust is as much a presence in their day-to-day lives as the Depression was in my 1950’s childhood.
The other examples? The offensive Hungarian legislator is a member of a far-right party, immediately and roundly condemned by other lawmakers across the political spectrum. The Jewish cemetery in Nis, Serbia, 125 miles south of Belgrade, finds itself encroached upon by a Gypsy settlement, and the city is unable to take action. “Money is the problem, not our intentions,” Miomir Pesic, head of the city’s housing agency, told JTA. The Golden Rose restaurant in Lviv, which deals in Jewish stereotypes, is an isolated example.
Jews aren’t beaten on the streets of Ukraine today.
If you want to fear being Jewish, consider Western Europe.
Just ask the Jews of France.