Writer Eva Hoffman examines the rich history and impact of a thousand years of Jewish presence in Poland and Polish attempts, since 1989, to re-connect to a people and history inextricable from their own. It is a story largely overshadowed by 6 years of annihilation on Polish soil by the occupying Nazis. Today we remember the loss. Poland as a graveyard.These two programmes explore vastly different worlds before and after destruction.
This spring an impressive new museum telling the history of Jewish presence in Poland opened in Warsaw, once home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, now home to a few thousand Jewish souls. Chmielnik is a small town a few hours drive from Krakow. Once its population was 85% Jewish, now there are no Jews left in this former shtetl. Yet this June an elaborately restored synagogue and interactive new museum of the shtetl was unveiled, but who is it for? Perhaps for Poles anxious to reclaim a Jewish history that they increasingly now see as their own? For Israeli and other Jewish tourists who consider Poland usually as the end point of Jewish life rather than a place that has shaped Ashenazi Jewish identity around the world.
This summer Krakow hosts its 23rd festival of Jewish culture festival in a city whose Jewish community numbers only in the 100's. Israeli funk bands, skateboarding Hassidic rabbis and workshops on anything from food to the most complex historical and religious issues run throughout. More people will attend than there are Polish Jews. The maxim now is' Small presence, big impact.
For post Communist Poland re-connecting with their Jewish story, their Significant Others, has become a multi layered and sometimes startling process of rediscovery.
The centuries that come before the 'wolfhound' 20th, are the story Eva Hoffman focuses on in the first programme. The rise of a Jewish civilization in the East that would go on to create a vast body of literature, culture and thought and whose fortunes were inextricably tied with the emerging story of Polish identity and nationhood.
Jewish settlement, usually at the invitation of Polish nobility, was crucial to developing the vast lands. This was no small community of persecuted migrants but a people as at home in the lands of what would become the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth as those of Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and German origin. Here scholarship flourished in cities like Krakow whilst Jewish life flourished in 'shtetls', the unique phenomenon of almost entirely Jewish towns and villages later celebrated or denigrated in the great Yiddish literature of the late 19th and early 20th Century. All bound by faith, communal structures including the remarkable Council of the Four Lands and the transnational language of Yiddish.
By the middle of the 16th century, about 80% of world Jewry lived on Polish lands. During this 'Golden Age', the word "Polin" - the Jewish name for Poland - could be interpreted to mean "Here though shall rest in exile" - in other words, that Poland was a second promised land. But for how long?
Reader: Henry Goodman
Producer: Mark Burman
First broadcast July 2014.