Over the years, I have told myself that I would never visit central Europe. I felt that I knew enough by listening to Jewish people who lived through the Holocaust and by reading scholarly books and novels.
I did not want those people in central Europe to benefit financially from me. But I remembered that my grandparents told me sweet stories of their lives growing up there before the war, the look of the place, how they lived and the close relationships they enjoyed within their village and family. What did their countries of origin look like now? After much discussion about possible impacts of such a visit, we chose to take a tour of middle European capitals in the countries where our families and friends once lived.
To strengthen ourselves for this experience, we went first to Israel. We visited with friends in the Tel Aviv area, saw family and friends during our week in Jerusalem, and spent tranquil Shabbat and Shavuot in Tzfat, [Safed] before we flew to Warsaw.
The Central Europe tour was composed of 28 Americans and, within that group, fewer than 10 Jewish people – who kept their Jewish identity to themselves on the trip. These Jews quietly told us about their relationship to Judaism when they noticed we did not eat pork. They told us that they had no affiliation to the community in their home cities but did have Jewish relatives.
In each European city, a local scholar would tell us about the history of the place. For these scholars, the history of their country began about 1000 years ago when the ruling leader became Christian. Before that time, there was nothing to talk about. With Christianity came the feudal system of land ownership and ruling by the local (or distant) aristocracy that was shared with the Roman Catholic Church. People who were not Roman Catholic lived and survived with the permission of the local Christian rulers. After WW1, Europe was divided up, and the peoples who were ruled before this war by the Prussians (Germans) and their allies, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were given their own lands to manage. “New” countries, republics like Poland and Czechoslovakia and Hungary, emerged for 20 years until the start of WWII. In a few sentences, that is the common history of this area before the Holocaust. The aristocratic culture liked beautiful music, architecture and art. Warsaw, Kracow, Budapest and Prague are filled with examples of this beauty. I guess that the rest of the people worked hard on the land to give the aristocrats what they wanted.
After the Holocaust, the few Jewish people who survived and returned to their countries of origin were faced with the challenges, including dangerous hostility from their former neighbours who took over the Jewish homes and businesses, of starting again. For many, if they stayed put and were Jewish and secular before the war, the Jewish part of their identity was dropped or hidden. The communist regimes that took over those countries suppressed all religions.
In every city, we looked for the current, living Jewish community. In Hungary, an active member of the Jewish community with whom we spoke told us that the new right-wing government is worrisome to the community. In Poland, we saw a new museum about the 1000 years of the history of Jews in Poland. The displays were very moving, but we did not encounter a living Jewish community there. The Poles celebrate their Jewish history without a current vibrant community of Jews. The Czechs are proud of their secularity. The small Jewish ghetto in Prague is crowded with tourists and, on the outskirts, with high-end stores. We saw few Jews.
What did I learn from this trip? I am still thinking about this question. Living Jewish is hard work that gives us pleasure and purpose but, without a vital community to support and protect us all, living a Jewish life as an individual will be frustrating. An individual Jew without community cannot survive for very long as a Jew. The visit to Israel, to my family and friends, and the vacationing as a tourist in a safe place gave us strength for the rest of the trip that lay ahead. But the sadness about our profound loss stays with me.