Chestertown – Washington College’s Office of the Provost & Dean will present “In Search of Polin: Chasing Jewish Ghosts in Today’s Poland,” a lecture/slide presentation by Dr. Gary S. Schiff, Adjunct Professor of History, at the Casey Academic Center Forum on Wednesday, April 14, at 7 p.m.
“In Search of Polin” is an encore presentation of a lecture Schiff gave last November based in part on his summer 2009 trip to Poland, where, in addition to tracing some of his family roots, he was on the trail of “a thousand years of Jewish history.”
Prior to the Holocaust, the largest concentration of Jews in Europe was to be found in Poland – 3.3 million people, or roughly 10 percent of the Polish population.
The percentage was actually much higher in the cities; in Warsaw, for example, Jews comprised about a third of the population. In other cities, such as Bialystok, Jews were in the majority.
Poland’s Jewish population density was due to its rare open-door policy during the Middle Ages, when Jews were not only welcome, but invited with incentives. As early as the 13th century, Polish kings, in order to help bring their nascent land up to the economic standards of their contemporaries, offered liberal charters of rights and economic opportunities to entice more Jews to relocate there.
As restrictions, persecutions and expulsions periodically reared their heads further west throughout the medieval period, Jews continued to flock from throughout western and central Europe into Poland.
In the 1880s, pogroms under Russian rule spurred a mass exodus of Polish Jews to the United States. Poland was the largest source of Jewish immigrants to America.
Of the 3.3 million Jews in Poland at the onset of World War II, 3 million were killed in the Holocaust. Most of the survivors emigrated. Only a handful remain. Before the war, there had been more than 500 synagogues in Warsaw. After the war, only one remained.
In addition to the shocking death toll of Polish Jews, the vast majority of Jews from throughout Europe who were killed in the Holocaust died in Poland, where they arrived by the trainload to the infamous Nazi death camps built there.
The lingering echo of such horrors is the reason, said Schiff, that some Jews today consider Poland “one big Jewish cemetery, and won’t go back there, even to visit.”
But there is much of great historical interest left to see there as well, he notes. Schiff’s journey into Poland’s Jewish past included the personal – he toured the area where his family had lived since the 18th century and unearthed old family marriage records in the town of Ostrow’s City Hall – to the deeply historical – in Krakow, the old royal capital and the first Polish city to acquire a major Jewish presence, he found “a gold mine of Jewish history,” including famous synagogues and graves dating back to the 15th century.
On the other end of the spectrum, Schiff also visited the horrific concentration camps of Treblinka, Majdanek, Plaszow (where “Schindler’s List” was filmed) and Auschwitz, where at that site alone 1.1 million Jews, including 200,000 children, were put to death. “It’s so vast,” Schiff said of Auschwitz, “it’s hard to imagine evil on such a massive scale.”
Admission to “In Search of Polin: Chasing Jewish Ghosts in Today’s Poland” is free and open to the public.