In this three-part series for the Vis­it­ing Scribe, inter­na­tion­al­ly best­selling nov­el­ist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writ­ing books. Read Part I: Liv­ing the War here and Part II: Writ­ing the War here.

I speak to Jew­ish audi­ences across North Amer­i­ca about by expe­ri­ences and books. One of the ques­tions I’m asked most fre­quent­ly is: What about the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Poland today? Some peo­ple are sur­prised that there is a com­mu­ni­ty, while oth­ers want to know about what their lives are like and whether there is anti-Semitism. 

Can­did­ly, I don’t know about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion from a first-hand per­spec­tive. When I left Poland in 1998 there were a few thou­sand Jews. The first rab­bi had just been brought back to Krakow. Every mile­stone was big – the return of a Torah, a sin­gle Jew­ish baby being born. Every death was a major tear in what was left of the com­mu­ni­ty. (I only saw my father cry twice in his life, and once was out­side the Remuh Syn­a­gogue in Krakow when they pulled him in to com­plete the minyan.)

It has been 16 years since I left and I know from friends and from read­ing that the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Poland is stronger than at any point since the Sec­ond World War. There are mul­ti­ple rab­bis and a new Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter fund­ed in part by Prince Charles. The sense of last Jew out of Poland switch off the lights” is large­ly gone. I don’t believe that Krakow will ever be Brook­lyn or Cher­ry Hill again, but it is like a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the Mid­west or Deep South, small but enduring.

There are rea­sons for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty being stronger now: I cred­it the Jews who stayed through the dark years of com­mu­nism (many of whom had the chance to leave) and orga­ni­za­tions like the Laud­er Foun­da­tion that have invest­ed in revi­tal­iz­ing Jew­ish life through­out East­ern Europe. Impor­tant, too, was the prop­er­ty resti­tu­tion law passed in 1997, giv­ing the com­mu­ni­ties back their syn­a­gogues, ceme­ter­ies, and build­ings (which they can use or else rent or sell and use the pro­ceeds to help their peo­ple). I also think anec­do­tal­ly that there has been an influx of Jews from points far­ther east where no viable Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty remains. 

Of course, there are chal­lenges. I believe that progress on Jew­ish issues stalled after Poland entered NATO and that was no longer avail­able as a car­rot. After 9/11 the world’s focus shift­ed away from East­ern Europe and many issues remain unre­solved. And iron­i­cal­ly the great­est strug­gle for the Jews of Poland today may be them­selves: dif­fer­ent groups in Poland’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty are fight­ing with one anoth­er over prop­er­ty and con­trol of assets. (It is painful to watch these strug­gles among a peo­ple whom I love and adore, that should be stand­ing strong togeth­er; it’s like see­ing rel­a­tives fight.)

Anti-Semi­tism in Poland is a hard­er ques­tion. I lived there open­ly as a Jew for 2 ½ years with­out inci­dent. The Jews I knew in Poland live their lives in rel­a­tive peace, with­out the threat of ter­ror­ism Jews face in West­ern Europe. As Rab­bi Jon­ah Orn­stein, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the JCC in Krakow wrote in a recent arti­cle, It is eas­i­er, safer, and bet­ter to be Jew­ish every day in Krakow. I do not know of any oth­er com­mu­ni­ty leader in Europe who can say the same about his or her community.”

I came out of my years liv­ing in Krakow with a rea­son­ably pro-Pol­ish view for the peo­ple and what they suf­fered, an occu­pied coun­try that lost so many of its own of peo­ple dur­ing the war. (Not always the most pop­u­lar view: an observ­er at one event com­ment­ed that when I spoke pos­i­tive­ly of my time in Poland, the Hadas­sah ladies with their ques­tions seemed intent on mak­ing me cry.) But I rec­og­nize the com­plic­it role of Poles in the cen­turies of anti-Semi­tism that pre­ced­ed the war, in atroc­i­ties like Jed­wab­ne and in acts after like the Kielce pogrom. I also rec­og­nize that there are more Poles list­ed as Right­eous Among Nations at Yad Vashem for help­ing Jews than any oth­er nation­al­i­ty. I won­der what I might have done as an ordi­nary Pole: would I have been strong enough to help?

At this point in my talk, some­one always rais­es his or her hand and tells a sto­ry of some young per­son on the March of the Liv­ing who encoun­tered graf­fi­ti or a slur from a local near Auschwitz. I bite my tongue not to point out that if I saw hun­dreds of teenagers in blue jack­ets march­ing down the street of my small town and singing, I’d be ner­vous too. But in all seri­ous­ness, part of the issue is that these groups too often just vis­it the camps and leave. I urge peo­ple who go to meet locals and build bridges. Because we may nev­er agree about what hap­pened in the past, but I think that the key is to engage the younger generation.

Many Jews will nev­er be able to make peace with Poland. But I’m brought back to an answer I once heard an Ortho­dox rab­bi from Britain give when asked why he kept going back: Because our peo­ple were in Poland there for 800 years and because it is our patrimony.”

Pam Jenoff is the inter­na­tion­al­ly best­selling author of six nov­els, includ­ing The Kom­man­dan­t’s Girl. Her lat­est is The Win­ter Guest, which will be pub­lished August 26, 2014. A grad­u­ate of GWU, Cam­bridge and Penn Law, Pam for­mer­ly worked at the Pen­ta­gon, as a diplo­mat for the State Depart­ment and as an attor­ney. She lives out­side Philadel­phia with her hus­band and three chil­dren where, in addi­tion to writ­ing and speak­ing, she is on the fac­ul­ty of Rut­gers Law School.

Relat­ed Content:

Pam Jenoff is the author of sev­er­al books of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, includ­ing The New York Times best­sellers The Lost Girls of Paris, The Orphan’s Tale, The Diplo­mat’s Wife, and The Woman With the Blue Star. Her nov­els are inspired by her expe­ri­ences work­ing as the Spe­cial Assis­tant to the Sec­re­tary of the Army at the Pen­ta­gon and as a diplo­mat for the State Depart­ment in Poland. These posi­tions afford­ed Pam a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to wit­ness and par­tic­i­pate in oper­a­tions at the most senior lev­els of gov­ern­ment and pro­vid­ed exper­tise regard­ing World War II and the Holo­caust for Pam’s books.