5 Things That I Liked About Living in Poland as a Jewish-American (And 5 Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

May 3rd. The Day of the Polish Constitution. Sure, I could write a piece about Verb Conjugation. I could write a piece about the cases in the Polish Language, or even a list of my favorite Let’s Play Channels in Polish (which I’m going to watch as soon as I’m done writing this article.

Poland is a fascinating country and one that used to be the largest in all of Europe (not to mention the fact that it was deemed very powerful in “Civilization V”). The landmarks are memorable and virtually every tourist I’ve encountered who has been there has been changed on a very deep level (and luckily I think even with Holocaust tourism there are new dimensions opening up that are facilitating Polish-Jewish dialogue like never before).

Unlike many tourists, I’ve had the privilege of actually having LIVED in Krakow for one year. It was a fantastic experience and one of the best years of my life. As that experience continues to fade into memory (even though it will always be a part of me), I thought it would be wise of me to make some reflections about what I liked and what I didn’t like so much.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: “Straight-Talking” Can Get Time to Get Used to (As an American)

 

Unlike in many English-speaking countries, the culture in Poland encourages people to be blunt with what they’re feeling. Surprisingly, when I look back at it, I’m somewhat…grateful for this mindset. In the United States, where you usually have to be all smiles even with someone who you have intention of getting along with, you constantly doubt social interaction as a façade. In Poland, I knew that if I was doing a bad job, I would be TOLD so, and that if I was doing a good job, I would also be honestly and straightly told as such.

In the United States, a major error would result in a delicately worded speech. In Poland, people would be visibly angry. Like in Israel (in which much of the same culture exists), it felt painful at first. One of my Polish friends told me that it was the primary reason he disliked American culture (he didn’t dislike it as a whole, just that aspect of having to be “nice” all of the time).

For the first month, it was very much like there was a nagging voice telling me that “I would never fit in”. Not even in a previous year in Israel prepared me for the return of “straight-talking”. And…a lot of Polish people can actually be PROUD of the fact that they do this!

 

Liked: A Lot of People Were Willing to Ask About My Story (And Listen)

 

Poland has a distinction of being what is nowadays a very monolithic society in terms of its ethnic makeup but before the Second World War there were significant minority communities from all of the neighboring countries as well as Ashkenazi Jews (yes, contemporary Jewish communities exist in Poland! I know because I visited them every week! Several times every week, actually!) Almost all Poles have a trace of German / Ukrainian / Lithuanian / Jewish / Belorussian / anything I forgot ancestry somewhere in their family tree (and sometimes more than just a trace).

One result of this is that there is a certain “phantom pain” concerning the communities that were killed off en masse (in the case of Jews and Roma) or forcibly repatriated (in the case of many of the others). A lot of people wanted to hear about my story as an American, as a Jew and how my relationship with the Polish story came to be.

Sometimes I would find out intriguing Jewish stories as well, including childhood friendships their grandparents had before Hitler invaded, or noteworthy acts of resistance as well.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Can Ditch Political Correctness Entirely

 

The fact that I heard a number of Islamophobic macroagressions (not a typo in that last word) can’t be ignored. Thankfully they were sparse (very sparse, come to think of it. As in “five times max over the course of a year”). Some of the locals parroted a similar variety of Islamophobia that was motivated in part by “horror stories” from Sweden and Germany, not also to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When I was headed to Sweden for the following year and made the announcement, some people were actually…legitimately worried for my safety.

Dialogue can definitely help with this. And learning the Polish Language is one way with which to meaningfully engage!

 

Liked:  A Lot of Forward-Thinking People Who Are Constructively Critical of Their Milieu and Have a Good Relationship to Their Polish Heritage and History

 

I wasn’t pleased about the Holocaust Bill that passed earlier this year. I understand fully that the Polish Government was dismantled by Nazi Germany and that the Polish state itself did not exist at the time the Holocaust was carried out. I also recognize the acts of resistance as well, wholeheartedly. That said, a full reconciliation will come with a look into the past, including the acts of some Poles who either stood by or may have actively aided the genocide.

I say this as someone to whom Polish culture has changed on a deep level and to whom this country and people mean an awful lot to me and…yes, I owe this country and the fact that I lived there the bulk of my future successes. My relationship with Poland, like my relationship with the other countries in which I have lived, is overwhelmingly positive.

With that also comes a “relationship maturity” in which you will help your country be the most forward-thinking, productive motherland it can be. And I think a lot of my Polish friends have well-developed resistance strategies and constructive criticism that they use to bring their country forward. It is something that I think Americans can really learn from (and, possibly, have been).

It is one think to criticize a country you have no relationship to (and I never do this with a place that I either haven’t visited OR don’t speak the language / haven’t studied the language). It is another thing to reason with your homeland as an adult and bring him or her up via acts of constructive criticism. And that criticism doesn’t take away from the fact that Poland has a lot to admire.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Can Be Very Defensive

 

Some outsiders have this image of Poland as a backwards place where everyone is racist and anti-Semitic. Poland is very divided but in all honesty it isn’t worse or better than the United States (which has similar divisions as well). Krakow in many respects is a lot more accepting than New York City is, as are many other Polish cities.

Several of my Polish friends in Israel got subjected to a significant amount of macroagressions (again, no typo), and to some degree I can understand why some can be defensive, especially if they’ve had negative experiences abroad.

Be prepared for some people to be defensive and make sure to listen and ask questions. We have to learn from each other.

 

Liked: If You Express Any Love of Polish Culture, History, Language or the Like, You’ll Instantly Make Friends

 

My Polish isn’t the best (and given my whole Fiji thing I sort of haven’t been working on it actively), but if you want to make friends with Polish people, learn about their culture. You’d be surprised how easy a connection can come with that. Even a handful of words of Polish can have a magic effect on people.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Police Can Be “No-Nonsense” To Unbelievable Degrees

 

That one time a friend of mine was holding a beer and took ONE TINY STEP beyond the rope indicating the “bar territory” and into the square. She was fined on the spot.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the story I heard about the German police officers who positioned themselves at a stoplight at 2 AM after a party for the express purpose of fining people who were jaywalking.

Jokes aside, given the history of “being invaded by everyone”, this element is significant unsurprising. Maybe.

 

Liked: Being an American was NEVER a Liability in Any Regard, and Poland and the United States Do Have a Lot in Common and Many of the Same National Strengths (and Faults)

 

In Germany, saying that I was American would subject me to a three-minute rant about the military-industrial complex by my barber. Israel was, to some degree, even worse in that respect. In Poland, Americans get a variety of special treatment, almost (even if you’re not Polish-American). Only once or twice was I told that Americans “have no culture”.  Instead, I would get asked about my roots or otherwise be told about someone’s family members in Chicago (where it is very much possible to buy tickets in Polish in public transport).

We also have shared histories of multiculturalism and our expatriates being everywhere. Our constitutions guaranteed religious freedom (yes, the Polish Constitution of May 3rd which is the reason I’m writing this piece). Jewish culture and the Yiddish Language very deeply influenced both places. As a Jew, I notice that German-Jewish and German-Polish relations have a lot in common (a history of reconciliation and a lot of people who are mutually interested in both cultures, drastic improvements in Germans’ relationship with Jews and with Poles over the course of the past few decades, etc)

“We Love Americans”. That’s what a Polish friend told me. I doubt more needs to be said.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Conflated All Jews with Orthodox Judaism

Some people expected my family to look like Hasidim. Thankfully there were also others who understood fully that Jews, like any other people group, have a wide variety of appearances and classes. Others expected me to constantly live under the shadow of deep prohibitions all of the time (to be fair, I was more religious back then). Some had perceived that my religion was primarily a list of things I wasn’t allowed to do, rather than a collection of texts, traditions and cultures (come to think of it, it could have been THIS rather than my time in Sweden and Germany that propelled me to becoming less religious).

I will say this: in Poland religions are respected, and Judaism was no exception in this regard. Fun fact: even Polish Catholics sometimes leave notes at the graves of Hasidic masters (!)

 

Liked: Poland Had a SUPERBLY Encouraging Environment for People Wanting to Learn Polish (and an EXCELLENT Balance Between Polish and English / Other Languages)

 

As an elementary learner of Swedish, I felt pressured to really, REALLY not make mistakes, and that some people would switch to English without a second thought if I hesitated. (This, obviously, changes the more you progress “up the ladder”, and now that I’m fluent in Swedish this is a non-issue). Israel sometimes felt the same way outside of the classroom. In Germany there was a bit of the opposite, in which some people who knew English but not German felt that they were saddled with every imaginable difficulty.

In Poland, in contrast to all of these places, there was literally a PERFECT balance between people wanting to use Polish or English to whatever degree you were comfortable with either. A lot of Poles have relatives in literally every corner of the globe (and Polish and English have the distinction of being the two languages I’ve heard spoken in EVERY country I’ve been to, Spanish and Hebrew would have been on the list but I didn’t hear them in Greenland).

I never felt as though I was “bugging people” with using elementary Polish, and I felt that everything I said was heartily appreciated and I was heavily encouraged to continue. Last summer when I devoted some time to “awakening” my Polish again, I felt very much the same way among Polish speakers here.

I really wish that the rest of the world would be a lot more like Poland in this respect. Linguistic diversity and encouragement in language learning needs to be had. Everywhere.

kroke 018

Did YOU ever spend three months or more in Poland? How did that go for you? Did you ever try learning the Polish Language at all? How was it? Let us know!

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