Israelis Writing Their History: Memories of Poland

Almost 70 years after Israel’s independence, Poland, the country which before World War II was home to 3.5 million Jews and which later became the site of German Nazi concentration camps, continues to evoke strong emotions. The way Jews and Poles view each other is largely rooted in historical events and the goal of this project is to investigate one side of this story: how were the narratives about shared Polish-Jewish past shaped in Israel’s first years?

Among those making their way from Europe to Palestine in the first decades of the 20th century were many who came from Poland. Already before Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, Polish Jews not only constituted one of the largest groups, but also played prominent roles in Zionist organizations, seeking the establishment of a Jewish country. Notably, David Ben Gurion, who in 1948 would become Israel’s first Prime Minister, and his main political opponent, Manachem Begin, a right-wing Zionist leader, grew up in Poland.

As World War II was ending, Holocaust survivors started joining earlier immigrants in Palestine. All of those who came before and after the war, were joining the new society with a personal baggage of memories of Poland. Whether they remembered Polish antisemitism, Poles’ friendship, or both, and whether they had ever felt at home in Poland, now was the time to decide how these memories would be passed, if they would at all, to next generations and to Israelis of other origins.

In this project, Tomasz Cebrat seeks to explain what determined how Poland became a part of Israeli Jews’ collective memory. Much of the process was subjected to political efforts to create a new Israeli identity, distinct from Jewish diaspora identities. To understand how the memory was shaped from bottom up, he interviews Polish Jews who came to Palestine in the 1930s and children of that generation of immigrants, as well as those who immigrated in the first years after the war, while Israel was becoming an independent country. Cebrat collects their stories from Poland, learns how they talked about these memories in their new homeland, and asks what cultural, linguistic, or personal ties to Poland they kept. Based on their personal recollections of the old country and observations in the new one, he seeks to understand an important aspect of Israeli identity by exploring the diversity of personal narratives, the character of the stereotypes and connotations related to Poland in Israeli public sphere, and what were the shared attitudes about Poland at the end of the Cold War, when many Israelis started to return to their old homeland to visit.

Jewish Poland: A Lost Connection, a Forgotten Identity

When Polish Jews immigrated to Israel, they shaped and adopted a new, Zionist identity. Today, Polish Jews and non-Jewish Poles re-examine complex memories, a shared past, and the roots of judgment about each other's nations.