Should Jews stay in Europe? The question is an appropriate one. Growing up as a Jew in Sweden and the grandchild of Polish Holocaust survivors, I was constantly aware of what Europe had done to my family, what it had done to the Jewish people.
The question haunted us: What were we doing here, and what would happen to us if we stayed?
The Jews who stayed in Europe after the Second World War have been viewed in different ways. Those Jews who lived elsewhere considered them overly optimistic. Didn't we know what happened after the war to Jewish survivors who returned to their villages, and were slaughtered by the local Poles and Ukrainians? They had to pay the price for their naïveté and face a Europe where Jews still could not feel safe.
European Jews have also been viewed by Israelis and Americans as simply weak and compliant. They stayed on in Europe, leading only partial Jewish lives, because they were still in the shadows of the Holocaust. They were no longer proud of their Jewish heritage. They hid and led disparate lives, often playing down and eventually forgetting their Jewish identities.
Brought up with the Yiddishkeit of a Polish shtetl as a backdrop, my grandfather loved to tell Yiddish jokes. Using his broken Swedish, he tried to cover all the details in the most elaborate way, wanting to convey an atmosphere of a lost world. When he finally came to the punchline, he'd tell it quickly in Yiddish, then burst into a nervous laughter. My grandmother, a survivor injured by life and its cruelty, would then explain to us the joke in Swedish in a way that made it sound more like an obituary than something humorous. At these times, I was never closer — and never further away — from the Jewish people and my own history.
Whatever the reason, people like my grandparents stayed in Europe, and despite the expectation that the remnants would disappear, some of us somehow remained Jewish despite the difficulty of living life in such a milieu.While we felt European, we still wanted to embrace and promote our Jewishness. We just didn't know how.
Then something happened in Europe's northernmost corner.
In 2000, the Swedish government envisioned a project that could help rebuild a strong Jewish presence in Europe. Paideia–the European Institute for Jewish Studies was initiated as a result through a $5 million foundation grant. An additional contribution of $2.5 million was allocated by the Wallenberg Foundation in memory of Swedish Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg's noble efforts. Jewish activists were to be brought from all over Europe to partake in Jewish-studies programs for a year, to build a network, and then return to their countries of origin and help change their societies.
The Swedish government had two reasons for this.
One is that because it had been a passive bystander during the Holocaust, it felt a responsibility to revive Jewish life in Europe. Also, as remarkable as this may sound, it wanted Jewish life to be a role model for other cultural minorities in the new European landscape.
The response to the program has exceeded expectations. Its graduates operate in more than 20 European countries, with leadership positions across the board, in Jewish communities, media, the arts and academia. These people are an integral part of their societies, and simultaneously, they are proud Jews who are part of a network that can make a difference.
Now do I, as a young Swedish Jew, want to remain in Europe? Yes. As a Jewish activist, as a proof to the survival of the Jewish people and as a part of the Paideia network, I feel empowered to take part in a movement that will leave its mark on European societies. European political lobbying does not work the same way as in the United States. The ways to influence it are different, and only Europeans like myself do it.
Jews can be part of the decision-making process as European citizens not merely as Europe's victims.
As the European Union is consolidating, the process of defining the Jewish space in it has just started. Do we want to be part of guiding this process? For me, this struggle has already begun, and the more of us who take part in it, the more we can manifest Jewish pride and continuity.
Noomi Weinryb is a Wallenberg graduate of Paideia– The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, and currently serves as its deputy director.