A giant, Star of David-shaped hole in the heart
There are two tragedies of the Polish-Jewish relations. The first one is that through the centuries of coexistence with each other we did not make for better neighbours and friends. The second one is that we can never quite make it right again.
The history of Jews in Poland is a long and fraught one. It contains some of the best of the nineteen hundred years of the Jewish exile, but it also contains some of the worst – persistent anti-Semitism and in the end the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi German occupiers.
For centuries, Poland was the best place for the Jews of the diaspora to live, its famed tolerance possibly a product of its imperial multiculturalism as well as rather anarchic political culture. Poland first makes an appears as a state in the writing of a Jewish merchant from Spain, and the Jews are known to have lived in Poland virtually from its founding in the 10th century. Later known internationally as “paradisus judaeorum”, Polish Jews read into the name of the Slavic tribe that gave the country its name, Polanie, a higher message – Polin, or “here you rest” in Hebrew. And come to rest they did in large numbers over the centuries. There is a reason why, after all, when the German panzers rolled through the Polish borders in 1939, amongst Polish population of some 35 million, over 3 million were Jewish – Poland had the second largest Jewish population in the world, or one fifth of the world’s Jews – not to mention millions more who now lived in the western areas of the Soviet Union that prior to the partitions of the 18th century belonged to the Polish Commonwealth.
That was also their downfall – 90 per cent of Poland’s Jews did not survive the war; they constituted a half of the six million Poles, or one sixth of Poland’s population, which perished between 1939 and 1945. Hitler built his concentration and extermination camps in Poland for the same reason the apocryphal criminal robbed a bank (“because that’s where the money is”). Furthermore, Poland was well connected by railway to the rest of Europe, being in effect at the centre of a web stretching all the way from the Pyrenees to the outskirts of Moscow. If you ever talk World War Two with the Poles, don’t make the mistake of calling places like Auschwitz “Polish camps”. It’s a perennial sore point and creates constant work for, among others, the Polish embassy in the United States, which has to issue demands to correct sloppy media reporting. The camps might have been situated in Poland but they were most definitely German.
The Holocaust, of course, is a unique event in the Jewish history, as well as uniquely evil. But the history of the Jews in Poland sadly has not been free of prejudice and conflict either before or after the war. Anti-Semitism was common over the centuries, as it has been in all other European countries. The rise of ethno-religious nationalism during the 19th century and into the 20th has only made the situation worse. The modern Polish anti-Semitism was partly religious (the Jews as Christ killers), partly ethnic (the Jews as non-Slavic and non-Polish aliens), and partly economic (the Jews as an economically successful and often dominant minority). My mother’s father used to participate in torch-lit marches through the streets of the pre-war Lwow protesting the Jewish influence. The Lwow University, of which he was a graduate, enforced “numerus clausus”, the Jewish quotas on course places. So did other Polish universities. My father’s mother, a seamstress, retained throughout her life a belief that her Jewish competitors routinely engaged in fast and unethical business practices to drive the goyim like her out of business.
Paradise it might have been, even if less so as the time went on, but it was not one big happy family. The two communities, the Poles and the Jews, coexisted but rarely mixed, being more like strangers living alongside each other than true neighbours. One of the (many) reasons why more Polish Jews were not saved during the war was that only a few Polish Jews were sufficiently assimilated and thus familiar enough with the Polish life to be able to evade the dangers of the occupation. Only a tiny minority of the 3 million actually spoke the Polish language without an accent and without using give-away words or phrases, even fewer could recite Catholic prayers or show enough familiarity with Polish history or culture that could save their lives when confronted to prove their Polishness.
And yet, neighbours or strangers, the violent disappearance of three million Polish Jews has left a giant, Star of David-shaped hole in the heart of Poland. While the majority of the Jewish population lived largely in their own self-contained world, the Jewish contribution of the minority to the Polish culture, science and economy has been immense, and as elsewhere, far out of the proportion to the numbers involved (even if these numbers in Poland were quite large to start with). The contribution of the Polish Jews to the Jewish culture has, of course, been even more significant. But if, as according to Talmud, the saving of one life is akin to saving the whole world, then conversely the losing of one life destroys the whole world too. Three million – farmers and workers, shopkeepers and businessmen, holy men and crooks, poets and warriors, communists and capitalists, Zionists and Christian converts, all gone, their property stolen or destroyed, even their memory often extinguished. Like a malignant and dark Rapture, infinite number of possibilities and futures were snuffed out and only a void left behind; but a void that screams to heavens and to us with its silence.
I’m walking the streets of Kazimierz, a district of Krakow just south of the Old Town and south-east of the Wawel Castle. It was named after a 14th century Polish king Casimir, the only one to earn the name Great, a philo-Semite (“a friend to serfs and the Jews”) who according to a legend had a Jewish mistress and who settled the Jews in this area of the then capital. It was never a ghetto; that only came centuries later, during the war, when the Germans appropriated the properties all over Kazimierz, so conveniently located a walking distance to Wawel, the headquarters of the General Government’s Nazi satrap, Hans Frank, and herded the Jews just across the Vistula river, in the Podgorze district, a stone throw away from the factory taken over by Oscar Schindler.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Kazimierz’s past association with hundreds of years of Jewish history remained largely unremarked on (as indeed was the topic of the Holocaust). The district itself became quite derelict and ill-reputed, not a place to walk alone at night.
Today, however, Kazimierz is one of the major centres of the Jewish renaissance in Poland. Buildings are being spruced up, synagogues renovated. Museums and bookshops have opened up, as have a number of Jewish-influence restaurants and watering holes. Kazimierz is now one of Krakow’s main attractions; not just a Jewish theme park but a living community, as many Poles embrace their ancestry, forgotten, hidden or downplayed after the war. Events and festivals are a regular feature of vibrant cultural life in Kazimierz, attracting Jewish and non-Jewish tourists as well as Poles curious about or nostalgic for the almost extinguished part of Polish history and traditionIt’s a poignant walk. The past weighs too heavily for it to be quite joyful, and appropriately, the sky over Krakow is overcast and gloomy. Every glance gravitates to an old inscription or a business sign revealed under the layers of stripped paint. It’s a fair guess what happened to the owners; the more interesting question is whether anyone survived (some indeed did; after 1989 many descendants of the former owners have reclaimed buildings throughout Krakow and other cities).
At the Old Jewish Cemetery, I put on a skull cap for the first time in my life and walk amongst the pre-war graves. It is a miracle of sorts that so many headstones have survived the German attempt to turn them into gravel (many were lost, crushed at a quarry attached to the ghetto). As is the Jewish tradition, little stones are left on top of the headstones, and elsewhere prayers written on small pieces of paper are held down by pebbles, like a miniature Wailing Wall. There is much to wail about but the mood amongst other visitors is one of sombre contemplation, occasionally interrupted by the sound of heavy machinery; work goes on in other parts of the cemetery to bring it back to life, so to speak.
What sort of neighbours and friends can we be now?
There are only 7,000 people who identify themselves as Jews who live in Poland (though perhaps upto100,000 who could). The community is a shadow of the former self in terms of numbers, but the time in the second decade of the new century is perhaps the most auspicious and promising it has been for Poland’s Jews in a long while.
Anti-Semitism is still around, but it often seems a relic; offensive but essentially harmless (though that is no reason to tolerate it). With the secularisation of the Polish society, not to mention the modernisation (or de-medievalisation) of the Church (such as it has been) the religious element is much less noticeable. A more political anti-Semitism finds some shelter on the nationalist fringes, where activists still delight in speculating that X’s (a politician or a public personality, usually of a liberal or a progressive persuasion) real name once ended in -stein or -berg, and mentions of Zydo-komuna (Judeo-communism) pop up occasionally in the inferior discourse (the Jews were indeed over-represented, for a number of reasons, amongst the post-1945 party and security elite, but also only a small fraction of the remaining Jewish population). Football “fans”, never confused for the country’s intellectual or moral elite, still taunt the opposing teams with anti-Jewish epithets and stars of David, a vague recollection of the fact that many a sport club has indeed been founded by the Polish Jews, when they were still Jews in Poland.
Prejudice generates its own cycle of verbal, emotional, and sometimes even physical violence, as the Polish anti-Semitism is often answered by the Jewish anti-Polonism (usually in the United States and Israel). Both deserve to disappear.
I’m not a big believer in “historical debts”; debts should be settled soon and not passed from generation to generation, together with responsibility and guilt. We cannot change the past, we can only remember it and learn from it in order to create a better future. Too often in Europe wounds continue to fester because the past is never quite past but continues to affect and poison the present. I hope that, with enough good will, the future relations between the Polish Poles and the Jewish Poles can avoid that unpromising state.
Across the river, in Podgorze, the former Schindler factory is now the Schindler museum. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Australian Thomas Keneally’s novel has again put Krakow on the world map, if only for the rather tragic reasons (even if the story itself is uplifting). The Museum is a major attraction now, attracting a steady stream of visitors. Presenting Schindler’s story in the full context of war and the occupation as experienced every day by the Polish Jews and non-Jews, it perhaps does not tell most educated Poles anything they did not know before about the horror and the privation of the period, but for the Western tourists for whom the war remains somewhat abstract, it can be a revelation. The immersive audio-visual multi-media experience lets you get as close to the reality of the life and death under the Nazi rule as is possible after decades of peace. My uncle, who is a chairman of a choir, once not long ago brought here members of a visiting German choir. The guests were left stunned and speechless, particularly when reading the official posters-announcements of the occupation authorities; they had to be hurried along so as not to constantly keep falling behind. Not that the modern Germans necessarily need any more war guilt, but an excursion to the museum would do good to anyone too caught up in their first world problems, or indeed anyone who keeps bemoaning fascism without actually understanding what it means.
Oscar Schindler’s office is minutely recreated here, and you can easily imagine him sitting behind the heavy desk, scanning through “the list” with a pen in his hand. His story is a useful reminder that even a morally ambiguous person can do good in a world ruled by evil. Schindler also stands as a symbol, thanks to Keneally and Spielberg, for all the others, known and unknown, who in their thousands helped tens of thousands of Jews to survive the war. It is a pity that there were no Schindlers, but it is all too easy to pass judgments from the comfort of our armchairs on people living under absolutely extreme circumstances we can barely comprehend.
On the way back from Poland, I was reading a collection of essays by Stanislaw Krajewski, a Polish-Jewish intellectual, called “Poland and the Jews: Reflections of a Polish Polish Jew”, by which Krajewski means he is Polish Jew who lives in Poland and identifies as a Pole. In one of the essays, he notes, “In the eyes of non-Polish Jews, Poland is a Jewish cemetery”.
While clearly it is – amongst the tombstones of Kazimierz and in the ash fields of Belzec – the good news is that it is no longer just that. It is also the new Jewish community centre in Kazimierz, or an international kletzmer music festival. It is not enough to fill the hole in Poland’s heart – nothing can – but it’s a sprout of life.
(All photos copyright Arthur Chrenkoff)