To the Editor:
Like Ruth R. Wisse [“Poland Without Jews,” August], I spent some brief days in Poland coping with my roots. In my case, it was two ten-day trips, during which I returned to the scene of my parents’ childhood and pre-World War I flight, and the places where death came to virtually every member of my family.
Any return by a Jew to the Poland of his or her parents, to the scene where one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish cultures thrived and was snuffed out, means total immersion in bitterness and disbelief. Can only these traces be left, after all those years? If the traveler is alone, the traveler remains alone, isolated from those around him by the emotions. Even with an occasional Jew, few words can be found to express what is felt.
Yet unlike Mrs. Wisse, I returned from my visits with another view of Poland and the Polish people, somehow to be fitted in alongside the antipathy that is part of my group baggage. For almost beyond my conscious will, exposure to Poland made me aware, too, of the terrible sufferings and humiliations of the Polish people over the centuries, climaxing when virtually all of Warsaw was razed by deliberate Nazi plan while the Russians waited outside the city for the deed to be done before they marched in as conquerors.
It does not diminish Polish brutality to the Jews to acknowledge Polish suffering and be horrified by the historical fact that two scapegoats could not unite their strengths for mutual survival. There were some exceptions—my cousin lives today in Warsaw married to the Polish Freedom Fighter who saved her life—but the price of group hatred surely must be one of the bitterest pills one carries home from Poland.
So far as I can tell, it is simplistic to see this as one-sided. How did it start? We were forced to be separate; we chose to be separate. Who knows what the historical mixture was? I only know my parents never thought of themselves as Poles, nor were they unique. It is the children and grandchildren of the emigrants who want to see Poland again, not the ones who left. Despite the centuries in Poland, the Jews were sojourners in Poland, visitors to the land but not of it. It was this very isolation that gave the Jews in Poland their distinctive, inward-searching mystic culture. It was this separation that makes one blindingly angry when Polish history is rewritten to erase the fact that Jews lived and died as Jews, not as Poles.
Six hundred years of visiting Poland should be recalled, memorialized, and returned somehow to the fabric of Poland’s past. As Jews, however, we cannot have it both ways.
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
The historical assumptions of Phyllis Myers are mistaken and hurtful. In no balanced view can the Jews, who were part of Polish society from its very beginnings, and who enjoyed a high degree of economic and cultural interdependency, be described as an isolated group, with an “inward-searching mystic culture.” To accept Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories as the historical reality of Polish Jewry is much like deriving American history from Hawthorne. The Jews may have considered themselves sojourners in a messianic sense, but in hardly any phase of their Diaspora have they been more entrenched than in Poland. The well-known legend even explains that the name of the country, Poyln (Poland), is the Hebrew Polin: here you rest. If anything, after a spate of expulsions, Poland was home.
It is also hard to see how Miss Myers’s American idea of “separation” can be applied to Poland, where the distinction between citizenship and nationality was a reality right into the modern period. So the Jews—and other minorities—believed that they could maintain a distinctive national identity and still be allowed to live. Is this “having it both ways”? Surely it is the Poles, appropriating the Jewish past—not to speak of some of its goods—without even adequate acknowledgment, who are attempting to have it both ways. This, indeed, was a point of my article.
Unlike Miss Myers, I was aware of the terrible suffering and humiliation of the Poles long before my trip to Poland. But it never occurred to me to regard this suffering as something that would excuse the Poles from their civilized duty.