Following the amputation of a limb, it is usual for the patient to experience sensations as if the limb were still present. This condition is referred to as a phantom limb. In the vast majority of cases, the sensation passes off in time.
—Black‘s Medical Dictionary
On September 23, 1986, a ceremony of rare symbolic significance took place in the splendid 16th-century hall of the Collegium Maius of the Jagellonian University in Cracow, Poland. There, in accordance with custom, the rector and senate of the university renewed the 1932 doctorate of Moshe Altbauer, now Professor Emeritus of Slavonic Philology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. As the only Polish Jew of his time who would ever be a candidate for this distinction, Professor Altbauer opened his acceptance remarks with a Hebrew prayer: Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this season. In their own way, the flashing cameras and the scribbling pens of the newsmen among the invited guests testified as much as did the prayer to the historic weight of the occasion.
The Jewish question has been taboo in Poland for many years. Neither the government, the intellectuals, the Church, nor the people have wanted to invoke the painful memory of the more than three million Jews who once formed such a dynamic minority in their country. From the end of the 17th century, when an estimated three-fourths of world Jewry lived within the borders of Poland, the community had grown into the strongest in the history of the Diaspora. Polish Jewry had developed new forms of political and economic organization, new educational institutions to maintain the high intellectual demands of talmudic study, religious movements to revitalize a threatened faith, a national language—Yiddish—with its own thriving culture to complement the sacred tongue of Hebrew, and competing national ideologies that sought to redefine a modern people.
If their thousand-year history on Polish soil set a new standard in the civilization of the Jews, the Jewish presence was hardly less critical to the history of Poland. Invited originally to play a special role in Polish society, Jews had become functionally important as intermediaries between the peasantry and the nobility, as craftsmen and traders and architects of the life of the towns, and, later, as writers and artists, journalists, teachers, and actors on the social and political scene. In no other country did the Jews constitute so high a proportion of the population—10 percent between the two world wars—or such a visible and prominent minority.
But for the last decades, to speak of the Jews of Poland has meant, for Jews and Poles alike, to recall not only the destruction of this vast community at the hands of the Germans during World War II—itself a trauma from which Poland has been slower to recover than any other nation—but the thornier issue of Polish anti-Semitism before the war and after. Most Jewish survivors of the war, confronted by verbal and physical abuse when they tried to return to their homes, left the country. Successive waves of anti-Semitism at almost regular ten-year intervals expelled the rest. Especially bitter is the memory of 1968, when some 20,000 Jews who had tried to rebuild their lives were driven out in a vicious governmental campaign that left Poland one of the most Judenrein countries in Europe. It is little wonder that most Poles until recently have been reluctant to enter into a discussion that would inevitably raise questions about the nature of their country they would rather leave unasked.
Thus, the ceremony in honor of Dr. Altbauer was of more than passing interest. Initiated and presided over by the rector of the Jagellonian University, who is also a member of the Polish parliament on the special party list, it bore all the marks of a policy-making event, the boldest of many signs that Poland is adopting a new attitude toward its lost tribe. And indeed, the renewal of Dr. Altbauer’s doctorate, which took place during a four-day conference hosted by the Jagellonian University on “Jewish Autonomy in Pre-Partition Poland,” was hardly an isolated event. The conference itself, which attracted scholars from Israel, England, France, the United States, and Canada, was the fourth such international meeting in as many years. While the participants were discussing topics like the terminology of the institutions of Jewish self-government, the myth and reality of the Jewish Council of the Four Lands, the relations of Jews and Christians in private towns, and other aspects of trade, law, and society of the 18th century, most observers concentrated on the contemporary political significance of the event itself—a significance, the editor of Poland’s leading political weekly observed, that far outweighed any potential scholarly contributions the participants might make.
At the previous three conferences—held at Columbia University, Oxford University, and the Tauber Institute of Brandeis University—strenuous efforts had been made to cultivate a neutral academic atmosphere in which the troubling history of Polish-Jewish relations could be openly discussed. The published results distill the emotional tenor of those meetings still further.1 A newly founded journal of Polish-Jewish studies, Polin, will similarly have to eschew tendentiousness and controversy if it wishes to retain both its Polish and Jewish contributors.2 But the Cracow conference was an overtly political occasion—at least in the sense that no such meeting could have taken place without the wholehearted endorsement of the Polish government that oversees all aspects of Polish foreign policy. To many observers, indeed, the conference was no less dramatic a declaration of policy than the amnesty of 225 political prisoners that had preceded it by a few days.
That policy seems directed not only at the Jews but at the Jewish state. In conjunction with the conference, the Hebrew University sponsored an extensive tour of Poland for professors and others associated with the university; it was one of about thirty such organized group tours from Israel to visit Poland this year. Though diplomatic relations between the two countries have not yet been formalized, people everywhere were anticipating that consular exchanges, interrupted in 1967, would soon be resumed. In Warsaw it was “known” that the Israeli residence would be ready for occupancy by mid-October. There was active speculation concerning choice of personnel. (Instead of the anticipated exchange of consuls, Israel now has in Warsaw a lower-level bureau of interests.)
In the meantime, the Israelis present had to suffer the indignity of formal nonrecognition. True, the Hebrew University was acknowledged, verbally, as one of the sponsors of the conference, and Professor Khone Shmeruk, who more than anyone has been responsible for the recent development of Polish-Jewish studies, presented to the rector a Hebrew University medal which was received as warmly as it was bestowed. Nonetheless, mention of the Hebrew University’s role was omitted from the program and published material. Some of the Israeli tourists complained of the ignominy of a customs control that would not stamp their passports on either entry or exit, lest any memento (besides their dollars) remain to testify to their stay in the country. But their Polish hosts urged a greater confidence in the sincerity of their welcome, predicting that open relations with Israel would come within a matter of days or weeks at most. The Poles also claimed to be looking forward to the event for their own sakes: if even a small number of those expressing the wish to visit Israel were to realize their dream, Israeli tourism would never be the same.
The renewal of contacts between Poles and Jews is obviously of potential benefit to both parties, a welcome admission of shared history and of mutual contemporary concerns. But the truth is that present contacts are no less complicated than those the historians in their academic sessions were patiently trying to unravel. Even as they meet, drink, and reminisce about their common past, Jewish and Gentile Poles are governed by different memories of the same events, and quite a different understanding of the same world. One will have to see whether the apparent good will of their reunion will be able to withstand the strain of all that pulls them apart.
For the Israelis now able to travel through Poland, the organized bus trip was not tourism in any conventional sense. Half the group with which I traveled was returning to its native land, the other half was returning to the land of its fathers. In almost every town and city through which we passed someone went off to find what was once his own home or the home of his parents or grandparents. The evenings were burdened by stories of encounters with present occupants who did or did not express regret and compassion, who did or did not invite one in for a cup of tea. At every stop the Polish guides and the scholars among us summarized the history of Jewish settlement, ending with the number of Jews still present in 1939 and then the manner and place of their execution. We also retraced the process of genocide in a number of Nazi death camps along the way. My Israeli colleagues came to realize as I did that increased knowledge added nothing to our understanding.
Poland boasts a number of enormous open-air museums, called Skansen, that preserve peasant culture through reconstructions of folk architecture and artifacts of past centuries. Our open-air museums were the once-Jewish towns which, thanks to the Soviet domination of Poland and the stagnant Communist economy, have barely been altered since the German devastation except for the further decay of time. Shops functioned as they did fifty years ago, a little more primitively and with poorer goods. Any of the hand-drawn maps that appear in the hundreds of communal memorial books that Jewish survivors published after the war could have helped us locate the former bathhouse, the study-house, each building around the marketplace.
But unlike the Skansen, these Jewish museum towns are fully inhabited, and the residents watched us fearfully as we stepped from the buses into what is now wholly theirs. Whether or not they once welcomed the German slaughter of Polish Jewry, they are its direct beneficiaries, and those old enough to remember are understandably reluctant to be reminded of the circumstances of their inheritance. Since the Poles did not normally do the killing, they admit no guilt; as further proof of their blamelessness they cite their own suffering at the hands of the Germans. And if the Jews are no longer there, should the houses and shops remain empty?
Yet a busload of Jews is an unspoken accusation. The property of three million Jews now belongs to three million Poles who have never done anything to acknowledge their debt. Though statutes of limitations can protect them from reparations claims, no one can protect the Poles from their conscience.
The Poles are right to imagine that the visiting Jews want something of them; a few seem to understand what that is. In Lezajsk, which became an important stronghold of Hasidism when the charismatic Rabbi Elimelekh settled there in 1775, an elderly Christian woman tends his tomb. Her Yiddish, far more fluent than that of many of her interlocutors, was acquired when as a girl she attended the local Jewish school for girls because there was no good equivalent for Catholics. Five Jews (of a prewar population of 3,000) returned to Lezajsk after the war; now they too are no longer there, but she keeps in touch with some of their relatives in Israel and is always on hand, with her key, to open the cemetery gate.
In Bobowa, an old man warbled a tune the Bobover Rebbe used to sing at the conclusion of the Sabbath, and apologized for his poor memory when he faltered over the words. In Kazimierz, one Pole reminded another in our presence, “Don’t you remember the way they used to speak?” When one of our group corrected him, explaining that we were speaking Hebrew whereas the local Jews once spoke Yiddish, he replied, “That’s how you used to speak when you didn’t want us to understand.” In Zamo??, birthplace of the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, I tried to ask a resident of his street why the synagogue building, now a library, was closed. Forgetting the Polish word, I demonstrated the handle of a door that would not open. “Farmakht,” he said cheerfully in Yiddish, proud that the language he once heard all around him still came back to him four decades after he had seen his last Jew. At least for those aging residents who talked to us, the ghosts are undimmed, and it is through them that we caught our most spontaneous glimpses of the Jewish past.
Because the dead Jews have been supplanted by Poles who carry on daily life in their stead, Jewish commemoration depends on local whim. In most places former synagogues are now libraries, schools, dance halls, with all physical traces of their Jewishness erased. The youngsters who use these facilities have never known Jews and seldom heard of their former presence. Certainly the children in Kazimierz Dolny, trooping into a local synagogue, now a moviehouse, on a Sunday afternoon, would not normally attend to the vaulted ceiling or the still visible structure of what was once the women’s section and currently serves in part as the projectionist’s booth. In the former synagogue of Jaroslaw, now an art school and museum, we saw a frightful painting of a Galician Jew as Judas. The director mounting the show, who had never seen a Hasid, did not recognize the caricature, which has its origins in Polish folk art, or the insult.
Elsewhere, fortunately, other attitudes prevail. One may be duly cynical about the motives of the Polish government and of various city administrators in suddenly awakening to the memory of Jewish life in Poland, but the hunt for tourist dollars has already resulted in the restoration of synagogues in Tykocin, Nowy Sacz, Lanctut, Cracow, Warsaw. Tiny groups of Poles, for reasons of their own, study Yiddish and Hebrew and Jewish history. Young curators take pride in reconstructing the landmarks of a people they know only from books and artifacts. In an unusual though not unique instance of Polish dedication to Jewish memory, a sculptor in the resort city of Zakopane has sought out the Jewish cemetery, from which all the tombstones had long since been stolen, and designed for it a monument that he intends to erect among the cows that graze there. He honors the Jews as part of a cosmopolitan Poland that he would like to see restored.
Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland,3 a book recently published in the United States, is a loving photographic essay by a young Polish husband-and-wife team that shares this personal interest in Poland’s dwindled national minority. Featured before publication in the National Geographic, the book reads in part like an anthropological study of an extinct civilization (the kind of work, in brief, for which that magazine is renowned). The interviews, conducted with a range of surviving Polish Jews from members of the diminishing last minyan in Lublin to the director of the Yiddish State Theater, emphasize the variety that still characterizes this community in its final phase.
At the same time the book is an expressive document, obsessed with the question of responsibility. The interviewer, a former contributor to Solidarity Weekly, seems concerned most of all with the opinion her subjects have about her country, as if their decision to remain in Poland were a referendum on her. Her wistful conclusion is contained in the final sequence of photographs: Pope John Paul II kneels before the monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, symbolizing “for Poles and Jews alike the Pope’s desire for reconciliation between the two groups”; elderly Jews, at the seder of the Warsaw Jewish community, say, “We are making our exit; we will be gone in a moment”; a young Jewish boy from a completely assimilated family is shown with the Star of David that he now “always wears.” Despite the grim realism of the text and the photographs, the book is clearly informed by the hope that young Jews like the one with the Star of David around his neck will, by their ongoing presence, somehow acquit the Poles.
The scholarly consensus among historians is that the Jews were originally invited into Poland because they were considered necessary to its development, and began to suffer systematic mistreatment there when they came to be considered superfluous. As a tolerated minority, in other words, the Jews never determined their own fate. So too the fate of their past currently appears to depend on the mood and will of the majority either to suppress the memory of their role in the development of the country or find appropriate ways of recalling it.
There is no faulting the Poles on their commemorative passion in general. Even for the Israelis on our tour, no strangers to memorial stones on every roadside, the number of such commemorative markers and their attendant fresh flowers were a moving reminder of how profoundly the Poles still feel the losses they sustained almost a half-century ago. Whereas Israelis are reminded by memorial tributes to their fallen dead of the freedom they have won as a people, in the Polish consciousness these tributes burn a reminder of freedom lost and still to be regained. Yet where Poles and Jews are concerned, far from bringing the two peoples together, these memorials to the victims of Hitler are a source of friction, as historical antagonisms are now replaced by the struggle over history.
In Cracow, for example, some members of our tour attended a ceremony at the Cyganeria Café to mark the erection of a plaque, which was to replace one that had earlier occupied the same spot. The new plaque reads:
On the night of December 24-25, 1942, a group of soldiers of the People’s Guard and the Jewish Fighters Organization attacked the German night club, “Cyganeria,” which stood on this location, and inflicted serious casualties.
This plaque was installed on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Polish Workers’ Party to commemorate the heroic warriors.
The older inscription (it is said to remain on the reverse side of the new plaque) had made no mention of the Jewish Fighters Organization, which lost every member of its sabotage team when it blew up this popular gathering place of the German SS as its first act of resistance; instead, the action had been attributed wholly to the Gwardia Ludowa, the Communist-controlled People’s Guard, which was then not even active in the area. The original plaque, installed in 1952, served the then-standard purpose of retroactively boosting the prestige of the Communist underground at the expense of the non-Communist Home Army—which had, in fact, been active in local anti-German resistance though not in this particular act of sabotage. But the new inscription creates a convenient brotherhood of the underground that bears no relation to the truth, and also forges an association between the Jews and the unpopular Communist movement. Such is the state of official Polish historiography that the small group of Cracovians, Jews and non-Jews, who fought several years for the change of wording had to be satisfied with this partial victory.
The argument over the proposed Carmelite nunnery at Auschwitz is of a different order. Among the estimated millions killed at Auschwitz, the largest of the extermination camps, were over a million non-Jews, the majority of them Christian Poles. Maintained as a gigantic museum, Auschwitz is a shrine visited annually by hundreds of thousands of Polish mourners, who may well require on this inhuman ground the ministrations of their faith. A prominent Polish Catholic intellectual was innocent of malice when he asked us why Jews were opposed to the presence of the Carmelites at Auschwitz.
Offering examples from our immediate experience, we tried to explain that the Jewish reaction derived not from opposition to Christianity but from the fear that the Jewish dead would be posthumously converted and erased. Indeed, we pointed out, something like this has already happened: while the guide of our all-Jewish tour was appropriately attentive to our Jewish sensibilities, the three members of our group who went to the camp independently, joining tour groups of Poles and Americans, had reported back to us that the word “Jew” was either not mentioned at all by the guides or mentioned only incidentally, and that the Jewish commemorative building was in each instance closed. In the light of attempts in Poland and elsewhere to minimize or obliterate the Jewish victims, the Carmelite nunnery could thus be interpreted almost as a provocation.
The kindly Catholic was aghast. How could anyone deny the murder of the Jews? “And the shoes of the children? Aren’t those rooms full of shoes of Jewish children?” A partisan during the war, who had fought in the Warsaw uprising, he cried, “Why, we saw the horrors that were done to the Jews!” But while uttering these words he unconsciously passed both his hands over his eyes, bringing to mind a scene from the nine-hour film, Shoah, in which the Polish courier Jan Karski gives his painful testimony. (Karski had gone to London as the go-between of the Polish resistance and the Polish government-in-exile, bringing with him firsthand information about the annihilation of the Jews.) In the movie, when questioned by the film-maker Claude Lanzmann, Karski admits that he has tried since the war never to speak of what he had seen. Just so this gentle Christian, who in his essential decency could not look open-eyed at an anti-Semitism that is aggressive, persistent, and unresponsive to his own doctrine of love. Between a government reluctant to credit the Jews with the contribution they indisputably made to Poland; local strains of hatred that extend even beyond the grave; and the protective amnesia of some among the finest of Poland’s patriots, the Jews have to fight for every Hebrew or Yiddish letter on a plaque, for the hundreds of memorials that alone can recall the millions of absent Jews.
The tension over commemoration originates in the different function it serves in the national life of the two peoples. Jewish visitors to Poland, including those who once lived there, seek no future in that country, only the protection of their memory. In this respect it is hard to know who fares better, the Cracow Jew whose district stands intact, missing only its 60,000 Jewish residents, or the Warsaw Jew in a transformed city who finds the exact location of his former home by the cobblestones across the sidewalk that once eased the entry of wagons into the courtyard. Both want Jewish landmarks restored in order to preserve a measure of historical and personal sanity.
Commemoration serves quite a different purpose for the Poles. Unlike the Jews securing their dead, the Poles, a subject people, use history as a weapon in the fight for an independent future. History offers them the vocabulary of a free nation, images of past glories, of kings, revolutionaries, and statesmen who refused to accept foreign domination and struggled—sometimes successfully, sometimes in vain—for their sovereignty. The historians who have volunteered years of their lives to restoring the Royal Palace in Warsaw, the schoolchildren who leave their badges on the bier of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, architect of Poland’s interwar autonomy, share the knowledge that they have been plunged from freedom into slavery and the conviction that they will some day reverse the process. When that day comes there will be the inevitable civil clash over degrees of liberty and sovereignty (in which the liberal Left will fare as badly as it ever did in Poland), but meanwhile there is unanimous understanding of the insurgent functions of history.
The problem with such a national claim on history is that it subordinates everything to its purpose. Thus the movie Shoah disturbs the Poles not simply, as has been observed, because it presents a number of candidly anti-Jewish figures who give Poland “a bad name.” The movie troubles the Poles because its focus on murdered Jews and Polish onlookers inverts the exclusive view of official Polish historiography that World War II was an assault upon them, beginning with the invasion by the Soviets and the Germans in 1939 and ending with the destruction of Warsaw by the Germans as the Soviets stood by to ensure their ultimate domination. More than for raising the question of their anti-Semitism, then, many Poles resent the movie’s concentration on the genocide of the Jews rather than on the conquest of Poland. Nevertheless, Shoah, which touched off widespread debate when it was shown in Poland, is also acknowledged as a welcome challenge to accepted ideas by some who are themselves in the process of fomenting challenges to those in power.
In the application of history to current political ends in Poland, the Jews play an unusually complex role. The government reckons that by selectively conceding the Jewish role in Poland’s history it will promote in the West an image of greater benevolence. Jaruzelski’s circle, out of a ludicrously exaggerated conception of the significance and cohesion of “the Jews” as a factor in American politics, seems to expect that American Jews will, in return for this benevolence, lobby their government to restore Poland’s favored-nation status, or at least that they will themselves come in their numbers to Poland as tourists and contribute money to the restoration of Jewish sites. Judging from the numbers of representatives of Jewish organizations who are already “negotiating” with the Polish government, this latter objective is not likely to be disappointed.
The government’s conciliatory policy toward the Jews also blunts a weapon of the opposition, for whom a redress of injustice to the Jews had hitherto been an important rallying point. A decade ago, events like a “week of Jewish culture” were used as protest manifestations against the regime, and dozens of dissenters gathered in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery for the ostensible purpose of “cleaning it up.” Today, by initiating its own program of cemetery preservation and selected Jewish projects that it can control, the government deprives Solidarity of one of its original symbols.
Still, the Jews do remain important to the “anti-government forces”—which claim to number everyone in the country, including many present members of the government—both symbolically and as allies in the impotent war against Soviet Communist domination. Whatever changes, real or cosmetic, have occurred within Poland, Soviet Russia itelf remains overtly anti-Semitic, both in its internal repression of Jewish culture and in the leading role it plays in the international assault on Israel’s legitimacy. Poles who hate their Soviet overlord thus have to recognize Jews as comrades-in-arms, or at least as “my enemy’s enemy.” To be sure, Poles are well aware of the ambiguous history of Jewish relations with Communism, as well as of the lingering Jewish devotion to the Left; but they also seem fully informed about the prominence of Jews among American neoconservatives, and they are keen appreciators of the victories won by Israel over Soviet clients. This sense of common cause is by no means the weakest spur to the renewed Polish interest in the Jews.
To a smaller number of Poles, Jews represent the destroyed ideal of a pluralistic, cosmopolitan Poland. When the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, the news came to many young Poles as a stunning revelation. Here was a world-renowned author who had brought fame to their country—their Lublin and Warsaw, their Frampol and Bilgoraj—from quite a different perspective and literary tradition. Singer was their first hint of the part Jews had played in the cultural creativity of the interwar years, a role not unlike that played by Jewish intellectuals of New York in American literary and political culture after the war. The attempt to retrieve that interwar autonomy, if only by keeping the knowledge of it alive, is thus closely associated with a study of the Jewish contribution to Polish literature and society.
A typical case is that of the young scholar who began work on Kafka and then shifted the focus of her research to the circle of Jews who translated and introduced Kafka into Poland. Anyone tracing the prewar currents of modern Polish literature, social theory, theater, music, and even film, would similarly be brought up against the powerful influence of the Jews. The absence of actual Jews means that their traces can be explored in a benign vacuum, without the kind of bite or feeling of competition that accompanies cultural diversity where it actually exists. This makes the Jews a much safer symbol of the hoped-for pluralism and a more intriguing subject of investigation than, for example, the Ukrainians, who are still around in threatening numbers and in flagrant political reality.
For varying reasons and in various ways, the Jews are also a source of fresh interest to many Catholics. The Church is the unchallenged moral authority of contemporary Poland, and Pope John Paul II its popular hero. His attentiveness to the Jews, represented most dramatically in his historic visit last year to the synagogue of Rome, must be taken seriously in a country where over 800 new Catholic churches have been built since the imposition of martial law in December 1981. Admittedly, folk religion does not keep pace with papal encyclicals, and many Poles still cherish the belief that Jews require drops of Christian blood for their bread and matzah and wine. Yet the Pope’s reminders of the Jewish roots of Christianity may eventually create a measure of identification and recognition of mutual influence through the centuries.
Of all the European peoples, the Poles alone consider themselves chosen for a historical trial of suffering. This mystical conviction of their election probably owes much to the Jews, and has to take its measure against the Jews’ even greater measure of suffering. Thus, while some contemporary Polish artists paint caricatures of Galician Jews to represent Judas, others select the Jew as their model for Christ, the characteristically pensive Christ of Polish folk art or Christ in the stripes of an Auschwitz prisoner, tortured and writhing on the cross. Some of the most searching discussions of Jews and Jewish-Christian history take place in the independent Catholic press, particularly the magazines Znak (“Sign”) and Wi?z (“Bond”).
The current modest rapprochement between Jews and Christians in Poland thus reveals a cruel irony. It is possible to recognize in the Poles of today the Polish Jews of yesterday, a people with a sense of their own history and a dream of their own destiny but lacking the political means of fulfilling them. Just as the degree of communal autonomy enjoyed by the Jews in Poland fluctuated greatly over the centuries, and always remained subject to the whims of king or autocrat, so the Poles today conduct their politics within the same playpen of dictated boundaries.
Economically, the Poles today are prevented by the Soviets, as they once prevented the Jews, from realizing their ambitions. Many feel that this is the greatest damage being done to the country. A still-active member of Solidarity told us that the exodus of young people with material ambitions is much more serious than that of intellectuals and activists, since the entrepreneurial spirit was really the lifeblood of the movement. A contributor to the underground press showed me her shoes, made by a mathematician-turned-cobbler, as an example of economic resistance to Communism. Independent farmers, merchants, craftsmen, would-be manufacturers, are subverted in their attempt to improve the quality of their goods and their lives by a government that serves Soviet ends, taking from the industrial and agricultural sector whatever it needs, and setting stringent limits on what its citizens may produce or sell. Agricultural initiative recently suffered a major setback when after four years of negotiations the Polish Church had to drop its plans for a Foundation for [Private] Agriculture because the government refused to grant it independence and authority in determining the program. The Church had wanted to raise funds in the West to assist private local farmers much as international Jewish organizations had once done for their fellow Jews in Poland. The spectacle of this stifled economic energy cannot but recall the one-time plight of Polish Jews who had similarly to flee or to “cheat” those trying to undermine their productive capacity.
Especially reminiscent of the Jews, who developed in Poland an astonishing spiritual-intellectual culture in Yiddish and Hebrew, is the way that much of the stunted political and socioeconomic drive of the Polish people realizes itself today through talk and religion and literature. In the case of the Jews, although this culture proved no substitute for political security, it did prepare the ground for a renewed national life by nurturing in the young a yearning for freedom and the capacity to enjoy it.
The Jews could not have lost more than they did in Poland: they were utterly extinguished, leaving only shards of their splendor. But in any comparison of yesterday’s Jews and today’s Poles, the irony cuts in unexpected directions. The Israeli travelers on our bus tour through Poland were citizens of an independent Jewish state, never more aware than on this graveyard pilgrimage of their hard-earned good fortune. A professor of Jewish thought confessed, “I’ve always told my children that the difficulties we experience as Israelis should not blind them to the importance of our freedom. Now I can say it with conviction.” A teacher of literature said, “Of course I was always a Zionist. But this trip remade me a Zionist.” A professor of history recounted his conversation in a Warsaw library with a young woman who, upon learning that he was a Jew of Polish descent, expressed regret that the Jews were no longer around to add color to Polish society. The otherwise courtly young man could not refrain from replying, “That’s why I am a Zionist. I don’t want to be your coloration.”
In truth, this rediscovered appreciation of Jewish national independence had less to do with the catastrophe of Polish Jewry than with the sight all around us of a beaten people. A busload of Jews that begins its tour of Poland in deep mourning is likely to leave with feelings of anguish not for the Jews, but for the Poles.
All the same, sympathy alone is a poor guide to human affairs. On the day before our departure from Poland, I was so stirred to pity by the sight of a cluster of Gypsy women on the street, and by the knowledge that they, like the Jews, had once been singled out for genocide, that I took out my wallet to give them some change. One moment later and $40 poorer I had learned the meaning of the expression “golden hands.” If I may put this costly instance of credulity to use as a cautionary tale, I would observe that the high benevolent emotions aroused on both sides by the Jewish “return to Poland” are also a potential invitation to fraud.
Bluntly put, the government that now encourages the field of Polish-Jewish studies already has its agents in place. In addition to the genuine Polish scholars who require and cherish contacts with their colleagues in other parts of the world, and quite apart from the young Poles whose curiosity about the Jews is authentic and unfeigned, there are well-placed government appointees in the fields of Hebrew, Jewish history, and Yiddish whose function it is to monitor the behavior of their fellows and to carry out the directives of their employers. Liaisons formed by these agents with foreign academics and journalists of the opposite sex are regarded by the non-Polish side as evidence of international fellowship, by the Polish side as a valuable source of information.
Behind the government are the Soviets, directing at least part of the new policy. The Poles are a superb proxy for the Soviet Union in its dealings with Israel and the Jews. Russia, being filled with Jews who want to emigrate to Israel, who want to study Hebrew or own a copy of the Psalms, is highly sensitive to internal counter-pressure for every external advantage it seeks; the Soviets do not forget the outburst of Jewish national passion that greeted Golda Meir on her arrival in Moscow as Israel’s ambassador in 1948. Poland, however, presents no such inconvenience. If, for instance, diplomatic exchanges are to be initiated with Israel, it is safer to have as a go-between a country without a palpable Jewish presence.
The Soviets have also had long experience in Poland in exploiting the Jews to their advantage. Cunningly, they helped to poison Polish-Jewish relations after the war by appointing many Jews to visible positions of authority in the unpopular Communist government, thus giving the Poles a safer outlet for their already strong antipathy to the regime. These non-Jewish Jews, in Isaac Deutscher’s term, who in severely reduced numbers are still to be found in Poland, remain the perfect vehicle of Soviet designs, being Communist rather than Jewish in their own loyalties, and Jewish rather than Communist in the negative image of those who hate them. To compound the irony, some of the children of this generation of Jewish Communists, now in the ranks of Solidarity, continue to expose the Jewish people to exactly the same sort of double jeopardy.
Because of their history in Poland, Jews may be even more susceptible of manipulation than other Westerners. But the consequences of their present dealings with Poland will fall not on them alone. Already the field of Polish-Jewish studies is a pawn in the competition between the universities of Warsaw and Cracow, and undoubtedly also to a limited extent in the struggle for power within the echelons of government. For every Jew who will never set foot in Poland again there is one who wants to honor his murdered brothers, sisters, parents, and children through endowing seats of Jewish learning in Poland, restoring Jewish cemeteries, or engaging in similar acts of commemoration. The political advantage accruing from the flow of such funds into bankrupt Poland is many times what it would be in any non-Communist country.
Lacking institutional reciprocity, the donors in such situations have litle hope of monitoring the use of their money. In Tarnow, as we examined the boarded-up pillars that are all that remain of the city’s largest synagogue, a Polish woman came out to tell us that the $5,000 contributed several years ago by “American Jews” to the preparation of the site as a historical landmark had resulted only in these wooden boards that now serve the neighborhood as a convenient pissoir. It will be hard for foreigners to get what they pay for or even to prevent their money from being used against their interests.
Nevertheless, knowing all the risks, the state of Israel and Jews of Polish origin around the world may well accept certain compromises as the price of “doing business.” Scholarly exchanges, for example, which no one would like to see endangered, are subject in the case of Polish scholars to the approval of a government that routinely awards or withholds visas as a means of keeping citizens in line. No such exchange can be initiated without in some way strengthening the government’s hold on scholars in the field. Yet despite their expressed anxieties, few Polish scholars would oppose the development of such international exchanges, or give up the hope of participating in them on something like their own terms.
In the same way, the desire to perpetuate the Jewish communities of the past necessitates a certain suspension of political realism. A Jew who has remained in Poland despite losing his position in 1968, an otherwise astute watchdog of current trends, pointed out to me that 35,000 Jews now live in Spain, a country that expelled and murdered Jews during the Inquisition, and to which they vowed never to return. Wistfully he asked whether a new Jewish community might not be reconstituted in Poland, too. He is afraid of the day when no elderly Jews will remain in Poland to provide even so pitiful a reminder of what once existed.
We were six Jews in the compartment of the three-hour express train from Cracow to Warsaw: two from Israel, two from North America, one from England, and one from Poland—that is to say, one uninterruptedly from Poland, since the Israelis and the Englishwoman were also originally from Poland, as were the parents of the two North Americans. Following a lively exchange of Jewish jokes, the conversation turned serious, and I had a chance to express my discomfort with the phrase, “Poles and Jews,” which had been a leitmotif of the conference and much of our three-week trip.
To those who have fought for Polish recognition of the Polish-Jewish past, the phrase is a cause for satisfaction. New monuments that refer to Poles and Jews as common victims of Hitler, and published studies of the self-government of Poles and Jews in premodern Poland, express the readiness of Poles to come to terms with part of their own history. This is a creditable achievement.
But to a North American ear the phrase is puzzling if not offensive. How, I asked my traveling companions, can anyone accept this strange juxtaposition, Poles and Jews? Were not the Jews, who lived in Poland from the beginning of its history as a nation, equally Poles? The phrase, “Canadians and Jews,” or “Americans and Jews,” is unthinkable: in our younger democracies, it is understood that ethnicity modifies citizenship without displacing it. Whether we speak of Jewish Americans or American Jews, the two component features of this hyphenated identity are not in conflict.
The ensuing conversation did little more than establish that Poland was not and never would be America. Yet this conclusion was a painful one, for my companions, who one after the other had long since left Poland to spend what has been in every sense of the word the better part of their lives outside it, had to admit that each was in his or her own mind “a Polish Jew.” They could never pretend to any other identity. The Jews of Poland did and still do consider themselves the sons and daughters of the country, as Polish as any other Poles.
But the “other Poles” have no such understanding of the Jews. Poland today is linguistically, ethnically, religiously homogeneous as never before in its history. Today more than ever, the Poles affirm their will to independence through an indissoluble mixture of religion and nationalism that leaves no place for any minority, least of all the Jews. The transposition of national into religious imagery is the hallmark of Polish Catholicism:
From the beginning Polish culture bore the evident mark of Christianity. . . . For centuries Polish culture has drawn its inspiration from the gospel. Adam Mickiewicz, our great national poet, wrote that a civilization truly worthy of man must be Christian. By Christianity, we are bound to Western culture and that is why we have been able in the past to reject all the various cultures of barbaric peoples. We have been able to resist cultures that our enemies have imposed on us.
Words like these, from a sermon of September 1983 by the martyred priest, Father Jerzy Popiel-uszko, can be heard today throughout Poland. We know full well the courage it requires to utter them, and the spirit of resistance to totalitarianism that they help to keep alive. As the strongest anti-Communist element in Eastern and Central Europe, Polish Christianity is both a moral inspiration and a singular political force for good. Having noted all this, however, the Jew is more than ever discouraged, for the Poland of Father Popieluszko’s vision is so far from its hospitable beginnings as a nation—and so far, even, from the vision of Adam Mickiewicz, who affirmed his own partially Jewish lineage and later defended the Jews as a people—that it has unconsciously wiped away the grandeur of its own past.
It would be naive, finally, to ignore the sad persistence of anti-Semitism as a handy instrument in Polish politics of all parties. A recent article in Kultura, which though published in Paris is considered the most influential of all Polish-language political journals, warns of the manipulation of anti-Semitism among both lower party officials and the lower clergy of the Catholic Church. Among the few thousand Jews who remain in Poland there are still enough prominent nominal Jews in the ranks of both the party and the opposition to fuel the old accusations of conspiracy and subversion.
Some Poles today acknowledge the Jews as their phantom limb, that amputated part of the body that leaves an irritating illusion of its presence. The Jews, however, are no longer there. Whether they regret the loss or not, the Poles in their present long-range struggle for political freedom will have to learn to do battle without this severed limb. Any posthumous reconciliation that is to take place between these two peoples can probably best be served by a recognition of their mutual sovereignty, real in the one case, still hoped-for in the other, and of the degree to which that sovereignty is threatened by one and the same enemy force.
1 The Jews in Poland, edited by Chimen Abramsky, Maciej Jachimczyk, and Antony Polonsky (Blackwell, 264 pp., $24.95), contains selected papers presented at the International Conference on Polish-Jewish Studies held at Oxford in September 1984.
Proceedings of the Brandeis conference on The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars, edited by Yisrael Gutman, Khone Shmeruk, Ezra Mendelsohn, and Jehuda Reinharz, will shortly be published by the University Press of New England.
While not a direct product of these conferences, Jewish-Polish Coexistence, A Topical Bibliography, edited by George J. Lerski and Halina T. Lerski (Greenwood Press, 230 pp., $39.95), notes the growth of interest in this area of study and provides a limited research tool.
2 Polin will be published by the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford, England, under the editorship of Antony Polonsky.
3 By Malgorzata Niezabitowska and Tomasz Tomaszewski, Friendly Press, 272 pp., $35.00.