Emblems of Adversity

How the Poles and the Jews are memorializing their troubled past.

From many quarters, Polish observers report a powerful interest in Jews throughout their country. Media attention is palpable, publications multiply, building projects extend from monuments to restorations and Jewish tourism is booming. Beginning in the 1980s with public debates about the Holocaust, and intensifying after the fall of communism with efforts to recover a suppressed history, journalists, artists, academics, Catholic clerics and politicians of many stripes have been steeped in a post-1989 inquiry about how Jews should fit into the narratives of Polish society. Centrally at issue are questions of pluralism, Polish national identity and how Poles should envision their country’s future. Accompanying this interest is the exploration of Poland’s linkages with the wider world, an affinity excluded in the Soviet era. Jews have prominently joined this conversation—not just the tiny but articulate remnants of Polish Jewry inside Poland, but also Jews from abroad, many of them part of a diaspora whose families once lived in Poland. The latter, it has been estimated, constitute as many as 70 percent of the 13 million Jews in the world today. For Poles, whose three and a half million Jewish compatriots were almost entirely annihilated during the Holocaust, and for Jews, dominated not only numerically for many years by those from Poland and the impressive civilization that they created, how the two communities see each other is a matter of considerable historical import. Put briefly, many see interactions of Poles and Jews as part of a serious debate about where Poland has been and where it is heading today.

Poland is also a place where, as noted by the Canadian-born ethnologist and chief curator of the recently inaugurated Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the relationship of the two communities is fraught. Once home to the largest Jewish agglomeration in the world, stretching back a thousand years, Poland became, and is still stigmatized by many Jews today as, the world’s largest Jewish cemetery—full stop. Its Jewish past is often understood as an unending tale of racism and complicity in the Jews’ greatest catastrophe. The Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (born in a village now in Belarus) once said that “every Pole sucked anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk.” The country is widely believed to have no Jewish future. Its towns and cities, once with as many as a third or half their populations made up of Jews, finished the war with none at all, or only tiny numbers. Many of these survivors, as historian Jan Gross noted in several shattering books, were murderously set upon by their non-Jewish neighbours, some during the war itself, and others, incredibly, massacred after the end. Almost completely forgotten has been the other side of this story: older traditions of tolerance and extended periods of mutual respect, unmistakable possibilities for Jewish creative enterprise, and rare but inspiring cases of rescue during the Holocaust. Seventy years since the end of the Second World War, there is much healing still to do.

Part of the new interest of Poles and Jews in each other’s past has been a flowering of academic inquiry, of which this book is one expression. And at least one unspoken implication is that sympathetic explorations of Jewish life in Poland, such as those collected in this book, will in themselves contribute to an appreciation of ethnic heterogeneity and a strengthened Jewish presence in the country. Editors Erica Lehrer and Michael Meng, the former a specialist in collective memory, ethnography and museology at Concordia University in Montreal, and the latter a historian at Clemson University in South Carolina, assembled this book as an outgrowth of a summer seminar in 2010 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. For this publication, they were able to draw on veterans in the field as well as a young cohort of scholars from the United States, Germany and Poland. Strikingly, the authors testify to the remarkable interest in Jewish matters in the Polish academy. Polish scholars, present here in several contributions, are actively working on Jewish themes in several disciplines, about large cities as well as smaller communities, and draw upon newly available archival materials in European and Jewish languages. As the chapters suggest, this is a lively field. More than this, the editors venture that these multidisciplinary and pluralistically engaged Polish and Jewish scholars, together with those of other backgrounds, have put Poland at the cutting edge of such inquiry internationally.

Examining what is left of Jewishness in Poland today, and drawing on the French historian Pierre Nora’s notion of lieux de mémoire, contributors investigate “how memory intersects with space in ways that are culturally, socially, politically, and economically constructed.” Put simply, spaces are things one can visit, and through the study of which we can better understand what remains. The authors discuss the Jewish past in cityscapes, neighbourhoods, synagogues, tombstones, property relations, memorials, reconstructions and museums, among other themes. Significantly, the authors’ understanding of the Jewishness of “Jewish space” encompasses the plurality of Jewish expression. As the editors note, their approach seeks “to break out of predetermined, normative views of Jewishness to explore how history and identity inform each other, raise questions about difference and solidarity, and recognize that Jewish culture is shaped in a field of interactions with other cultures.” From the vantage point of Poland, the editors see their work as part of a national discourse, looking to the construction of a new, post-communist Polish identity.

The authors of these chapters are certainly aware of the dangers of a nostalgic approach to their subject, in which the recent Polish interest in or appreciation for Jews is exaggerated, memories of wrongdoings are impugned and the Jewish past is romanticized. Most obvious, it is important to remember, as Stanisław Tyszka observes, that “the so-called renaissance of Jewish life in Poland is, for the most part, a renaissance without Jews.” Neighbourhoods have been reconstructed, synagogues rebuilt, and cemeteries cleaned up and sometimes reconsecrated—often without a single living Jew being continuously present in the restored “Jewish space.” In such an environment, misunderstandings and sometimes historical manipulations are inevitable.

A good illustration may be found in Geneviève Zubrzycki’s essay on Auschwitz, distinguishing between Auschwitz I in the town of Oświęcim, the core camp of the huge Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, established originally for Polish prisoners after Poland’s defeat by Germany in 1939, and Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, in the nearby village of Brzezinka, the main site of the murder of 1.1 million Jews. In these neighbouring places, Poles and Jews cultivated conflicting narratives. For years, under Soviet tutelage, Poles commemorated “Auschwitz” as the site of “the martyrdom of the Polish and other Nations,” eliding the two camps and effectively obliterating the Jewish significance of the place. Conflict over the symbolic significance of “Auschwitz” involved the efforts of Catholic Poles and Jews to assert parts of these sites for their understanding of their own communities’ victimization. Zubrzycki’s essay illustrates how, under the intense gaze of the media, opposing sides presented conflicting communal memories. On the one side, this was done through a large cross at the Carmelite Convent overlooking the Auschwitz core camp, following the placement of a group of crosses on one burial site in Birkenau, both of which assailed Jewish memory; while, on the other, at Auschwitz I and II, the most egregious instances involved boisterous demonstrations of Jewish youth as part of the March of the Living, with “flags, banners and windbreakers (some with yellow stars on their sleeves), a white and blue human sea occupying the very space where more than one million Jews were sent to their deaths”—seen as aggressive, nationalistic moves to take over both sites. Zubrzycki’s observations, buttressed by opinion surveys, archival research, ethnographic inquiry and extensive interviews, illustrate the tangled character of some collective memories, but also the power of traditional symbolism born in catastrophe and the slow shifts in the public understandings of both Poles and Jews as generations pass and are exposed to new realities.

Michael Meng’s examination of the rebuilding of the Warsaw neighbourhood of Muranów, the bulk of which was the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and which was destroyed by the Germans with artillery, flame throwers and explosives, illustrates the way in which successive post-war efforts at repair helped expunge memories of Jewish life and Jewish suffering. Under the Polish People’s Republic, politicized architecture took over, imposing succeeding visions on the obliterated Jewish landscape. The goal was to show “the historic triumph of Communism over capitalism by showcasing the historic movement from the dark, dirty, cramped, and chaotic capitalist city to the light, clean, spacious, and orderly socialist city.” Muranów, Meng notes, “was now to be a cheerful, bright, and colorful place for the working class.” The result, I am told by present-day residents of Warsaw, was a drab, boring, lifeless neighbourhood, covering the ashes and rubble of a vibrant pre-war Jewish existence. Konstanty Gebert’s eloquent essay discusses the same geography and the same reconstruction with considerably more colour and feeling—and less honour to the rebuilders. To Gebert’s keen eye for urban form, traces of Jewish existence lie just beneath the surface, waiting to be revealed. Warsaw, he writes, is a palimpsest—a text written on top of another as with a parchment of the Middle Ages. “None of this palimpsest nature of Warsaw is apparent at first sight, yet all of this is of crucial importance for any understanding of the city’s rich and impressive Jewish past,” he writes. Looking at the intersection of the broad expanses of John Paul II and Jerusalem avenues, which once bisected the Ghetto,

one would find vestiges of prewar Jewish life: a building that used to be a school, a ruin that used to be a prison, the site of a famous yeshiva. And if one looks down on Warsaw from one of the many high-rises, one sees clearly that the city has two street grids, superimposed on top of one another and ­co‑existing uneasily. Prewar streets, their traces visible through the facades of a few surviving houses, lead nowhere. Modern thoroughfares cut a building in half. The palimpsest is ­difficult to read. And in the rare places where the ancient text is clearly visible, not obscured by contemporary writing, the difficulty is replaced with moral discomfort.

Several contributors insist that the effort to recover Poland’s Jewish heritage is not infatuation with a locally flavoured kitsch. Much more often, Jewish themes intersect with post-communist, sometimes national or even international perspectives. Writing about Szczecin (formerly Stettin), Magdalena Waligórska demonstrates how intricate are the multi-layered myths of Poles, Jews and Germans in this once-German city whose Jews were expelled and murdered in 1940, and which was “recovered” for Poland after the war. From her research on Kazimierz, a historical district of Kraków, Erica Lehrer sees an acceptance of Jewish heritage as part of a broad process of constructing a Polish future in the wake of communism. The idea is that interest in Jews is one way of creating a post-communist national identity in pluralist terms, “a counterweight to rightwing rhetoric that stresses the longstanding, dominant conception of Polishness as essentially Polish-Catholic.” As such, reconnecting with Jews meshes with forward-looking, democratic and cosmopolitan impulses within Polish society—part of a broad movement for the construction of a modern, liberal national identity. In Łódź, Winson Chu sees a variant on this theme—an effort to place the wartime Jewish ghetto squarely within the German sphere of the Polish-German-Jewish triad, constantly on the lookout for the “Good Pole” and the emphasis of common Jewish and Polish victimhood under the wartime domination of the Germans.

Tellingly, investigations of Jewish presence are not limited to major cities like Kraków and Łódź. Research now extends to provincial towns and even villages. Often emptied of Jews, such places are now reclaiming a Jewish presence that many thought gone forever. And in these localities memories of Jews often differ, depending on particular histories and circumstances. Local entrepreneurship plays a role as well. Some community leaders, Monika Murzyn-Kupisz reports in her study of Chmielnik, 32 kilometres south of Kielce in central Poland, have come to see the recovery of a Jewish presence as a way to put their communities “on the map”—to attract visitors, secure outside funding and stimulate new enterprise. In Chmielnik, municipal authorities took it upon themselves to launch a “Day of Jewish Culture” as part of the town’s 450th anniversary events. Thereafter, this venture blossomed into regular festivals called “Meetings with Jewish Culture,” with klezmer musicians, exhibitions, lectures and meetings with Holocaust survivors. A Polish design firm, we learn, has been commissioned to restore the dilapidated local synagogue. The English anthropologist Jonathan Webber, a veteran of the study of post-war Polish-Jewish encounters and a promoter of several such projects himself, recounts his work with the village of Brzostek in southern Poland—an effort to restore the community’s ruined cemetery in honour of those whose graves were desecrated in the past and others who were murdered nearby and who had no final burial ground. Even in out-of-the-way places like this, Webber underscores, the energy and the will exist to recover painful and repressed parts of the past, and achieve a measure of reconciliation. Projects like that of Brzostek, he writes, “can amplify personal and communal identities in fruitful ways.”

Near the end of this book, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett reflects admirably on the Museum of the History of Polish Jews—a stunning new landmark in the Polish capital that has arisen as a result of a partnership between several levels of Polish government and mostly, although not entirely, Jewish donors from outside the country. The museum stands on prime “Jewish space”—in the heart of the former Jewish quarter, adjacent to the magnificent monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by the Warsaw-born Jewish sculptor Nathan Rapoport, whose work is in the style of socialist realism.

As with the many issues raised in this volume, the museum presents no master narrative, and because of the great destruction that accompanied the Holocaust, it has relatively few artifacts. What it has in abundance, however, is what is described in this book: “constructive engagement” of Jews and Poles, and the creation of a “trusted zone,” as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says, “for engaging difficult subjects.”