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Is there Jewish life in Poland after the Shoah? Should there be? How do present-day Polish Jews, children and grand-children of survivors, relate both to the wartime horrors and to the glorious history of Polish Jewry which preceded them? Do they feel comfortable living as a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country? How do their Polish and Jewish identities interact? How did living for forty years under Communism impact on their fate? Konstanty Gebert was a witness and participant of many of the events he describes in his collection of essays on post-war Polish Jewry. His book is an indispensable guide for all those who want to understand the Polish Jewish experience today.
Konstanty Gebert is a well-known Polish journalist and writer, co-founder, in the Seventies, of the unofficial Jewish Flying University and, in the Nineties, of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews. He begun his journalistic career in the underground in the Eighties: under the pseudonym of David Warszawski he still uses, he was editor and columnist of an important clandestine publication. After the democratic transformation of 1989, he joined the new daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" as international reporter and columnist, covering i.a. the wars in the Balkans, the Middle East, and human rights issues. He is the founder and first editor of "Midrasz", the Polish Jewish intellectual monthly. Since 2005 he is the representative of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, a US Jewish philanthropy, in Poland. His latest books in Polish include a set of commentaries on the Torah, a panorama of the European 20th century, and a history of the wars of Israel. Living in the Land of Ashes is his tenth book.
The author thanks the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture for its generous support in writing his book.
Some earlier versions of parts of the book had been published as chapters of other works. The author wishes to thank the publishers: Social Research Quarterly, New York (Vol.58, No.4, Winter 1991); Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London (Jonathan Weber (Ed.): Jewish Identities in the New Europe; 1994); The Jewish Museum, New York (James E. Young (Ed.): Holocaust Memorials in History; 1995); Orchard Academic Press, Cambridge (E. Kessler, J. Pawlikowski, J. Banki (Eds): Jews and Christians in Conversation; 2002), for having graciously consented to the publication of the amended versions of these chapters in the present volume.
In 1983 I had the opportunity to meet with one of the first Israeli groups to visit Poland after the break of diplomatic relations in 1967. Some thirty young kibbutzniks came to Warsaw to attend the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and invited me to their hotel. They were deferential at first, treating me as if I were some sort of museum piece, but soon, as they relaxed, their attitude changed. They wanted to know why I was still in Poland. How dare I live in a graveyard!
I looked at them and told them that they stood out on a Warsaw street the way a group of Africans would stand out in downtown Tel Aviv. Not because they looked “Jewish” – they did not. Indeed, most of them had what is called in Poland “the good look” – during the war they could have passed for Aryan and would have had a chance of surviving. But on the drab gray streets of Warsaw they looked flashy, sexy – very Western rather than “Jewish.”
These young people, however, were accompanied by three elderly educators from the kibbutz, and they had the Jewish faces that I remembered from childhood and that I see in the synagogue now. “Don’t kid yourself into thinking this will last,” I told the young people. “As you grow old, you too will grow Jewish faces, and you will then need somebody here to tell you where they come from.”
It is so much easier to identify the dead. Abandoned buildings, names that no longer mean anything, and still vivid memories of horror abound in Poland’s physical and mental landscape. Fewer than 300,000 Polish Jews (just ten percent of the country’s pre-war Jewish population) survived the Shoah, most of them having fled to the Soviet Union and returned after the war. Current population figures are not available; the numbers change depending on who is asked. The National Census of 2002 returned a ridiculous figure of 1,055 self-declared Jews in a nation of almost 40 million. This says more about the still-prevalent fear of revealing one’s ethnic background than about current Jewish demography, but still, the combined national membership of the two main Jewish organizations – the religious one and the secular Socio-Cultural Association – does not exceed 6,000. At a parliamentary hearing in 1989, the then Minister of the Interior, General Czesław Kiszczak, said that there were 15,000 Jews in Poland. As a Warsaw Jew, I tend to trust him on that point – he had the files.
Just two years later, while standing in the cavernous hall of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute on the eve of Hanukkah 1991, I wondered if the General’s files were up to date. At least five hundred people were milling about, twice as many as had come to the city’s only remaining synagogue for the High Holy Days. And they did not seem to be the same crowd. Most of the worshippers in the Nożyk Shul had been elderly, but here, at the Institute, many middle-aged and young people, and even children, were happily running about. Suddenly, a group of youngsters in athletic clothes rushed in, carrying a lighted torch to inaugurate what was a Maccabi Warsaw sports event. An elderly Jewish gentleman standing next to me in the crowd watched the young athletes and shook his head. “These kids were born in the 1970s or later,” he told me. “They don’t know a thing about this country. They don’t know about the war, the post-war pogroms, the ever-present anti – Semitism, about the 1968 purges. They think that just because they’re Jewish and like sports, they can have a Jewish sports club in Poland. In Poland!” He shook his head again and laughed.
Years later, Grażyna Pawlak, who founded and served as president of the Maccabi club, recalled how many people thought she was crazy for setting it up and, in effect, gambling on a Jewish future. “This was supposed to be a dying community, right? No children, no young people, no future; this is what everybody knew,” she said. “But what I knew was that I have a daughter and she has friends. My friends also have children. It didn’t seem to me that we were going to die out right away.” Pawlak is a sociologist of sports. In 1989, at the dawn of Poland’s new democracy, she traveled to Israel for the Maccabiad. The stories she told upon her return home impressed her children and their friends. They clamored for a Maccabiad of their own, so she helped them comply; and as she herself used to be a fencer, fencing became the first section of Maccabi Warsaw.
The Maccabi club has since ceased functioning, and Pawlak now runs Warsaw’s Moses Schorr Educational Center, a well equipped Jewish study and learning center for adults. But the club was one of the first in a series of Jewish initiatives that appeared in Poland over the past fifteen years or so, and it formed an early part of what is semi jokingly referred to as the “Jewish renaissance.” The joke seems to be obvious: there cannot be much of a renaissance in a community that is estimated at only ten to fifteen thousand, even if you double this number as the optimists do. Nonetheless, compared what we had in the post-World War Two era, the re-birth of Jewish intellectual, religious and organizational life we have seen in Poland since 1989 is somewhat impressive.
Of the fewer than 300,000 Jews who survived the war, about half fled the anti-Semitism and destruction of the early post-war years. Pogroms and massive emigration destroyed the dream of rebuilding the Polish Jewish community. The Stalinist period of 1948-56 put an end both to emigration and to organized Jewish life; both resumed after 1956, with emigration the stronger factor. By the late 1950s no more than 40,000 Jews remained in Poland. Most of them had made a conscious decision to remain in Poland and embrace a Polish identity; even so, they became the target of an anti-Semitic campaign launched in 1968 by Communist authorities under the banner of “anti-Zionism.” Thousands of people were purged from the Communist Party, fired from their jobs and expelled from their government-owned apartments. Eventually some 15,000‒20,000 Polish Jews fled the country.
In that period, a Jewish-sounding name was enough to get one into trouble. The case of an obscure Warsaw engineer called Judenberg was typical. He was fired from his menial job only to be reinstated after producing a wartime Nazi document that confirmed his Aryan parentage. Public opinion was indifferent; the campaign was organized and directed mainly by Party members. The intelligentsia, however, was horrified, both by the moral implication of the campaign and by the fact that many of its own prominent members of both Jewish and gentile extraction were affected. Party hacks regarded intellectuals with the same suspicion accorded to Jews, and this, coupled with the Polish intelligentsia’s liberal tradition, led to the de-legitimization of anti – Semitism among Polish intellectuals.
A paradoxically positive impact of the “anti-Zionist” campaign was felt in other ways, too. Though most Poles felt no sympathy for the Communist or Jewish victims of the purges, the fact that the Communist Party used anti-Semitism as a weapon discredited it to some extent among the public. “Communists ruin everything, even anti-Semitism,” an old right-winger once complained to me. After 1968, any use of anti-Semitism was somewhat suspect, and its proponents had first to cleanse themselves of any suspicion that they were Party provocateurs.
Anti-Semitism had thus switched sides, and Jews were again free to choose their political sympathies. Many of the activists of the student democracy movement, which was crushed during the first stage of the anti-Semitic campaign, were children of Jewish Communists. Over the next few years, they would reappear in the fledgling democratic opposition and later in the Solidarity movement – Solidarność – which was finally to triumph over the system that their parents had helped build.
A process of reevaluation was taking place on the other side as well. A new generation of young Poles appeared on the scene in the 1970s. Relatively free from their parent’s biases and actively questioning the political system under which they had been raised, they engaged in a critical reappraisal of recent Polish history. One of the “blank spots” they stumbled upon was the Jewish issue. They examined it from as many sides as they could and began to ask questions about the people who, in a few short years, had been eliminated, mentally as well as physically, from Polish history.
In the late 1970s, independent discussion groups and clubs began to emerge in the country’s intellectual centers. Alternatively repressed and tolerated by the authorities, these groups became hotbeds of the Soviet bloc’s most successful democratic opposition. One such group, later to be called the Jewish Flying University, became a symbol of the new developments in Polish – Jewish relations. The group was created by chance and in rather peculiar circumstances. Poland, as always, was attuned to Western intellectual fashions and was experiencing a boom in humanistic psychology. When in the late Seventies the eminent American psychologist Carl Rogers visited the country, over one hundred people flocked to his workshop, which was organized in a small town near Warsaw which, incidentally, had been a Jewish shtetl before the war. After two days, Rogers suggested that the participants split up into special interest groups. Artists, divorced people, parents of small children and the like banded together, and someone suggested there should be a Jewish group, too. Though many participants were Jewish, this proposal was met with laughter. Even in the relaxed and trusting atmosphere of the workshop, where people told each other their most intimate secrets and underground literature circulated freely, it seemed absurd and threatening to discuss one’s Jewishness in public. And yet the room set aside for the Jewish group was packed full of people for its first session. I still remember the emotion I felt at discovering that so many of my friends were Jewish. We had never discussed it; it was a guilty secret best kept private.
As was natural in such groups, we began by telling the stories of our lives. We all came from assimilated backgrounds, from mixed marriages or had parents who had concealed their Jewishness during the war or immediately afterwards, thus saving themselves. There was usually some form of involvement, more or less sincere, with the Communist regime. Our Jewishness had always been concealed or treated as taboo. We were brought up Polish, but our adopted Polish identities included neither the nationalist nor the religious dimension so central to our ethnically Polish peers.
We had not known that something was amiss until the 1968 campaign shattered our world, which is when most of us learned that we were Jewish and, just as important, learned that it mattered. Some of us had been expelled from universities or high schools, and all had friends who had abruptly emigrated. Since then, we had been laboring at reconstructing our identities and had not had much success. Some people had, on their own, tried to re-appropriate the Jewish identity we had been denied. A young couple had spent years touring Poland to gather photographic documentation of what was left of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. Others had been studying the few but precious Jewish texts that were available in Polish, most of them published in Catholic magazines responding to the Church’s new openness to things Jewish. But the majority of us had simply kept quiet and gone on living, though newly insecure and unhappy in our lives.
One girl in the group had been lucky: She’d been brought up by parents who were dedicated Communists but had kept in touch with the secular elements of their Jewish identity. She knew some Yiddish songs and some Hebrew and had even visited Israel as a child. She taught us a few simple Hebrew songs, and when the workshop was over we marched to the train station singing them out loud. I will never forget the reaction of the inhabitants of Łaskarzew. Young people simply waved at us – everybody likes to sing – but the elderly recognized the language and just stared, unbelieving. They were seeing ghosts.
We did not want to be just ghosts. The group continued to meet over the next two years. The therapeutic elements never really disappeared, but we complemented them with a more conceptual approach. We were still informal: anybody could speak at our fortnightly gatherings in private apartments. We called ourselves the Jewish Flying University by way of analogy to a more structured group that organized independent seminars at that time. We had about sixty participants, with an equal mix of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. Poles and Jews. This mixed participation never created problems: we were united in trying to make sense of the bloody mess of our country’s recent history. But I do remember a seminar on Polish anti-Semitism that ended with non-Jews speaking only to non – Jews and Jews speaking only to Jews. It was not intentional; it simply happened. Our differences were not so easily bridged.
The Communist regime’s imposition of martial law in 1981 put an end to our group, as it did to many other important initiatives that had emerged in the wake of the stunning success of Solidarity. We were all part of that movement, of course, and almost all of us continued to be active when Solidarity went underground. But some of us were discouraged from playing too prominent a role in the movement: “Don’t give the Communists arguments to use against the movement,” we were warned. Some, like Adam Michnik and Bronisław Geremek, both leading Solidarity advisors, did not heed such warnings. But they, in fact, had never cultivated any special interest in things Jewish, although Geremek, a historian, has lectured on medieval Jewry. Michnik and Geremek had no qualms about their identity: they were “Poles of Jewish origin.” Though born to different – respectively assimilated and not – Jewish families a generation apart, they were, under different circumstances, brought up Polish, and Polish they chose to remain. Myself and others considered ourselves to be “Polish Jews” – though given the character of our upbringing, it might have been more accurate to call ourselves Poles of Jewish origin, as well.
Marek Edelman was one person who was not convinced by our attempts to reclaim our Jewish heritage. Edelman is the last surviving commander of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A dedicated activist of the Bund, a pre – war anti-Zionist Socialist Jewish party, he never wanted to emigrate but neither did
he believe that there was any future for Jews in Poland. He used to tell us that we had made ourselves up, that we were not real. Even now, so many years later, he does not seem to have changed his mind. “The Jewish people were murdered,” Edelman used to tell everyone. “This used to be their homeland, in the lands between the Vistula and the Dniepr, and this is where they met their death. There are no survivors, and those who claim to be Polish Jews today are simply Poles of Jewish origin.”
One seventeen-year-old girl from Silesia, whom I will call “Dorota,” would challenge this argument. The region she comes from was taken from Germany after the war and is home to possibly half of Poland’s current Jewish population. In the late 1940s Jewish survivors were settled in this region by the Polish government. This happened as part of a mass transfer of millions of Polish citizens from the eastern territories taken over by the Soviet Union, but it was also intended to avoid conflicts with the Poles. Jewish survivors who returned to their homes often found them inhabited by Poles, and so Silesia and other formerly German territories provided new homes for many of them as well as for millions of other Polish homeless.
Dorota knew very little about her Jewish heritage until the early 1990s, when she went to a Jewish summer camp near Warsaw that was organized by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation – an American institution which in recent years has contributed large sums to Jewish activities in Poland and elsewhere in Central Europe. Like many other Jews, Dorota’s grandparents survived the war under adopted Polish names and did not resume their Jewish identities after the war ended. Anti-Semitism did not end with the war, and whatever remained of Jewish life was deeply marked by the shadow of the Shoah. For Dorota’s grandparents, like many others, moving to Silesia and maintaining their Polish identity was a way to make a clean break with the past and start anew. This strategy worked to a certain extent. But suspicions emerged and lingered since the family history was full of holes, they did not go to Church and they did not look like their gentile neighbors. Nor did they have the right reactions and reflexes; they seemed too soft on the Communists and too skeptical of the Church. Dorota’s family was never ostracized, but neither did they become truly accepted in their community. Each political crisis threatened to blow their cover, to expose them as Jews, the familiar scapegoats. The few friends they had were just like them: marginalized, skeptical, insecure. Some were Jewish and some not, but all were outsiders. Dorota wanted to belong.
In the new climate of freedom that followed the fall of Communism, the family’s Jewishness ceased to be a secret. Dorota began frequenting a Jewish club in a nearby town, run by the Jewish Socio-Cultural Association. But its members were mostly elderly and she did not feel at home there. When she learned of the summer camp organized in 1989 for Jewish teenagers she was overjoyed.
There were many such Dorotas, twice as many as the forty young people the organizers of the camp had hoped for. As they kept arriving (news of the camp spread by word-of-mouth) the camp ran out of cots, and armchairs became temporary beds. Still more came on Shabbes, and for most of them this was their first experience of Jewishness. To run the program, the Lauder Foundation had sent a young Conservative rabbi from New York City, Michael Schudrich, along with a group of American Jewish teenagers (Schudrich has since become Orthodox, and is now Chief Rabbi of Poland). They worked from morning until night, supervising everything from the kosher kitchen to Hebrew classes. For some of the participants, the camp’s busy schedule was not enough, and they used every possible opportunity to bombard the Americans with questions about Judaism. Dorota was one of them. One night Schudrich couldn’t take it any longer: “Look,” he said, “it is after midnight and I have to sleep. We’ll continue with the questions and answers later.” “But you don’t understand,” Dorota cried out. “We are the new generation of Jewish mothers in this country. We must learn all there is to be learned.”
Indeed, Dorota was right. She and her friends will be – must be – the new Jewish mothers and fathers in Poland or else there is no future for Polish Jewry. The old community, organized around the synagogue and the Socio-Cultural Association, is dying out. Then we lost a generation: the Jews who were young adults in March 1968 and who overwhelmingly opted for emigration. The generation that followed founded the Jewish Flying University, but by the time we discovered our Jewishness our adult lives were already under way. There were mixed marriages, children and jobs. We were too old to really change. Dorota’s generation is the next.
Will Dorota and her friends persist? That, indeed, is the question. Once the enthusiasm of finally simply belonging is over, what can the Jewish community really offer them? Its institutions, some of which come dangerously close to being pathetic caricatures, will have to be revamped and remodeled to suit the needs of Dorota’s generation; a process of change is, of course, under way, but in the end the task may prove too great. To be sure, one can always count on anti-Semitism to remind young people of their Jewish origin and of what their place is and is not. But this might scare them away as easily as bring them into the fold, and in any case a return to Jewishness because of external hostility is not a sound foundation for the reconstruction of a vibrant Jewish community.
Anti-Semitism, however, is part of the mental heritage of many Poles, and, given current circumstances, it is hardly surprising that old demons have been aroused again. The country attained its independence less than 20 years ago, after more than half a century of war, foreign domination, economic ruin and lack of democracy, for much of that time crushed by the weight of Communist, and often anti-Semitic, indoctrination. Meanwhile, the generation that witnessed the Shoah and was aware of the moral urgency of the issue (though this awareness was dimmed by later tragic experiences) is already dying out – in the West, too, the disappearance of this generation has also coincided with a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
These factors have a real influence. But to understand does not mean to minimize or to forgive. The use of anti-Semitism by Lech Wałęsa in his 1990 presidential campaign, and by the extreme right in the 1991 parliamentary elections, strengthened tolerance of anti-Jewish prejudices at a crucial juncture of Poland’s post-Communist experience. The Church has an important role to play here. The Polish attitude towards Jews derives far more from Catholic traditionalism than from right-wing politics (one must always kept in mind that the Left, that is, the Communist regime, was responsible for the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign) or reactions to political developments in the Middle East. A pastoral letter by the Polish Episcopate in 1991 addressed for the first time the issue of Polish Christian responsibility for anti-Semitism, but this letter was an isolated act. The years that have passed since then have not yet brought about a clean break by the Church with the anti-Semitism of its past, though, encouragingly, most of the changes which have occurred do point in that direction.
At the same time, other factors in Polish society may not only contribute to a diminution of anti-Semitism, but may in fact be creating a more hospitable environment for Jewish activities.
The interest in things Jewish among the intelligentsia and open-minded people in general has diminished somewhat, but it stillremains a constant element of Polish intellectual life. Moreover,two important segments of the population have consistently denounced anti-Semitism. First is the intelligentsia, which is traditionally left-leaning and tolerant (at least in part). This attitudewas strengthened by the experience of 1968: the anti-Semitic campaign was also a campaign against the intelligentsia, and this helped purge Poland’s intellectuals of any residual anti-Semitism. Within this context, the Catholic intelligentsia too, plays its role and, having been involved in the reforms of Vatican II – which, unfortunately, most of the Church in Poland has yet to – it has also emerged as an important force against anti-Semitism.
The second factor is the broad Solidarity movement, though the reasons for its rejection of anti-Semitism are somewhat different. While the intelligentsia is mainly motivated by moral and religious considerations, the Solidarity response emerged from the movement’s formative experiences in 1980‒1981. Solidarity was more than just a union: with ten million members out of a total population of thirty-eight million, it represented the nation organized. It therefore also had its share of anti-Semites, and anti-Semitic innuendo appeared in some of the union’s internal conflicts. The rank-and-file initially failed to protest this, but it soon became apparent that the same people who made use of anti-Semitism were also opposed to union democracy and tended to make risky and irresponsible decisions. Thus anti-Semitism appeared as part of a classical authoritarian syndrome, and was rejected as such. One must recognize, however, that in the mid – 1990s, Solidarity became more and more supportive of anti-Semitic attitudes. On the other hand, under both the presidency of the post-Communist Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and under the rule of successive governments of the left and the right, official Poland had, until 2005, clearly moved away from any lingering anti-Semitic tendencies.
The presidential and parliamentary elections of the fall of 2005 changed that trend. After months of parliamentary wrangling they brought to power a right-wing coalition that includes the League of Polish families, a direct heir to the anti-Semitic pre-war National Democrats. While the leader of that party, Roman Giertych, has distanced himself somewhat from his political predecessors’ anti-Semitism by stating that this political program might have been mistaken and in any case is no longer topical, since there are almost no more Jews in Poland, such language is hardly reassuring – especially as he is now minister of education. The League’s youth wing, the All-Polish Youth, was set up under his direct command and is built around a core of skinheads who occasionally make headlines by yelling “Sieg Heil!” in public, raising their arms in the Nazi salute, or beating up gay parades while chanting “We’ll do to you what Hitler [did] to the Jews.” This, clearly, is not something to be shrugged off as marginal or inconsequential.
Polish Jewry, some say, is once again at a crossroads. On the one hand, it faces a dramatic decline of its already depleted ranks as the older generation dies out. It is by no means certain that the enthusiasm of the new “young Jews” will suffice to create the critical mass needed for survival. This, however, is Polish Jewry’s only hope: if the next generations do not continue this effort then eventually Poland will be as Judenrein as Hitler had wanted. I fervently believe that this must not be permitted to happen. On the other hand, the broader social context of Polish Jewish life is also ambiguous. Anti-Semitism still exists, though it is countered, at least in part, by new trends within Polish society, including within the Church. Poland’s new membership in the European Union has extended over Poland’s minorities, including Jews, the protection of EU laws, but other, more pressing issues, remain unsolved. The Jewish community is still not self-supporting, and communal property restitution has brought in much less income than hoped for. At the same time, it has generated a lot of acrimony both among Jews themselves and in society at large about the use made of the properties regained. Still, it is reasonable to expect that if Poland remains a democracy, the future of Jews will be assured – if those Polish Jews who are left can meet the challenge.
This might not seem much of a prospect. Barely fifteen years ago, however, the all-but-unanimous opinion was that there was no Jewish future in Poland at all, nor could there ever be one. This prediction has been proven false. It does not mean that the opposite is necessarily true, but, for the first time since 1968, it makes sense to at least consider a future for Polish Jewry. Let me mention one example: when a Jewish kindergarten opened in Warsaw in 1988, the first of its kind in a quarter-century, it served only four youngsters. Now, almost twenty years later, the kindergarten has evolved into a comprehensive elementary and junior high school, with 240 students currently enrolled.
It is appropriate here to stress that none of this – not the school, the kindergarten or the various youth clubs and camps that also have been undertaken – would have been possible without the generous support of the Lauder Foundation. Unlike most other Jewish foundations active in Poland, it decided from the start to invest its money in the future rather than the past. The Foundation closed its offices in Poland in 2004, but it still operates some programs, and our community will long be deeply in its debt. Other American Jewish charities, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the San Francisco – based Taube Foundation for Jewish Culture and Renewal, are contributing immensely to the community’s rebirth.
The school and the kindergarten continue to grow – in more ways than one. The parents have grown along with their children and, indeed, have come to appreciate the new ideas their children bring home. I doubt if many of them will embrace a religious lifestyle, but – perhaps more importantly – the acceptance of Jewishness has become more “normal.” For many, the “new ideas” brought home by children are no longer quite so new, and the ease with which a mother now says to a gentile acquaintance “My child attends a Jewish school” marks a sea change in the way people – Jewish or not – now think. Today’s Jewish children in Poland, whatever else the future holds in store for them, will never grow up knowing, as their parents did, that to be Jewish means to be alone and vulnerable. Hopes have been successfully built on much more shaky foundations.
In the essays in this collection, I elaborate on the themes and issues that I have broached in this introduction. As a journalist, I report on events that I observed and try to put them into context. As a protagonist, I describe events from the point of view of a participant, as well as from that of a more detached outside observer. As a Jew, I reflect on my own experience and the experience of my friends and family in a process that is far from over.
In the pages that follow, I have deliberately dwelt on some themes – and sometimes recounted anecdotes or experiences – more than once, in an attempt to place them in a continuum that is complex and many-layered, where boundaries sometimes blur and where events and emotions tend to echo across time, space and memory.
Polish Jews in the post-war period had all been born into small, nuclear families. We had a mother and a father, as often as not both in a second marriage, as their first spouses had gone up in the smoke of Auschwitz and Treblinka. There was often a sister or brother – though not necessarily, since, to our parents, the burden and risk of having one child may already have seemed too great. (An unasked, but ever-present question haunted their consciousness: What shall we do with him/her, if…?). Always hovering around us, with a desperate yearning in their eyes, were an odd few “sewed-on” aunts: each of them a sole survivor, desperate to hook into somebody’s else family and to become part of this pathetically un-extended network of human warmth. “Do you know what’s more than one?” they’d say, or think. “I’ll tell you. Anything. Anything at all.”
We were aware that families were supposed to be more than just that. The novels we read were replete with second cousins and distant relatives, even people who, although they could claim blood kinship, were not really considered part of the clan. “He’s not really family, you know, just a distant cousin,” a character in Balzac would say and leave us puzzled. Why on earth would one have a family member and not immediately suck him in? How could one squander such a precious resource?
All this seemed part of the magic world of fiction, populated not only by nieces and cousins twice removed, but also by knights in shining armor, kings and dragons. It was only when we went to school that we discovered that such families really existed. Our classmates actually did have second cousins and would spend the Christmas season with their uncle in a provincial town. My own family, all four of us, would spend the season around a very visible Christmas tree – in case the neighbors would pop in unexpectedly and ask questions – vaguely wondering what the whole fuss was all about. And though my sister and my friends I did not suspect the happy proprietors of really extended families to also encounter knights errant and princesses, our belief in the sharp dividing line between fact and fiction was severely shaken. We also learned, of course, that we were different from almost everybody else we encountered.
We had no cousins. We had no Christmas, only a tree. And some of us knew, some of us suspected, and some denied strenuously that we were… Jewish. What that term actually meant, nobody seemed to know for sure. But it did seem to imply that we were somehow inferior, somehow lacking in elementary attributes everybody else possessed. So much was patently evident: all we had to do was compare our own families with the families of “others.”