My mother was not pleased when I told her that I would be going to Poland to do my dissertation research, thirty-five years ago. “Why Poland?” This was not a simple or innocent question, motivating it were the horrors of the twentieth century, and the pain and suffering of her family. For, I am the grandson of Victor and Brana Frimet who came from the small town of Bulschwietz near the city of Lemberg (Lwow to the Poles, Lviv, to the Ukrainians). The Frimet’s memories of their times in that place, then Poland, were not sweet. This was a town, a city, a nation and a region where multiculturalism has not been a very happy matter, as it was not for much of twentieth century Europe, especially for my people. My grandparents left in 1920, and they never looked back, never regretted leaving “the land of their fathers.” Our relatives who remained perished in the Holocaust. Why, then, was I going back?
My answer to my mother’s question was filled with the naiveté and the self-centeredness of youth. I was looking for adventure. I wanted to visit Europe after I had completed my studies. I had a good dissertation proposal to study theater in Poland, and a major foundation was willing to pay for a year’s preparation and language study and a year or more of research and living expenses in Europe. This was a great opportunity, both personal and professional. For me, the pain of my people and my family were things of the past, to be remembered and understood, but not something that should restrict my ambitions and plans. In retrospect, mine was “the wisdom of youth.”
Because I was not restricted by the very recent past, which seemed not so recent to me, I could attempt to develop the capacity to remember and to understand, as would never have been the case had I been constrained by my mother’s memories of her parents. But the insight of my mother’s question persists. It sheds light on many of the problems I have faced in the course of my research and experiences in East and Central Europe, and it may help us understand the problems of clashing collective memories in the post-totalitarian shadows.
In this paper, I reflect upon how Poles and Jews confront each other through their contrasting memories. I attempt to show that there is enduring wisdom in my mother’s question, as a question, both because it raises a significant issue and it does not dogmatically declare an answer. Back in 1970, dogma may have come in the form of a parental prohibition concerning the plans of a respectful son: “you can’t go to the place my parents fled from.” Here, in a more public domain, dogma comes in the form of contrasting truisms which shape conflicting memories, from “Poles are hopelessly anti-Semitic,” to “Jews minimize the suffering of others and do not understand the causes and responsibilities of their own sufferings.” Here, I am presenting reflections based upon a paper written in response to controversies surrounding ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Death Camp. I am extending those reflections to include the controversies about the massacre in Jedwabne in 1941, the continuing controversies about Kielce in 1946, and the advance in my on going search for answers to my mother’s question. The search started in the early 1970s, and it continues to this day. Thus I present my thoughts in three parts: 1. Before the End of Communism, 2. Commemorating Auschwitz, and 3. Debating Jedwabne. To anticipate my conclusion, I see these parts as revealing the development of a democratic Poland, with enduring and new problems.
Before the Fall of Communism
During my year and a half in Poland in 1973 and 1974, the “Why Poland?” question periodically became pressing. I had to play memory games to make it less so. This started soon after I arrived. My first summer here was spent at a Polish language institute. Most of my fellow students were Polish Americans, trying to learn the language of their grandparents. We spent six weeks studying in Poznan and then two weeks on a bus tour all around Poland. We visited Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, Gdynia, Wroclaw, Zakopane, and Oswiecim (Auschwitz). The stops in Auschwitz, Zakopane and Krakow proved to be especially meaningful. They serve as a prelude to later controversies over commemoration and memory.
Going to Auschwitz, I expected to be overwhelmed with grief, bewildered, appalled, and confused. I experienced all this and much more. My capacity to describe falls short of my aspirations to explain. Yet, my most meaningful experience, from the point of view of our discussion today, was not in the field of my expectations, and it is easily explainable. I was very angry. My anger was not immediately directed at the Nazis, the German totalitarians, but at the Polish totalitarians: the Polish communists, who seemed to belittle the special suffering of the Jews on the grounds of what is in fact the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. At that time, it was hardly even noticeable that Jews were among the victims. The sign at the entrance to the museum at the camp noted the suffering of many nations, from the Russians to the French, from the Dutch to the Czechs; Jews were not specifically mentioned. This was repeated in the written materials on sale at the museum store.
To make matters worse, the pattern was repeated in the old German barracks where there were special exhibits on the nations who suffered at the camp. The barracks used to memorialize the Polish nation were particularly disturbing. One camp photo after another, with the names of murdered inmates, was displayed. There were no Jewish names. This was my most dramatic lesson in understanding that the categories of Jew and Pole commonly were mutually exclusive for Poles, even for Polish communists. Our guide did not note such matters, nor did he point out that the Jewish exhibit had been “closed for renovation” since 1968, the year of the “anti-Zionist” purge. We just passed the building housing the exhibit in silence. As a relatively recent student of Polish culture and politics, I was bewildered. I later learned how silence replaced open anti-Semitism as official Party policy.
One way and another, since the war, there had been no open critical confrontation with the Holocaust, and the Polish relation to it, beyond the clichés of official Marxist ideology and Polish privately transmitted common knowledge. The limits of the former were obscenely evident in my trip to Auschwitz. The museum presentation of Auschwitz erased Jewish experience, memory and suffering, and replaced it with the stale clichés of official Marxism. In such a way, the Holocaust was avoided from war’s end to 1968. The closing of the Jewish exhibit, which would have been likely an exhibition of such official clichés, substituted racist aggression for the ignorance of ideology. The silence, which followed, further undermined the possibility of real deliberation.
The limits of the common knowledge of Poles as it has been transmitted privately were suggested to me by one of my fellow students in the Polish language program soon after we left the camp. These limits were then revealed during numerous encounters I had while researching Polish Theater in 1973 and 1974. When I read the discussions about Jedwabne, I heard echoes of the little relatively benign story I will now tell.
Our next stop, on our tour was Zakopane, a popular mountain resort town. A few hours after our trip to Auschwitz, one of Polish American students was shopping for souvenirs for friends back home. After her shopping adventure, she related her experience at a shopping stall to one of our fellow students. On our bus returning to our lodgings, she expressed consternation that she was not able to “Jew down” the salesperson on the price of some trinket. I overheard the conversation and objected, especially in light of what we had experienced together at our previous stop. What surprised me was not so much her anti-Semitic expression, but her subsequent defense of it as being meaningless: just an expression, having nothing to do with Jews. Everyone she knows uses it, she explained. It has no malicious intent and nothing to do with Jews or the Holocaust, as far as she could see.
This is more an American than a Polish anecdote. While anti-Semitism certainly does exist in Poland, the expression: “to Jew down,” meaning to bargain, is English, and not Polish, I’m told. Yet, the story stayed with me during my Polish sojourn for what it said about xenophobia and its persistence, about xenophobia and the mechanism of collective memory. This young woman came from a lower middle class district in Brooklyn. In her world, Jews were more symbols and linguistic expressions than flesh and blood people. This has been even more the case in Poland and much of East and Central Europe after the Nazi occupation. In such a world of symbols, intents need not be malicious for them to be insensitive and malignant. The absence of the other, who in interaction challenges foolishness and insensitivity, as I attempted to do, makes for the unintentional transmission of hatred. This transmission is not even disrupted when the immensity of hate’s consequences is revealed, as it was despite all the problems of presentation on the grounds of Auschwitz.
The expression “to Jew down” builds upon the lie that Jews are particularly expert with money and have their ways of getting the best from Gentiles. The way to succeed in money matters is to act like a Jew, be greedy, heartless, focused on the monetary and not the moral. Even if one does not think of real Jews in this way, if one has good feelings toward Jewish friends and acquaintances or does not think much about Jews at all, to use the phrase is to keep the stereotype alive. And when a significant part of a cultural identity is built upon such expressive stereotypes of the other, as it is in Poland, then mutual understanding and respect becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Soon after our visit to Auschwitz and just before my wife and I said goodbye to our American friends, we, as a group, visited the city of Krakow. While our colleagues stayed on the official tour, we went, on our own, off the formal itinerary to visit Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter and ghetto.
In 1973, Kazimierz was not the gentrifying district that it is today. Our official tour ignored the district completely. It was a slum, empty and decaying, some synagogues being used as warehouses and the others closed to visitors. The oldest one had been converted into a state museum, which was apparently continuously closed for renovations since 1968. We did manage to see the ancient Jewish cemetery and the adjacent synagogue (Remuh) where an elderly man noticed us looking around. He introduced himself as the caretaker of the grounds. We spoke in our only common language, Polish, he with a strong Yiddish accent. Yet, he insisted that he was a Polish Catholic. The visit was extremely disturbing.
It then became clear to me that if I were to spend the next year in this country, exploring the attempt by independent minded Poles to inject creativity and critique into Polish public culture through theater, I had to do so as American and not as Jew. The Jewish question clearly remained, even if without Jews, but I would have to put it aside, along with my mother’s, if I were not to be consumed by them. The needed Polish – Jewish dialogue was too difficult for me to take part in at that time. And, what was true for me was also true for the few remaining Jews in post-sixty eight Poland, and for Poles of good will as well. There were too many more pressing problems, both political and personal, to confront the question of Jews in Poland. The “aliens,” who were one third of the population of Warsaw before the war and who were one tenth of the population of the nation, had been eradicated. Hitler and his collaborators (both Germans and from other nations) had succeeded and no one had time to talk about it, including me.
Of course, I am being too harsh on Poles of good will and on myself. The “Why Poland?” question, the question that assumes the existence of intractable problems in Polish – Jewish relations, but confronts them, could be addressed and tentative answers could be discussed, even within the Communist system. A key for such address and discussion is memory, memory of a time and a place when such relations robustly existed. The starting point is the everyday memory of Polish – Jewish relations current in Polish society. The starting point inevitably begins with cemeteries, including Auschwitz. This became clear to me as I traveled around Poland studying student theater.
When I began talking with my interviewees, invariably the fact that I am Jewish became evident. Either this would be evident from my name or my physical appearance, or it would come up in conversation.
The response took on a predictable pattern. First, there would be a personal note. I would be told of the Jewish cemetery near the homes of just about every person with whom I spoke. Next there would be long discussions with my new friends about the events of 1968 [a time of official anti-Semitism in Poland) and more deeply about Polish Jewish history. The young Poles revealed a great deal about themselves and their nation in these discussions. Since I was primarily talking to Polish liberals, aspiring cosmopolitan artists who looked to the West for inspiration and community, who were themselves involved directly or indirectly in the student revolt of ’68, the discussants tended to be unambiguously critical of the anti-Semitism of the regime and those who responded positively to such anti-Semitic maneuvers.
The depth of their criticism became evident when we spoke about long term Polish – Jewish relations. There were those who emphasized Polish liberalism, who pointed out that Jews were welcomed in Poland in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, when they were treated as pariahs in the kingdoms further East and West. They would point out that it was not an accident that so many Jews had lived in Poland. On the other hand, there were those who emphasized the continuity of anti-Semitic troubles among Poles. Their comments would focus on the last one hundred years, the years of the greatest troubles in Polish – Jewish relations, and especially on the post war period, the years of their lived experience.
I came to realize that those who most emphatically “taught” me about the long history of friendship between Poles and Jews tended to be anti-Semitic, and those who forthrightly spoke about Polish anti-Semitism tended to be tolerant, truly liberal, respectful. I did not intend to explore these discussions systematically. I had made the decision to avoid them in order to stay focused on an understanding of the politics of the alternative culture. I was committed to the decision I made in Krakow that my personal concerns and problems with the region should not take precedence over my specific intellectual reasons for being in Poland. The historical memory of anti-Semitism seemed to be quite peripheral to my pressing project. Yet, the symbolism of anti-Semitism was not. It became apparent that definitions of Polish identity are connected with such symbolism, and these have since become increasingly important in the configuration of Polish political life.
Towards the end of my first Polish adventure, I was reminded of my grandparents’ experience. An American friend, Jeffrey Geronimo, was visiting us, and my wife and I and our close Polish friend, Elzbieta Matynia, were on a little tour with him of the Polish countryside. In an isolated village in the Kielce region, we chanced upon an elderly man, apparently well into his nineties. He was the picture postcard vision of a Slavic gentleman, walking with a cane, with a long angular nose and flowing white moustache. We started a conversation, talking about the usual tourist fare, all of which now escapes me. When saying our farewells, Elzbieta challenged the gentleman to guess where my wife and I came from. By this time we were speaking Polish relatively well. He guessed Warsaw. When we indicated New York, he did not believe us. And after some joking around, he declared he did not know who we were or where we were from, for sure, but one thing he was certain of was that we were not Jews.
Here was the Poland my grandparents fled from – the Poland in which the Jew is the definition of the other that negatively invokes common identity, even humanity.
At the time, the incident seemed to be more about the past than about the present or the future. I have since learned that this was not so. Both the elderly gentleman’s statement and our Polish friend’s response to it, her extreme embarrassment and consternation, tell us a great deal about the post-communist political culture of Poland. For, in an important sense, the problem of anti-Semitism in today’s Poland and much of East and Central Europe, the anti-Semitism without Jews, has little to do with Jews and a lot more to do with the nations states of Europe, which live in the midst of Jewish graves. This has become most apparent after the fall of communism, during such symbolic events as the commemoration of the liberation of a concentration camp, and such pressing practical events as the political ascendancy of overt anti-Semites, and now the debates over Jedwebne and Polish complicity in the Holocaust. The problem has to do with the way anti-Semitism is knitted into Polish common sense, but more about that after we closely consider the problems of commemoration in Auschwitz and in Jedwabne.