In this post Malgorzata Bakalarz deliberately responds to my posts on Polish Jewish relations from the point of view of a young Polish scholar studying in New York. I deeply appreciate her update. Jeff
At the end of his text “Why Poland?” Jeff recalls the exchange between Adam Michnik and Leon Wieseltier about Polish-Jewish relations and the public discussion about Jedwabne pogrom. He makes a statement that could become a title of a new book on Polish-Jewish relations (or, perhaps, on Polish-Polish relations). He summarizes the exchange, acknowledging the importance of the Jedwabne discussion and concludes: “but something is missing.”
Something, indeed, was missing, and that was patience and sympathy.
The debate around Jedwabne, although groundbreaking and influential, was still in most cases elitist and center-oriented. Observing it, I was under the impression that default ways of framing the Jedwabne discussion were established very early on, and it was somehow impossible to contribute outside of them. And the situation was extremely sensitive: content-wise, it was urging Poles to embrace their difficult past, to admit it’s not exclusively heroic character, when there was still a largely unsatisfied need for the public acknowledgment of the Polish suffering: from the Soviet system, from the WWII, from the 19-century partitions.
“Formally,” the official narratives about Jedwabne ignored familiar Roman Catholic rhetoric, known and trusted as the “language of truth.” Dry, factual descriptions of the event, and the discussions about it, left no room for dramatic, stilted (but familiar), ceremonial, timeless narrative, which had been framing anti-communist discourse for so many years.
The legacy of Communist “parallel realities,” with corrupted and not trusted public discourse confronted with the private, (mainly) Roman-Catholic, reliable one, made this “linguistic estrangement” of Jedwabne debate an important issue. It contributed to the fact that many dismissed the debate altogether: unacceptable content confirmed by unacceptable “official” (read: not ours) language.
Not enough time was spent to translate and make available the discourse about complex Polish-Jewish past, and, in particular, about complex Polish war history. Not enough time was spent to listen to the voice of people from the outside of the center: not fitting the framework, and yet not necessarily anti-Semitic, willing to express confusion, struggle, often mourning. The “lost in translation” Jedwabne debate revealed and, sadly, sealed the split in the Polish society, driven by the attitude towards the past.
There have been “two Polands.” One is the heroic, resistant, faithful to the post-Romantic imagery of the special role of the suffering of the Polish nation: a conservative, past-preserving, anti-communist Roman Catholic Poland. The other is pragmatic, willing to quickly settle accounts with the past for good (sometimes insensitively ignoring it) and to move forward, liberal (and secular), aspiring. The two have been speaking different languages, using different symbols, and thinking different (national) imagery.
The Polish-Jewish relations after Jedwabne are stretched between these two Polands, or, actually, three. The third group is the young generation of Poles far from framing their identity with any relation to the past, freely picking interest in some parts of (Polish) history and abandoning others.
The general attitude vis-a-vis Polish-Jewish past gained, therefore, an interesting twist: whereas the first two groups commemorate (or manifest the rejection/lack thereof), the third one “discovers” the common past. “Common dramatic Fate”, “important collaboration and prolific coexistence, both cultural and economic” and “fascinating story of multiethnic mosaic, which is sexy to know about” – these may be the (oversimplified) ways to frame current Polish-Jewish narratives. Implications of these stories should be a subject to a new chapter of “Why Poland?”.
The “something is missing” split, though, has been a pattern rather than a theme, legible in numerous political and cultural events: Polish accession to the European Union, the Pope John Paul II’s death and most recently, the crash of the plane with Polish top officials traveling to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish officers by NKVD, in 1940 – all these bring the mismatched voices of the two groups, accompanied with disinterested silence of the third one.
Perhaps the Jedwabne debate was the last chance – and a lost one – to bring them all together.