Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Poland Post-1989: Jewish Life Without Jews

Jewish Continuity

Not many Jews are found today in Poland; the number is no more than 25,000 who have indicated some Jewish identity or affiliation. Yet there was before the Second World War a rich history of Jewish life in a nation that was home to the Jews for hundreds of years. Three million Jews then resided in Poland. Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: “More to the point, Poland between the two world wars had the second largest Jewish population in the world, below America’s but above the USSR’s, and contains buildings and documents of a lost population — records that cry out for study. Nevertheless, some people are surprised. ‘Why should those anti-Semites study Jews? They must feel guilty for what they did,” I was told on many occasions.’ ”

by George Jochnowitz

A conference of scholars devoted to various aspects of studies about the Jews of Eastern Europe — language, history, politics, literature, cooking, etc.—was held at Jagiellonian University’s Research Center on Jewish History and Culture in Poland, in Cracow, Poland , in May of 1998. Its title was “Ashkenaz: Theory and Nation,” and its official languages were English and Yiddish. I attended a great many sessions, all but one which were in English. The single exception was the opening address by Professor Przemyslaw Pickarski of the Institute of Oriental Languages at Jagiellonian University.

The fact that Jagiellonian University has a center on Jewish Studies and that its faculty members—non-Jews—can speak Yiddish or Hebrew should not surprise us. Jagiellonian is a distinguished university, one of the oldest in the world, and any area of scholarship may be pursued at a great center of learning. More to the point, Poland between the two world wars had the second largest Jewish population in the world, below America’s but above the USSR’s, and contains buildings and documents of a lost population—records that cry out for study. Nevertheless, some people are surprised. “Why should those anti-Semites study Jews? They must feel guilty for what they did,” I was told on many occasions.

It should be obvious that anti-Semites, whether they feel guilty or not, do not engage in serious scholarship about Jews. Jewish studies reflect a democratic Poland, which, ever since it threw off Communist oppression in 1989, has been rediscovering the past of its lost Jewish citizens, part of its own past as well.

In Poland, antisemitism is linked to poverty, alcoholism, and ignorance. A country striving to be both rich and democratic is not a fertile ground for antisemitism.

Poland is part of the global village—enthusiastically so. Among the new words I learned were ksero (also spelled xero) meaning “Xerox”; biper, “beeper”; and kod paskowy, “bar code.” Cappuccino has entered Polish life, and there are now Italian and Chinese restaurants, where the waiters may be able to speak English — but no Italian or Chinese. The gloriously beautiful medieval streets of Cracow are pierced by the screams of car alarms. In New York, these alarms are forced on us by the government; insurance companies are required by law to give discounts to those who have car alarms. In Poland, I would guess, they were simply the result of the blind copying of American culture. As my father used to say, “One stupid makes a lot of stupids,” his own wonderful translation of the Yiddish proverb Eyn nar makht a sakh naronim. Still, if knee-jerk Americanization has brought both car alarms and the end of anti-Semitic prejudice, it has done more good than harm. It is democracy, however, and not simple Americanization that has made the big difference in Poland since 1989.

Hating Jews has not been respectable in America or Western Europe since the defeat of Hitler, Konstanty Gebert, editor of the Polish language magazine Midrasz, suggested to me in a conversation after Sabbath services at the Warsaw synagogue that Poles felt it was they who were the victims of Hitler—as much as the Jews were. Three million of the six million Poles killed were Polish Catholics. Polish Catholics, unlike Polish Jews, were not wiped out, but Poland was concerned with its own tragedy. Antisemitism continued to be respectable.

It was more than merely respectable. The Kielce Pogrom, on 4 July 1946, was an armed attack against the few Jews who had managed to survive or escape the war. The Kielce Pogrom was the worst massacre of Jews in postwar Poland, but not the only one. The attacks against Jews who had already suffered so much contributed as much as any single event to the image of Poland as a particularly anti-Semitic country. Further confirmation of Polish prejudice occurred in 1968, when the government closed Jewish institutions, and Prime Minister Gomułka spoke of Jews as rootless cosmopolitans. Organized Jewish life ended, and most of the remaining Jews left Poland.

My own parents, like most Polish Jews, had their own stories to tell. My father, who lived in Cracow, told me of fleeing a man with a bayonet who was celebrating the reestablishment of an independent of an independent Poland after World War I. My mother who lived in Ropczyce (Ropshits), spoke of rocks thrown at passing Jews and of the fact that all Jews kept their shutters closed during the Easter season, when it was customary to throw stones through windows. Violence scars those who have experienced it; a lot of Jews remember a lot of bad things that happened to them in Poland.

Yet by world standards, Poland was relatively benign. When we go back in time, we see that other places were much worse. The horrifying mass murders of Jews that took place at the time of the First Crusade (1096) and the Black Death (1348) occurred in Western Europe. The Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648 were part of an anti-Polish revolt. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was Tsarist Russia that carried out pogroms. The Kishinev Massacre of 1905 happened in what is now Moldova. During the Holocaust, as in the more distant past, other peoples were much worse. The ethnic groups that cooperated actively with the Nazis were those who looked upon the German invasion as a way to achieve their own national aspirations. Thus it was Father Josef Tiso, president of Nazi-occupied Slovakia, who supervised the deportation of the Jews of Slovakia; in East Galicia, it was Ukrainians who initiated the mass murder of Jews1; in Croatia, Ante Paveli led the Ustaše movement, which built its own concentration camps and carried out its own mass killings.

This is not to say that there were no murders committed by Poles. In March 1944, the National Armed Forces (NSZ) murdered Jewish partisans and Jews who had escaped from the ghettos.2 Lots of people hate Jews very much. Einstein said that the speed of light was a constant. He should have mentioned another: antisemitism.

What about today? Antisemitism has not vanished. One of the first things I saw when I arrived at the Warsaw synagogue on my first Sabbath there was the fact that one couldn’t enter the front door. It had been fire-bombed in February or March of 1997, and the red tape has not yet been cleared to enable reconstruction to go ahead. The red tape, I was assured, did not reflect antisemitism but merely normal incompetence. The bomb, on the other hand, almost certainly a hate crime.

Dolls are on sale in hotel lobbies representing Jews who are holding a coin in the air or offering a glass of beer. The image of the Jew as both money hungry and responsible for Polish alcoholism survives. Yet so does the view that Jewish food is both delicious and better for the health. Matzo, spelled maca, is sold everywhere and advertised as containing no fat and no preservatives.

Appreciation for Jewish food coexists with a passion for klezmer music. In 1995, I saw an audience, some people sitting, others standing (there weren't enough seats), waiting for two hours in the rain for a concert to begin. The love of the music was apparent. The fact that Yitzhak Perlman would perform and that the concert would be broadcast on television hadn’t been announced; it couldn't have been the reason for the size and patience of the audience. Philosemitism can coexist with antisemitism. This should not surprise us. The world is a complicated place.

Antisemitic political figures like Vladimir Zhirinovsky have appeared in Russia. Neo-Nazi movements have arisen in East Germany and elsewhere in post-Communist nations. In the United States, Al Sharpton was treated with respect when he ran in New York primary elections for senator and mayor, despite the fact that he made provocative speeches at a dangerous time, during the Crown Heights riots of 1991, when he accused the Jews of responsibility for apartheid: “Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not antisemitism; the issue is apartheid.”3 An Al Sharpton would not be accepted politely in Poland, nor has a Zhirinovsky done well in an election. Furthermore, there are no Holocaust deniers in Poland, where those old enough to remember were themselves witnesses to what happened.

Anti-Zionism, unlike simple antisemitism, is respectable in most of the world, but it is not popular in Poland, where it is associated with Communism. “Our Jews are beating their Arabs,” said people during the Six-Day War. At the Państwowy Teatr Żydowski, meaning “State Jewish Theater,” my daughter Eve and I saw a musical revue. It was entitled I stał się cud in Polish and S’iz geshen a nes in Yiddish, in both cases meaning “A Miracle Happened.” The miracle in question was the founding of Israel.

The play began with scenes of interbellum Jewish life, sung and danced to music of the Yiddish theater, popular Jewish music of the first half of the 20th century, and folk tunes. Then came the ghetto scene, including Es brent (“It’s Burning”), unusually moving because of the knowledge that we were sitting within the area of what had once been the Warsaw Ghetto. The song had been written before World War II, but it has taken on new meaning. The first act ended with Kaddish. The second act was the rebirth, in Israel, with songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian.

The Yiddish was either Stage Yiddish or Warsaw Yiddish, similar to what most people call “Galitsyaner,” but with the word for “I” pronounced yakh. Hearing the Polish actors sing Yiddish in the local dialect added an extra dimension to the evening. I don’t know how they learned their pronunciation, but I would guess that their mastery of the Warsaw accent was not appreciated by the audience, some of whom were listening to the simultaneous translation in Polish on their earphones.

Yiddish theater, klezmer music, Jewish studies — these things cannot be dismissed. More astounding than all of them, I believe, is the Zionism implicit in the play. The “miracle” in the title is a double miracle: the rebirth of Israel and the acceptance of the thousand years of the Jews in Poland as part of Polish history and culture.

Israelis and American Jews, most of whom are pro-Zionist, seem to have lost their commitment and are preoccupied by their political differences. One no longer defends Israel but instead attacks either the Likud or the Labor party. A play like S’iz geshen a nes would elicit yawns in America and Israel; it would be banned in much of the world. Only in Poland is its message appreciated.

Let us get back to the Ashkenaz Conference in Cracow. My daughter Eve and I both were participants; I spoke about Jewish languages, and she read a paper about the geography and history of gefilte fish. There was something especially moving for us about this conference. It was held two blocks from 49 Ulica Dietla, the apartment house where my father had lived until he went to America in 1927. The fact that we spoke there cannot erase the fact that aunts, uncles, and cousins of mine who lived in the neighborhood were murdered. The conference was, to a certain extent, a way of saying Yizkor. It is appropriate for Jews to say Yizkor. It is equally appropriate for Poles to remember their Jewish fellow citizens. Antisemitism has not gone away. In the absence of Jews, it has taken a new and odd form: People accuse their political enemies of being Jews whether they are or not. Thus, it is not necessary to be Jewish to be the victim of antisemitism.

In 1995, Father Henryk Jankowski, perhaps Poland's leading antisemite, advocated that “those who did not say whether they come from Moscow or from Israel should not be allowed to govern.”4. A similar view is expressed by an antisemitic radio station, Radio Maryja, led by one Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, which accuses liberal politicians of being “Jews, Masons, and Stalinists.” Any Pole whose ideas offend some antisemite is vulnerable. It is well known that there can be antisemitism without Jews, but the accusations of Jankowski and Rydzyk prove that there can even be victims of antisemitism without Jews.

Despite this ugly bigotry, Poland's new-found democracy and prosperity have made Poland a less antisemitic place and a friend of Israel. Indeed, on 7 July 1998, when 124 members of the UN voted to give the Palestinians a larger role in the United Nations, Poland was one of the ten countries that abstained. Only four voted against the resolution: Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and the United States. In a vote of four voting with Israel and 124 against, the ten abstentions are, by world standards, proIsrael votes. Democracy is good for the Jews, good for the Poles, and good for the world.

There is evidence that Jews in Poland feel more secure than before: they are coming out of the closet. People are admitting that they are Jews or that they have Jewish ancestors. Some have started attending synagogue services. The Warsaw synagogue has a daily minyan, with the help of paid participants to make sure that there are always ten men available — always men and not women because there are no Conservative or Reform synagogues functioning in Poland. There is a Jewish day school. There are two Polish-language magazines, Midrasz and Jidał addressed to a Jewish audience but with many non-Jewish readers.

I met a young woman in America who had recently arrived from Poland. “All four of my grandparents were Catholic,” she told me. “I am 100 percent Catholic. But my mother's mother was born a Jew, and so I am 100 percent Jewish.” She was proud to be Jewish according to halacha, even though she is a practicing Catholic. Again and again, there are stories of hidden children, almost always girls, who are now elderly women eager to tell what they know to their delighted grandchildren. There are also probably many people of Jewish descent who are happy to keep the information hidden. Even in America there are those who hide their Jewish ancestry. What is significant, however, is the fact that there are people who have chosen to be Jewish, to keep kosher, and to observe Jewish holidays even though they were not raised in homes where any Jewish customs were followed. Who would have expected it?

1. The Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 13, p. 768.
2. Ibid., p. 777.
3. Philip Gourevitch, “The Crown Heights Riot & Its Aftermath,” Commentary, January 1993.
4. Anna Husarska, “Warsaw Diarist: Identity Politics,” The New Republic, 2 November 1998.
5. Ibid.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2015. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article originally appeared in Midstream (January 1999). It is published here with the author’s permission.

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