When Warsaw was Jewish, Poles still celebrated antisemitism

A reporter’s notebook.

By
February 19, 2019 20:01
When Warsaw was Jewish, Poles still celebrated antisemitism

The Jewish Community Center that was two doors down from my grandmother's apartment. (photo credit: POLISH NATIONAL DIGITAL ARCHIVE)

 
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My grandmother Shulamith often gave me walking directions to her childhood home in Warsaw, which was destroyed by the Nazis many years before I was born.

“We lived two buildings down from the Jewish community center and across the street from the Tachkemoni [Rabbinical Seminary],” she would say.
Her accented, but grammatically perfect English, lent an otherworldly air to the stories she spun for me in the kitchen of her home in Brookline, Massachusetts.


She spoke as if the pre-World War II city of Warsaw with its cobbled streets still existed. As if I might, like some fictional time traveler, return to the brownstone apartment building at Ulica Grazybowska 22 where she had lived with her parents and four siblings.


Intellectually, particularly as a teacher of the Holocaust, my grandmother knew quite well, of course that her building, indeed most of her street and the city itself had been leveled during World War II.


But until her death in 2009 in Jerusalem, she refused to return to Warsaw, fearing the city, which lived in her mind’s eye, would evaporate, like a ghost in daylight, dispelled by the reality of a new modern Warsaw almost devoid of Jews.
 
The Warsaw she knew had a Jewish population of more than 300,000, that comprised 30% of the city’s population. It was the largest center of Jewish life in Europe, and second only to New York.


My grandmother and her family had fled Russia and early Soviet antisemitism, choosing to leave their shtetl of Khaslavichy after two families were murdered in pogroms in 1919. A couple and their child, who survived the first pogrom, fled to her family’s home, where the man collapsed onto their floor in his blood splattered clothes.


The escape from the USSR included a harrowing illegal crossing into Poland. The family hid in the back of a hay wagon as their Russian driver raced his horses across the border, while barking dogs alerted the guards.


On a cold and snowy December day, they arrived at Warsaw’s train station. Looking back, for both my grandmother and her younger sister, Anna, it was the moment they left behind the world of the shtetl and entered the modern world.
 
Warsaw was a city filled with theaters, libraries and modern shops. It was here in the 1920s that they saw their first talking movies, most notably The Jazz Singer. They flirted with boys, including the ones at the rabbinical seminary across the street.


“We would stare out the window at them, and they would stare back,” my Aunt Anna once described for me. They met the leading Jewish personalities of the day, including Emanuel Ringelblum, who perished in the Holocaust and is famous for organizing the clandestine Oneg Shabbat (“Joy of the Sabbath”) Archive chronicling life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Grzybowska Street today around the area where Warsaw's Jewish Community Center and my grandmother's apartment once stood. Photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff.


For my grandmother, however, Ringelblum was a dynamic history teacher for whom she had a school girl’s crush and who helped inspire her to become an educator.


My grandmother loved the way the Sabbath candles flickered in the windows of Jewish homes on Friday nights, and fondly recalled picking up the cholent pot from the neighborhood bakery on Saturday.


The two sisters learned to speak Polish fluently. My grandmother changed her Yiddish name Sheyna to the Polish Sonya. She witnessed the May 12, 1926 coup in which fighting erupted in Warsaw’s streets.


But almost from the start, the two understood they had an unrequited love affair with a city and a country that was virulently antisemitic. Jews were held to be foreigners, even though they had lived in Poland for close to 1,000 years.
 
Within months of their arrival, there was a famous murder case in which the Polish killer of a Jewish man was acquitted, leaving the Jewish community with the belief that they were unsafe, and justice was unattainable for Jews in Poland’s courts. At the large party held following his acquittal, my grandmother recalled, that he was celebrated for killing a Jews.


There were also the lesser incidents in which Jews were harassed and cursed on the streets, including one story in which hoodlums surrounded a Jewish man, forcibly shaved off his beard and cut off his side-locks.


Convinced there was no future for Jews in Poland, my grandmother became an ardent Zionist dreaming of Palestine. She was the only woman on the executive board of her Zionist youth group. When she set sail instead for the United States in 1930, with her family, her friends chided her that she would soon lose her Zionist ideals.


She and I moved to Israel together in 2000. Last week, as I left Israel for Poland on Benjamin Netanyahu’s plane to cover the prime minister’s trip to the Warsaw summit for The Jerusalem Post, I heard her voice in my head.


It was my second trip to the Polish capital. On the first morning of the three-day trip, I typed the address of her apartment building into Waze.


Under a cloudy slightly snowy sky, I stared at the concrete gray apartment building, with a supermarket on the ground floor,that has replaced the brownstone where she lived a century ago. Next door, where the Jewish community center had been, is the Radisson Hotel.


I tried to picture the street as she had seen it and imagined her standing there, giggling with her sister dreaming of the future.


But even in her worst teenage nightmares, her fear of antisemitism could not have led her to imagine the murder of Poland’s three million Jews in the Holocaust.


Nor, in her wildest most positive dreams, when she imagined a State of Israel, do I think she foresaw a scenario in which her grand-daughter would fly to Poland on an Israeli airline together with an Israeli prime minister, staying just a short walk away from her former home.


She would however, have recognized the debate about the complex nature of Jewish-Polish relations that swirled around Netanyahu’s visit. At issue is Polish cooperation with the Nazis in the killing of Jews and the extent of Polish culpability in World War II.


When the war broke out, my grandmother was safely in the United States and married to my grandfather. On my first visit to Warsaw, a Jewish historian told me that most of the Jewish people or artifacts that survived World War II did so only because they left Warsaw before the war.


As an American, with no direct family members who survived the camps, it was the first time I felt like a survivor.


I am alive to write this column: not because my grandmother had insight or foresight into Nazi Germany, but because she understood a decade before the Holocaust how deeply rooted Polish hatred of Jews was, in the city she so loved.

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