The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
I could somewhat understand when the Polish Cabinet recently approved a bill which would criminalize the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” in reference to Nazi-run extermination camps in occupied Poland, but when I heard that the bill included the criminalization of anyone accusing the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Holocaust, I heard the words of my mother: “The Poles will never change.”
It was only a few years ago that I took my first trip to Krakow. There, I met the director of the Jewish Community Center, Jonathan Ornstein, who showed me around the very hip, modern facility run by a mostly non-Jewish staff, who could be mistaken for Polish hipsters. He told me how his weekly Shabbat dinners had grown in size and included many non-Jews who were interested in learning about Jewish culture.
The tour continued out the door, into the surrounding Jewish Quarter, where Jonathan extolled the virtues of this burgeoning new relationship between Poles and Jews. I believe “Jewish Renaissance” was used several times. The old synagogues and cemeteries were brought to life by Klezmer-playing musicians and street artists selling sketches of Jewish Orthodox men. Stages and seating were being set up for the Krakow Jewish Festival, one of the largest of its kind in Europe.
There was even a hummus and falafel restaurant that made you feel like you could be in Tel Aviv.
When Jonathan saw some hesitance in my expression, he quickly pointed out that while Jewish schools and synagogues in the rest of Europe had to be protected by security, his Jewish Center had nobody standing outside its door.
As he sent me off with a JCC T-Shirt and a bag full of literature, he left me with one last story, about an elderly Polish woman who had recently come into his office and broken down in tears. Apparently, after her parents died, she had been going through some boxes and found a diary that indicated that she was Jewish. This same story, Jonathan added, was playing itself out every week.
No sooner had I left the country than I read that the Polish government was considering a ban on circumcision. Plans were also being discussed to ban Kosher meat in lieu of a more humanitarian method of killing. At the time, I had just started working on a new play about an architect struggling to come up with a design for a new Holocaust museum. I decided I would set my hypothetical museum in Poland, which would give me an opportunity to do more research into my ancestral homeland. I chose Kielce to be the setting; a small town in the south, and the birthplace of my mother.
Coincidentally, a new museum of Polish Jewish history was about to open in Warsaw, and I surfed the Internet for any controversy that might be fodder for my drama. I thought there could be something to the fact that like with the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the word “Holocaust” was omitted from the name, but I was unable to determine whether this was by choice of the founders or a directive from the government. What I did find was that when the Polish government granted permission and allocated funds for the Jewish museum, it was only on condition that another museum of equal size and budget be built to commemorate the Polish victims of the war.
This got me digging further into the past. How much of a role did the Poles play in the Holocaust?
One interesting fact I discovered was that The Poles had a boycott against Jewish businesses in place before the Germans invaded, just to calm the restless working class who, like Germans, felt Jews were making too much money. Then, of course, I had a personal account of events from my mother, none of it flattering. Born in 1937, she spent much of her childhood in hiding, two years under the staircase of a Polish family, taken in not out of the goodness of their hearts, but to extort as much money as they could from my grandmother, who was able to pass for Aryan and worked several jobs to keep my mother and sister alive. When the price got too high, they fled elsewhere.
I had always assumed that when the war ended, my mother – along with her sister and mother – had immediately emigrated to Palestine. But this was not the case. Almost all of the surviving Jews simply returned to their towns and villages, many of their homes now occupied by their neighbors. Still, the idea of picking up and moving to another war-torn region was the furthest thing from their minds.
My mother ended the war in an orphanage in nearby Czestochowa, where she stayed until my grandmother could earn enough money to look after her. Back in Kielce, only a hundred or so Jewish families returned, everyone doing their best to assume some kind of normalcy.
But on July 4, 1946, one year after the war ended, almost to the day, a young Catholic boy went missing. It was just after Passover and rumors quickly spread; security forces surrounded a known Jewish apartment building. By mid-morning, 22 Jews had been shot dead in what was quickly deemed a “misunderstanding.”
Naturally, people – many of them Jewish friends and relatives – started to gather to catch a glimpse of the ambulance workers removing the bodies. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a mob of workers – some say a thousand – who had just been let out from the factories, came marching up the street with clubs, bats and rods, and started swinging at the heads of anyone who looked Jewish, while the police looked on. In the end 42 Jews were killed and 47 wounded.
It was after that that my mother – and almost all the other survivors – took a risk and moved to Palestine or wherever else would take them.
The Polish government might not want to have a public debate as to whether the Poles played an instrumental role in the Holocaust, but there is no denying that the reason that there are so few Jews living in Poland today rests squarely on their shoulders.
At least let them come to terms with that.
The author is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Venice, California.