Poles Confront the Dark Side

A new generation of Polish scholars is dedicated to lifting the silence surrounding Poland’s treatment of Jews.

lighting candle_311 (photo credit: CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI / AP)
lighting candle_311
(photo credit: CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI / AP)
WHILE CONDUCTING interviews in the Polish hinterland beginning in 2004, Joanna Tokarska- Bakir, an anthropologist from Warsaw University, noticed a subtext about Jews. The hints had been encrypted into the narratives of Polish peasants as an illusive undertone, the lost whispers of ghosts. A soft-spoken woman who calls herself a Buddhist, she had began her research by studying Polish folk religiosity in the countryside, but the Jewish subject just kept coming up and it made her determined to dig deeper.
“It was fascinating,” she says. “I have stayed with this topic until today.”
In 1977, a London friend sent Monica Adamczyk-Garbowska, then a comparative literature student, a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, banned at the time in Communist-controlled Poland and completely unknown. It changed her life, opening her eyes to Poland’s Jewish past. And once curiosity took hold of her, it wouldn’t let go.
Adamczyk-Garbowska, now 54, studied Yiddish so she could read Singer in the original, and is now a Yiddish-Polish translator and a professor of Comparative Literature at the Center for Jewish Studies in the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin.
Witold Medykowski, 48, became curious about how such terrible crimes were possible when as a young boy in Lublin he visited the Majdanek Concentration Camp. It later prompted him to come to Israel to study history, Hebrew and Yiddish. He now works as a historian in the Yad Vashem archives.
These three Poles are part of a growing trend of young scholars confronting the darker sides of Poland’s treatment of Jews, filling in the blanks left by the Communist-era taboos that barred an objective analysis of history. While researching what was previously the almost exclusive turf of Jewish historians, they rummage through local and state archives asking tough questions that strike squarely at the core of Poland’s accepted historical narrative.
“Poland was at the epicenter of the greatest crime of history and the subject of the Holocaust is a great obligation for Polish writers and scholars,” Medykowski tells The Jerusalem Report.
In early October, 22 Polish scholars gathered in Jerusalem for an international conference on the aftermath of the Holocaust, the period in which Jews attempted to rebuild their lives in Poland, with little success. These Polish Jews, having escaped the fate of some 90 percent of their community, returned to the towns and villages where they grew up only to be vilified, terrorized and, in some 1,500 instances, murdered by their neighbors.
“Some people forget that the war didn’t end in 1945. For most Jews it ended much later,” Albert Stankowski, who presented a paper on post-war Jewish religious life in Poland, tells The Report. The four-day conference at Yad Vashem was sponsored by the Diana Zborowski Center for the Study of the Aftermath of the Shoah. The interdisciplinary research papers will be published as an anthology in both English and Polish by the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw.
According to the project’s head, Prof. Feliks Tych, a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences and former head of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the Holocaust narrative needs to be expanded to include its postwar consequences: the return of survivors to their hometowns and their reception by their non-Jewish neighbors.
“In Poland, well after the fall of Communism, there was a deafening silence about how survivors were treated, a silence that lasted through the end of the 20th century,” says Tych, himself a survivor of the Holocaust.
These scholars who have broken Poland’s silence have had to buck Polish denial and to challenge Poland’s view of itself as a country of World War II martyrs and heroes. “The problem is that some of the things I have uncovered are difficult to speak about in Poland,” says Tokarska-Bakir. “Nobody believes me that my findings are based on empirical research.”
Among the post-war topics raised at the conference were the plunder and killing of Jews, the persistence of the blood libel myth, analysis of emigration waves, Yiddish culture, the Catholic Church’s attitudes on Jewish issues, public opinion surveys and the futile and sometimes fatal attempts by Jews to retrieve their property.
“If you are a young Polish scholar, you’re not going to tackle this subject and ask those kinds of questions about your own society unless you’re passionate about it, and these researchers are very dedicated,” says Dr. Havi Dreifuss, a historian at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Jewish History, who moderated one of the sessions.
“Some people have jobs. For me my job is my passion,” says Stankowski, echoing Dreifuss’s words. Last year Stankowski created a bilingual Polish-English website, “Virtual Shtetl,” which allows visitors to contribute information, photos and eyewitness testimony. The website (www.shtetl.org.pl) is the virtual arm of the long-awaited Museum of the History of Polish Jews, expected to open its doors in 2011, in Warsaw, after more than a decade of preparations. According to Stankowski, in just one year he has collected more than 20,000 pages of information on more than 800 Polish cities, towns and villages that were home to Jews. More than 500,000 people have visited the site.
The website and the academic research on Jewish subjects are part of a larger trend, a groundswell of interest about Jews that began to slowly surface after the fall of the Communist regime. Today Poland has vibrant Jewish cultural festivals, national commemorations, Jewish history classes and cemetery restoration programs. It’s as if Poland, like an amputee experiencing phantom pains, feels the loss of its Jewish population.
THE POLISH SCHOLARS’ dedication has not failed to make an impact on their Israeli colleagues. Most Israeli and Polish historians know each other personally.
“I was impressed by the seriousness of these researchers,” Dr. Zeev Mankowitz, head of Yad Vashem’s Zborowski Center, tells The Report. “This is highly significant as it demonstrates a willingness to confront the past, face it honestly and deal with it. The only way you can neutralize some of the deep poison that has harmed Polish- Jewish relations is by relating to the collective memory of Polish people. The only way for a culture to probe the depth of its collective memory is for it to be done by the people who belong to that culture and not by outsiders.”
Polish-born Princeton University Prof. Jan T. Gross has the distinction of straddling both cultures. (See Myths and Truths” on page 43.) His mother is Polish Catholic and his father is Jewish. It was his groundbreaking, controversial book “Neighbors,” published in 2000, that triggered intense debate and a wave of agonized soul-searching in Poland.
“Neighbors” also proved to be a catalyst for the burgeoning academic interest in Jewish history. The book tells a horrifying account of the mass murder in July 1941 of the Jews in the town of Jedwabne. His second book, “Fear,” published six years later, chronicling the post-war persecution of Jews in Poland, was no less controversial in Poland.
Although the number of Jews killed by Poles during the war was a small fraction of the total, and although the plunder was also a tiny part of the stolen Jewish wealth, it is these “marginal” phenomena that have taken center stage decades later, attracting extraordinary public interest, says Gross. The killing of Jews during the war, he contends, was an accepted social practice and the murders were open, well attended, widely discussed public events with “regular people,” including members of the local elites, committing the atrocities.
In the past, says Gross, it was accepted that researching the “Jewish parts” of World War II should be left to the Jewish historians. But now, he contends, the most incisive research about the Holocaust is being done in Poland.
“Polish historians are now speaking about things that the research department of Yad Vashem might tackle, and they are delivering the same kind of papers,” says Gross, who gave the conference’s keynote address. “After the war there was very intense research on Jewish subjects by scholars, mostly associated with the Jewish Historical Society. Many left Poland and moved to the US and Israel.”
But a new generation of Polish scholars is dedicated to bringing out “every piece of evidence about what happened. What you see here is a phenomenal revival of very serious work,” Gross says.
WARSAW UNIVERSITY’S Tokarska-Bakir is one of the Polish academicians engaged in the serious work of confronting Poland’s past.
In the Sandomierz region in southeastern Poland she researched “blood libel,” the medieval belief that Jews abduct children to use their blood to make matza. Out of 400 people interviewed, she tells The Report, 11 related a “memory” from their own childhood of an incident where they themselves were about to be abducted by Jews, only to be saved by a fortunate coincidence or their own quick wits.
In the small town of Klimontow, Sandomierski, home to 3,100 Jews before the war, she found that the few Jewish survivors returning to the town were persuaded otherwise through methods that “bore an uncanny resemblance to ethnic cleansing.”
“The returning Jews were killed, and the ease of murdering defied any other reasons than the racial ones, as always accompanied by political and economic advantages,” says Tokarska-Bakir, pointing out that all 125 Jewish properties in the town passed into “Polish hands.”
“The abundance and vividness of wartime memories of our informers is striking, as is the freedom with which they share them with us. They even seemed to have been waiting for the opportunity to talk about them,” she says. “It was during one such a chance interview in Klimontow that one of the researchers on my team heard about a murder of several Jews, including a pregnant woman, committed on the roof on Sandomierska Street in April 1945 [one month after Poland was liberated]. This murder sank into historical oblivion for decades, but resurfaced in oral history.”
The stories that are uncovered take their toll on the researchers. “I love my country very much, but from time to time I have to leave to distance myself,” says Tokarska- Bakir. “If not, it wouldn’t be possible to stand it.”
Indeed, material presented by Gross in his keynote lecture was difficult to hear and was enough to make one understand why Tokarska-Bakir needs a break from time to time.
“We can note multiple ways in which killings of Jews by peasants in the Kielce countryside were socially sanctioned,” Gross said, referring to the town in which more than 40 Jews were killed in a pogrom in 1946, a year after the war ended. “Regular members of the community took part in them, not miscreants or ‘marginal’ people… Indeed, the local elite’s participation bestowed upon these crimes a kind of official imprimatur. Killings were carried out openly, often publicly, drawing crowds of onlookers.”
Gross added that sometimes after having finished killing, peasants gathered in the apartment of one of the participants to drink vodka.
HOW MUCH OF THIS NEWLY resurfaced history has made it into Polish school history textbooks? Hanna Wegrznek, research fellow at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, examined all textbooks since 1945 and discovered that the Holocaust had been ignored.
The textbooks of the 1950s up until the fall of the Iron Curtain conformed to the ideological and political goals of the Communist regime, which paid no attention to the Holocaust. Although 50 percent of Polish citizens who perished during the war were Jewish, the history textbooks focused on the martyrdom of the Polish nation with infrequent reference to the fate of the Jews.
Some changes were introduced in the 1970s in the wake of the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, when paragraphs describing Polish assistance to Jews, along with hints of Jewish ingratitude, were added in response to Western accusations of anti-Semitism.
The real change, according to Wegrznek, came in the 1990s where the term “Holocaust” first made its appearance in Polish textbooks. A few years later, an entire chapter was dedicated to the subject.
Not all the researchers focus on atrocities. Adamczyk-Garbowska, for example, researches Yiddish literature. When she began researching in the 1970s there were no sources, no dictionaries and no reference books available in Poland.
“The subject of Jews was taboo but once Pandora’s Box was opened, it couldn’t be closed again,” she tells The Report during a coffee break in the conference. “The official Polish history was that the Poles were victims and didn’t collaborate and that Poland is a tolerant country. It was widely accepted that Poles saved the Jews, and if they didn’t, it was because they were afraid for their lives.”
Poles, she says, pictured themselves as either saviors or martyrs – but never collaborators. “It was difficult for the majority of Poles to accept the fact that there were these criminals among them, as in Jedwabne. There were even eminent historians who desperately looked for evidence to prove that it was the Germans who did the killing in Jedwabne. There was a psychological barrier that needed to be overcome, the belief that Germans can be cruel but not Poles. The positive result of this controversy was that lots of Poles faced this revelation and this gave stimulus to further research. We have a moral obligation to research, to commemorate and to teach for tolerance.”
One of the papers that kindled a glimmer of hope for the future of Polish-Jewish relations was an analysis of public opinion surveys conducted between the years 1967-2000.
“Generally one could say that in Poland the distance towards Jews is slowly diminishing, but still remains significant,” says Prof. Antoni Sulek of Warsaw University, who conducted some of the surveys.
According to his findings, 84 percent of Poles are now more likely to accept Jews as neighbors than they did 10 years ago, when only 75 percent said they would. Whereas 20 years ago, 40 percent would advise their acquaintance not to marry a Jew, 10 years later the number dropped to 33 percent.
Not that it was all good news. According to the surveys, Poles believe that during the war they suffered more than the Jews, emphasize the honorable behavior of Poles towards Jews and reject the idea that Poles committed “shameful deeds” against Jews.
In a survey conducted just before coming to the conference Sulek asked people, “Which groups have too much influence in Poland?” The respondents included politicians, business circles and the Catholic Church. Only 2 percent of those surveyed mentioned Jews. But when asked specifically to assess the scale of Jewish influence, 23 percent answered “too much.”
“This experiment shows that sometimes it is enough to directly refer to the ‘Jewish matter’ to activate anti-Semitic thinking,” says Sulek. “However, there is room for moderate hope. Eight years ago, 43 percent said Jews had too much influence.”
Mankowitz of Yad Vashem also found the surveys promising. “They demonstrated changes of attitude,” he says. “But there is a kind of misleading optimism about these figures. They don’t get to the root of what we’re talking about. They don’t neutralize the many aspects of historical antipathy structured into Polish identity and for that we need the probing research and honesty of these young researchers.”
Tokarska-Bakir’s probing research resulted in her first book of interviews with people in the Polish countryside, including the accounts of blood libel and murder of Jews. She says most people who heard about her findings were sure that she was Jewish and she found that nobody in Poland wanted to discuss these topics.
“It’s an embarrassment,” she says. “Still, what can I do if it’s the truth?”