Reflections of a Polish Exile (Extract)

Forty years after he was forced to leave Poland - along with thousands of other Jews - Jacek Jachimowicz looks back at the place he once called home

25Jacek (photo credit: Jacek Jachimowicz)
(photo credit: Jacek Jachimowicz)
Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Last September, I traveled to Warsaw to attend a reunion of my primary school class. Fifty years after beginning first grade at the Szkola Podstawowa 43, a group of 26 - about half of those who entered in 1957 - gathered with our beloved home-room teacher, a woman we still call Pani (Madam) Basia. The visit was my third since the fall of Communism in 1989 - and also since 1968, when my family and thousands of other Jews were asked to leave Poland. The school building is located in the center of the city and blends with the other structures on handsome Stefanii Sempolowskiej Street, projecting the old elegance characteristic of central European cities. But, in fact, very few buildings in Warsaw are truly old. Most of the city was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt afterward, including my school. For the reunion, I rented a studio apartment on a commercial stretch of Polna Street, in the center of the city, about a five-minute walk from the school. It was a neighborhood I knew well and that had changed little since my childhood, the streets still dotted with a few cafÖ¸s, banks and other commercial enterprises. We used the apartment to meet and reminisce daily during the week before the reunion itself. The fact that we attended school together for seven years - or more, for those who continued on to secondary school together - explains, in part, the warmth we felt for one another, although separated by time and geography, with some living in Warsaw and others abroad. The school was public, like all schools in Communist countries, meaning that the children of influential government officials studied alongside those of common laborers. As for our "ethnicity," the concept practically did not exist in 1964 - the year of my primary school graduation. The Jews among us knew of our roots, but for the most part we did not discuss them. This was simply the way it was in a Communist country. And even four decades later, over the course of those mornings on Polna Street, my friends and I mused about our shared childhood, our families, and the paths our lives had taken, but we barely touched on the subject of ethnicity. And we largely avoided broaching the events of 1968, since - for both those who left and those who stayed in Poland - the gesture felt risky and painful. Beneath our reticence, however, lay strong feelings of sadness, and disappointment in our country. In the context of the upheavals and revolts that shook the globe in the late 1960s, from Paris to Mexico City to Berkeley, the purge of Poland's remaining Jews seems little more than a blip. It is overshadowed, in particular, by the reformist movement in neighboring Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring, which the Soviets quelled with their tanks. Yet 1968 marked what seemed to be the final chapter in the Jews' thousand-year sojourn in Poland. With the end of the war, most Holocaust survivors boarded ships to the United States, South America and Israel. But small numbers stayed in Poland to try to remake their lives. Among this minority were my parents, who held lofty ideals and a dream of reinventing Poland in Marx's image. My father - who spent the war years in the Soviet Union working at whatever jobs he could find to survive - served as a high-ranking official in the Polish Bureau of Security until the early 1960s, when he moved to the state tourism bureau. My mother, who had taken part in the underground resistance in Poland and later survived Auschwitz, worked as an administrator with the Polish Academy of Science for almost two decades. Because of our government connections, we lived in great comfort compared to most Polish citizens, in a spacious apartment on Chopin Street in the heart of the city. Our luxuries included a live-in housekeeper and an olive green 1952 Volkswagen Beetle that my father had received as a gift from friends who lived in Vienna. Such amenities would have been unthinkable for ordinary Poles. Yet our friends never seemed to show resentment toward us, perhaps because of my parents' unpretentious demeanor. As for the three million Polish Jews murdered by the Germans, we thought of recent history in terms of "the war" rather than our families' personal narratives. Our grandparents, and great-aunts and uncles, had "vanished" and we knew vaguely about the death camps, but were discouraged from probing. Our parents kept silent, we later understood, mainly to protect us from the trauma of the war and the camps. My own Jewish identity was so unformed that only after leaving Poland did I learn that there had been an active synagogue in Warsaw when I lived there. It was through writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem that we absorbed something of our obscured culture - aware that such books held a connection to our lives, but not exactly sure how. During my childhood in Warsaw, we did not experience anti-Semitism. This was partly because we lived in the city and associated with "sophisticated" people, but also because anyone who might have harbored intolerant notions now kept them to themselves. To express anti-Semitic views publicly had become unacceptable. Even the shock of the 1946 pogrom in the southern Polish city of Kielce - where, fueled by charges of blood libel, a frenzied mob murdered tens of Jews who had survived the Nazis - was viewed as an isolated, historical occurrence, not a symptom of a more serious problem. The incident occurred during the chaos of postwar resettlement and before the Communist apparatus was even firmly in place; the creation of a just society would take time, our parents felt. All of which explains why we were genuinely stunned when the events of 1967 and 1968 swept the country and transformed our lives. At the time of the Six-Day War, some 35,000 Jews lived in Poland. The war marked a sharp turn for the worse for us. On June 19, 1967 - about a week after Israel's triumph over its Arab neighbors - Wladyslaw Gomulka, first secretary of the Polish United Workers Party, as the Communist Party called itself, denounced Poland's Jews as a fifth column, with dual loyalty to Poland and Israel. The intent was, at least in part, to show fealty to the Soviet Union, which backed the Arabs, but the effect for us Jews was chilling, and also devastating. However difficult the Jews' experience had been in Poland before the war - and whatever flaws the Communist leadership had shown since then - my parents sincerely believed that the new Poland would be a place where they could raise their children free of discrimination. Until the late 1960s, it was. But after Gomulka's speech of June 1967, we grew increasingly uneasy. At first, behind closed doors, and later, more openly, Jews were fired from positions in both government and the military. Our assailants struck from both the left and the right - they pilloried us as apparatchiks behind the old Stalinist guard that led Poland in the 1940s and early 50s and, at the same time, accused us of being "reformists" aiming to topple the government and strip the country of its Polish character. Alongside the firings, anti-Semitic content began to appear in the mainstream media and government communiquÖ¸s. Though we didn't feel acute fear, the evidence mounted that our time in the country was coming to an end. The events of 1968 did not affect only Jews. A large movement was coalescing across the country, led by student intellectuals who called for greater transparency in government and an end to authoritarianism and corruption. This movement reached a crisis in January 1968, when censors shut down a Warsaw production of "Dziady" (Forefathers' Eve) - written by the revered 19th-century Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. The play depicted Polish political prisoners struggling against their Russian captors, and the authorities branded it a threat to Soviet authority. Peaceful student demonstrations ensued in Warsaw and soon spread to other cities. The government responded ferociously with its own gatherings, at which factory workers chanted anti-Semitic slogans and waved banners - depicting, among other things, Moshe Dayan with a skull-and-bones stamped on his eye patch. The accompanying slogan read, "Zionists, go to Dayan." One day, on my walk home from school, I wandered over to a student demonstration near central Warsaw's Constitution Square, which is named in honor of the Polish Constitution of 1791, Europe's first. Driven by curiosity, I had little notion that the event - at which a single student ringleader hollered through a megaphone for the ouster of Edward Ochab, then head of state - could turn violent. Yet everyone knew that the official police (the "Milicjia") would farm out its shadier jobs to ZOMO, improvised vigilante groups consisting of youths who were bused in from neighboring towns and harbored plenty of resentment toward educated city kids. Usually these young men would wear an armband for identification. Not that afternoon. The recruits, spread throughout the crowd, attacked the demonstrators on what appeared to be a prearranged signal, with resulting carnage like nothing I had ever seen. People crouched on the pavement, covering their faces and clutching their stomachs. They coughed up blood, and spat out teeth dislodged by their assailants. Later that afternoon, I stopped at my friend's house on Marszalkowska Avenue to clean myself up before going home to my parents, who would have been livid had they known I'd attended the rally. I remember looking down onto the street and seeing a vacated battlefield. Scattered across the landscape were jackets, shirts, shoes, caps and other garb left behind by the fleeing students. Abandoned rucksacks and handbags lay on the ground; papers spilled out over the street and drifted in the air, orphaned. But strangest of all was the silence. Usually the street was a bustling thoroughfare, with lively pedestrian traffic, and the rush and clank of cars, buses, and trams. Now, nothing. Flashbacks of that day still revisit me when I sleep. Until then, Poland had been a peaceful place for me, the site of a near-idyllic childhood. Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.