The Old Country

Thomas Laqueur

  • Heshel's Kingdom by Dan Jacobson
    Hamish Hamilton, 242 pp, £15.99, February 1998, ISBN 0 241 13927 9
  • Shtetl: The History of a Small Town and an Extinguished World by Eva Hoffman
    Secker, 269 pp, £15.99, January 1998, ISBN 0 436 20482 7

Both these books are about recovering and redeeming a past: the past of Dan Jacobson’s grandfather, Heshel Melamed, the rabbi of a community of Jews in the obscure Lithuanian village of Varniai (Vorna it probably would have been to him); Eva Hoffman’s past and the past of Bransk, a Polish shtetl 180 kilometres east of Warsaw, whose history – alternately dismal and cheering – she interpolates into that of Poles and Jews generally, from the Statute of Kalisz to the present. (The statute was signed by Prince Boleslaw the Pious in 1254 and launched the ‘official experiment in Polish-Jewish co-existence’ with a set of laws ‘that could serve as an exemplary statement of minority rights today’.) It is a past lost, soiled, distorted, devastated seemingly beyond comprehension, most obviously by the Holocaust but in any case by modernity, befogged in the ‘Talmudic wilds’ – the phrase is Osip Mandelstam’s, used admiringly by Jacobson.

Rabbi Heshel Melamed, who died well before his grandson’s – our author’s – birth, has something of the Thomas Hardy character about him: ‘existlessness’ is his lot. He survives in a picture, a travel document, an address book, a case for a pair of glasses and the glasses themselves, through which Jacobson sees the world as blurred and vertiginous. ‘So this is what his world looked like to him.’ Most insistently the rabbi survives in a familial tendency to heart disease, in cheekbones familiar to Jacobson from his aunts and uncles, in eyes that are his mother’s eyes, the same shape, the same curvature and bone structure of the socket. Jacobson’s journey to the land of his forebears is a search for something beyond this Tess of the d’Urbervilles-like history of a race (the Jacobsons’ on their maternal side), something that goes beyond blood, beyond ‘germ plasm’: a thread of culture, a history that would make the rabbi more than the bearer of familial DNA.

In that capacity, he nearly failed. He visited Cleveland in 1912 – the purpose of the trip and whether it had anything to do with some secret, earlier, mysterious change of name is not known. Lacking the foresight to take a job in the land of opportunity, he returned to his miserable Lithuanian nowhere, putting his family and their unborn progeny in mortal danger, from which they were saved only by his death seven years later. Our author and his son Michael were born in the safety of South Africa and England only because the rabbi’s untimely demise left a penniless widow and nine children with no means of support and no choice but to emigrate. Of course, Heshel could not have known what was coming, and Jacobson is fully aware that one can’t reproach one’s ancestors by means of proleptic readings of the past.

In the end, the grandson reaches some sort of accommodation with his grandfather and his world. He comes from ‘nowhere’ not because of what the Jews did or did not do, but because of Hitler, who succeeded in rendering it ‘Nowhere, Nirgends, Nichts’. There is no alternative history that the rabbi and his people could plausibly have lived and so, his grandson concludes, perhaps the mysterious old man should be honoured and not scorned for his ‘principled’ decision to stay in the old country and remain faithful to the old ways. After a trip to family sites and the great sites of Litwak Jewry, after reflections on his own past and present (each of the book’s chapters is organised around a place or a time – Lithuania, South Africa, Lithuania again, Now, Never), Jacobson speaks easily with the dead. He tells the rabbi about the family, about its failures, demographic and religious: two grandparents produced nine children (2:9); these nine and their spouses had only 12 children between them (18:12) and our author’s generation did only a bit better (24:26). The young fell away more or less completely from Jewish faith or practice. There has been secular success to be sure: Dan Jacobson, after all, is a distinguished professor emeritus of English at University College London, who has written many novels, critical works and now a compelling, funny and honest travelogue in search of his roots. Rabbi Heshel would not have been impressed, however. He had a terrible row with his wife when he discovered that, during his absence in America, she had taken to reading a German translation of Renan’s Life of Jesus. Like many women of her generation excluded from a religious education, she was among the first in her community to learn the local vernacular and soak up novels and secular literature more generally. In South Africa, this old-world rebel became an exemplary, ostentatious new-world traditionalist in the face of her family’s assimilationist slide.

It seems that only in dreams is the harsh darkness of the past softened. In what Jacobson imagines to be his grandparents’ house, his mother is transformed into a young girl who takes him by the hand and welcomes him in. ‘There was no Hitler, no years, no Holocaust, no loss, no migration, no sorrow.’ More generally, his experience of Lithuania reminds him of the enormous echoless, bottomless, abandoned mining works at whose edge he stood in terror and fascination as a boy in Kimberley: ‘only its shallowest levels, those closest to us, have recognisable colours and forms … below them is a darkness.’ He did not expect much of Lithuania and he found little, more like the dull penumbra where the present meets oblivion than the full colour of his dream. I have never been there. Perhaps the countryside and cityscapes are as desolate, as devoid of distinguishing features, as he describes them. In any case, the horrible history of the place would make it seem empty. But that is not all that leaches real life from Heshel’s kingdom.

Let me be clear. The rabbi is from ‘nowhere’ in the first, and ethically primary, place because Hitler’s troops and their local ‘helpers’ came as close as any conqueror has ever come to wiping out a whole civilisation within the merest blink of historical time. On 22 June 1941 the Germans invaded Lithuania. Six weeks later the overwhelming majority of its Jews had been murdered, not in concentration camps but in the old artisanal fashion – shot by shot. These murders Jacobson finds commemorated on the aesthetically unremarkable slabs that dot fields, forests and prison yards here and there. ‘This is the place where the Nazis and their assistants killed more than … Jews.’ One wishes that the meadows and woods could say more or look differently as a result but, as Lanzman’s Shoah made clear on film and as Jacobson confirms in his travels, they have an unremarkable air.

Five per cent of the prewar population of Jews remained in Soviet Lithuania once 135,000 had been murdered; 10,000 to 12,000 at the time of Lithuanian independence in 1990-91; perhaps five thousand today, after massive recent emigration to Israel. (The majority of those remaining are probably not of Lithuanian origin anyway and came after the war.) Yiddish – along with Polish – had been the language of Vilnius and Kaunas; it is heard no more. Nothing remains of Heshel’s synagogue, nor of his father-in-law Rabbi Zvi Oppenheim’s in Kelme. (There were two thousand Jews in Kelme in 1941; there is one now.) The synagogues were burnt with people in them. War so massively rearranged the topography that even the streets where these shuls once stood are gone. What remains? The door jamb of one of the two surviving Jewish houses in Kelme bears the gash where the mezuzah has been gouged out; the door itself serves as a memorial in Cleveland.

The void Jacobson encounters – perhaps any void – is all the more palpable because emptiness is so often taken for granted. In a brilliantly observed moment, he wonders how the Nazis imagined the few great synagogues which they decided to preserve – in Vilnius (one out of 96), in Kaunas, and in other centres of Jewish culture – would look to future generations. No shame or embarrassment? Why would they want a museum to the dead culture when they did so much to disguise the processes of its obliteration? And then he remembers how, as a child on school trips, he had looked at the beautiful artifacts of South Africa’s aboriginal people carefully preserved as art and heritage. He had not reflected on the fact that their makers were gone, hunted into extinction by whites and non-whites. Their absence seemed quite natural and in the small towns of Lithuania the same, one fears, could already be said of the Jews. ‘The last Jew in Kelme, Berelis by name’ took Jacobson around the town where his maternal grandfather had been an important rabbi. Vera, an old woman with swollen wrists and ankles suffering from what Jacobson takes to be dropsy, seems to be the ‘last Jew’ of Varniai until she tells her visitors that there is another by the name of Tsippele. Like Ishi, the last of the Yaqui Indians, these frail old women are the end of the line. Hitler was not so far off the mark in imagining a day when we might survey Jewish lands and artifacts without thinking too hard about the manner of their owners’ disappearance.

Yet, more than the Holocaust and more than the ‘barbaric impenetrability of the past’, which Jacobson reflects on at the beginning and the end of the book, stands between him and Heshel’s kingdom. In the first place, the kingdom had already begun to crumble around the rabbi years before his death. Sixty years later, his eldest son, our author’s Uncle Leib, could still write with unbowed bitterness about his experiences in the yeshiva: as a boy he had cried, threatened to run away, to commit suicide, rather than return from his vacation to rabbinical training. It was this Uncle Leib who gave their ancestor Rabbi Zvi Jakov Oppenheim’s book to his nephew and translated for him its cover page: ‘Questions and Answers, Interpretations and Explanations’ by ‘the Honoured Master … The Prince of Torah … the Righteous and Everlasting Upholder of Truth’. ‘Worthless. Talmudic pilpul (hairsplitting) … He knew nothing else poor man.’ (Jacobson in turn gave the book to the Lithuanian Jewish Museum in Vilnius, where it was to become part of an exhibition commemorating the bicentenary of the most celebrated of Lithuanian rabbis, Elijah, the 18th-century Vilnius Gaon or ‘genius’.) At least Leib went back, however reluctantly, to his training. The next oldest of Jacobson’s uncles, the brilliant Michael, simply ran away from his yeshiva, not once but twice. In the diaspora he married a ‘goy’ and neither his wife nor their children were ever acknowledged, much less received, by his pious mother, Menuchah.

She – Jacobson’s grandmother – had always appeared old to him, a relic of a world that was lost well before it was destroyed. She wore black; her children wore bright clothes. Her daughters were voluble; she was quiet. She was daunting in her frumheit; her children were conspicuously not observant. ‘One would never have known that they ever lived in distant Lithuania.’ And with Jacobson himself the legacy of the old country became more attenuated still. He seems to have had a minimal Jewish education as a boy and so had nothing very much to lose in 1939. For him, it was already all gone. ‘The rabbinical books shown on the walls meant nothing to me,’ he says of the Vilnius Jewish Museum. He feels no retrospective loss that he could not read them and no nostalgic desire to have prayed or studied with any of their authors. ‘But so what? None of them would have had much use for me either.’

This estrangement from the generation of the grandparents and from their tradition is not the necessary condition of a Lithuanian heritage, or of South African Jewish life or of life in the diaspora generally. The primeval darkness in which Heshel’s kingdom is obscured is a quite particular response to a particular Jewish tradition, one which makes the ancestor-worship that is so powerful a part of modern secular Judaism especially difficult to sustain, however much one feels that one ought to keep it up.

Jacobson’s grandparents and great-grandparents were small-town people who lived and worked well outside the orbit of big city Jewish political and religious life. Jacobson is a cosmopolitan. In a world which, by the standards of the Russian Empire, was relatively free of overt anti-semitism and which, after the Great War, offered unusual participation in civic life, Jacobson’s family seem to have chosen, or been forced to choose, narrowly circumscribed lives. (When, in 1920, Lithuania became independent, Jews were offered citizenship as well as a measure of cultural autonomy – Yiddish could be used in addresses to the legislature; street signs in Vilnius were in Hebrew as well as Latin scripts.) The life of Rabbi Heshel was circumscribed by his duties to congregation and family. His people were not Zionists, or socialists or Communists, or enthusiasts of the Jewish enlightenment. His mother’s generation in South Africa felt no great affinity with the largely Lithuanian Jewish community which they found there in 1920 and did not enter into the political or social life that was being forged. (This is a Jewish community which produced many of the white activists in the anti-apartheid struggle.)

Something has to remain of the ancestors – something beyond loss – for there to be ancestor-worship, but for Dan Jacobson it is very little. It matters whether one’s ancestors left an old world in search of something better or whether, as in the case of my family, they felt evicted from a culture whose values they passionately shared. My grandparents are the generation of Heshel and Menuchah; my grandmother, who was born two years after Bismarck unified Germany and whose mother had been a teenager during the revolutions of 1848, lived with us until she died at the age of 100. She was born in Silesia, in Breslau, once – and once more – a Polish city (Wroclaw), which she regarded as unquestionably German. She never learned English and was unequivocally and ostentatiously old-world. She and her husband – like Heshel and Menuchah – were also ambushed by history; she could not have known, when their extended family bought them a Bechstein grand piano for their 25th wedding anniversary in 1920, that 19 years later it would almost cost my grandmother her life because she refused to abandon it, and her Hamburg apartment, until December 1939. My grandfather could not have dreamed that his ardent patriotism in the Great War, his Iron Cross, his devoted membership of an organisation called German Citizens of Jewish Belief, would result in nothing more than his daughter dying on a train to Auschwitz. For them, as for Jacobson’s people, and for us all, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

Like Jacobson, I have one of my grandfather’s notebooks, a document belonging to a man who took quite another path from Heshel. It did not save his family from Hitler. (He had the good fortune to die in 1928 before all but the most prescient could see what was coming.) It records the concerts he attended and the books he read. I have a small number of the piano scores for four-hands and some full scores which he and my grandmother collected and a German/Greek edition of Plato’s dialogues. This was a man of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, a passionate believer in the redemptive power of Kultur. It turns out he was mistaken. But my memories of my grandmother, and through her of him, are of a tradition which persists, without their brightest hopes. Early in their marriage they heard Brahms conduct; I have on my study door a sign in Jugendstiel typography announcing ‘Dr Laqueur’ which had been affixed to his radiology clinic – one of the first.

They were unquestionably Jewish; he is buried in a Jewish section of the Hamburg cemetery. She, my grandmother, subscribed until her death to Der Aufbau, the organ of the German Jewish diaspora in America. Haskalah did not save them or their fellow Western European Jews from the Holocaust but it did make it possible for their grandson, in the absence of a Jewish education and a Jewish communal life, to feel that the past is not, as Jacobson concludes, ‘like granite … Himalayan weights and fixities that at once assemble themselves behind us’. Not all paths back are equally obscure. ‘Never’, as Part 5 of the book is called, is too despairing.

Eva Hoffman wrote a beautiful memoir, Lost in Translation, about her girlhood in postwar Poland (‘Paradise’ as Part 1 is entitled) and her subsequent transformation into another person thanks to the English language and to her encounters with the strange cultures of Vancouver, Houston, Cambridge and New York. It is an intimate book driven not by an argument but by an exquisite sensitivity to place and situation. Shtetl, by contrast, is polemical in its quiet and reasonable way.

It stands, she tells us, ‘in a kind of counterpoint’ to Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen’s unabashedly polemical work which challenges ‘what had become received liberal opinion’; that ordinary Germans ‘should in no way be held accountable for the Holocaust’. (He argues, to the contrary, that their complicity with mass murder was driven by an ‘exterminationist anti-semitism’.) This book, Hoffman remarks, is an effort to rectify what she sees as a reverse distortion: ‘the notion that ordinary Poles were naturally inclined, by virtue of their anti-semitism, to participate in genocide, and that Poles even today must be viewed with extreme suspicion or condemned as guilty for the fate of the Jews in their country’. Instead Polish-Jewish relations have to be viewed more like a marriage in which both parties meant well, a ‘marriage that had its idyllic moments of union’ but was too often ‘full of turbulence and discord’. The partners ‘repeatedly erred on the side of distance and self-containment’, and the match was inevitably doomed. In ‘the better phases of the Polish-Jewish experiment’, in happier moments of ‘genuine fraternity’, in periods when ‘the streets of Poland’s cities and the paths of its shtetls did not seethe with hatred’, we can glimpse a past that might have sustained a happier future. The question is why it did not do so.

In the Early Modern period, Poland continued to welcome Jews who had been expelled elsewhere. Indeed, in this, ‘the high point in Polish history’, the structures of Jewish community self-government, in many ways like those which mediated the relationship between the state and various entities more generally, came into being. Jews, in short, had a place in the corporate structure of the Early Modern state: local councils of elders – the kahals – spoke for the district, and, at the national level, the vaad, a sort of Jewish version of an ‘estates general’, represented and collected taxes from its people. In society, too, Jews found their niche. The king and the nobility employed them as managers, financiers and occasionally as partners in various enterprises; among the peasantry – more than 95 per cent of the population – Jews subsisted in ‘mysterious alienness’. But Hoffman’s observation that ‘whatever the ideological currents of anti-semitism in the larger society’, Jews were generally accepted or at least treated with ‘benign indifference’ does not suggest a very happy marriage even in the best of times. When, in the late 17th century, for example, times were not so good, it became unhappier still. The Church ‘stepped up its rhetoric of religious antagonism’ and Poles more generally ‘routinely and unjustly’ accused Jews of ruining the economy. Even more unfairly, hundreds were accused of blood libel (ritually slaughtering Christian children or desecrating the Eucharistic host).

From the few pages she devotes to the Enlightenment, it is hard to say whether Polish Jews ever had the chance of travelling the route of their French or German brethren. Perhaps they did, but the chief Polish advocate of shaping Jews into citizens referred to Jewish innkeepers as ‘leeches sucking the people’s blood’ – which can only have hardened the rabbi of Chelm’s hope that his community would be left alone, separate and different. Hoffman does not tell us whether anyone heeded the call of Salomon of Vilna, court physician to King Stanislaus August (1764-95), for ‘unbeliever’ and other pejorative terms not to be used routinely with ‘Jew’.

Of course, lots of groups in the old regime did not have full rights of citizenship; citizenship is precisely what the French Revolution created. Poles without rights worked hard, as Hoffman shows, to keep Jews from getting any between 1788 and 1792; there were anti-Jewish riots in Warsaw. Then came the disasters of the Revolutionary Wars. Jews fought alongside Poles against the Russians. They lost and Poland was largely swallowed up, mostly by Russia to the east, but also by Prussia to the west and Austria to the south. Jews who fell on the Prussian side of the new post-Revolutionary borders, it should be noted, followed the Western pattern of integration and citizenship. Those on the Russian side or in Congress Poland – the notionally autonomous kingdom – remained subject to all manner of civil disabilities. After partition, relations between Jews and Poles ‘entered an even more complex’ and unhappy phase. ‘Conservatives’ – it is not clear what Hoffman means here, but the sense is of a clear majority – felt that the Jews did not deserve equal rights in Congress Poland as long as they insisted on remaining separate, and that if they did get those rights they would come to dominate indigenous Poles.

By the time Hoffman reaches the early 19th century, her national history of lost opportunities is told twice – once on the grand scale, mostly but not entirely in Congress Poland until 1920, and then again, refracted in the history of Bransk, the tiny place just east of its borders in land controlled by Russia until after the Great War. We come to know about this shtetl through a memorial (Yizkor) book written by local Holocaust survivors and also through Hoffman’s cicerone, a young local historian named Zbigniew Romaniuk, who functions as a source of village lore, a sign of a brighter future – he has created a memorial cemetery in Bransk – and a referee on questions of memory. Zbigniew is a Polish Christian and in no sense free of endemic prejudices. He explains, for example, that, from the Polish point of view, the building of a covered market in 1936 which excluded Jewish shops was only an effort by Poles to ‘claim their rightful share against a virtual Jewish monopoly’. Jews were accused, probably rightly, of hoarding, because ‘they always kept something back for a black hour.’ Despite such views, Hoffman usually accepts Zbigniew’s judgment when memory runs up against history. On the ‘wrenchingly contested matter’ of the relationship between the Home Army (the Polish resistance in World War Two) and the Jews, the bitterness of the Yizkor book’s condemnation of Polish attacks on Jews is countered by Zbigniew’s researched denials of all such allegations. Bransk, in short, is meant to show that, on the level of the microcosm, life – the marriage of Jews and Poles – was more ordinary than a history of national anti-semitic legislation might make us think.

Hoffman’s double focus reveals two worlds. In Warsaw, Jews could join Poles in the 1830 and 1863 January risings against Russian domination. (In 1830 they had either to serve in a lesser capacity or shave their beards and join the National Guard.) They could debate the precise level of assimilation that would be compatible with both citizenship and attachment to what they called the ‘Mosaic denomination’. They might delight in Poland’s great national poem – Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz – with its wholly sympathetic Jewish innkeeper as a paragon of ‘honesty, virtue and patriotism’, or worry about the paranoid fear of converted Jews in another major Romantic poet’s works. And later on they could go to university or study in a great yeshiva, gain a profession, learn French, found a Yiddish theatre, own a bank or factory, join a number of trade unions or a political party, Zionist or anti-Zionist. Poland became the cultural epicentre of world Jewry.

The world of Bransk, by contrast, was far more limited and its political situation more delicate. If there were any assimilationists, they kept a low profile. In 1862-63, as many Poles conspired against the Russians, most Jews, according to Hoffman, chose to link their fortunes to the Tsar, a fact that did not endear them to their neighbours. Gradually, the shtetl did open up to the world: people emigrated, national politics had its local resonance. But Hoffman’s main point is that, despite the impossible political situation of the Jewish majority in Bransk and places like it – forced to choose between Russia and an imagined Poland, neither of which welcomed them – life went on more or less peacefully. Communities retained their ‘customs and beliefs’, people ‘left each other alone’ but they also worked and joked and negotiated with each other. When things were not extreme – when the marriage was not under pressure – when ‘fanatical notions were not wilfully fanned’, a basic human instinct for toleration, ‘surely as basic as that of prejudice’, could and can still ‘find breathing room’.

But breathing room was increasingly rare and precious after the Great War. To be sure, political life flourished as Poland finally became a nation again. There were 15 Jewish political groups in the Bransk of the Twenties, ranging from the Communists to Zionists and socialists of various stripes; there were three Jewish trade unions. Jews sat in the Polish Sejm (parliament) and the Jewish press flourished. This short-lived ‘halcyon period’, as Hoffman calls it, was sustained for a few years after 1926 by the coup of General Pilsudski, but by the early Thirties was largely over. Hard times brought more aggressive anti-semitism and with the death of Pilsudski in 1935 the most rabid anti-semitic, nationalist party, the Endecja (National Democrats), supported by the Catholic Church, became increasingly popular.

And then came the war, which once again split Poles and Jews in Bransk. Many Jews regarded the Russians, who took over from the Germans under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin pact, as liberators; many Poles saw them as their old enemies back again. On 22 June 1941 the Germans returned in a barrage of artillery, about a hundred Jews fled with the Soviet Army, a man of openly anti-semitic views was appointed mayor and the Shoah began.

Hoffman’s account of the next four years dominates the book both literally and morally: ‘the shadow of the Holocaust is long,’ as she says. Today, the question of Polish anti-semitism is so charged, not out of some abstract historical interest but because the most notorious death camps were on Polish soil and because the greatest and culturally richest of the European Jewish communities was taken from the midst of Christian Poles to be murdered.

A foreign power – the Germans in this case – ‘gruesomely, grotesquely warped’ the social and political relations of Bransk: the ‘worst were given power and encouraged to do their worst’. Some did just that: the Polish policeman who ‘gratuitously’ shot and killed Jewish children, the neighbour of a nearby town who compelled his people to search the surrounding forests for Jews, the notorious Rycz brothers who delighted in persecuting the Jews whom they easily conflated with the Communists. Zbigniew estimates that Bransk ‘bandits’ betrayed 32 Jews to the Germans and thus were directly responsible for their deaths.

Some simply did as they were told – but no more – despite the fact that they manifestly resented the Jews and were probably not sad to see them go. One farmer whom Hoffman interviewed complained of how badly the Jews treated the Poles under Soviet occupation, how one Jewish acquaintance, puffed up by the modicum of power offered him by the Russians, returned a greeting by pointing to his backside: ‘sniff it.’ The same farmer tells without much emotion how he hauled away the murdered bodies of Jews in his cart and then went home through the river ‘because you can imagine the state the cart was in.’

Others, at great risk to their own lives, protected Jews. A Christian shoemaker prepared a shelter for a Jewish friend who, at the last minute, decided to return to the ghetto and death. Jack Rubin, born in Bransk in 1913, survived because of his wit and courage but also because a farmer – Kozlowski, ‘an angel’, a ‘gentleman’ – gave him refuge in a specially reconstructed part of his barn. Hoffman’s parents survived because a peasant hid them for nearly two years. (Two relatives died because a fellow Jew, thinking to help himself, betrayed them.)

All of this manifestly belies the claim that Hoffman finds so simplistic and ahistorical: ‘that ordinary Poles were naturally inclined by virtue of their congenital anti-semitism to participate in the Holocaust’. But weighing the evidence for or against a nation at the bar of history, even in the service of righting a simplistic, and prejudicial, earlier accounting, misses the point in two ways. First, it simply reappropriates the rhetoric of nationalist history and invites a rejoinder of the form: ‘But what about … ?’ Hoffman briefly mentions the anti-Jewish riots in the immediate wake of the war. She stops there. (She herself left Poland in 1958.) ‘But what about’ the expulsion in 1967-68 of all but a thousand or so of the more than 100,000 Jews or their progeny who survived the Holocaust in Poland? (The number of Jews remaining today in Poland, which may be as high as ten thousand, depends on how one counts those who were converted to Catholicism as children during the war or in other ways lost their Jewish identity and have now reclaimed it.) Yes, the reply might go, this is not a result of Polish anti-semitism but of the cunning way in which the Party could turn opposition away from itself onto a scapegoat. And so on. History works in the particular. Anti-semitism is not a crime of which the nation is to be found guilty or innocent depending on the existence, or not, of extenuating circumstances in one instance or another.

More important, the exploration of the complexity of Christian-Jewish interaction in Poland, the explanations and counter-explanations, will not help the dead to ‘rest in our full remembrance and in peace’. One can, in the words of the Polish literary critic Jan Blonski, ‘share the responsibility for a crime without having participated in it’. Blonski is responding explicitly to the Jewish émigré historian Raphael Sharf, who remarked at an Oxford conference in 1984 that ‘we Jews no longer expected anything from Poles but the admission that they have been, in some way, at fault.’ Preponderance of evidence, an accounting of good times and bad, is not the issue. One can, Blonski says in the same essay, ‘The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto’, go on endlessly about Polish anti-semitism, but it serves no useful purpose. ‘We must stop haggling,’ he insists. Yet the haggling goes on: the Holocaust happened only when the Germans invaded; eight Poles for every four Jews in Warsaw could not possibly have saved their threatened countrymen in like proportions; to hide a Jew was to risk one’s life and yet 30 per cent of the names of Righteous Gentiles in Yad Vashem are Polish. And so on, irrelevantly. ‘The desecration of Polish soil has taken place,’ Blonski insists, ‘and we have not yet discharged our duty of seeking expiation.’

Hoffman’s voice is not that of a haggler, but its very reasonableness masks the darkness of her subject. The claim that ‘phases of concord and comity’ were punctuated by economic, social or economic stresses which caused a majority Christian culture to turn on the largest minority in its midst would miss the point even if it were true. In any case, it does not fit the facts as she presents them. In the first place, there is the ground bass of Catholic anti-semitism that reinforces, as Hoffman describes, deep-seated peasant views of the Jew as ‘Other’ – as a sort of devil incarnate – and provides the stuff of more educated views as well. Anti-semitism, far from being an endemic part of the landscape, emerges in Hoffman’s account as an unfortunate, though historically explicable and in its way not unreasonable, response to exogenous factors. The Jews of Bransk thought they could get a better deal from the Russians and so, of course, they became the target of patriotic Christian Polish hatred; Jews were prominent in the market economy and so, when times were bad or structural economic change was rapid and painful, they, like the Chinese in Indonesia today, came under attack. The fact that people could act decently, or that ordinary life went on, or that Jewish culture flourished as nowhere else, are all taken to be evidence that anti-semitism was not pervasive or deeply imbricated in Christian Poland, but rather a periodic aberration, like fits of hard drinking or abuse in an otherwise hardworking and kindly paterfamilias.

But even on Hoffman’s account there is no question that Jewish life, of the more traditional as well as the more assimilationist sort, was shaped by both the spiritual and the legal structures of anti-semitism. This does not mean that Poles were more or less anti-semitic than other people, any more than the absence of explicit Jim Crow laws or of lynching in the American North means that Northerners were less racist than their Southern white brethren. It simply means that Polish Zionism was the product of an educated élite of Jews who could not make their way because of restrictions on Jewish access to Polish middle-class society, that Communist internationalist trade unions had to adjust their political strategies because of the demands of both traditional Jews and anti-semitic fellow workers.

The rich culture elaborated by the world’s largest Jewish community does not bear witness to ‘idyllic moments’ in the history of the marriage of Poles and Jews. This would be like arguing that jazz or the Baptist religious tradition or black colleges or the ‘talented tenth’ were evidence of periodic ‘concord and comity’ between the races in the American South. In Poland, as in the United States, a minority culture developed precisely because of the forms which anti-semitism and racism, respectively, took in the dominant world of the majority.

Finally, anti-semitism is not like a limp that affects every step. Even the most rabid anti-semites have moments of weakness of the kind that Himmler warned his commanders against in the course of the Final Solution. Moments of decency that punctuate a continuum of distrust are a wonderful thing, but one cannot count on them to sustain social life.

I was told the following story by a colleague. He was eight years old in 1943, living in the ghetto of Lvov. His parents spoke to him only in Polish because they did not want him to grow up with a Yiddish accent and because each in their own way – his mother as a Communist, his father as a Zionist – renounced the language of the shtetl in a bid for the wider world. On a Tuesday in June his mother got word that a nearby ghetto had been liquidated and that theirs was next, probably on Saturday, as the Nazis tended to favour the Sabbath for such occasions. After several abortive attempts, they escaped to the barn of a peasant whom my colleague knew because she had previously sold him food. Her holdings were within sight of the Jewish cemetery. Early on Saturday the murders began; he counted the shots, he tells me, but gave up somewhere around a thousand. He remembers seeing through the slats of the loft the unburied bodies as they lay on the hillside that sloped down from the old burial site to the farmstead.

On Sunday morning the peasant woman returned from Mass and, obviously upset, told the fugitives that they would have to leave. The priest had said in church that morning that the Jews had only got what they deserved; that it was God’s judgment on these wretched killers of Christ; and that it would be sinful to question that judgment by protecting any Jews who might have escaped. My colleague and his mother were told to leave immediately. They spent almost four weeks in the woods. Finally, in despair, she told her son that she could go on no more, that they should return to the peasant’s house, and if she turned them in, as they fully expected she would, then so be it. They would die.

In fact, mother and son were greeted with almost boundless joy. Jesus, it seems, had appeared to this Polish peasant regularly since she had sent the Jews away and told her that she had done wrong. Perhaps if she showed them kindness they would eventually convert, but even if not, she should protect the helpless, whatever the risks. After liberation my colleague escaped West; he eventually learned Yiddish in a DP camp en route to Canada. The peasant woman apparently also fled West – how far I do not know – because she feared some sort of retribution from her neighbours. Such stories elude judgment but they do show that decency and even bravery in the instant do not belie deep-seated prejudice.

Hoffman shares the view, prevalent among assimilated German and French Jews of the 19th and 20th centuries, that anti-semitism was not some dark, systemic, always dangerous and perhaps intrinsic part of the Christian world but a medieval atavism, a sort of primeval fog over the human spirit that enlightenment would burn away. ‘An effective underpinning of shared structures and experiences’, lacking in Poland, would make multicultural society possible. The Dreyfus Affair and events in Germany like the 1927 vote by Prussian university students to exclude Jews from their association even at the cost of the loss of a state subsidy convinced many that this would not be the case. It is hard to imagine a community of Jews who shared more values and experiences with their gentile neighbours than did those of France or Germany. But a common love of Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven, of Descartes, universal reason and an allegiance to the Republic did not end up mattering as much as the Jews had hoped.

‘Anti-semitism,’ Hoffman explains in Lost in Translation, ‘comes under the heading of barbarian stupidity, and that made me feel immediately superior to it.’ She tells the story of Orlovska, the mother of her Cracow school chum, Krysia. Orlovska was not a ‘barbarian’; she was an educated woman, married to a doctor. One day, in a moment of intimacy, she asked Eva’s mother whether ‘really, really, it was true that Jews mixed in some Christian blood for Passover’. After initial anger and disbelief, things settled back into normality. There are other sides to Pani Orlovska, ‘as there are to all the people who have drunk anti-semitism with their mother’s milk’; friendship, even intimacy continued. Eva held her head high. ‘That’s what it means to be a Jew – a defiance of those dark and barbaric feelings.’ But the feelings, sadly, are far more persistent than we might have liked, and culture is not enough to protect us from their worst consequences.

Perhaps, had the Holocaust not happened, ‘given time and change, Poles and Jews of the small towns might have found a new accommodation.’ ‘Perhaps ‘the increasing interpenetration of their cultures … might have resulted in something unique and rich.’ The evidence of this book does not offer much support for such an alternative. But the world would be safer for the time being if we relied less on culture and more on constitutions. We do not need to love or understand someone to treat them decently: we need simply to adhere to laws which demand that we do so.

The past, for Jacobson, is simply irredeemable – lost for ever and beyond reach. I share with Hoffman the sense that it lives on; that culture and its history matter in the present. ‘A sense of a shared world’ is much to be wished for; it is manifestly not enough.