Survivors

Jonathan Steinberg

On 20 July 1943 the Polish artist Jonasz Stern was executed along with hundreds of other Jews of the Lwow ghetto by SS machine-gun fire. He awoke from a faint to find himself alive, buried under the corpses of the entire neighbourhood, covered in other people’s blood and excrement, the only survivor on Janowski Street. Two of the books reviewed here are about survivors, people who turned right instead of left, ran instead of lingering or lingered instead of running, those who met kindly Polish peasants or had ‘good faces’ – did not look Jewish, that is to say – individuals who survived, crazily, randomly, inexplicably, when everybody else, not just their families but neighbours, associates at work, team-mates, local shopkeepers, their whole world, was murdered.

How do they cope with their lives? What can they tell their children? The answer, according to the interviews carried out by Peter Sichrovsky, would appear to be nothing. Again and again, the respondents in Strangers in their Own Land describe the impossibility of talking to their parents; in some cases they know nothing at all of their parents’ lives before 1945. These are the holocaust children, born after 1945, the second generation of survivors, living in Germany and Austria. On the surface, they lead normal lives. One, Israeli-born, had even become a German policeman. Yet they are not normal. As a German friend observed, you think you know somebody very well until one day you go swimming with him and find his body covered in scars.

Holocaust children all over the world bear these scars, the stigmata passed on by their parents, by the burden of being the hope of the race, by the nightmares and anxieties transmitted from parent to child. But Sichrovsky and his interviewees chose to live among people who actually carried out the murders. Why? The answers vary from respondent to respondent. There are those who love the German language or who hope to find their roots. Others say they could not settle in Israel or the United States. A highly successful criminal lawyer hates Germans but loves defending the victims of German society. Recently he defended two hooligans who had robbed and strangled an old man. He prepared their defence with particular zeal when he learned that the old man had been in the SS. Aryeh, a gay Jewish artist, cannot imagine why he lives in Germany except that his parents insisted on returning and stranded him there.

Malgorzata Niezabitowska and Tomasz Tomaszewski belong to Sichrovsky’s generation, but they are Poles, not Jews, she a former journalist on Kultura and Solidarity Weekly and he a photographer. For reasons they never make clear, they devoted their spare time, and what little money they could scrape together, to finding out what remained of Poland’s Jews. They had a hard time. Of what once amounted to a community of more than three and a half million people, the remnants barely number five thousand. Niezabitowska and Tomaszewski had to travel hundreds of kilometres around Lublin to find a minyan (the ten adult males needed for communal prayer), and among them were two old Communists who believe nothing but go to help keep the numbers up. They talked to old people, all of them survivors, to Zofia Grzesiak, who had ‘a good face’ and a non-Jewish husband, and has written 17,000 pages of unpublished novels and stories as if writing could breathe life into the dead, to Henryk Laden, his chest covered with every medal given for valour between 1939 and 1945, who says sadly: ‘But you know, it’s all worth as much as a sucked egg.’

They met hostility, suspicion, tears, despair, and in some cases genuine affection. They record the agonies of dying communities where nobody knows how to say prayers properly, where the last rabbi left in 1970, where many of the people interviewed are literally the last Jews in sizeable Polish towns in which before the war Jews numbered in the tens of thousands. They looked at the hundreds of Jewish cemeteries falling into ruins, those not used by the Germans for target practice or paving stones, at famous Jewish neighbourhoods, like Kasimierz in Krakow, now ghost towns, and everywhere he took photos and she recorded interviews. Surprisingly, there are some second-generation survivors still in Poland, mostly children of high party functionaries and without religious preparation. Some of these people, shocked by the official anti-semitism which accompanied the repression of 1968, found their way back to their Jewishness. One of the most interesting chapters records in word and picture how Staszek Krajewski and Kostek Gebert now lead a tiny but traditional community of young Polish Jews.

The last chapter, set just before a picture of Pope John Paul II praying at the Heroes of the Ghetto Monument in Warsaw, carries an interview with Szymon Datner PhD, vice-president of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland and the author of 15 books on German crimes in Poland and the fate of the Jews. He calls Niezabitowska ‘my daughter’, and over the historic divide between Jew and Pole, over the chasm of two generations, the Jew born before the First World War and the Pole born after the Second, talk together about all the hard subjects. Why was there such anti-semitism in Poland before 1939? Did the Poles contribute to the slaughter of the Jews? Why were there pogroms and persecutions after 1945? How many died in those years? Why had the 200,000 survivors dwindled to the few thousand?

In September 1984, an international conference on Polish-Jewish Studies, held in Oxford, tried to answer these questions. The papers presented on that occasion have been republished in The Jews in Poland. In spite of the differences between an academic conference and a conversation between an old Jew and a young Pole, the two books give very similar answers. Poland became ‘a paradise for the Jews’ at a time when, in Western Europe, reviving trade, growing towns and the stirrings of more centralised government made the presence of substantial communities of unassimilated Jews a source of suspicion, exploitation and religious frenzy. Reformed monasticism, the new preaching orders, the Black Death, all ended in attacks on the Jews. Huge numbers of Jews left their homes in the German lands, in France and England. They moved eastwards because the modern state had begun to emerge in the West while in the East the Polish state was disintegrating.

Poland turned into a gentry republic where the nobility tossed the crown from faction to faction and allowed Jews to manage their estates, run their taverns and conduct trade among their peasants. Jews depended on their noble protectors and came to be hated by the peasant masses as symbols of exploitation. The Church taught the peasants that the Jews had killed Christ and anyway needed Christian blood for their unleavened bread at Passover. When Poland literally disappeared after the Partitions, sliced up by Prussia, Russia and Austria, many Jews joined with the Poles in their struggle for nationhood, but they never gained full acceptance. To be a Pole was, it turned out, to be a Catholic.

Nationalism in Eastern Europe was a catastrophe for the Jewish masses. What were Jews: a religion, a nation, a race? What was their proper language; Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish? Who were their allies: Poles or Ukrainians? Nationalists or Socialists? After 1917, as we know, many Jews took leading roles in the Bolshevik Revolution and other radical movements. Trotsky, Parvus, Rosa Luxemburg, Kurt Eisner, Bela Kun came to stand for the ‘Jew Commie’ and, as Dr Datner explains to Niezabitowska, thereby proved to their Polish neighbours that they were ‘aliens’ after all. But one could hardly blame Jews for being attracted to a movement which solved ‘the Jewish Question’ by simply denying its existence and promising absolute equality to all in the new atheistic paradise. In the witch’s cauldron of ethnic conflict, rapid social change, war, revolution, economic depression, shifting borders and great power conflict, Jews faced mounting friction at every point of contact with the world around them. Did the Poles co-operate in the extermination of the Jews? Dr Datner has to admit that they did: but they also saved Jews. No survivor survived without help, often the help of dozens of people. Denunciation took only a moment, but help involved terrible risks over months and years for the helpers and their families. As Datner points out, Poles make up the largest category of those ‘righteous persons’ remembered at the Yad Vashem monument in Jerusalem.

The Oxford conference brought together distinguished contributors from all over Europe, but mainly it confronted Jews and Poles with painful chapters in their common history. The papers cover, rather unevenly, Polish-Jewish history from the earliest Jewish settlement in Poland to the position of Jews in the politics of post-war Poland. There are moving contributions from Wladislaw Bartoszewski and Teresa Prekerowa who lived through the events they describe, and there is a powerful polemical piece by Yisrael Gutman on the historiography of Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War.

The editors provide useful maps and an index but they make few, if any, concessions to the inexpert reader. A good working knowledge of the broad outlines of Polish history is highly desirable. But the sheer scale of pre-war Polish Jewry will be evident to any reader of these books. The Jews of Poland, of whom there were three and a half million, represented the second largest Jewish community in the world; only the United States had more Jews. The Polish Jews were necessarily more ‘Jewish’, less easily assimilated or willing to assimilate than their American cousins. The Polish Jewish community, says Szymon Datner, ‘was present, very visible’. In large cities Jews made up between 30 and 50 per cent of the population. In smaller towns, particularly in Eastern Poland, they sometimes numbered 80 to 90 per cent of the inhabitants. There were 30 Jewish newspapers, and over a hundred magazines. There were dozens of political parties, hundreds of schools, theatres, museums, cultural centres and synagogues of every sort of observance. There were Jews in both houses of parliament and in the trade-union movement. Polish Jewry was almost a state within a state.

Of all that there is now literally nothing but the remnants. One of the survivors makes his expiation by teaching Yiddish to small groups of young non-Jewish Poles in Krakow, who, like Niezabitowska and Tomaszewski, now regard the Yiddish heritage as part of their Polish one. They had better hurry, for by the time they speak Yiddish fluently there will be no Jews left in Poland to talk to. ‘We are making our exit,’ they said to Niezabitowska. ‘We will be gone in a minute.’