Saturday, February 5, 2011

Jews' Importance to Poland


 Casimir the Great and Esterka by Wladyslaw Luscczkiewicz


A previous post introduces this series of quotes. Another previous post attests to the Importance of Poland to Jews. Subsequent posts attest to Love as a Factor in Polish-Jewish relations, and Jews' Defense of Poland


Jews, Judaism, and Polish-Jewish relations are and have been central to Poles and Poland. Jews were there at Poland's genesis, and recorded it. The first known written record of Poland is by Abraham ben Jacob. The vivid and unique portrait of Early Poland is seen, not through the eyes of indigenous Poles, but through the eyes of a literate, sophisticated Jewish traveler. He described a fertile land inhabited by a violent, anarchic, lusty but loyal people making their way in a demanding landscape.

"In general, the Slavs are violent, and inclined to aggression. If not for the disharmony amongst them, caused by the multiplication of factions and by their fragmentation into clans, no people could match their strength...Their women, when married, do not commit adultery. But a girl, when she falls in love with some man or other, will go to him and quench her lust. If a husband marries a girl and finds her to be a virgin, he says to her, 'If there were something good in you, men would have desired you, and you would certainly have found someone to take your virginity.' Then he sends her back, and frees himself from her. The lands of the Slavs are the coldest of all. When the nights are moonlit and the days clear, the most severe frosts occur ... The wells and ponds are covered with a hard shell of ice, as if made of stone. When people breathe, icicles form on their beards, as if made of glass" (Davies I 3)

In his function, recording a people who had not yet recorded themselves in an idiom that had penetrated the outside world, and in his perceptions of the people so described, Abraham ben Jacob can be compared to Jewish writers on Poland who lived a thousand years later, for example, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Legend as well as history places a Jew in a key role in Poland's genesis. In 842, according to one retelling, a Jewish man, Abraham Prochownik, was invited to become the next king of an embryonic Poland. If he turned this invitation down, it was implied, he would be put to death. Prochownik regarded this invitation with hesitance, and made a speech arguing for the coronation of Piast, peasant and wheelwright. Prochwnik's oratory was so persuasive that Piast, indeed, became king, establishing a dynasty (Adler 26).

Again, in this legend, themes appear that had resonance in later Jewish literature on the Jewish experience in Poland. It may be that this legend was developed out of these resonant themes. Poles, it is understood in much Jewish literature, see Jews as superior in many ways, but may threaten Jews with their own superior might. Poles require Jewish wisdom to govern themselves. Jews are most safe when they exercise their superior powers from behind the throne, and do not take on overt trappings of power. Poles have the superior might; Jews, the superior verbal and reasoning skills.

The centrality of Jews and Judaism to Poles and Poland can often be summed up as the importance of an urban, literate, mobile and mercantile population to its rural or sylvan, oral, rooted, and in many ways culturally isolated counterpart. Poland's pre-World-War-II urban populations including large percentages of Jews; the professions were disproportionately Jewish. Until recently, the majority of Catholic Poles were agricultural, non-mercantile, and many, oral, as opposed to literate. "It is impossible to study the history of the Polish town without taking into consideration their Jewish population," attested Polish scholar Maria Bogucka. Prolific Polish author Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812-1887) stated the importance of Jews to Polish urban life more poetically. "And do you know what makes every town Polish? The Jews. When there are no more Jews, we enter an alien country and feel, accustomed as we are to their good sense and services, as if something were not quite right" (Hoffman Shtetl 132).

Jews played a central role in the development of Polish economy (Rosman). "Jews, acting as merchants, traders, arendators of propination, or agents of the szlachta, were almost the only intermediaries between the peasants and the market, and it was through them that the Polish village slowly emerged from its isolation" (Goldberg "Poles and Jews" 262).

Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki provided a picture of rural Poles' isolation, and the role that language played in it.

"Imagine a wooded area where human settlements are scattered over several miles, where the nearest train station is forty miles away, where communication is so difficult, where everywhere around is a forest, where mail is always late, where you have no bookstores, theaters, gramophones, then forms of entertainment are restricted. People visit one another during holidays, come for Christmas or a wedding or a name day, and it lasts for a week. Then, what is the most enjoyable way to cheat time, apart from music? A talent to tell stories." (Sobieska)

Jews, who often traveled and had ties to the outside world, played an important role as storehouses and purveyors of Polish cultural products, both material products, like books, and intangible products, like performed music. This role of Polish Jews is epitomized by the Jewish character Jankiel in Adam Mickiewicz's national epic, Pan Tadeusz. "Every Polish child learns about Jankiel," according to Jewish-Polish cultural leader Stanislaw Krajewski (75). Through Jankiel, Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's most revered poet, declared that "Israel constitutes an integral part of the Polish community" (Hertz 29). Jankiel was credited with being the first to bring to his region the tune that would later become Poland's national anthem (Hertz 30). Hertz cited other important Jewish characters in Polish literature. He noted author Wladyslaw Syrokomla's fictional character of a Wilno bookseller.

Jankiel from Pan Tadeusz source

"Syrokomla's bookseller ... is a Jew who brings Polish books to people in thatched cottages and saves important remnants of the past from oblivion ... Polish-Jewish historian Shatzky would write a beautiful piece on the role and activities of those small dealers in old books who made such a great contribution in disseminating Polish values and cultural traditions" (Hertz 30).

The role of a Jewish book merchant as one who knows Poles and Poland was vividly captured by Polish poet Maria Konopnicka in her portrayal of Mendel, a Jewish bookbinder (1842-1910).

"Mendel knows the little secrets of this world by heart. He knows when the cough of the old archivist who brings him thick, dust-laden folios of musty papers for binding is worse or better; he knows the smell of the pomade of the little ward for whom he sews together the records of his benefactor; he knows when Joasia comes from the wife of the counselor with the request that he 'set nicely behind glass' a congratulatory scroll on which a gilded angel uncovers himself and reveals a young man with a bouquet of roses in his hand; he knows when the student living in the attic goes without supper; and he knows from which side will run up the breathless schoolgirl asking him to bind 'in blue and with gold strings' some romantic poetry transcribed on letter paper" (Segel 222).

Not only Jewish dealers in books disseminated Polish culture; other Jewish merchants also played a role. Not only high culture was disseminated by Jews; folk culture was, as well. Hertz cites a certain style of Hucul apron that was introduced and distributed by Jewish merchants (231). Polish wycinanka, paper cut outs, are its most recognized folk art. Jewish merchants played a role in their distribution and acceptance (Hertz 232). Hertz saw Jewish influence as well in Polish folk carving and jewelry.

Not only dealers in cultural products functioned as culture bearers. Jews who worked in other capacities were also expected to be sources of information for rooted and isolated Poles, reported Hertz.

"Polish society to an increasing degree became transformed into a number of local groups that were very isolated from each other. The nobleman was not inclined to travel distances. He was a homebody and proud of it. His interests were concentrated on his farm ... The printed word seldom reached him; a prayer book, an almanac, and a dream book were sufficient

"In his Wspomnienia z Polesia, Wolynia, i Litwy (Memoirs of Polesie, Volhynia, and Lithuania) Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski writes that, in the years of his youth, a landowner who was hiring a Jew as a tavern keeper would mention that, along with various other duties, the Jew was to inform him of any news of the world that he might hear. A variety of sources belonging to the world of the nobility and its mores confirms Kraszewski's statement. In the nobles' tradition the Jew was seen as particularly well informed, an unerring source of quickly spreading information. In Poland there was an expression, "the Jewish mail." And as Sienkiewicz's Pan Zagloba said, when a Jew sneezes by the Warta River, the zydeks in Lithuania answer "God bless you" a minute later ... In his story "Karabela z Meschedu" (The Scimitar from Mesched), Ksawery Pruszynski describes how his hero, a Jewish antiquary, keeps up relations with his fellow Jews throughout the world" (223).

After Jankiel, the most famous Jewish character in Polish literature may be Rachela. Stanislaw Wyspianski's 1901 play "The Wedding" is a centerpiece of the Polish literary canon. One of its central characters, Rachela, is a Jewish girl who, as Hertz puts it, "unleashes the mystery. It is she who introduces the element of poetic vision that leads to the liberation of that 'which is a dream in everyone's soul'" (208). Like Jankiel, Rachela is a frequently invoked figure, according to Czeslaw Milosz. She has become "proverbial." "With her crimson shawl, her dark beauty, her somewhat ethereal refinement, she has been evoked, since then, by many poets of the twentieth century" (Milosz 357).

Karol Frycz "Rachel" in Wyspianski's "The Wedding" 

In one typically Polish worldview, without Jews, reported Czeslaw Milosz, Polish Nobel laureate, life would be impossible.

"From the old Respublica [i.e., the Commonwealth], with its rural and patriarchal customs, there had remained the idea of 'our Jews' without whom life was unimaginable, who comprised an integral part of the human landscape, and whom it would never have entered anyone's head to disturb in the exercise of their age old commercial functions or the ordering of their internal affairs" (Segel 321).

This worldview is summed up in the proverb, "Kazdy Polak ma swoj Zyd," "Every Pole has his Jew."

Indeed, at least one Pole, far from home, in harsh exile, saw home, Poland, in the face of a fellow exile, a Jew. Adam Szymanski, (1852-1916) was a Polish author who had been exiled to Siberia for his political activity. He wrote of a Jewish visitor to his hut.

"I looked up ... a typical Polish Jew from a small town stood before me ... I knew him at once ... I gazed into the well known features with a certain degree of pleasure; the Jew's appearance at that moment seemed quite natural, since it carried me in thought and feeling to my native land, and the few Polish words [spoken by the Jewish visitor] sounded dear to my ear" (Segel 193).

A thousand years of such vitally intertwining lives was certainly ample to situate Jews and Judaism in the center of Polish lives, culture, and consciousness. An event of incalculable magnitude, the strike of an historic meteor at Poland's heart, drove that centrality home forever. The Holocaust, to a great extent, took place on Polish soil. Almost three million of its roughly six million victims were Polish Jews.

Jan Karski (1914-2000) was a Polish underground fighter during World War II. He barely missed his own death, once, at the hands of the Soviets, who murdered his fellow Polish officers in a genocidal action at Katyn, and again, while being held as a prisoner of the Nazis. The latter tortured him so badly he attempted suicide. After the Polish underground rescued him, Karski volunteered to be smuggled into a concentration camp and the Warsaw Ghetto in order that he might bring an eyewitness account of the Holocaust to the West.

His journey West was fraught with danger. The scars on his wrist, from his suicide attempt, marked him. He knocked out his own teeth so that, his mouth swollen shut, no one would expect him to be able to speak German. "One of the Jews who had prompted Mr. Karski to enter the Ghetto, and who escorted him, was Leon Feiner, a lawyer. Mr. Karski recalled that Mr. Feiner kept murmuring, 'Remember this, remember this'" (Kaufman). That command: "Remember this," echoes throughout Poland to this day.

"The most terrible genocide in human history, the massacre of several million Jews in Poland, which was chosen by Hitler as the place of execution, the blood and ashes of those victims which have permeated Polish soil, constitute an essential bond which has fused Poland and the Jewish people, and from which it is not in our power to free ourselves" (Czapska 53).

Not only scholars and elite authors are engaged in this necessary and necessarily never complete or prefect work of struggling with the Holocaust. At least since the nineteen seventies, some average, everyday Poles have been studying Yiddish. When asked why, they often replied that Poland without Yiddish was incomplete.

Isolated and independent Polish folk artists, like wood carver Waclaw Czerwinski, (b. 1911), created Jewish-themed works, long before doing so would be profitable, trendy, or even noticed by anyone outside of Poland. Asked why he created such works as "The Farewell Embrace," depicting "the last steps in the life of these Jewish people into the gas chambers from Auschwitz to Chelmno," Czerwinski replied, "So that the persecuted should not remain mute" (Schauss 128-130).

Wood carver Jan Reczkowski (1909-?) created Jewish figures to commemorate the Jewish presence in Poland. "I can still visualize many of these people who lived in our midst before the war. Then they were exterminated and that is why I decided to take up this subject" (Schauss 80).

Tadeusz Konwicki was a resistance fighter during World War II. About the genocide of Poland's Jews, he wrote,

"A planet died. A globe incinerated by a cosmic disaster. A black hole. Anti-matter. Oh, God, how did it happen? ... during the brief night of the occupation, something was amputated. Some part of the landscape, the flora, the fauna, the architecture, the sound track was forever severed and borne away into the icy darkness of the universe which is our heaven and our hell" (Segel Stranger vi).

One Polish poet's response:

I Did Not Manage to Save

Jerzy Ficowski

Translated by Keith Bosley and Krystyna Wandycz

I did not manage to save

a single life

I did not know how to stop

a single bullet

And I wander round cemeteries

which are not there

I look for words

which are not there

I run

to help where no one called

to rescue after the event

I want to be on time

Even if I am too late

A vital part of Poland was torn away. Poles struggling with the Holocaust are struggling, in part, to deal with this amputation of a part of the self. Harold Segel sees the process thus: "the Poles are attempting to recover a now extinct dimension of their own past ... the importance of literary culture in Poland and the immense presence of the Jew in that culture enhances the value of such an endeavor" (Segel xii).

Jerzy Kosinski experienced this searching firsthand. Returning to Poland after many years away, he reported being eagerly received by young people in Poland born, not only after the Holocaust, but also after the 1968 Communist persecutions that drove many of Poland's post-Holocaust Jews away. "With so much Jewish cultural legacy steaming from the spiritually fertile Polish soil, to these young men and women the Polish-Jewish relations are a mystery – mystery, not stigmata. They are as prompted to know me better as I am eager to know them."

This process was a mutually fruitful exchange, Kosinski reported. He reported that he was so "rejuvenated by what I found within myself during my twelve days in Poland [that] I started a new romance with my thousand year old Polish-Jewish soul" (Kosinski "Restoring"). Andrzej Bryk , Jagiellonian University Lecturer in law and history, and scholar of Polish-Jewish relations, wrote:

"It is said that there are still Moroccan Jews who have kept the keys to their ancestral homes in fifteenth century Spain and Portugal. Perhaps there are still Polish Jews, or those who have inherited their legacy, who keep their keys to Polish culture, not only the keys to the Jewish cemeteries of their murdered brothers and sisters. If this is possible, then we must ask what part of that culture, what part of the Polish heritage, can be part of their heritage, too" (Polonsky Brother 177).

Indeed, the facts of the Jewish - Polish ethnic interface support the poetic pronouncement of Polish-Jewish author Aaron Zeitlin (1899-1974) in his play based on the legend, and perhaps history, of Polish king Kazimierz the Great and his Jewish companion Esterka, his mistress and the mother of his children. Here Kazimierz voices to Esterka the ineluctable bonds between Poles and Jews, bonds that transcend even death. "We shall die. But so long as your race and mine inhabit this earth, it is not ended, Esterke of Opoczno" (Shmeruk 101).

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