Friday, December 18, 2015

A Jewish Boy At Auschwitz. Random Memories Of An Accidental Visitor by Andrew Schonberger

A Jewish Boy At Auschwitz - Random Memories Of An Accidental Visitor.

"Hey, let's visit Auschwitz tomorrow," said one of the group leaders. We were standing in the Krakow train station, having just come back from the Wielicka salt mines. Trying to figure out what to do next day, we examined the placards showing trains running in all directions, and one of us noticed a familiar name. Auschwitz looked like an interesting destination, so everyone agreed.

We were on a student exchange of sorts, in the summer of 1973. Our group was made of 24 Romanian students. Our peer group was made of 24 Polish students, from an engineering faculty similar to ours. It worked like this: the Polish students came to Romania for a fortnight, on vacation. We arranged accommodation for them in student dorms which were unused in summer. The warm sands of the Black Sea did not disappoint.

Then, all 48 of us travelled together to Poland. But of course, we took a detour. I was the only Hungarian-speaker among them, but somehow managed to get accommodation in Budapest, for 48 students for 4 nights, overlooking the Danube. We've been less lucky in Prague, where we ended up sleeping in a railway carriage at the main station. There was relative freedom in our arrangements, as much as communism allowed for it. In Poland, we were traveling freely, needing only occasional help from our hosts. They arranged the accommodation and food, and it was up to us what to do.

Next day, as agreed, we took the westward train from Krakow and arrived at Auschwitz station. Without speaking the language, we found our way towards the museum. We passed a row of 20 different flags, arranged in an impressive arc. We all found the familiar flags: Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, German, etc. I was just standing there, looking, and looking. My close friend asked:

What are you looking at, Andrei ?

Oh, nothing, I am just looking for the Israeli flag.

I was 22 at the time, and I grew up with low expectations about acceptability and legitimacy. Other nations would hold their heads up high. I was to stay silent. But a second colleague picked up my thought, and asked the guide:

How come there is no Israeli flag ?

There were no Israeli citizens among the victims here.

The answer was logically correct. Aimed at our engineering heads, no one could object. We looked at each other, then we moved on. We passed through the rooms filled with shoes, or hair. There were lists of names. I could not find my grandmother, Sarah Weiss, but I did not expect the list to have the names of all 3 million people who perished at Auschwitz.

Out in the open again, the tourist trail led us to a shrine or something like that. I'm not sure what it actually was. There was a queue outside, perhaps 40 people, so we joined in waiting, without further questions. Soon, we noticed two men, in black robes, walking along both sides of the queue. They were taking the names of everyone in the queue, and putting together some kind of a list. We were watching what was going on ahead of us.

The priests, as they turned out to be, asked every visitor about his or hers religion. Communication wasn't perfect, because the foreigners didn't speak Polish. Everyone had approximate knowledge of other languages: German, French, English, Russian. No problem, tourists and their guides quickly become experts in using body language to talk. The priests put on a severe, motionless face, when they heard from a group of German tourists that they were of Lutheran faith.

Then, they got closer to us. First, they asked a lanky Romanian colleague about his religion. The question itself was a bit unusual for us. It was communism. We were studying computers and automation. At age 22, few of us cared about religion, but we had awareness of ancestry. So, my colleague answered he was Greco-Catholic. The priests indicated this is half right. Not the best, but passable - was the verdict on their face. Next in line were Orthodox Romanians. The priests looked irritated and they did not make any effort to hide it. Quite the opposite, their faces spoke of strong negativity. Soon their expression softened somewhat, when they found out we were not Russians.

The process was getting closer, and there was no escape. Everyone had to be on the list. A few more facial expressions followed, as my Transylvanian colleagues said they were either Unitarian or Calvinist. Finally, it was my turn. It was a difficult moment for me. Under the pressure of the moment, I said in German:

vielleicht ein Rabbiner (perhaps a rabbi)

The priests took a sudden step backwards, as if bitten by a snake. The one on the right, more senior, had red eyes and bulging veins on his forehead. They were both in genuine distress, gasping for air.

"No, no" - they said, in various languages. "No way"

Their arms were moving, their bodies were shaking, while they were repeating: "No, no, nein". They used all available languages to pass on the meaning to us, and we used all our comprehension to pick it up. The process took some time, and a circle of Romanians formed around the two revolted priests.

This was the moment when my Romanian colleagues exploded. I know how they felt, and we talked about it, both before, and after this incident. Romania is the Balkans. It's natural and beautiful, but undeveloped. My colleagues were going through a humiliating experience, as country after country seemed more developed, more clean, more civilised than their homeland. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland - they all seemed superior, out of the home league. And then, unexpectedly, they found the chink in the armour of Europe. There was no rabbi at Auschwitz.

Suddenly, the oh-so-developed world looked less bright. The graceful bridges over the Danube may enchant at Budapest. The Old City of Prague may speak of Middle Age glory. At the Krakow Castle, gold may flow like river. But look, there is no rabbi at Auschwitz.

The language skills were insufficient to express fine nuances, but body language was unmistakable. Spit to the ground. The eyes of the priests turned more red, their anger was palpable. There was no physical contact. Quite the opposite, everyone took a step backward, to make space for big theatrical gestures expressing contempt and displeasure.

I started to feel uncomfortable, right there in the middle. So, I quietly moved away. This was not my fight, but in a way it felt good to have some solidarity on my side. After a few minutes, we left the scene, without ever finding out what the shrine was about.

I'm not reading too much into this story. It's just an episode. It's important to remember, that I wasn't part of any Jewish organisation at the time. There was no Jewish capital pressing the case. No bankers, no governments. Just a Jewish boy at Auschwitz.

By Andrew Schonberger

Response by D Goska

I "met" Andrew through Facebook. I love his posts. He is very smart and full of interesting stories, well told. I love his reflections on life in Mittleeuropa. My dad was Polish, my mother Slovak, with cultural ties to Hungary. She had also worked for Jews and was friends with many Jews. She dropped Yiddish phrases and cooked Jewish dishes. My grandmother's second husband was Lithuanian. I'm not one of those "All Poland all the time" Polonians. I appreciate the music, embroidery, food, and history of many Central Europeans.

Andrew reflects that big embrace.

I invited Andrew to contribute to this blog.

"What?" he asked.

"Anything" I responded. Andrew writes so well and he has so much to say.

When I read this contribution, I was troubled. The simple truth is I am doubtful about Andrew's depiction of the priests. I've met a fair number of Polish priests, and I've never had an encounter like the one described here. I have not met Polish priests who go through a werewolf-like transformation when they encounter Jews.

No, I'm not Jewish, but I am often assumed to be Jewish, including by Poles, and including by one Polish priest. He was nice to me. No werewolf transformation. No red eyes, no bulging veins, no gasping for air.

When I read Andrew's story, above, I remembered something that happened in Poland in 1998 when I was there for the "Ashkenaz, Theory and Nation" conference.

I was with about five Jewish scholars. We had gone out to dinner in Kazimierz. Mind: these were scholars. Tenured. At prestigious universities. Opinion makers.

A great deal of the conversation centered around Jewish victimization at the hands of non-Jews. No argument – there is plenty of fodder for such a conversation. Yes, there were pogroms in Poland after WW II. Yes, many Polish non-Jews did many bad things.

It's interesting, though, that we really didn't talk about much of anything else. Anyone "just arriving from Mars" and overhearing our conversation would certainly have enough data to conclude that Jews are nothing but victims, and Polish and other non-Jews are never anything but victimizers.

Later, we walked around Kazimierz, and back toward Krakow's stare miasto, or old town.

We were standing against a wall of one of the ancient buildings and some Poles passed. One of scholars said, "There. Did you hear that? Those young thugs just cursed us out and said horrible, anti-Semitic things about us."

I stared at her. "What?"

She insisted. The young men who had just passed us, who had looked like garden variety young men to me, to her, were thugs. Their words, which I had heard as nothing of any import, were certainly anti-Semitic threats.

I had heard no such thing. Nothing. Nothing that even sounded like the word "Jew" in Polish.

There were no cameras. There were no audio recording devices. Almost twenty years have passed. Those young men are middle-aged now. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

I love Andrew's writing and am honored to include on this blog anything Andrew cares to contribute, now and in the future.

Yes, the Nazis' anti-Semitism was certainly disguised by the Soviets who dominated Poland after WW II. And as soon as Poles ousted the Soviets in 1989, they began correcting their history, including at Auschwitz. The Nazis' focus on the Jews was brought forward, as it should be.

But these priests? I doubt them. Andrew is certain of them.

"People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten."

Milan Kundera The Book of Laughter and Forgetting 1979


Here is Andrew's response to my response:

Searching through memory, further details come back. There was to be a series of religious services in that shrine, in memory of the relatives of visitors. The priests were organising the services, so they had to know what kind of prayers each visitor whished for. This gives a practical context to the events.

Also, there is no proof the people running the list were priests. If you are a non-religious person, living in non-religious times, and you see two men in long black robes with large crosses on their chest - well, you assume they would be priests. At any rate, they were probably not too not high in the hierarchy. Senior figures don't do open-air duty, organising the crowd by denomination.

Credit goes to Danusha Goska for providing the blog for publishing this and the air of cooperative debate to comment on this. My mother tongue is Hungarian, my entire schooling is Romanian, my army duty is Hebrew, my life's work is in English. I live in Australia and I don't write much outside my personal Facebook page. Yet, I'm finding myself responding with great pleasure to Danusha's invitation to contribute to the development of Polish Jewish relations. It's a compliment to the owner of this blog.

Adam Aston and Henry Vars: The Sound of the Anders Army. By Michal Karski

Adam Aston and Henry Vars
by Michal Karski

So many Jewish lives were cut short during the wartime occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany that to write about any Polish Jew living a long life is unusual; to write about individuals not only escaping the horrors of the time but going on to have successful careers is exceptional.

There is a frequent riposte made by Polish nationalists to the equally frequent charge made by detractors that all Polish Christians were (or are) incorrigible anti-Semites. Polish Jews, say the nationalists, tended to be sympathetic to the USSR and therefore their loyalty to the Polish state was suspect.

As with any charge made by any group against any other, the idea of generalising is futile. There may have been those who were ideologically sympathetic to Communism and eventually managed to accommodate themselves to the post-war Stalinist regime, while others refused to do so.

The two whose stylish studio portraits are featured above were in the latter category. They both joined the Anders Army, when the so-called ‘Amnesty’ – the agreement between the Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet authorities, following Hitler’s attack on his former ally, the USSR – permitted the formation of Polish forces on Russian soil. Instead of taking the opportunity to remain in what was later to become Israel, as some Jewish soldiers did, while the army was training in the Middle East, they stayed loyal to their army oath and went on to take part in the Italian campaign with the Polish Second Corps.
Adam Aston: one of many Polish Jews who fought at Monte Cassino

Adam Aston was one of the most popular artists in Poland between the wars. He was born Adolf Loewinsohn in 1902 in Warsaw. He volunteered to fight in the Polish-Soviet war in 1920. Although he began to study law University in 1923, he gave up his studies after two years to take up a job with a Dutch import firm, meanwhile concentrating on music.

Although he had ambitions to sing in opera, he became a singer, actor, and pianist in the light entertainment mode. He became popular after joining the ensemble called Chór Warsa founded by Henryk Wars. He performed songs in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish and often worked with Wars at the Morskie Oko cabaret in Warsaw. He also recorded under the names J. Kierski, Adam Wiński and Ben-Lewi, the last of which he used when recording in Hebrew.

According to Wikipedia and the Biblioteka Polskiej Piosenki, he recorded for Syrena Records, Odeon, Parlophone, Columbia and Lonora, singing as many as 960 songs between 1930-1939. He appeared in the film Szyb L-23 of 1932 and also in two musical comedy films: Dwie Joasie and Manewry miłosne in 1935. He was also in Ordynat michorowski in 1937.

He was contracted to sing for Polish Radio and performed at every New Year’s concert. Here he is with the Henryk Wars Orchestra singing a tango with lyrics by Marian Hemar:

After the outbreak of World War II Aston was evacuated with the Polish Radio Orchestra to Lwów which was by that time under Soviet occupation. In late 1941 he joined the Polish II Corps being formed by General Anders and in 1944 fought at the famous and crucial battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. He later joined his friend Wars as part of the Polska Parada cabaret organized by Feliks Konarski (pseudonym Ref-Ren). Konarski, along with composer Alfred Schütz, had written the famous Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino at the site of the battle.

The song was first performed by Gwidon Borucki but it was Aston who first recorded it in Milan in 1946, singing the last verse in Italian. He went on to sing the song in the film Wielka Droga directed by Michał Waszyński and Vittorio Cottafavi in 1946. According to the Biblioteka Polskiej Piosenki, he also appeared in a film with Anna Magnani in 1945 but the film’s title is not specified.

After the war he emigrated to South Africa, where he occasionally performed in a Polish club in Johannesburg and in 1960 he moved to the United Kingdom. In London he took part in the Polish theatre and became a member of the Związek Artystow Scen Polskich, the association of Polish theatre artists. He was awarded several Polish and British medals, among them the Monte Cassino Cross. He died in London in 1993.

sources: Wikipedia and Biblioteka Polskiej Piosenki


Henry Vars: from Warsaw to Hollywood

The career of Henry Vars is truly a remarkable success story. He was born Henryk Warszawski in 1902 in Warsaw into a musical family. His older sister Józefina was a soloist with the Warsaw Opera and later at La Scala, Milan. Paulina, the younger one, was a pianist. Brought up in a patriotic atmosphere, just like Aston, he volunteered to fight in the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1925, was music director for Syrena Records for several years, and gained fame, using the name Henryk Wars, as a composer of popular songs and film scores. He has been described as the ‘pioneer of swing music in Poland’. Wikipedia likens his importance to Polish music to that of Irving Berlin in America. Others compare him to Cole Porter or George Gershwin.

His first film score was composed for Na Sybir (1930). His songs were sung by, among others: Adam Aston, Mieczysław Fogg, Hanka Ordonówna, who had a hit with Miłość ci wszystko wybaczy (featuring lyrics by poet Julian Tuwim and used in the film Szpieg w masce of 1933) and the Lwów comedians Szczepko and Tońko (Henryk Vogelfänger and Kazimierz Wajda). He also collaborated with lyricists Marian Hemar and Emanuel Szlechter. His music is featured in the film Piętro wyżej of 1937. One of Wars’s songs from that time Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą was featured decades later in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.

He was drafted into the army and fought in the September Campaign. Taken prisoner by the Germans, he managed to escape, either from a train, according to one source, r from a prison camp, according to another. He made his way to Soviet-occupied Lwów, where he was lucky to avoid the fate of his one-time musical collaborator Emanuel Szlechter, who died in the Janowska concentration camp. After the German attack on Russia in 1941, when Stalin found that he needed the Polish army as allies instead of enemies, Wars joined the Polish Army which was being formed by General Anders. He travelled through the Middle East and then on to the Italian Campaign with the Polish II Corps, boosting morale as part of the Polska Parada cabaret.

Wars in Tel-Aviv with his wife Elizabeth in 1944
source: Polish Music Newsletter

Wars emigrated to the USA after the war, where he changed his name to Vars and after seven years of unemployment and poverty, he managed to resume his musical career. He struggled to establish himself on the musical scene because he had no recordings of his music available to demonstrate his talents – everything had gone up in flames during the destruction of Warsaw. Nevertheless, he persisted and eventually gained commissions. Over the succeeding years he composed many film and television scores, including the family TV serials Flipper and Daktari. His songs were sung by many performers who included Margaret Whiting singing “Over and Over and Over” ( a version of which was recorded by Polish singer Anna German), Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Brenda Lee and Dinah Shore. According to the Nowy Dziennik, he lived in style in Hollywood where one of his neighbours was the film star Gregory Peck. Vars died in California in 1977.

sources: Film Polski Filmography of Wars
Nowy Dziennik: Henryk Wars- Ukochany kompozytor Warszawy
Polish Music Journal: The Film Scores of Henry Vars in the United States by Linda Schubert
Aston and Vars in the RFE archives:
The following clip of Vars and his orchestra with vocals by Adam Aston features photos of an elegant pre-war Warsaw:
The Anders Army is the subject of a new book by Norman Davies

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Poland's Jewish Kings

Piast. Michał Elwiro Andriolli Stara Basn
Poland has had two Jewish kings.

According to legend.

The first was Abraham Prochownik. Prochownik means "powder-maker."

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

Here's Gershon David Hundert describing the Prochownik legend in his review of the 2001 Wayne State University book Jewish Poland: Legends of Origin. Ethnopoetics and Legendary Chronicles by Haya bar-Itzhak.

"Several versions of the story of Abraham Prochownik, the Jew who was offered the Polish crown, are compared in the third chapter. Polish nobles, despairing because of their own feuding over how and whom they would choose as king, finally resolved that the first person to enter the town the next morning would be acclaimed as monarch. This turned out to be the Jewish merchant/peddler, Abraham Prochownik. By a wise subterfuge, he leads the noble-electors to acclaim Piast, ancestor of the first Polish dynasty, as their king.

As Bar-Itzhak points out, this legend confers antiquity on Jewish residence in Poland, legitimizes their commercial activities, glorifies Polish Jews as responsible for the ascension of the famous Piast dynasty and asserts that, even in 'the good old days,' they did not seek power for themselves in the state. 

Like most of the other tales, the earliest known versions of this story date from the 19th century, and the story could be and was used in the struggle for the expansion of Jewish rights. According to the author, there is also in this legend a message directed to a Jewish audience. Judaism recognizes a legitimate Jewish kingship only in the Land of Israel; accepting dominion in an adopted country is tantamount to assimilation. The rejection of the crown transmits a message that living in Poland does not mean relinquishing Jewish identity – a message that was particularly relevant in the nineteenth century."

Poland's other Jewish king was Saul Wahl. Here are Isidore Singer and Julius Gottlieb retelling his legend in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia

Saul Wahl was "a remarkable personage who, according to tradition, occupied for a short time the throne of Poland. The story connected with his reign is as follows: Prince Nicholas Radziwill, surnamed the Black, who lived in the sixteenth century, desiring to do penance for the many atrocities he had committed while a young man, undertook a pilgrimage to Rome in order to consult the pope as to the best means for expiating his sins. The pope advised him to dismiss all his servants and to lead for a few years the life of a wandering beggar. After the expiration of the period prescribed, Radziwill found himself destitute and penniless in the city of Padua, Italy.

His appeals for help were heeded by nobody, and his story of being a prince was received with scorn and ridicule. He finally decided to appeal to Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Padua. The latter received him with marked respect, treated him very kindly, and furnished him with ample means for returning to his native country in a manner befitting his high rank.

When the time for departure came the prince asked the rabbi how he could repay him for his kindness. The rabbi then gave him a picture of his son Saul, who years before had left for Poland, and asked the prince to try and find the boy in one of the many yeshibot of that country. The prince did not forget the request. Upon his return to Poland he visited every yeshibah in the land, until finally he discovered Saul in that of Brest-Litovsk. He was so captivated by the brilliancy and depth of Saul's intellect that he took him to his own castle, provided for all his wants, and supplied him with all possible means for study and investigation. The noblemen who visited Radziwill's court marveled at the wisdom and learning of the young Jew, and thus the fame of Saul spread throughout Poland.

When King Bathori died (1586) the people of Poland were divided into two factions: the Zamaikis [sic] and the Zborowskis. There were quite a number of candidates for the throne, but the contending parties could agree upon no one. There existed at that time in Poland a law which stipulated that the throne might not remain unoccupied for any length of time, and that in case the electors could not agree upon a candidate an outsider should be appointed 'rex pro tempore' (temporary king).

This honor was then offered to Radziwill; but he refused, saying that there was a man who belonged to neither party, and who in wisdom and goodness was far superior to any one else he knew. That man possessed only one very slight shortcoming, and if the Diet would make his election unanimous, he (Radziwill) would acquaint it with his name. Accordingly, Saul's name was solemnly proposed; and amid great enthusiasm, and shouts of 'Long live King Saul!' Wahl was elected to this high office. The name 'Wahl' was given him from the German word 'wahl' (= 'election').

Traditions disagree as to the length of his reign. Some state that he ruled one night only; others make it a few days. All, however, are agreed that Saul succeeded in passing a number of very wise laws, and among them some that tended to ameliorate the condition of the Jews in Poland. Although this story cannot be supported by any historical data, it gained a firm place in the belief of the people."

Friday, December 4, 2015

Marian Hemar: A Bard in Exile by Michal Karski

Marian Hemar: A Bard in Exile

by Michal Karski

How do we know that Homer was one of the greatest poets of all time, or that Horace was the model for many satirists, if we don't understand Ancient Greek or Latin?

We read them in English translation.

In the case of Marian Hemar, who, despite his name, was closer in spirit to Horace than to Homer, we have no way of judging the quality of his creative output unless we happen to understand Polish. And this, of course, is the obvious reason why he is virtually unknown to an English-speaking audience. There are hardly any English translations of his work. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no attempts to translate his poetry. Only one of his plays, entitled 'Poor Man's Miracle,' was produced in English, at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1943 in a translation by F.B. Czarnomski.

Thus we have only the opinion of Polish literary critics to tell us that Marian Hemar was one of the greats of Polish letters and a leading light in the cultural life of the Polish emigracja, the political emigrés who were forced to leave Poland as a result of the Second World War.

There is also the matter of his enormous popularity both in pre-war Poland and in post-war Polonia. Supreme satirist and songwriter, he gained a huge audience in the thirties, primarily through his radio broadcasts but also on the Warsaw stage in cabaret performances. He wrote hits for Zofia Terné, Mira Zimińska and Hanka Ordonówna. You don't have to speak Polish to get a flavour of his style in the following performance by the renowned Ordonówna:

He was multi-talented, writing around 3,000 songs for theatre, film and radio –  often the music as well as the words – but also adapting Offenbach's 'La Belle Hélène' and Hašek's 'The Good Soldier Švejk' for the Polish stage before the war. He broadcast his weekly 'Kabaret Hemara' for Radio Free Europe from 1953 to 1969 – 800 programmes in total, produced by his great friend and fellow Lwowian Włada Majewska – and wrote poems and reviews for the Polish émigré press. He translated Shakespeare's sonnets and Horace's Odes. Perhaps he is best known nowadays in worldwide Polonia for his stirring 'Karpacka Brygada', for which he also wrote the music; the famous 'Chlib Kulikowski', written especially for Majewska, which she performed in the characteristic Lwów dialect; or perhaps the rollicking humour of 'Upić Się Warto' (It's Worth Getting Drunk), famously performed by Chór Juranda.

The facts of Marian Hemar's life are well known to the Polish Second World War diaspora, but almost completely unknown elsewhere. Poet and ardent patriot, he was born Marian Hescheles in a Jewish family in 1901 during what is known as the Belle Époque in the ethnic melting pot of Lwów, the city in south-eastern Poland, which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time and which was to become the subject of some of his most heartfelt poetry.

He died in England in 1972, having become the foremost poet among those Poles who had stayed in exile in the West after the war. Since Lwów and other former Polish territories in the east had been left outside of the newly-drawn frontiers, the entire country having been shifted westwards as a result of the agreements between the "Big Three", most of the Polish population from the eastern regions, who had managed to escape the USSR with the Anders Army, found themselves with no homes to go to and were extremely reluctant to go back to a Poland which was now under the new Communist regime imposed by Stalin.

He was married twice: first to the actress and singer Maria Modzelewska from whom he parted just before the outbreak of war and then to Danish-American actress Caroll Ann Eric, known as Kaja, who, according to Włada Majewska, was the model who posed for the famous Columbia Pictures Logo.

 After the outbreak of war, he was forced to abandon his homeland and, taking a roundabout route which found him in Romania and then serving in the Independent Carpathian Brigade in the Middle East – putting on theatre performances during the siege of Tobruk, for instance – he finished up in England, where he became a thorn in the side of the post-war Polish government. He was particularly adept at mercilessly lampooning key political figures and not sparing those of his erstwhile poet colleagues who had remained in the country and whom he accused of having accommodated themselves to the new regime.

A hilarious example of this is 'żargonauci' (Jargonauts) in which he interweaves genuine excerpts of communist bulletins written in incomprehensible and leaden bureaucratic prose taken directly from Warsaw radio broadcasts with his own biting satiric verse. Another is a poem entitled 'Towarzysz Tadeusz' (Comrade Tadeusz), in which communist leader Gomułka objects to the title of Mickiewicz's most famous work, 'Pan Tadeusz', on the grounds that the title 'Pan' no longer exists in egalitarian, proletarian Poland. He never lost his skill at making his audiences laugh with his uncommon wit and his scathing satire.

A towering presence on the Polish stage in London and hugely influential back home because of his broadcasts via Radio Free Europe, Hemar nevertheless remains virtually unknown to English audiences. His poetry, depending so much on puns, taking so much delight in almost Shakespearean wordplay and often based on topical political references is difficult to render into an English equivalent which would convey the same kind of satiric bite or even the sheer glee of rhyming a Polish word with an unexpected ending as in the following couplet, aimed squarely at those Polish emigrés who were keen to buy property in post-war London 'Na Trystana' (For Tristan):

Trystan nie kochal tak Izoldy,
Jak my kochamy te freeholdy.

This translates approximately as: "Tristan never loved his Isold(e) /As much as we love our freehold(s)".

Both his love of the Polish language and sense of nostalgia for his vanished home found expression in his more lyrical poems and songs and he wrote many such for Włada Majewska, who became the custodian of his legacy.

Anna Mieszkowska selects an excerpt from a post-war poem entitled 'Kabareciarz' in her introduction to an anthology of Hemar's songs and sketches published in collaboration with Włada Majewska. These lines give a flavour of his style. I include them below for the benefit of those readers of this blog in Poland who may not be familiar with the name of this poet, since he was persona non grata during the days of the communist regime – indeed his Polish citizenship was taken away. And I ask for indulgence from those in the West like myself, whose Polish is a bit rusty – and mine is by no means good enough to even attempt to offer a translation.

In this short revealing self-portrait, Hemar states that he doesn't know whether he could describe himself as a lyric poet, a songwriter, a satirist, or just a versifier. He knows only that he is a creator for the cabaret. The point he is obviously making here is that he would have liked to be considered as a serious artist, but he was well aware that his fame rested on his skills as an entertainer.

Poznajcie mnie z tej strony,
że ja w kwietniu urodzony.
W pewnym slicznym i beztroskim
Bardzo dawnym kwietniu lwowskim,
Który we mnie wciąż przeplata,
Trochę zimy, trochę lata.
Trochę słoty, trochę smiechu,
Trochę cnoty, trochę grzechu,
Trochę pluchy, trochę słońca,
To dlatego już do końca
Ja sam nie wiem, czy ja liryk,
Czy piosenkarz, czy satyryk,
Czy poeta, czy kupleciarz,
Tyle wiem, żem KABARECIARZ.

More about Hemar:

Włada Majewska – Z Lwowskiej Fali Do Radia Wolna Europa (in collaboration with Regina Wasiak-Taylor)

Włada Majewska and Anna Mieszkowska – Za Dawno, Za Dobrze Sie Znamy...

An anthology prepared by Włada Majewska – Liryki, Satyry, Fraszki

Polish Radio has taken over the RFE sound archives. Hemar's many RFE recordings can be found here:

Thursday, December 3, 2015

An Unforgettable Polish Jew: Jurek Leder

Radomsk, Poland, A young Jewish man in Polish army uniform.
Name of submitter: Chana Ash
Archival Signature: 4643/19 
Between fifteen and twenty years ago I was doing a massive amount of reading that would inform the book Bieganski. I read Polish history, Jewish history, Polish-Jewish history. I read about stereotypes. I read about the Holocaust and I read about other atrocities including the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. I read memoirs, scholarly and newspaper articles and internet postings by average Joes. Thousands of pages. Authors long dead and very much alive and still punching. I eventually received emails or phone calls from many of the players in Polish-Jewish relations. I was swimming in an ocean of words so vast that I could not see dry land.

In all that verbiage, I have forgotten plenty of things. Sometimes I stumble across a book, think, "I should read this book," and realize that I'd read it, reviewed it, and quoted it.

A surprising amount of material is dormant but accessible in my memory.

And then there is a fraction of the material I read. This fraction consists of material that I not only remember, but that I can almost quote verbatim. I can tell you where this material appeared on the page, for example, in the middle of the left-hand page about three quarters of the way through the book.

Some of this material is evidence of the depths of human depravity. I had to gird my loins to read about the Holocaust and the war. You develop spiritual, mental and emotional callouses that get you through.

Years after I had completed that forced march, after Bieganski was already published, I happened upon a brief newspaper article. It included, in a few sketchy sentences, a German soldier's description of a gang-rape and torture-murder of a Russian woman. Those three or four sentences, in casual speech, horrified me and I've tried to, but never been able to forget them.

There are other passages I can't forget because they shine. They struck a match, a tiny explosion of light, the proverbial one candle. These passages encapsulate human kindness, heroism, and grace, when all around is claustrophobic darkness and filth.

If I had included everything in Bieganski that moved me in some way, and seemed the perfect illustration of an idea, the book would have been a thousand pages long. It was, at one point.

I often felt that editing out this or that five-line passage weakened the entire book. But few want to read a thousand page book.

I wish I could have kept Jurek Leder.

We know about Jurek Leder thanks to Mary Berg's Warsaw Ghetto diary. Below is the passage that mentions Leder.

"Jurek Leder, my close friend, who now works for the Jewish police, is also a passionate Polish patriot. 'If only I could get out and join the partisans!' He says. 'At least I could fight for Poland then. I love my country and even if a hundred anti-Semites try to convince me that I am not a Pole I'll prove it with my fists if not my words.' Leder's father is a captain in the Polish army and is presently interned in Russia. [One must assume that Leder's father was murdered, along with other Polish military officers, at places like Katyn.]

There are many such Jews who would gladly sacrifice their lives for Poland who, at present, are working in the underground. There are many Jews who grit their teeth and keep silent, and blush with shame and humiliation when, as sometimes happens, a Pole throws a stone from the other side of the walls into the ghetto. Recently, on Chlodna Street, Poles passing by in trucks hurled stones at showcases and windows of private apartments, emitting wild cries of triumph as they rode by.

Some Jews are ashamed to admit that Poland is their fatherland, although they love it, because they remember how often their Polish co-citizens have said to them, 'Go back to Palestine, Jew,' or how, at the University, the Jewish students were assigned to the ghetto benches and were often attacked by many Gentiles students for no other crime than their Jewish faith. It is a fact that many Gentiles in Warsaw have been infected by Hitler's propaganda. Naturally, there are people who see the error of such ways, but they are afraid to say anything because they would at once be accused of having a Jewish grandfather or grandmother or even of having been bribed by the Jews.

Only a few, and these are members of the working-class parties, speak up openly, and these, for the most part, are fighting in the partisan units. If all the Aryan Poles got together and tried to help the Jews in the ghetto, they could do a great deal for us. For instance, they could procure Aryan certificates for many Jews, give them shelter in their homes, facilitate their escape over the walls, and so on and so forth. But of course it's easier to throw stones into the ghetto."

We know about Jurek Leder, his love for Poland and his eagerness to fight for Poland, in spite of everything, because of Mary Berg's Warsaw Ghetto Diary.

A July, 2008 Tablet magazine article by Amy Rosenberg provides an update on Mary Berg. The article asks why almost everyone has heard of Anne Frank's diary, but few have heard of Mary Berg's. Anne Frank's diary describes being a young girl living in a small space. It does not describe Nazi atrocities. Mary Berg's diary describes the actual, daily atrocities of the Warsaw Ghetto.

"Lawrence Langer, author of the landmark study Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, puts it this way: 'Anne Frank’s diary was and is more popular because it records no horrors; the horrors came after she stopped writing, so readers don't have to confront anything painful.'"

For example, here is just one sentence from Mary Berg's diary "Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking that she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead."

Too, as the Tablet magazine article makes clear, Berg did not want to be a Holocaust heroine. She wanted to see humanity respond to current atrocities, like the 1990s war in Yugoslavia, rather than fixate on the past genocide of the Jews.

Berg felt some survivor guilt. Tablet quotes her saying, "We, who have been rescued from the ghetto are ashamed to look at each other. Had we the right to save ourselves? Here everything smells of sun and flowers and there – there is only blood, the blood of my own people."

The above-quoted passage from Mary Berg's Warsaw Ghetto Diary depicts "many" Poles as anti-Semitic, and not enough Poles as helping Jews. This is a much-debated topic. Interested parties might want to start by reading Gunnar S. Paulson's book Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945. My Amazon review of that book is here.

One can read about Warsaw's Irena Sendler and her work here.

Scholar and author Joshua Zimmerman, discussing his new book The Polish Underground and the Jews 1939-1945, says that "Besides the outstanding cases of the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux and the Japanese consul in Vilna, Sendler saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust. And yet few have ever heard her name." You can read that interview here.

The Amazon page for Mary Berg's Warsaw Ghetto Diary is here. The Tablet magazine article about Mary Berg is here.

Finally, over and above controversies about how anti-Semitic Poles were, and how much help they could or did offer Jews, I remember Jurek Leder, a young Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto who wanted to fight for Poland. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Haym Salomon. Polish-Jewish American Revolutionary War Hero

Claude Rains as Haym Solomon in "Sons of Liberty" Source
A legend links this design with Haym Salomon
Russia, Prussia, and Austria wiped Poland off the map in the late eighteenth century. Poles resolved to restore their nation. In addition to fighting for Poland's freedom, they fought for other nations. Their cry was "For your freedom and ours."

Many know that two Poles fought in the American Revolution. Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko's names are found in the US on towns and bridges. Mount Kosciuszko is the highest mountain in Australia.

There was another, less well known Pole who contributed to the American Revolution: Haym Salomon, a Polish Jew. He was a financial broker who made profound personal sacrifices to aid the Revolutionary cause.

According to Wikipedia, Salomon raised the equivalent of $16,870,212.74 in 2013 dollars. He was also a man of action who fought the Russians and had to escape from them, and then engaged in espionage on the British in America and had to escape from them, too. He was imprisoned and this imprisonment lead to his early death.

People who want to bash Christianity always point to the Inquisition. I respond that the Inquisition was a backlash in Spain against the Muslim Conquest and the Reconquista, not a manifestation of Christianity. I also say that while the Spanish Inquisition was taking place, it was condemned by Catholics.

Other Catholic countries invited in Jews escaping from Spain. Catholic Poland was a significant refuge for Jews. According to Wikipedia, "Haym Salomon was born in Leszno, Poland in 1740 to an Ashkenazi Jewish family descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who migrated to the Jewish communities of Poland as a result of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and remained there for many generations."

In the US, Salomon was proudly and actively Jewish. He contributed to Jews' civil rights. From Wikipedia:

"Salomon was involved in Jewish community affairs, being a member of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, and in 1782 made the largest individual contribution towards the construction of its main building.

In 1783, Salomon was among the prominent Jews involved in the successful effort to have the Pennsylvania Council of Censors remove the religious test oath required for office-holding under the State Constitution. These test laws were originally written to disenfranchise the Quaker majority, but many were caught up in this anti-democratic ploy.

It was Salomon's old friend Robert Morris, who actually introduced legislation to end the test laws in Pennsylvania. In 1784, Salomon answered anti-Semitic slander in the press by stating: 'I am a Jew; it is my own nation; I do not despair that we shall obtain every other privilege that we aspire to enjoy along with our fellow-citizens.'"

Here's a dramatic paragraph from the below-linked article entitled "Haym Salomon -The Revolution's Indispensable Financial Genius" by Donald N. Moran:

"In August of 1781, our Southern forces had trapped Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in the little Virginia coastal town of Yorktown. George Washington and the main army and the Count de Rochambeau with his French army decided to march from the Hudson Highlands to Yorktown and deliver the final blow.

But Washington's war chest was completely empty, as was that of Congress. Washington determined that he needed at least $20,000 to finance the campaign. When Morris told him there were no funds and no credit available, Washington gave him a simple but eloquent order: 'Send for Haym Salomon.'

Haym again came through, and the $20,000 was raised. Washington conducted the Yorktown campaign, which proved to be the final battle of the Revolution, thanks to Haym Salomon."

Salomon's time in prison damaged his health. He died young, at age 44, of tuberculosis, leaving four young children. His obituary in the Independent Gazetteer read, "Thursday, last, expired, after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Salomon, an eminent broker of this city, was a native of Poland, and of the Hebrew nation. He was remarkable for his skill and integrity in his profession, and for his generous and humane deportment. His remains were yesterday deposited in the burial ground of the synagogue of this city."

He gave and sacrificed much, but died bankrupt. The new United States could not honor its debt to him. His children attempted to receive reimbursement, but were always turned down. Young America was poor. Truly, the inscription on the statue of Haym Salomon on Wacker Drive in Chicago is accurate: "Haym Salomon – Gentlemen, Scholar, Patriot. A banker whose only interest was the interest of his Country."

There is a legend that George Washington asked Haym Salomon how he wanted to be compensated for his sacrifices. "I want nothing for myself but something for my people," Salomon replied. Washington had the stars on the US seal arranged in the shape of a Star of David. You can read this legend here

You can read more about Haym Salomon here and here.

Another article about other Jews who played a key role in the American Revolution here

Statue to Robert Morris, G Washington, Haym Salomon Source
Wacker Drive, Chicago 
Sam Gruber's Jewish Monuments Blogspot

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thank You to the Jew Who Saved My Mother's Life

My mother, Pavlina, Pauline, told a lot of stories, and she told them well.

I never had kids. I have no one to pass the stories on to.

Now that my sister Antoinette is gone, I don't even have anyone to share the stories with. Not even so much as three-word allusion, which used to be a mainstay of my everyday speech -- "Remember that time ..." -- would be understood any more by anyone. My language is an amputated stump. 

It's a desolate feeling: being a repository of stories that will never again be told.

Here's one story.

My mother grew up in Kovarce, Slovakia. One day she was near the River Nitra. She saw some children swimming. Swimming looked like a pleasant and fun activity and so she decided to join them. It did not occur to her that she didn't actually know how to swim. She began to drown.

Here's the ironic footnote to this story of my mother drowning in the River Nitra. My mother was born in the River Nitra. It was summer and my grandmother was working in the fields – rye, beets, or wheat, I would guess, from what I saw when I was there. It was hot and my grandmother needed to cool off and she stepped into the River Nitra and out popped my mother.

Life and death. Side by side.

But my mother didn't drown in the Nitra. One of the children, her neighbor, saved her life.

My mother and I returned to her village, the paradise she was forced to leave when she was eight years old, in the 1970s. 

In the intervening decades, in spite of herself, she had become American. Some things about her village disappointed her. She didn't like the green bottle flies clinging to the lace curtains of the village cottages. She didn't like outhouses. She really didn't, as it turned out, like Soviet communism any more than she liked American capitalism. 

The River Nitra, fifty years older than when she left, was a disappointment. She remembered a clear, wild river. What we saw was an agricultural canal skulking desultorily through a tamed channel. 

My mother told me that the village boy who had saved her life was killed by the Nazis.He was a Jew. 

I remember him, though I never met him. For one of my online accounts, I use a password that it is a coded version of all the information I know about him, all the information passed on to me by my mother.

I have to repeat this password several times a week. Every time I do so, I summon up all the facts I remember about him. When I need to change the password, I summon up and re-juggle, again, everything I know about him. 

It is how I honor him. This is a small thing. I keep his memory alive by encoding him into a frequently used password.

Recently some thugs burned a Jew in effigy in Wroclaw. In this blog post here I describe how I decided to dedicate my next ten blog posts to Polish Jews. I am cheating today. I'm talking about a Slovak Jew. The Jew who saved my mother's life when she was young.

I don't know his name.

As I was thinking about this blog post, I zoomed forward in time from whispered, oral stories told half in English and half in Slovak decades ago, stories taking place in an agrarian village without electricity or running water and haunted by hasterman – water sprites – to the 21st century.

I suddenly realized that my awareness of this young man need not be limited to my slim and fading memory of my mother's words. I can go to the internet. I did. I found the Yad Vashem page dedicated to Jews from Kovarce killed by the Nazis. It's here. I decided to read down the list of names and dates of birth to find a male who was around my mother's age. A few are possible candidates – Jozef, Aladar, Alexander.

Whichever one of you saved my mother, thank you.

I'm sorry we could not save you.

Yad Vashem summarizes WW II and Holocaust history in Slovakia here

The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library has an exhibit on the Tragedy of Slovak Jews here
Record of the death of one of the men who may have
saved my mother. Source: Yad Vashem
Jews being deported from Slovakia by Nazis 
Jewish children in Bratislava today

Here's a fabulous piece of music about a river in Czechoslovakia 

Tibor Rendek. Saint Anne's Church, Kovarce. Source