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. 

1 comment:

  1. Mary Berg's diary is an interesting one, in more ways than one. [Please click on my name in this specific posting, and read my review.]

    Jan T. Gross, as in his GOLDEN HARVEST, makes a big deal of the fact that Poles looted Jews. However, Mary Berg's diary shows that looting was a common wartime event, and was not limited to any nationality as perpetrators or victims.

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