Saturday, February 5, 2011

Love as a Factor in Polish-Jewish Relations

A previous post introduces this series of quotes. Two previous posts attest to the Importance of Poland to Jews, and The Importance of Jews to Poland. A subsequent post attest to Jews' Defense of Poland.

Adam Michnik wrote: "If we make a thorough study of Jews living in Poland – letters, memoirs, documents, we can see in them love for Polish ethics, Polish culture, Polish system of values.” To explain the intensity, intimacy, and complex nature of Polish-Jewish relations, Michnik used a metaphor of troubled marital love (Michnik "O Czym" 101).

The great pianist, Artur Rubinstein, was once asked to play at the opening session of the United Nations in San Francisco. Poland was not represented. Rubinstein "brought a highly embarrassed diplomatic audience to its feet by choosing for his concert the Polish national anthem" (Kuniczak 173).

Many Jews conspicuously supported the 1863 uprising in Poland. According to Polish patriot Rabbi Dov Beer Meisels, the Talmudic authority and sixteenth century Rabbi of Krakow Moses Isserles "indicated to us that we should love the Polish nation above all other nations, for the Poles have been our brothers for centuries" (Krajewski, "Problem" 75). For himself, Rabbi Meisels stated: "And we too feel that we are Poles, and we love the Polish land as you do" (Kieniewicz 117 see also Porter 40).

This identification with Poland in her hour of need and revolution was not limited to Jews in Poland. Julian Allen, an American of Polish-Jewish birth, came to partitioned Poland's defense by publishing in the United States his 1854 book Autocracy in Poland and Russia: or a Description of Russian Misrule in Poland. In this book, Allen wrote: "My bosom throbs with joyful expectation that ultimately the power of the oppressor will be successfully defied, and the blessings of freedom will yet be the lot of those over whom I had so long almost hopelessly mourned" (Lerski "Amity" 43).

Many such patriots paid the ultimate price. "'Of seven hundred patriots hanged by the Russians, less than half were Catholic; many were Jews, Protestants, and even Russo-Greeks ... '" There were Muslim insurgents, as well (Lerski, 50).

Adam Mickiewicz's artistic output and political action were influenced by Judaism. Judeophile visionary Andrzej Towianski had a thematic influence on the poet's work; Judeophile Count Xavier Branicki helped to support his work monetarily. Mickiewicz died while organizing the Hussars of Israel, "an early Zionist venture before the word was invented" (Maurer 185). Mickiewicz, of course, created Jankiel, and was a prime source of the image of Poland as the Messiah of nations. This image was meant to be complimentary to, not a supersession of, Jewish suffering and identity.

After the Romantic era, best personified by Mickiewicz, ended, Positivism took precedence. Rather than violent insurrection to serve the partitioned Polish state, Positivism recommended work. Like Romanticism, this version of Polish nationalism argued for cooperation between peasants and lords, men and women, Poles and Jews. Two of its major proponents were Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841-1910) and Boleslaw Prus (1847-1912).

Jews familiar with Polish literature, like Segel and Hertz, have remarked on what they call a unique feature of it. Like the rest of European literature, lowbrow Polish literature contains its share of comical or hostile portraits of Jews. Polish art literature, though, is distinguished by a unique philo-Semitic oeuvre. In addition to works depicting affectionate portraits of Jews, Polish literature contains works that consciously salute loving and intertwined relations between Poles and Jews.

Though these works did have a conscious political end – the improvement of ties between Poles and Jews under the pressures of foreign occupation – their value to their readers cannot be dismissed. Of works depicting affection and interdependence between Poles and Jews by Prus and Orzeszkowa, Magdalena Opalska wrote, "No justice can be done to these works without mentioning the genuine human warmth permeating many of these images, and their well-documented ability to move both the Polish and Polish-Jewish readers for whom they were intended" (Opalski "Trends" 78).

Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik
source - many excellent photos by Erazm Ciolek

Sociologist Anna Maria Orla Bukowska has focused on evidence of coexistence and mutual respect and affection between Poles and Jews in pre-World War II shtetls. A Polish peasant reported, "Jankiel, that was my best friend." "My best friends were Poles," recorded author Bruno Schulz (Orla-Bukowska 100).

Literature scholar Jan Blonski described the pre-World War II Jewish authors who worked in Polish rather than Yiddish. That choice was evidently a risky investment. "Writing about his love for 'the wide gray land of Mazowsze', [poet] Slobodnik says that his 'brothers' [fellow Jews] will regard it as treason while 'the children of this land' will regard it as an expression 'of foreign blood, old and unhealthy.' Thus he will always walk 'between two ... brands of hatred'" (Blonski "Jewish" 197). Blonski wrote of another Polish-Jewish poet apologizing to the Hebrew language for his choice to write of Polish matters in the Polish language. Sholem Asch, Polish Jewish author, managed to bridge two clashing groups when he declared that, "Do mnie, Wisla mowi po zydowsku!" translated as, "The Wisla speaks to me in Yiddish!"

The turn of the last century was a time of epic out migration from Poland. The theme of Poles and Jews missing each other, needing each other, and encountering each other in foreign climes appears in several works. Antoni Slonimski (1895-1976) was a Polish poet whose father had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, and brought Antoni up as a Catholic. In 1922 Slonimski published poems about his trips to Palestine, where he encountered Jews who missed Poles and Poland. "When I'm better, I'd like to live in Warsaw," reports one.

Similarities between the bifurcated nations and peoples were noted. After cataloguing the wondrous sights of Jerusalem, Slonimski closed with, "Like in a village in Poland, flies buzz in Jerusalem" (Segel, Stranger 293-4).

Adam Szymanski's 1885 sketch, "Srul of Lubartow" depicted an encounter between a Pole and a Jew in the previous century, in Siberian exile (Segel 190-197). In each encounter, Slonimski's and Szymanski's, a Jew peppered a Pole with questions about home. "Will you tell me if the small gray birds are still there in winter ... " demanded Srul. "Is there a fountain? At the entrance from Czysta Street. In the old days confectioners had a shop there with water ... " asked the Jew Slonimski met in Jerusalem.

In 1994, an organization devoted to Polish-Jewish relations sent out an appeal for pre-Holocaust photos depicting Jews or Jewish life. Photographs and the notes accompanying them told of Jewish children in the interwar period who grew up playing at tableaux in which they dramatized the liberation of "Mother Poland" by a classic Polish figure, a knight. Other Jewish children, at a Jewish camp, reenacted Grunwald, a key battle in which Poles defeated the Teutonic knights.

There was a Polish schoolchild who obeyed her father, and was sure to sit next to Jewish schoolchildren because "The Jews are a wise people. One should heed their advice." There was a Polish housewife who hid a Jewish couple in her cellar, rescuing them from the Holocaust, feeding them, eliminating their waste, and never telling so much as her husband that they were even there. There was a Polish princess who sent "twelve thousand saplings and one hundred mature trees from her own park to be planted along the avenue leading to the yeshiva [in Lublin]" There was an elderly Polish aunt who, in her living room, in a gilded frame, kept a photo of her beloved Jewish friend Chana, who was murdered by Nazis. One of the aunt's last acts was to ensure that the photo, of a woman none of her young nieces or nephews had ever met, not be thrown away after her own death.

There was a Polish woman who dismissed her own suffering, including deportation to Germany (perhaps for slave labor, a typical reason for deportation) and "various other incidents and disasters – which I need not go into, because, after all, who in Poland hasn't experienced these things," and who, through everything, kept with her the photos of her two Jewish school chums. "I am lucky that these photographs have fallen into good hands ... I'm over seventy years old ... at some point the eyes of some goodhearted person will see my old friend" (Fundacja 94, 137, 138, 139, 145, 183, 219).

The kinds of quotidian Polish-Jewish contacts and affections, the kind of appreciation for, and comfort with, Jews and Judaism attested to by Orla-Bukowska and Fundacja Shalom, have had world impact in the career of Karol Wojtyla. "When John Paul II was named Pope, my mother, who is Polish, said he could be the best or the worst," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "I feel he's been the best" (Goodstein, "Boyhood"). "The actions of this pope have been magnificent," Foxman said, at a later date.

When observers are assessing John Paul as the pope who "has done more to repair Jewish-Christian relations than any previous pope" (Wilkinson, "Playmates") they point out actions like the following. Pope John Paul II was the first pope to visit the synagogue of Rome, and the first to visit Auschwitz. He hosted a Holocaust memorial concert at the Vatican, he presided over the extension of full diplomatic recognition to Israel, he marked Israel's fiftieth anniversary with a Vatican menorah, and he opened Vatican archives on the Inquisition (Elie).

At least one observer, an intimate of Karol Wojtyla's – intimate enough that he copied young Karol's assignments in school – attributes John Paul II's positive impact on Jewish-Christian relations to his typically Polish boyhood. Yosef Bienenstock, a childhood friend of Karol Wojtyla and a Holocaust survivor, reported that Karol "enjoyed slipping into the local synagogue to hear the cantor. Lolek, as the pope was known as a child, would place a kippa on his head and blend in with the congregation" (Wilkinson, "Playmates"). Bienenstock reported that when he returned in 1992 to bring his brother's remains to Israel, he found a fine marble tombstone on his brother's grave. It had been placed there by the pope.

Jerzy Kluger, the pope's childhood friend and his aid in papal diplomacy, offers an assessment similar to Bienenstock's. "This Pope is a friend of the Jewish people because he knows Jewish people. He grew up in Wadowice," a Polish town with a large Jewish population (Goodstein, "Boyhood"). "He grew up with us and he never forgot us. That's why he demanded from the Christian world to understand that the Jews of today cannot be held responsible for the crucifixion. That's why he called the Holocaust an enormity. That's why he goes to Jewish synagogues and to Jewish cemeteries. I don't understand what more people want from him" (Sontag).

Among Jewish Polish patriots have been Jews who have, tested to the limits of human strength, in spite of every pressure, steadfastly insisted on being both Polish and Jewish. One such person was Janusz Korczak. Korczak was a doctor and author who ran orphanages for both Polish and Jewish children. In the interwar period, anti-Semitism was strong in Poland. Korczak was dismissed from professional positions, inter alia, as "The Old Doctor" on Polish radio. Jews, too, criticized him. Though his orphanage for Jews kept a kosher kitchen, observed all holidays, and offered lessons in Yiddish and Hebrew, it was denounced by Jews as an "assimilationist factory" (Lifton 262).

Korczak was repeatedly asked to take a stand one way or the other. Once he stated, "Anyone who speaks Polish, and loves Polish culture, and wishes the Polish people well, he is a Pole" (Lifton 263). Forty years after Korczak's martyrdom, an Israeli opined, "In Israel, Korczak should be called a Pole, and in Poland, he should be called a Jew" (274). Korczak himself proposed a "Third Tide" thus: "We are the sons of the same clay. Ages of mutual suffering and success link us in a chain of the same mould. The same sun shines on us, the same hail destroys our fields, the same earth hides the bones of our ancestors" (Lifton 265).

Korczak had ample opportunity to escape before the Nazi invasion. He had already been to Palestine. In the end, he stayed in Poland, and in the ghetto. "Warsaw is mine, and I am Warsaw's. I'll say no more. I am hers. Together with her I have rejoiced and I have grieved. Her weather was my weather, her rain, her soil, mine as well" (Lifton 270-1).

When the Nazis invaded, Korczak donned the Polish uniform he had worn in the 1920 Polish-Soviet war, and he broadcast encouragement to Warsaw's citizenry. During the occupation, Korczak refused to wear the Nazi-mandated yellow star. "He would not let them erase Janusz Korczak the Pole, or demean Henryk Goldszmit, the Jew" (Lifton 271). Korczak had ample opportunity to escape even after he had been walled into the ghetto. Polish friends offered him hiding places, false papers. He refused. When the Nazis sent his orphans to their deaths at Treblinka, Janusz Korczak was with them.

Korczak was not alone. Obscure as well as famous Jews expressed love for Poland while living under some of the most nightmarish conditions humans have ever endured. From a young girl's Warsaw Ghetto diary, Bartoszewski quoted:

"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" (Bartoszewski "Five" 323).

Some Poles responded to the unique horror of the Nazi occupation of Poland with unique heroism. Poles' heroism under hellish conditions must never be forgotten, as it could serve to inspire any good person. Indeed, as Wladyslaw Bartoszewski stated in the title of a book, "The Blood Shed Unites Us: Pages from the History of Help to the Jews in Occupied Poland."

Not all Poles responded to Nazi Occupation with heroism. Some responded with deadly anti-Semitism.

During the darkest days of WW II, the great poet Julian Tuwim, living in exile in London, published "We Polish Jews" in April, 1944. Tuwim knew what was going on in Poland:

"We, who were suffocated in the gas chambers …We, whose brains oozed on the walls, on the walls of our destitute homes and on the walls against which we were shot en masse - for one reason only, that we are Jews."

In the face of that mass death, with incomparable power and poetry, Tuwim refused to smear all Poles, and insisted on his own Polishness:

"For my Mother in Poland or her most beloved shadow

"I can hear the question immediately: 'Why US?' A question that is not baseless. Jews ask me, the ones whom I always told that I was a Pole, and now the question will be asked of me by the Poles, for the greatest part of whom I have been and will be a Jew. This is my answer for one and the other.

"I am a Pole, because it pleases me. It is my personal and private matter, and I do not intend to submit a report nor an explication, an explanation to justify the basis of it. I do not divide Poles into 'native- born' and 'not-native-born'; I leave that for the native-born and non-native-born racists, the local and non-local Hitlerites. I divide Poles and Jews as well all other nations, into intelligent and stupid, honest and thieves, intelligent and dullards, interesting and boring, those who have been harmed and those who harm, gentlemen and not, etc. I also divide Poles into fascists and anti-fascists. These two camps, are not, of course homogenous, each of them disperses shades of color of differing intensities. But, the line of demarcation most certainly exists and shortly will be clearly seen. Shades will remain shades but the color of that very line will be intense and deeper in a marked way.

"I could say that in a political sense I divide Poles into anti-Semites and anti-Fascists. Because Fascism is always anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is the international language of Fascists.

"However, if I did ever have to justify my nationality, or rather my national feelings, then I would say I am a Pole for the simplest, almost the most primitive of reasons, generally rational, frequently irrational, but without a 'mystical' addition. To be a Pole, it is neither an honor, nor glory, nor a privilege.

"It is the same as breathing. I have not yet met a person that is proud of the fact that he breathes. A Pole - because I was born in Poland, grew up, was educated, taught, because it was in Poland that I was happy and unhappy, because from my exile I necessarily want to return to Poland, though they may promise me Paradisiacal delights elsewhere.

"A Pole - because through a loving superstition which no reasoning or logic can explain, I desire that after my death, it shall be Polish soil that will absorb and consume me and none other. A Pole - because that is what I was told in Polish in my family home; because I was suckled on the Polish language as a newborn, because my mother taught me Polish poems and songs, and when my first great poetic tremor came, it was in Polish words, because all that, which became most important in life - poetic creativity - is unimaginable in any other language, no matter how fluently I may speak it.

"A Pole - because it was in Polish that I confessed my first love and its fears, and it was Polish in which I sobbed of its joys and storms.

"A Pole also because the birch and the willow are closer to me than a cypress or a palm, and Mickiewicz and Chopin dearer than Shakespeare and Beethoven. Dearer for reasons that no reasoning can justify.

"A Pole - because I have absorbed a certain number of their national faults. A Pole - because my hatred of Polish Fascists is greater than of Fascists of other nationalities. Moreover, I believe this to be a major trait of my Polishness. But above all - a Pole because it pleases me."
Julian Tuwim. By Witkacy

Poles also had to occasionally love through potentially lethal contempt and hostility. Young Stefania Podgorska's mother and sister were taken to Germany for slave labor. Stefania risked her own life by rescuing Jews. One of those Jews put her life at risk by sending an untrustworthy stranger to deliver a message he might have delivered himself.

Another Jew, a woman, threatened to denounce Stefania, knowing that such a denunciation meant death for the Pole. Stefania had to convince one of her charges to join her; he wanted to stay in the ghetto. Eventually, with thirteen Jews in her house, beautiful, young Stefania had to conspire to reject any suitors, in order to hide her secrets. Finally, after the war, Stefania was mocked as a now superfluous "goyka" by one of the Jews she had saved.

In 1992, Stefania Podgorska Burzminski, now married to one of the Jews she saved, reported bitterness at not having a tree at Yad Vashem "because I have no money to go to Israel" and because, after seven years of hard work, no one wants to publish her memoirs – while, of course, books about "killing" are published and celebrated (Block and Drucker 180-5).

Not only Jews loved Poland and considered themselves Polish at moments when to do so was a high-risk investment. There were also Poles who loved Judaism and either converted to Judaism or declared themselves equally Jewish and Polish. There was a Polish nanny, Mania, who took care of Jewish children. "My mother was even jealous of her, and when we were crying we never cried 'Mummy,' we cried 'Maniu.' She was like our second mother" (Karpf 24-5). Mania converted to Judaism and, even under the pressures of the Holocaust, chose to stay with her Jewish employers, whose lives she helped to maintain, through her own hard work, while she herself died during the war (Karpf 73). After the war, one of her former charges sold her late husband's motorcycle in order to get the funds to pay for Mania's body to be reburied in the Jewish cemetery, as was her wish (Karpf 151).

And there was Jan Karski, who called himself a "Catholic Jew," and was quite proud to be an honorary citizen of the state of Israel (Economist, "Karski"). In 1942, Karski donned ragged clothes and an armband imprinted with a Star of David in order to enter the Warsaw ghetto. With such service, he could and did bring the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to Western leaders. Karski worked for Polish-Jewish relations after the war, as well. "Mr. Karski established a $5,000 annual prize to be awarded by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to authors documenting or interpreting Jewish contributions to Polish culture and science" (Kaufman, "Karski").

"Invited to Israel by the Government in 1982 to plant a tree in the Avenue of the Righteous, he was made an honorary citizen of the country in 1994. 'Now I, Jan Karski, a Pole, an American, a Catholic, have also become an Israelite!' he said at the ceremony. 'Gloria in excelsis Deo!'" (The Times). At his funeral mass, attended by Polish and Israeli state officials, a rabbi said Kaddish (Siemaszko). Karski's appreciation of Jews and Judaism was reciprocated. At his death, several Jewish organizations published salutes in various papers. Elie Wiesel called the life of Jan Karski "a masterpiece of courage, integrity and humanism" (The Times).

In 1948, Irena Nowakowska surveyed Polish-Jewish attitudes toward Poland. She published her results in 1983. Respondents were asked, "Which country do you regard as your homeland?" Her data showed a cross-section of how Jewish survivors came to terms with their love for a country in which so many of their loved ones died, and in which too many Poles responded horribly to the genocide. One respondent replied:

"Born on lands that have been geographically Polish for ages, a Polish infancy, Polish elementary and secondary schools, neighbor and playmates speaking Polish, Polish literature and newspapers, Polish theater, Polish songs, Polish examinations, Polish military service and medals, earning a living in Polish – would it make sense to regard any other country as the homeland? Would this be possible even for someone who knew the Hebrew alphabet and language as well as the Latin alphabet?" (Nowakowska 259).

John Paul II and Jerzy Kluger. More here

Another: "Poland is my homeland." Respondents from lands that had been Polish before the war, but that were absorbed by the Soviet Union, and where Polish presence was brutally erased, struggled. They could not name their hometowns, now Sovietized and Russianized, as their homeland. In lieu of their hometown names, they said, "Poland." This reference to a place that had been expunged from the map could only mean, as it has often meant to Poles, a mental, spiritual, or cultural construct of a lost territory. This territory has been kept alive by the will, by the conscious choice, of Polish patriots, as the first line of the Polish national anthem states. Here, the Poles keeping that territory mentally, spiritually, and or culturally alive were Polish Jews.

A Jewish veteran of the Polish army reported, "I fought my way back to Poland ... I would never have rested easily as long as I live if I had not seen the ruins of Warsaw with my own eyes." A woman emigrating to Palestine reported, "I know that I will never stop missing Poland, and that I will always identify most closely with the land and its flora and fauna, the cultural heritage, and so on." Another prospective emigrant to Palestine: "Poland. I love its countryside, language, customs, and people." And another: "I am linked to the Polish land because ... all my most joyful moments and nightmarish years are connected with Poland." A Lodz physician replied, "It is hard for a person who has lived for generations together with a given people to forsake all sentiments for a given country, even after ... the loss of one's family during the war. A solitary person hangs in the air, having lost one homeland and not possessing another."

Author Rafael Scharf reported that there are Jews "who have never recovered from their love of Poland, those who on the banks of the River Thames dream of their Wisla, and those, who like myself – and forgive me if it sounds precious – after fifty years away from Poland put themselves to sleep with lines from the 'Crimean Sonnets' or the 'Grave of Agamemnon'" (Polonsky, Brother's 194).

Indeed, perhaps it is the conflicted love, like the prodigal son, the one lost lamb, or the girl that got away, that commands the most attention. Addressing organized international Jewish resistance to the funding of a Jewish museum in Warsaw, Grazyna Pawlak, managing director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, and herself a Polish Jew, said, "Polish Jews abroad hate Poland ... they see Poland very, very painfully as a cemetery. But at the bottom of their heart is something different. This is their homeland" (Perlez, "Drive").

A poetic depiction of the pressures facing Poles and Jews as they confront each other in the post-Holocaust era was limned by Antoni Slonimski.

These towns are no longer, they've passed like shadows,

And these shadows will fall between our words,

Before two nations, nourished by the suffering of centuries,

Will approach each other fraternally and again unite (Segel 363).

Irena Sendler


  1. it must stop sometime,,,,, it is turning people to animals,,,,,,,,> hatred ,

  2. beautiful. and the music of this Polish woman comes to mind, Olga Mieleszczuk, who is working on an album of interwar Polish pop music composed and sung by jews, in Polish. she also works in Yiddish, as follows:


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