Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Sympathetic portrayal of Poland's fading Jewish community

Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland. Text by Malgorzata Niezabitowska; photos by Tomasz Tomaszewski. New York: Friendly Press. 272 pp., with 75 color pages. $35. In 1939, the Jews of Poland numbered 3,400,000; in mid-1946, there were 240,000; and in 1968, some 30,000. Now there are 5,000, the subject of this poignant, yet searching and resolutely unsentimental book, which reveals as much about Polish Christians as about Polish Jews. Here, among the photos of tiny apartments, elderly faces, and treasured artifacts, is an understated indictment of the terrible consequences of prejudice that no American - especially no white American - can afford to ignore.

Everyone knows that of the Holocaust. But who outside Poland realizes that an indigenous, deeply-rooted anti-Semitism erupted there during 1945-46, that a thousand Jews were killed in the name of anticommunism, and that tens of thousands more fled abroad? Or that an officially sponsored anti-Semitism exploded during March 1968 - this time in Marxist guise - with Jews being blamed for Poland's ills, as well as for their Israeli and American connections; some 20,000 hastily left the country. ``That great hunt for live animals branded with the yellow patch,'' as Niezabitowska quotes a Holocaust survivor, had simply found different forms, procedures, rationalizations. Another Jew remarked, ``Here there's an anti-Semitism in white gloves. As if there isn't any. But there is.''

About these ads

The 5,000 Jews in Poland are elderly, often retired, and very lonely; they are scattered in ones and twos in the small towns of the eastern borderlands. Though few know much Yiddish, let alone Hebrew or the deeper history and observances of Judaism, none deny their heritage, no matter what the cost. Witness the boy whose bar mitzvah in 1985 was the first in the Warsaw synagogue in 30 years (``Thank you, God, for letting me live through such a moment,'' one elderly woman asserted), and who is considering being circumcised. ``When they proposed that to me, I thought that sometime in the future it could be dangerous. But I've made up my mind. I've had the bar mitzvah and I need the rest.'' Only in Krakow, that ancient and liberal university city, is there something remotely resembling a Jewish community - though without a rabbi.

These remnants are portrayed in text, interviews, and photographs by a Polish couple in their 30's, Christians both, who knew Polish Jewry only from family accounts, and who were spurred by the intellectual ferment of Solidarity to investigate that Orwellian black hole (only scholars know the full story) created by the virtual erasure of a 1,000-year old Jewish community.

Polish history is riddled with such gaps, with sudden breaks in continuity, the result of invasions, partitions, uprisings. Hence the importance of the intelligentsia in both preserving and interpreting national memories and traditions. Hence also the conflicts between intellectuals and rulers whose legitimacy, often dubious, will be further weakened should the historical truth emerge. To represent Polish Jewry humanistically and sympathetically is not only a reproach to the small anti-Semitic cliques lurking in the Polish nether world, but also a step toward uncovering other skeletons that the dictatorship insists on closeting. That the manuscript of this book was brought to this country for publication is therefore hardly surprising.

Behind this book of course stands the Holocaust. About 500,000 Jews, principally from eastern Poland, escaped by migrating into Russia during 1939-41; many returned in 1945. A very, very few, blessed with a ``good face'' or ``good appearance as it was known, i.e., a non-Jewish visage, managed to survive within Poland itself. Such a one is Srul - now Zygmunt - Warszawer, still very active as the last kosher butcher of Warsaw, formerly a butcher in the countryside, where he developed a peasant clientele. ``I was their favorite. My word was sacred and they knew it. I never cheated anybody and I gave honest prices.'' He also lent money without interest and forgave debts. So, after terrible misadventures that saw the Nazis destroy most of his family, he wandered for two years among ``his'' peasants, reckoning ``that, if everyone helped him with food, no one would turn him in - to do so would mean self-destruction.'' He survived to become a kind of mascot with the villagers to whose weddings, christenings, and funerals he is invited.

Warszawer remembers another, sadder story. ``Fourteen Jews had a hiding place dug in the ground in the woods.... They sat there a year and a half, Krol the forester carried them food. Then, I don't know, he got scared or maybe they ran out of money, so he went and turned them in. The Germans came ... and killed them all.''

Survival went beyond tenacity and shrewdness. There is, for example, Szymon Datner, a retired professor of history and scholar of the Holocaust, whose judicious remarks, autobiographical, historical, and philosophical in equal proportion, form an eloquent conclusion to the book. Datner belonged to a Jewish fighting group - headed by a woman - in the Bialystok ghetto. ``Beyond the wall I encountered a two-man German patrol. There was shooting, and I killed them both. This was my first such experience. It does not keep me awake nights, but I do not boast about it either, because I know that those two had someone waiting for them - a mother, a wife, children. I thought about it that way even then, [though] we did not regard Germans as human beings, the same way they did not regard us as human beings.'' Datner's group retreated to the forests, where they were fed by Polish peasants, and skirmished occasionally with the Germans until Soviet forces swept westward in 1944.

The queston remains: Why, despite the virtual absence of Jews, do anti-Semitic myths, fantasies, and fears still exist in Poland? This Niezabitowska and Tomaszewski cannot answer. But their book helps raise it, if only by reaching beyond historical abstactions to show human beings in all their banality and all their heroism.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.