Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz
By Jan T. Gross
(Random House, 303 pp., $25.95)
In spring 1945, not long after his liberation from Auschwitz, Primo Levi, traveling across southern Poland by train, got off in a small town to stretch his legs and immediately found himself at the center of a group of curious people, all speaking excitedly, and incomprehensibly, in Polish. “Perhaps I was among the first dressed in ‘zebra’ clothes to appear in that place,” he surmised, referring to the striped uniform of the death camp, in The Reawakening, his memoir of the journey home through the wreckage of Europe. Fortunately for Levi, “in the middle of the group of workers and peasants a bourgeois appeared, with a felt hat, glasses and a leather briefcase in his hand—a lawyer. He was Polish, he spoke French and German well, he was an extremely courteous and benevolent person; in short, he possessed all the requisites enabling me finally, after the long year of slavery and silence, to recognize in him the messenger, the spokesman of the civilized world, the first that I had met.” Levi spoke “at dizzy speed of those so recent experiences of mine, of Auschwitz nearby, yet, it seemed, unknown to all, of the hecatomb from which I alone had escaped, of everything,” and the man translated.
But it did not take Levi long to figure out that something was amiss. “I do not know Polish, but I know how one says ‘Jew’ and how one says ‘political’; and I soon realized that the translation of my account, although sympathetic, was not faithful to it. The lawyer described me to the public not as an Italian Jew, but as an Italian political prisoner. I asked him why, amazed and almost offended. He replied, embarrassed: ‘C’est mieux pour vous. La guerre n’est pas finie.’” It’s better for you. The war isn’t over.
This was literally true. Russian troops had liberated areas of eastern Poland as early as November 1944, but they did not reach Auschwitz until the end of January 1945, and other concentration camps remained operative as late as May. But it was in a larger sense that the war was not over for any Jew in Poland, and it would not be for some time. As Jan T. Gross recounts in his harrowing new book, Polish Jews who had the amazing fortune to survive the camps were “unwelcomed” upon their return home with brutal violence. In June 1945, several Jews traveling by train in eastern Poland were murdered by their fellow passengers. In August, a mob attacked the synagogue in Krakow and then pursued Jews throughout the city, killing several and wounding dozens. The writer Zofia Nalkowska, visiting a Jewish orphanage that fall, noted that the children were unable to enroll in public school because of “beatings and persecution.” The following spring, the French Catholic intellectual Emmanuel Mounier reported that more than a thousand Jews had been killed in the Polish countryside over the past nine months. And on July 4, 1946, scores of Jews were killed and hundreds injured in a day-long city-wide bloodbath in Kielce that has become notorious as the deadliest peacetime pogrom in modern Europe.
It is the timing of these episodes, the dates—1945 and 1946!—that makes them so dumbfounding. We have all seen the pictures of the skeletons liberated from Buchenwald and Dachau: even in Poland, one of the most notoriously anti- Semitic nations in Europe, how could such figures elicit anything but sympathy? But as Gross has already shown, the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews was met with tacit—and sometimes open—acceptance in many parts of the country. With his last book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Gross exposed the horrifying story of the massacre of more than a thousand Jewish residents of a small Polish town by their fellow citizens in July 1941. Though the incident was incited by the Germans, Gross established beyond a doubt that the mass murder was willingly carried out by Poles, who beat Jewish men, women, and children in the streets before rounding up nearly all who remained—half the town’s population—and burning them alive in a barn.
“We hypothesized that the frightening tragedy of the Polish Jews would cure the Poles of anti-Semitism,” wrote the journalist Wincenty Bednarczuk after Kielce. “It cannot be any other way, we thought, but that the sight of massacred children and old people must evoke a response of compassion and help.. .. But we didn’t know human nature.... It turned out that our notions about mankind were naive. The country surprised us.” In fact, far from being wiped out, anti-Semitism continued to be so virulent after the war’s end that Poles who had hidden Jews or otherwise helped them during the war guarded their good deeds with a secrecy normally reserved for the most heinous crimes—for fear of reprisals from their fellow citizens.
In Fear, Gross takes the argument of Neighbors a devastating step further. Jedwabne, he now concludes, may have been anomalous in its scale, but it was not an isolated incident. The ingrained anti-Semitism that made it possible for half the citizens of a town to rise up against the other half was a general feature of Polish society. Rather than magically disappearing after May 1945, it continued to manifest itself in violence against Jews until its climax in the murderous rampage in Kielce the following year—which, like the Jedwabne pogrom, was carried out in large part by ordinary Poles. “This could have happened anywhere in Poland, and at any time during this period,” Gross writes. “Evidently the moral economy of Polish society after the war allowed for the murdering of Jews.”
How did such a “moral economy” come to exist? Part of the blame, of course, rests with the Nazis, who formulated their policies and propaganda deliberately to dehumanize the Jews so as to make their genocide as self-evident, as uncontroversial, as the extermination of vermin. “The Germans accustomed our children and us grown-ups as well to concepts of differentiating between human beings and people who were less than human.... A well-known question asked by a small child was widely written about in the underground press: ‘Mommy, was it a human being that was killed or a Jew?’” wrote one Polish journalist in December 1945. “I cannot forecast the future moral development of children who during their formative years, when moral and ethical notions crystallize, were taught that it is all right to kill a few million people.” But Gross’s book documents, in disturbing and indisputable detail, that many Poles did not need the Germans to teach them this lesson. Auschwitz simply made it easier for them to act upon what they already believed.
ON JULY 1, 1946, HENRYK BLASZCZYK, eight years old, hitched a ride from Kielce, an unremarkable mid-size city in south-central Poland, to visit friends in a village fifteen miles away. He returned two days later, telling his parents that he had been kidnapped by Jews and hidden in the cellar of their Kielce headquarters on Planty Street, from which he had escaped. The following morning, July 4, the boy, his father, and a neighbor reported the crime to the police and then proceeded, accompanied by police officers, to the Jewish Committee building, spreading the word en route of Henryk’s kidnapping and their plan to arrest the Jews and liberate the other children held there. It was quickly discovered that Henryk had been lying: the building had no cellar. But a crowd of police and civilians had already gathered. A confrontation ensued between the police and the state Security Service, which had been called in on the suspicion that the incident was a “provocation” on the part of the Jews to stir up unrest. Soon about a hundred soldiers appeared and the crowd briefly settled down; the Jews in the building, according to one witness, “sighed with relief, convinced that this was our rescue. And shooting began. But directed at us, not at the assailants.”
The police and the military entered the building and forced its inhabitants outside for the crowd to attack with pipes, stones, and their bare hands. Once they saw the soldiers engaged in violence against the residents, the mob let loose. One policeman testified that “Jews were brought from the building into the square, where the population cruelly murdered them, and the armed soldiers … went back into the building and kept bringing out other Jews.” A Jewish woman deposed two days later recalled that a policeman threw two girls off a third-floor balcony “and the crowd in the courtyard finished them off.” The head of the Jewish Committee was shot in the back while telephoning the Security Service for help. Despite efforts from individual army commanders to restore order, the violence went on all morning. A second surge began when workers from a nearby foundry showed up on their lunch break to join in. Injured Jews lucky enough to escape were assaulted in the hospitals by other patients and even the staff. A Polish nurse who came from a town more than seventy miles away to help—only she and a single Jewish doctor were willing to minister to the victims—testified that some of the patients had been treated so cruelly that when she first approached them, they tried to hide under their beds.
The violence spread throughout the city: according to one historian, up to one-quarter of Kielce’s adult population was actively involved. Anyone who appeared to be Jewish was in danger. There was no coordination; in many cases, people who banded together to carry out attacks did not even know each other. The incidents that Gross reports are unbearable to read. Regina Fisz, a mother with a newborn baby, was taken from her home, along with a male friend, by an impromptu gang of four men, among them a police corporal. The men had no plan for how to dispose of their victims, so they flagged down a truck driver to ask for a ride, telling him, in the corporal’s words, “we had Jews whom we wanted to take out to kill. The driver agreed, he only asked for a thousand zloty, and I said, ‘It’s a deal.’” (It is worth remembering that the “Jews” in this case consisted of a man, a woman, and a baby.) The driver took them to a forest outside the city, where Fisz and her baby were shot, while the friend escaped. Afterward, the four men left the bodies for locals to bury and adjourned to a restaurant with the truck driver, where they enjoyed a meal together and split the proceeds from the sale of the two adults’ valuables.
Such incidents were not limited to the city center. A student walking by a creek on the outskirts of Kielce that afternoon came upon a crowd stoning a young Jewish man. “I remember that he had a vest and a white shirt, and he wasn’t screaming or moving anymore. With head hanging low he was just standing in the middle of that creek.” The people “were throwing stones in a somehow detached, leisurely manner—a stone would fly, people saw whether the man fell, then somebody else would throw a stone.” All the while they were talking among themselves in what the student described as a “picniclike atmosphere.” “They shared their impressions, observations, how this one caught a Jew here, and that one somewhere else.... They were lifting stones and throwing them calmly, as if the death of a human being ... were not at stake here. This was the most incredible sight.”
As the hysteria spread to the railway station, even Jews on trains passing through Kielce became potential targets. As Gross reports, Boy Scouts aboard the trains helped to finger Jewish passengers, who were either pulled out and murdered in the station or thrown off as the trains passed through. In at least one instance the dispatcher held a train at Kielce longer than the scheduled stop to allow more time for the “impromptu pogrom” to proceed. One man waiting to meet a passenger at the station testified that when he tried to help the victims, he was threatened by a crowd yelling, “Jews have killed our children and you dare to defend them!”
A historian who passed through the station that day as a ten-year-old boy later recalled it as a defining moment of his life. He remembered an atmosphere of excitement after the train stopped; then a boy appeared at the door of his compartment and looked all the passengers over. Soon a group of armed railway guards came for one of the men: “Today I know that he was a Jew, a man with Semitic features.” The man was shot on the spot. Years later, the historian was still “helpless” to explain what had happened: On the one hand there was ... a sense that something bad, not good, was taking place, but that it could not be helped. It was happening because it had to be that way. And no attempt to respond, to defend, nothing of the sort…
One can speak about long embedded anti-Semitism but this is not enough.... I know today that I was one of many people—my age is of no importance—who did not react at all to this. The remainder of the trip passed as if nothing had happened.... The entire society behaved this way. For decades this matter was covered under a veil of silence.
THE HUMAN RESPONSE TO such reports is simply to howl, “Why?” It is to Gross’s credit that he manages to turn his own howl—his meticulously researched book is not devoid of emotion—into a serious investigation of how these brutalities could have occurred. He quickly writes off the Blaszczyks’ given explanation: the ancient canard of ritual murder—the use of the blood of Christian children to bake matzo—which took on a perverse new twist after the war, when emaciated and depleted concentration camp survivors were said to seek Polish children for “blood transfusions.” Although, unbelievably, residents of Kielce interviewed as late as the mid-1980s were still not willing completely to disavow the blood libel, Gross finds compelling evidence that it could not have been the primary motivator for the pogrom—not the least of which is that, after the Jewish Committee moved out of its building on Planty Street, locals were happy to help themselves to the provisions that were left behind, including matzo. “I liked it too, why not,” said one Polish woman interviewed for a documentary about the pogrom.
Gross treats more seriously the claim that the violence was incited by Jewish collaboration with the communists, a belief that is held by many in Poland to this day. As a commission led by Kielce’s bishop, Czeslaw Kaczmarek, to investigate the pogrom wrote in a report delivered to the American ambassador later that year, “Jews are disliked, even hated on the entire territory of Poland” because of their preferential treatment by the Soviets in exchange for collaboration. “The vast majority of the Jews in Poland eagerly proselytize Communism, work in the notorious Security Service, make arrests, torture prisoners and kill them,” wrote Kaczmarek, “and for this they are disliked by society, which does not like Communism and has had enough of Gestapo-like methods.” (Of course, everyone in postwar Europe had “had enough of Gestapo-like methods,” but the Jews most of all.)
Gross acknowledges that some Jews did occupy positions of responsibility in the Security Service, though Poles of course held many more. But he rightly shows to be nonsense the idea that Jews systematically informed on their Polish neighbors—and that they benefited materially as a result. One Polish woman, believing the rumors that the Jews were “rich, powerful, and well-connected,” had gone to the Jewish Committee building shortly before the pogrom to seek help for her mother in prison; the family had sheltered Jews during the war, and she presented a letter from the woman they had saved. She found that the rooms were barely furnished, and their occupants “seemed like they were shipwrecked.... [They looked] sad, subdued, crushed.” Needless to say, no one there had any “connections,” but they offered to start a collection to help her hire a lawyer. Gross notes the discrepancy between these two stereotypes: the images of rich and powerful Jews torturing Poles and emaciated Jews returning from concentration camps to prey on Polish children for their blood cannot be logically reconciled.
Gross concludes that the depth and the ferocity of postwar Polish antiSemitism, which he describes as a “cultural phenomenon,” must stem from psychological sources, arguing that it was “widespread collusion in the Nazi- driven plunder, spoliation, and eventual murder of the Jews that generated Polish anti-Semitism after the war.” Again, clearly anticipating the inevitable attacks, he has marshaled an array of shocking evidence, much of it from contemporaneous newspaper and magazine reports and testimonies of Jewish survivors returning to Poland. As he demonstrates, the mass murder of Polish Jews created a “social vacuum” that the Poles jockeyed to fill, foremost by taking over the possessions that their Jewish friends and neighbors had abandoned. What was robbed from the Jews ranged from the existential to the minuscule. Survivors who had left property with their neighbors often were unable to get it back: the legal department of the Central Committee for Polish Jews recorded a variety of complaints, including one from a woman trying to reclaim “two eiderdowns and four pillows.” There were no societal or legal norms regulating the return of Jewish property, only the understanding that “those who were more intimately involved with dispossessing the Jews had a better claim on the goods than anyone else.”
Locals, Gross writes, “came to perceive Jews as a resource that could be harvested,” to the point of territorial behavior: opportunists who arrived from other villages after a pogrom were told to plunder their own Jews. When one Polish woman went to Radzilow, a village in northeastern Poland, to claim an apartment among the vacancies left after Jews were killed in a pogrom during the summer of 1941—since the publication of Neighbors, Gross has discovered that Jedwabne-like pogroms took place in many villages in the area—a man reproached her for “not having been there when people were needed to kill the Jews, and only showing up later.... ‘You could have killed ten Jews and you would have gotten a house.’” The woman’s mother-in-law spoke up in the family’s defense, pointing out that on the day of the pogrom, her grandson had poured gasoline on the roof of the barn where the Jews were imprisoned. As with the Kielce truck driver who needed no convincing to join in the murder of a Jewish baby, the most chilling element of this story is the mother-in-law’s unself- conscious assertion of the family’s rights: the morality of killing Jews is not up for discussion, nor is there any evidence of coercion. As Gross wrote in Neighbors, “Local Polish people killed the Jews because they wanted to, not because they had to.”
HOW DID RELATIONS BETWEEN Poles and Jews—who had lived together in the same cities and villages, for the most part peaceably, for hundreds of years—so thoroughly and violently unravel? Indeed, one of the most tragic features of the Jedwabne killings is the familiarity between the victims and their executioners, a closeness recalled fondly by both sides. “Everybody was on a first-name basis, Janek, Icek,” said a Polish pharmacist interviewed for a documentary about Jedwabne. “Life here was ... somehow idyllic.” When discussing the Jedwabne pogrom with Gross, Rabbi Jacob Baker, who emigrated from the town before the war, used the diminutives “Franek” and “Staszek” to identify two of the most brutal murderers. Marta Kurkowska-Budzan, a social historian who grew up in Jedwabne and interviewed some of the residents before the news of the pogrom became public, found numerous stories of cooperation and friendship among Polish and Jewish residents. A man who served as a butcher’s apprentice had assisted the local shochet in ritual slaughter and remembered some Yiddish; a woman who led the local Catholic girls’ youth group became interested in Jewish dance and later taught it to Polish children.
Yet a chasm opens wide beneath these surface pleasantries. Consider the language used by even the most horrified observers of the Kielce pogrom: the victims are never simply identified as women or men, but always as “Jews.” (It is worth noting that the Polish word for Jew, Zyd, has unavoidably negative overtones.) “Jews were brought from the building into the square, where the population cruelly murdered them, and the armed soldiers ... went back into the building and kept bringing out other Jews,” says the policeman. The student who witnessed the stoning in the creek speaks of “a Jew, a twenty-some-year-old man. ...” At the same time, Poles speak of other Poles, even those who have committed murder, as “our people,” nasze ludzie. “A [German] gendarme stood on the balcony and looked at the scene. But our people did it,” testified an inhabitant of Radzilow about the pogrom there. When Kurkowska-Budzan asked her interviewees who killed Jedwabne’s Jews, they answered, “Ours.” As Joanna B. Michlic demonstrates in her important new book, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present, the distinction between “ourselves” and “the other” (foreigners, usually Jews) has long been a crux of Polish national identity.
has confessed his inability to understand how “a wave of crimes against Polish citizens, committed over an extended period of time by numerous Polish citizens” —in Jedwabne as well as in some two dozen other villages in the region—had remained invisible to historians for so long. The answer is that the Jews were not really considered Polish citizens. The two populations had lived side by side and were often socially or economically interdependent, but that did not negate their essential separation, which Michlic attributes to the enduringly powerful tropes of anti-Semitism disseminated by the Catholic Church in Poland and by the press. Another important factor, particularly in eastern Poland during the interwar years, was the right-wing National Democratic Party, which argued that the Jews were the worst threat to Poland’s independence and advocated their removal.
And after the war, the Polish population simply did not have room in its national narrative for the crimes it had perpetrated against another group in its midst. According to the mythology that arose, the Poles had heroically struggled against both the Nazis and the Soviets before finally, bitterly, succumbing. Like all national mythologies, it is founded on truth: the Poles did struggle heroically, and they were indeed victimized terribly by their occupiers and oppressors. The history of Poland in the twentieth century inspires both compassion and awe. But victimization does not erase historical agency. Not only are victims still capable of criminal acts, but their victimization can sometimes function as the psychological foundation for their criminal acts. No matter what depredations have been perpetrated against a group, that group must still be responsible for its own actions. (Can the country that created Solidarity really be considered a pathetic pawn of history?)
“If the Nazis had eradicated Jewish life in view of stunned and traumatized (rather than mostly indifferent and partly complicitous) Polish neighbors, postwar anti-Semitic violence would have been a practical and a psychological impossibility,” Gross concludes. He has support from a contemporaneous authority, the sociologist Stanislaw Ossowski, who wrote an article about Polish attitudes toward Jews that appeared shortly after the Kielce pogrom:
Let one imagine that in 1939 someone predicted the inconceivable destruction of the Jewish population in Poland… Let us imagine that ... we were asked to deduce what the attitudes of the Polish population would be toward the remnants of the Jews in 1945 and 1946. Simple human compassion, in view of the terrible sufferings of the murdered masses and the horror of the extermination camps; hatred of a common enemy; blood jointly shed … these would be arguments sufficing, probably, to lead one to conclude that in postwar Poland anti-Semitism as a social phenomenon would be an impossibility. But someone more insightful, or more cynical, or more disputatious, or better informed about historical precedents could have reminded us even then that compassion is not the only imaginable response to misfortune suffered by other people. That those whom fate has destined for annihilation easily can appear disgusting to others, and be removed beyond the pale of human relations… We could be reminded that if one person’s disaster benefits somebody else, an urge appears to persuade oneself and others that that disaster was morally justified.
So let us imagine, now, that in 1999 someone had predicted the revelation that the inconceivable destruction of the Jewish population in Poland had been carried out in part by Polish hands—by the Jews’ Polish neighbors. Let us imagine that we were asked to deduce what the attitudes of the Polish population would be toward the historians and the journalists who unearthed these stories and toward the survivors and their descendants who asked for some kind of recognition on the part of the public. Simple human compassion in view of the terrible sufferings that had taken place; sorrow and shame that ordinary Poles could have committed such heinous crimes against unarmed victims; a desire to apologize, to bring all the facts to light and to rewrite the falsified pages of history—these would be arguments sufficing, probably, to lead one to conclude that in twenty-first-century Poland anti-Semitism as a social phenomenon would be an impossibility.
But, as Stanislaw Ossowski discovered, “compassion is not the only imaginable response to misfortune suffered by other people.” Neighbors garnered accolades in the United States and abroad, but it was the subject of a passionate and often appalling debate in Poland. While some journalists and academics supported Gross’s conclusions, others—including revisionist historians, members of the clergy, and much of Jedwabne’s current population and leadership—savagely attacked both the book and its author, arguing that the murderers represented only a handful of thugs rather than the general public, quibbling over the precise number of Jews killed at Jedwabne, and claiming, again, that the attack was revenge for the Jews’ collaboration with the Soviets (a myth that persists to this day). Fear has not yet appeared in Poland, but preliminary mentions in the press leave no reason to doubt that it will meet with a similar reception. One is shocked to read of the brutalities in Jedwabne and Kielce, but the shock is mitigated somewhat by the knowledge that sixty years have passed since these crimes. There can be no such consolation reading about the responses to Jedwabne. Far from regarding Neighbors as an opportunity to come clean about the past and to ask for forgiveness, many in Poland treated Gross’s book as a personal affront, with reactions ranging from defensively churlish to openly anti-Semitic. At a ceremony held in Jedwabne on July 10, 2001, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the pogrom, President Aleksander Kwasniewski issued a formal apology “in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose consciences are shattered by this crime.” Sadly, he did not speak for the majority of his constituents: in a poll conducted around the same time, 60 percent of the respondents opposed offering any apology for the pogrom.
An insulting debate was conducted over the semantics of a new monument to replace the old one that held the Nazis responsible for the crime; the inscription that was finally decided upon honors the dead but does not name their murderers, despite complaints from Jewish groups and the Israeli ambassador. The commemoration ceremony was boycotted by almost all of Jedwabne’s residents, who posted signs reading “We Do Not Apologize” and “Let the Slanderers Apologize to the Polish Nation.” Also not in attendance were any representatives of the Polish church: not the local priest, Edward Orlowski, who had claimed that “what happened in Jedwabne also happened all over Europe,” or Cardinal Jozef Glemp, who said in a statement that the Jews should apologize for collaborating with the Soviets. (Just a few months earlier, a priest in Gdansk had constructed an Easter display featuring a replica of the charred barn from Jedwabne with the words “Jews killed Jesus, the prophets, and also persecuted us”; thankfully, he was ordered to remove it.)
It should be said that many Poles did confront the news from Jedwabne with sadness and horror, and did try to use the occasion to pay their respects to the memory of the murdered Jews and to their descendants. The town’s mayor attempted to rename a local school in honor of Antonina Wyrzykowska, a local woman who saved seven Jedwabne Jews by hiding them in her home and as a result has been ostracized by the community. (Not only was the mayor’s proposal rejected, but he had to resign after participating in the commemoration ceremony.) One resident told a journalist that she lights a candle at the memorial every year on the anniversary of the murders, “without letting anyone see me.” And liberal commentators raged against the ignorance and viciousness of their compatriots. “The tragedy of Jedwabne, which sixty years after the fact could have become a national catharsis and an occasion for correcting Poland’s record in the international marketplace of the conscience, has become merely the latest display of Polish failure,” wrote Jerzy Slawomir Mac in a leading opinion magazine. But such voices sound sadly thin against the torrent of unreconstructed anti-Semitism unleashed by this episode.
Not unjustifiedly, those who have been honest enough to recognize the beastly tenor of the debate tend to carefully separate themselves culturally from the elements of society that they are criticizing. There is a sense among Polish intellectuals that anti-Semitism is something of a class issue: a problem among the masses, certainly, but not for the elite. But this can be true only up to a point. Consider one particularly bizarre contemporary manifestation of anti-Semitism: the trend, in certain cities, for rival soccer teams to label their opponents “Jews.” Visiting Lodz several years ago, I was bewildered to find Jewish stars and swastikas spray-painted all over town, together with the tags of the soccer teams. “These are young boys, students, hooligans, just making trouble,” said one person I asked about the graffiti, a cultured woman in her sixties. I later learned that it is a common anti-Semitic trope for the word “Jew” to be used as a generic slur, regardless of whether the person being insulted is actually Jewish—in Poland it has been applied not only to soccer players, but also to members of parliament and even to priests.
To write off such uglinesses, even relatively insignificant ones, as the problem of a different sector of society is a dangerous evasion. The issue of class is visible in the background of the various accounts examined here, from the lawyer whom Primo Levi welcomed as a “spokesman of the civilized world” to the student who observed the stoning in the creek to the future historian in the railway carriage. These were all members of the intelligentsia who chose, at least in the reports here, not to confront the anti-Semitism they witnessed even as they privately condemned it. And there is every sign that the Polish elite still do not recognize how serious a problem Polish anti-Semitism continues to be.
This summer, after Elie Wiesel wrote that he had been the subject of anti-Semitic attacks after giving a speech in Kielce ten years ago, Adam Michnik, a former dissident who is the editor-in-chief of Poland’s leading liberal newspaper, responded angrily that Wiesel had conveyed “the image of a country unable to confront the plague of anti-Semitism.” Citing the debate over Neighbors, Michnik wrote that “there is probably no other country in East Central Europe that would be accounting for the dark chapters of its own history with such seriousness and honesty.” To write about anti-Semitism in Poland without acknowledging this, he said, “falsifies—even if unintentionally- -the truth about Poland.” Who does not have the deepest respect for Adam Michnik, one of the founders of the Solidarity movement? Not surprisingly, his newspaper published many of the most responsible and thoughtful articles about Jedwabne. But to say that the debate over Neighbors as a whole represented a serious and honest intellectual accounting is itself a falsification.
ELEVEN YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS a student in Krakow, Poland’s Jewish past was still something of a dark secret. It was not always easy to find sites of Jewish interest in Poland, or people willing to talk about them. Synagogues lay unrestored, their distinguishing details obscured by piles of rubble. Memorials to the victims of the Holocaust were in out-of-the-way spots, often unmarked on maps. Even the Jewish cemetery in Lodz, the largest in all of Europe, was entered from a back street, its gate unmarked. Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, was largely deserted, with only the glimmerings of the once-rich Jewish community evident: one synagogue held services, and the bookstore across the street had just hung out a shingle advertising “Schindler’s List” tours. The only Jewish issue that received prominent press coverage that summer was a minor scandal involving a flea market vendor who had been selling what he claimed was “Jewish soap” from the Stutthof concentration camp.
Now anyone who reads the travel pages has heard about the muchballyhooed renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland, complete with sold-out klezmer festivals and a popular brand of spirits called “Kosher Vodka.” Half a dozen Jewish-themed hotels welcome visitors to Kazimierz, with names like “Alef” and “Ester” and “Klezmer Hois”; the “Eden” sports mezuzahs on every door and advertises “the only mikveh bath in Poland,” as if it were a jacuzzi. Kazimierz also boasts a number of Jewish restaurants, which interpret the cuisine creatively but can turn out a decent matzo-ball soup. On sale everywhere are sepia-toned postcards depicting the neighborhood a century ago, with “Kazimierz” spelled in Yiddish across the bottom, as well as wooden figurines of Jews with painted-on black coats and beards and prayerbooks.
This grim carnival of Holocaust tourism and Western capital is neither a sign nor a symptom of a greater change in Polish society. It is evidence only of the Polish national schizophrenia on the subject of Jews. It is lovely to restore old buildings and to cherish a culture that has perished. But the celebration of the Jews of Poland cannot substitute for a genuine confrontation with the manner of their disappearance: when, where, and by whom. There is no indication that the consumers of “Kosher Vodka” are interested in engaging in such a reckoning any time soon. As recently as January 2004, 40 percent of the respondents to a nationwide survey believed that Poland was “still being governed by Jews.”
This article originally ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of the magazine.