After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won’t be here, we will have vanished just as the Aztecs have vanished.
–Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
Nalewki, Nowolipie, Nowolipki–the names are the same, but the streets are not. It is like visiting a haunted city. Here once stood the bustling, overcrowded, colorful Jewish district of Warsaw, the heart of Yiddishkeit, the world center of Jewish intellectual and political life. Now it is a plain, unexceptional, reconstructed part of the Polish capital. The Jews have vanished in Poland, but anti-Semitism has not.
Is this contemporary anti-Semitism just a remnant of the past? Or does this search for scapegoats reflect a deeper sickness? And does the fact that a whole community–one-tenth of the total Polish population–was exterminated here, amid what some call outside indifference, weigh on the Polish conscience? Anti-Semitism is a Polish problem. How serious it is remains to be seen, though the outside world would not pay so much attention if it had not survived here in the shadow of the Shoah.
There is a personal aspect to my trip. I was born in Warsaw. If it had not been for a stroke of luck–a doctor recommended the Mediterranean climate for my sinus trouble and my father, a successful journalist, was able to send me, my sister and my mother to the French Riviera in the summer of 1939–I probably would have followed the bulk of both my parents’ families to the gas chambers of Treblinka. I nearly wrote “should have followed,” since I quite often see myself as a deserter from death. Thus, what started as an inquiry into anti-Semitism without Jews turned, inevitably, into a journey back into childhood and a pilgrimage from the Warsaw ghetto through Krakow’s Kazimierz to Auschwitz in search of a vanished people.
Remnants of a People
One of the first things you learn as a child and that sticks in your mind is your address. Nowolipie 3, Apartment 3. I had no difficulty finding the place, even though it bore no resemblance to the original. I was not surprised. In 1947, as a student in England, I did go back. Warsaw was badly battered, its Old Town in ruins, but the ghetto was reduced to rubble, literally razed, with only the skeleton of a Catholic church left standing, a sinister and unforgettable sight. It is on top of that rubble that they put up new houses–at first, big gray slabs, blocks of flats hastily built to absorb the homeless; then, more comfortable accommodations. This new section of the town was built with the ruins of the ghetto as its foundation.
Although we moved away from the ghetto when I was a child, I used to go back there on Sundays with my father to buy herring, pickles and various kinds of kosher charcuterie. My most striking memory is of a multitude of people. More than 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, roughly one-third of the city’s population, and most of them were packed into that district. There were tailors, cobblers, watchmakers. There were shops galore, some with windows displaying luxuries, many of them mere stalls. There were a few wealthy financiers and lots of Luftmenschen tossed about by the Depression. There were Hasidim in their religious garb and atheists; Zionists dreaming of a homeland in Palestine and Bundists determined to build a national future with the proletariat from crafts and light industry; Stalinists and Trotskyists. Yiddish was the dominant tongue. Two daily papers were published in that language and one in Polish. There was a famous theater, with Ida Kaminska as its star. There was politics and philosophy, poetry and passion. All this was wiped out in less than four years.