A Haunted Journey | The Nation


A Haunted Journey

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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

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

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.

The figures speak for themselves: Jews represented about one-tenth of Poland's prewar population of some 35 million (and well over a quarter of town dwellers). After the Holocaust, even if we include among them those who survived in the Soviet Union, only about 300,000 were left. More than nine-tenths of Polish Jews had perished, and most of the survivors did not stay in Poland. A first wave left the country, amid the insecurity of a virtual civil war, after a pogrom in Kielce on July 4, 1946. A second wave followed in 1968, when Wladyslaw Gomulka, the Communist leader, allowed Gen. Mieczyslaw Moczar to turn the "anti-Zionist" campaign into a purge of the Jews. ("This," I heard several times, was "the moral end of Communism.")

How many Jews are left today? Stan Krajewski, co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, puts the number registered at a maximum of 6,000. Even if you add those who hid under an assumed non-Jewish name during the war and kept the new identity, you're still left with 25,000-30,000 at most, an insignificant figure when set against a total population of 40 million.

Among those born after the war, the consciousness of being Jewish has often come only recently. Stan, who at the end of a sophisticated argument puts on a yarmulke and says a prayer in Hebrew, is the great-grandson of Adolf Warski, Rosa Luxemburg's companion, that is to say, a fourth-generation atheist. Konstanty Gebert, who under the pen name Warszawski was a prominent writer for Solidarity, now devotes most of his time to editing Midrasz, a Jewish monthly published in Polish. Gebert's father was co-founder of the American Communist Party. Disliking the term "born-again Jews," they prefer the neologism "disassimilated." On the other hand, Bella Szwarcman, a Midrasz editor, had a Jewish upbringing; her world collapsed in 1968, when most of her Jewish friends emigrated. Jakob Gutelman, a respected scientist, is president of Children of the Holocaust, those who survived in the camps or in hiding. There are 700 members, including a Catholic priest. As we talk, those from a younger generation, grandchildren of the Holocaust, come into his office with their problems.

All these people are not asking for much. They want to live as Polish citizens with their own religion and culture and, possibly, the recognition that difference is an asset, not a threat. Their efforts to preserve their Jewishness against the odds are moving. They should be helped. A new law requiring the restitution of prewar property to religious and ethnic communities may provide some funds to restore the Jewish heritage, notably the badly neglected cemeteries (the one in Warsaw has improved somewhat, thanks to the efforts of American Jews of Polish origin, though there is still plenty to be done). But the survivors, for all their laudable efforts, can be no more than keepers of a shrine. The lively community that once irrigated and inspired Jewish life the world over is dead and will not be resurrected.

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