A Haunted Journey | The Nation


A Haunted Journey

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While traveling I devoured in one night a small book titled Ghastly Decade, 1939-1948 by Jan Tomasz Gross, who now teaches at New York University. What shook me were extracts from the diary of a decent Polish doctor describing terrible days in a small town called Szczebrzeszyn. The diary reveals that in the shtetl there, as in so many others, most of the Jews were not killed after deportation or behind walls; they were massacred in full view of their Polish neighbors. Some denounced Jews trying to escape; others grabbed the spoils.

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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.

Let there be no mistake: The extermination of the Jews was the work of the Germans, or rather the Nazis; to come to the rescue of Jews in Poland was to risk the death penalty for your whole family, and you cannot expect a nation to be made up of heroes. But there is a difference between heroism, indifference and open hostility, illustrated by such despicable comments as "Hitler is a bastard, but he is solving our Jewish problem." Since amnesia is a disease for nations as well as individuals, Gross is right in arguing that the Poles must dig into their past to understand why the coexistence of the two communities ended in such a horrible fashion.

Everyone examines the world through his own prism. I emerged from the ghetto as a child and moved to the district of Zoliborz, with its progressive school and socialist environment. Most of my friends were not Jewish, and I had no problems, though I knew about anti-Semitism, about shops displaying a sign saying "Christian" (i.e., not owned by Jews), about Jewish students forced to sit on separate benches at the university or being beaten up by fascist thugs. But I thought at the time that the right was anti-Semitic and that the left, on the whole, was not; despite General Moczar's 1968 purge, I still think I was fundamentally correct. It was a question of left and right. I know too many Poles who are beyond reproach on this issue to indulge in generalizations, and whenever I feel that I am beginning to oversimplify, I recall a personal episode showing the full complexity of the issue.

The families of both my parents, as I said, were wiped out--with one major exception. A wealthy uncle managed to immigrate early on, through Japan to Palestine. He took his sons and sons-in-law with him, leaving the wives and children behind on the naïve assumption that even the Nazis would not harm women and children. When it became obvious that the ghetto was doomed, two of his grandchildren were handed over to the black-market partner of my uncle's Gentile chauffeur. The man, an adventurer who belonged to an anti-Semitic group, thought he was making a good investment: The gratitude of the man of wealth would, after the war, insure his future. What started as a calculation turned into a splendid tale of love. He came to cherish his two new children like the two he already had. But to keep them permanently concealed was a perilous, nerve-racking business. At one stage, one of the boys needed an operation. How do you take a legally nonexistent patient to the hospital? Money can work wonders, and our adventurer sold his apartment to perform the miracle.

Unique and Comparable

I am reminded of wartime relations as I drink coffee in Krakow's beautiful central square with Jan Blonski, professor of literature at the local university, whose comments on Polish attitudes toward murdered Jews provoked a nationalist backlash in 1986. He was brought up, like myself, in Zoliborz. It was there that, as a 10-year-old, he saw emerging from the sewers two Jewish boys, one his age, one younger, looking bewildered at the bright world outside. He knew he couldn't really help them and felt relieved that somehow he was not responsible; now he is ashamed of that feeling and has tears in his eyes as he recalls that scene.

Blonski is rather optimistic. In time, he thinks, prejudice may disappear. His students are not at all anti-Semitic and are genuinely interested in their country's Jewish past. This last point is confirmed by my subsequent appointment with Janina Rogozik, who has just completed a 600-page doctoral thesis on my father, who wrote in both Polish and Yiddish. Rogozik, fascinated by this Jewish writer, proves so devoutly Catholic that, on a Friday, we must search for a place where she can find a meatless meal.

Krakow has not been destroyed like the Polish capital, and the Jewish district, Kazimierz, is also standing. Indeed, its most attractive square, with its four synagogues and cemetery, is beginning to look too commercial. One sign offers "Schindler's List Tours." I have fewer recollections from childhood here and am glad to be taken around by Raphael Scharf, who left the city for London on the eve of the war but comes back regularly to help the enterprising Center for Jewish Culture. He shows me where the more than 60,000 Jews, accounting for a quarter of the town's population, used to live. He confirms that Remuh Cemetery is the place where Trotsky's biographer, my friend Isaac Deutscher, ate a pork sausage as a youngster on the Day of Atonement atop the tomb of a famous tzaddik and, having thus tremblingly defied Jehovah, emerged an atheist. As priests and rabbis clash over the heritage, this is a useful reminder that among the victims very many were not religious and quite a few, to use the term Deutscher coined, were "non-Jewish Jews."

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