A Haunted Journey

A Haunted Journey

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.


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.

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.

The Virgin Mary Is Polish

Its object having disappeared, the resentment remains. You can read it scribbled on the walls. Next to the cemetery, on a monument to Jewish and Polish victims, one sees the weirdly bilingual phrase Juif Raus (“Jews Get Out”). Elsewhere, an insult for a soccer team someone dislikes: Legia=Zydy (best rendered as “Knicks=Kikes”). You can find it, less crudely stated, in the press of the extreme right. Seeking an anti-Semite ready to talk, I visited the weekly Mysl Polska, which in one of its stories had described the removal of the crosses outside Auschwitz before the Pope’s visit as “a shame imposed on the Polish nation, on God’s people.” When we met, the editor did not come up to expectations. He spoke of foreign Jewish pressure in most diplomatic tones.

There are more subtle symptoms, like the reluctance of the Catholic hierarchy to disown Father Henryk Jankowski, a Gdansk priest, after he proclaimed that “the Jewish minority should not be accepted in our government,” and the fact, mentioned by many, that anti-Semitic remarks do not make you the odd man out in polite society. There is also the more worrisome success of Radio Maryja, with an audience of 3-4 million, which allows its talk-show participants to preach that Poland is being endangered by a Jewish-inspired international plot.

Xenophobia, although never justified, may have its reason. Historically, to the Polish peasants the Jew was the representative of money in the countryside and, quite often, the servant of the exploiting landlord. In the towns, Jewish dominance of trade could be, and was, utilized as a bait to mobilize the Polish middle class. But what reason can one find for passionate attacks on a remnant representing less than a tenth of 1 percent of the population?

Let us dismiss at once the argument most often heard: that anti-Semitism survived because of the large number of Jews in the Communist leadership. It is not at all surprising that oppressed Jews, seeking equality, were attracted by a universalist doctrine stressing class as opposed to race or nation and that their proportion in the CP was higher than in the general population. Since the leadership after the war was brought back from Moscow, it reflected this prewar proportion. But one should not confuse cause and pretext. I recall, while touring the United States in 1982 for Solidarity, speaking at a meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts. Some Jewish students there argued, Why bother about Poles, who are all anti-Semites? One of a group of Polish farmers protested, No, we simply hate reds, and he rolled off the names Berman, Minc and other Jews in the leadership. With the mike at my disposal, it was easy to answer: You may hate reds or capitalists, but in the latter case, if you always mention the Rothschilds and never the Rockefellers, there is a sneaking suspicion that you are anti-Semitic.

Before the war, a key source of anti-Semitism was a reactionary Catholic Church dominating a backward, predominantly rural country. I remember discovering from my friends in the countryside that Jesus was a Pole, because you were either Jewish or Polish, and Christ clearly could not be a Jew. I now hear, from a progressive priest, a more up-to-date version: The Poles have resigned themselves to the idea that Jesus was a Jew, but not the Virgin Mary. What role does the church play now?

I arrived in Warsaw on the day of the Pope’s departure, just in time to see the celebration of his cult: a huge cross dominating Warsaw’s main square (now renamed after Marshal Joseph Pilsudski), with banners everywhere. The one next to my hotel claimed, “Without Jesus you can’t understand either this nation or this town.” The church is stronger than I thought, though the hierarchy is perturbed by modern cultural trends threatening its hold, particularly on the young. On the Jewish question, I am assured, things have somewhat improved since the declaration by John Paul II that “anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, is a sin against God and humankind.” The tolerant wing of the hierarchy has gained some ground, though, judging by its conduct in the unending confrontation over the Auschwitz crosses and in the Jankowski case, there are still plenty of sinners within the Polish Church from the lowest clergy to the cardinal at the very top.

According to sociological studies and polls, the church’s traditional anti-Semitism, based on the teaching that “the Jews murdered Christ,” is declining and survives mainly in rural areas and among the old and uneducated. In the cities the prevailing prejudice is against Jews as masters of finance, plotting to dominate the world. The Jew is a scapegoat–in the famous words of August Bebel, anti-Semitism is the “socialism of fools.” The industrial workers, who rightly feel that as members of Solidarity they were the prime movers in the country’s political transformation, have discovered that they are the main victims of the transition to capitalism. The peasants fear that Poland’s entry into the European Union, with its more efficient farming methods, will mean their elimination. Since the blame for such bitter disappointments cannot be put on “our own people,” it is attributed to outsiders, and the Jew is still the symbol of the alien, the foreign exploiter. During my brief stay in Poland, 20,000 striking nurses paralyzed Warsaw, and fired workers from Radom fought a bloody battle with the police in the capital. These samples of discontent were a counterpoint to the fashionable stories about a splendid, painless transition.

In fact, the target is an imaginary figure. According to Adam Michnik (a leader of Solidarity in the eighties, now editor of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza), the classic anti-Semite argued that if you are a Jew, you must be a villain. The new anti-Semite says: Because you are a villain, you must be a Jew. Thus the scope for invention is unlimited. Indeed, if you took at their face value the slimy leaflets pretending to “reveal” the alleged real Jewish names of people pretending to be “true Poles,” you would conclude that anybody who mattered in Poland–President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Lech Walesa, even the Pope–was a Jew. It’s no wonder that when they are asked by pollsters to estimate the number of Jews in Poland, over a fifth of all Poles say more than half a million, and quite a few say 5 million.

Many more explanations of the survival of anti-Semitism have been offered. One is that since there was no collaboration with the Germans in Poland, the anti-Semites were not as discredited as in Western Europe, and soon after the war it became patriotic to resist “Jewish Communism.” Poles complain that, singling out the Shoah, Jews have played down other victims, among them 3 million Poles. Poland used to be known as “the Christ of nations,” and you hear the refrain about the difficulty of having two martyred nations, two chosen people. Clearly, more than half a century after the war, the Poles will finally have to face the fact that, whatever their own sufferings, a deeper tragedy was enacted under their eyes.

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.

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.”

The district is there, but there are almost no Jews. I probably saw most of them attending a concert at the center and, on another day, a painful exhibition of photographs and films at the former Isaac’s Synagogue. The exhibit’s purpose was to contrast the life of the Jews before the war with their subsequent agony, drawing on material found in SS and Gestapo archives. Notably, there were two poorly edited films, on the Warsaw ghetto and on deportations, which were at once nearly incomprehensible and awe-inspiring. You saw an unending stream of Jews running from the doorway of an unidentified building. Then, helpless and hopeless, they climbed into trucks and apparently paid a fee for their ultimate journey. There was also a scene showing their arrival in a camp and a Nazi officer with a gesture of his thumb deciding their fate: to the gas chamber or to work, that is to say, provisional survival. That evening, I crossed the Vistula to Harmony Square, now renamed the Heroes of the Ghetto. It had been the starting point for deportations to Plaszczow camp, which is within walking distance. All this was appropriate preparation for the inevitable final stage of this trip: Oswiecim.

Saturday was sunny and the bus comfortable (they hadn’t traveled like this). On the way we glimpsed Monowice, a camp providing slave labor for the German chemical concern IG Farben; it was an important element of this concentration complex. Auschwitz is both familiar, with the notorious sign proclaiming Arbeit Macht Frei on its gate, and puzzling: The expected train platform and the wooden barracks are not here but a couple of miles away at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. In Auschwitz I the buildings are of solid brick; originally they were Polish Army barracks. At first the camp was for political prisoners, mainly Poles. You can see pictures of these early victims, with dates of entry and death recorded with German precision; some lasted ten months, most only a couple. It was only after 1942, when the decision was made to exterminate all Jews, that the camp was expanded, Birkenau built up and the death factory began to function at full capacity.

Today Auschwitz I is a museum for our memory, which each one perceives through his own sensibility. I was less affected by such horrors as the punishment cells, where prisoners often died of suffocation, and the execution ground, with its death wall. Even in the gas chamber, in which 2,000 people could be put to death in less than half an hour, my imagination was not quite up to it. But I was shattered when I looked at those terrible masterpieces of twentieth-century art, the showcases with the remnant possessions of the dead. Not the hair for textiles or the gold from teeth for ingots, but everyday objects: brushes, spectacles, suitcases, shoes for kids and adults, and, to crown it all, because the victims believed or fooled themselves that they were being “resettled,” a humanité morte, an extraordinary bric-a-brac of kitchen utensils, saucepans, washbowls. My eye was irresistibly drawn to a small child’s chamber pot.

When you exit Auschwitz I, the skirmishes over crosses pale into insignificance (while I was in Warsaw there was a storm in a teapot because the outgoing chief rabbi had, in rather broken Polish, asked “Mister Pope” to remove the crosses from Auschwitz). Indeed, it took some time in neighboring Birkenau to realize that this really was the main terrain of mass extermination. Then you become aware of the space–about 425 square acres, in which some 100,000 people would be crammed at one time. There are the wooden barracks, copies of German stables, each with 800 humans instead of fifty-two horses; there are the latrines, which were fantastic carriers of germs. Disease, exhaustion and starvation competed for victims with the gas chambers and the four crematoriums. The Germans, unusually, did not leave precise accounts of the manner of death. For Auschwitz as a whole, the dead are estimated at more than 80,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies (killed, like the Jews, because they were Gypsies), 12,000 Soviet prisoners of war and more than a million Jews from all over Europe. In my mind, one child’s chamber pot captured the horror, the rational madness of the twentieth century, far better than these bare figures.

The point has been reached to draw conclusions. Polish anti-Semitism may be revived for a while if the law requiring restitution of prewar property, which has not yet been passed, is carried out on a wide scale and if wealthy American Jews then give the impression through their pressure that they are powerful enough to bully anybody into obedience. But, in any case, it is now a passion without object and a symptom rather than the disease. For Poland, as for the other countries of Eastern Europe, the politicians must decide whether they will provide progressive, rational solutions for the bulk of their population, and not only for the wealthy few; or, failing that, whether they will try to channel popular discontent against scapegoats.

For me, this pilgrimage has provided an answer to the difficult question, What does it mean today to be a Jew when you are not religious, do not believe Jews are a race and do not have, as my parents did, real roots in a Jewish language and culture (a culture that, incidentally, is dying out together with its Polish source)? My deep links are with the dead whose ashes are interred here. But this should not be interpreted in any nationalistic fashion. The heritage I claim is that of standing on the side of the victims, of the downtrodden, of the exploited, whatever their color or passport, black, white or yellow, Palestinian or Jew. The only difference is that I might have–should have?–died in the Warsaw ghetto or in Treblinka.

From the personal to the political. It is good that analytical light is now being applied to the Shoah business and to the political manipulation of the Holocaust. Take just the latest example: However much sympathy the uprooted Kosovars deserved, to compare them to the Jews and liken that minor scoundrel Milosevic to Hitler was simply a way to blackmail the critics of the “just war” into silence. Viewed from Auschwitz it was, to put it mildly, indecent. This does not mean that the Holocaust should be treated in splendid isolation. I always thought that it was at once unique and comparable. It is unique in its scientific organization, in its ruthless, systematic and successful annihilation of a people, a “race.” But it is also a warning, a call for comparison. We must now look at every situation with the permanent knowledge at the back of our minds that, if we are not careful, humankind can descend to unbelievable depths. Racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, are the curses, the maledictions, of our age. When you cast somebody out because he is other, different, alien, when you raise ethnicity to a political religion, you start on a slippery road that, we now know, can lead to hell on earth.

Passers-by, if you stop in Warsaw, take time to proceed along what is called the Memory Lane, where the last Jewish fighters perished along with a dying world. They entrusted us with the task unfinished, nay, scarcely begun, of building a different world, in which such atrocities will be genuinely unthinkable.

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