Krakov, the Polish city in which we stayed prior to seeing Auschwitz, is, well, charming. That’s such a dicey word—right up there with ‘picturesque’—but, really, it is. Cobbled streets are crowded with cafes and bars and with boutiques that offer the fabulous clothing worn by the women of Krakov: European classicism with touches of Eastern glitz. The central square, with its spired churches, patio cafes, and a market arcade first erected during the Renaissance, has been named the most beautiful outdoor space in Europe. Amber jewelry, a Polish specialty, can be found there, and cool conceptual art and paper maché figures of klezmer musicians and of Jews holding money bags. Wait, what?
The story of Jews and Poland is really, really complicated.
Thousands of Poles risked their lives, during the Holocaust, to shelter Jews, provide false documents and aid the resistance under the leadership of the Zegota, a unit of the government in exile formed just for that purpose. It’s estimated that, for every Jew who escaped the ghetto to live a double life on the ‘Aryan side’, there were about 5 non-Jewish Poles whose work made it possible. Some Polish partisan units fired on Jewish units when they weren’t battling the Germans. There are more Polish ‘righteous Gentiles’ (rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust) named at Yad V’Shem than there are of any other European nationality. Some Poles pretended to befriend fugitive Jews and then turned them in for bags of sugar. Others used fugitive Jews as slave labor. Polish convents were among the safer places for Jews to hide. Nuns armed only with their faith hid many Jews, including some armed resistors. Many Polish families adopted Jewish children and passed them off as theirs. Some of those children were raised in ignorance of their heritage and baptized when they were too young to understand what that meant. Some of those children survived the war as Jews. In Krakov, some people perpetrated a pogrom against Jews—after the war. They had moved into Jewish homes and didn’t much care to give them back. There were also Poles who safeguarded the homes and life savings of their Jewish neighbors throughout the desperate poverty of the war with no expectation of any reward other than having done the right thing.
Every Polish person who escorted us on our journey was, at once, proud to be Polish, excited about what her country has accomplished since the end of Soviet occupation and also determined to scrutinize its Holocaust history. They are young and fervent and smart, and if they are their country’s future, the world has a lot to look forward to.
What the Poles we met most want Americans to understand is this: the end of WW2 did not mean liberation for them. Poland was annexed into the Soviet bloc. We see reflections of this history in the changing Polish narrative of the Holocaust. Prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, Auschwitz was commemorated only as the place where heroic Polish partisans and Soviet prisoners were tortured and killed. That description isn’t wrong—except for what it leaves out. There was no talk of genocide under the Soviets, or of Jews. (Or of Sinti and Roma, so-called Gypsies.) It is to their credit, I suppose, that the Soviets thought that discrimination based on ‘race’ and religion was just stupid, but not to their credit that they thought it was too stupid to mention; that they absorbed all “superstructural” distinctions into their narrative of class and nation. They simply absorbed the Jewish story into the Polish story and absorbed the Polish story into a myth of Soviet unity.
So here’s a problem: Before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, when he and Stalin divided up Poland, Polish Jews and non-Jewish Poles tended toward very different perceptions of the least evil. For Jews, the situation was clear—the Soviets might not murder you. Furthermore, while the Nazis were entirely honest about their aggressive, racist aims, the Soviet Communists made promises they didn’t keep. They offered a sweeping away of old hierarchies, a new day of equality and justice. While most Jews were not Communists (or affiliated politically at all), many young Jews were willing to give them a chance.
Not so most Poles, who saw history very differently. They did not want to be dominated by Russia again, under any guise. We learned, in a lecture from Dr. Barbara Klich-Kluczewska of Jagiellonian University, that Poland won its independence in 1918 after a hundred years of partition by Austria, Prussia—and Russia.
We learned that the modern Polish national narrative, constructed by cultural leaders to rally their newly constituted nation, relied heavily on volkish tropes of blood and soil. We see evidence of this in the way that Polish citizens were referred to as “Lithuanians” or “Jews” as distinct from “Poles”, that is the ethnic group. Eastern European ‘nationality’ tended toward distinction from ‘citizenship’ in a way that’s different from the French and American constitutional models—although, let’s be honest, in that time especially, France and the US tended to honor their traditions in the breach. (The Holocaust coincided with France’s depredations in North Africa and the rise of the Klan in the USA, and a US State Department that deliberately delayed immigration for thousands of Jews who might have been saved from their deaths in the Nazi camps.)
While Jews flourished in Polish cities under the new republic; in the countryside, where most Poles lived, they maintained a distinct way of life, at a remove from the peasants with whom they traded. This at a time when difference was seen as a kind of affront, not as something interesting.
And then came various occupations. And everyone had decisions to make.
Today, Poland is engaged in a complex process of mourning and rediscovery of its Jewish past. There are festivals of Jewish culture there—in which many performers are not Jews. Can white guys sing the blues? Can Polish Catholics play klezmer?
Jews are returning to Poland. Not enough to repopulate all of the synagogues which are now museums, but there is growth now, not decay. There are active synagogues again and JCCs and living Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish musicians to play with their non-Jewish friends. And an on-going national conversation about whether Poland is a ‘Catholic country’. So, yeah, it’s complicated.