Posted Pavel Pustelnik
It is a rare situation that you imprison poetry. However, this is exactly what has happened to the works of Naftali Hertz Kon – a Jewish poet accused of espionage.
The poems are currently being stored in the State Archive in Milanówek, not far away from Warsaw. They might occupy several boxes together with photographs and other items collected from the author’s house. All that content ended up in a yellowish building once the trial against Naftali Hertz Kon has been closed in 1962. His case was brought to the court due to the ideas contained in his writings – allegedly subversive articles.
If not the daughter of Hertz, Ina Lancman, the boxes would have been surely forgotten. The issue was interesting enough to catch attention of a renowned Polish lawyer, prof. Tomasz Koncewicz, who until recently has been vainly trying to bring the poetry back to the real world, outside of the communist buildings in Milanówek. He has submitted countless letters to the institutions that have been engaged in the issue but it seems that nobody wanted to assume responsibility for the “arrested poetry”.
Who was Hertz? He was born in Storożyniec in 1910 (Bukovina region, Ukraine today), close to Chernivtsi a small Jewish world of his times. People used to speak Yiddish and the day off at school was not Sunday but Saturday. Herz was a gifted child who spoke several languages and his memory was said to be remarkable. His debut took place in Chernivtsi, where he was writing for “Chernivtsi Blater” – a leftist anti-Zionist magazine related to Bund (General Jewish Labour Party). His calling for revolution is quickly spotted by the Romanian secret police agency Securitate. The young author is arrested couple of times and finally flees to Vienna. There he changes his name and becomes Jakub Serf. After that he is ready to head for Warsaw, the centre of the Jewish-Yiddish world. Countless discussion, vivid cultural life and the inspiring atmosphere of the Jewish Association of Writers and Journalists – this was the atmosphere that inseminated Jakub. There he has found his love and future wife – Liza Goldman. They move together to Kharkiv in 1933 not knowing yet what blunt future awaits them. The beginning is light and promising. Jakub publishes two volumes of his poetry, simultaneously in USSR, USA and Poland, Liza gives birth to their first doughter, Vita. Four years later, the Soviets decide to come to terms with all the minorities living in the country. Jews are among those who the state will deal with. Jakub is convicted for three years in a labour camp. The court claims that he was engaged in passing anti-Soviet information to Jewish journalists in Poland and the US. When Hitler crosses the USSR’s border, Jakub, Liz and their daughter are evacuated to Kazakhstan. The second girl is born – Lenina (Ina). During the war period in Moscow a Jewish Antifascist Committee is established. Stalin needs Jewish influences and money. The Serf family moves close to Moscow and Jakub is employed to document extermination of Jews in his native area. Finally they settle back in Chernivtsi and live a peaceful, prosperous life. The idyllic period ends in 1949, when Jakub is taken by the police. Stalin changes his mind and Jews are not only not needed any more; they are posing serious threat to the state. Kon is brutally cross-examined and accused of espionage. By a stroke of luck his death sentence is changed into 25 years of gulag (forced labour camp). He was released in 1956, four years after Stalin’s death. No matter how hard the time in the camp was, Kon “writes” all the time. He notes his poems on a piece of glass with toothpaste and learns by heart. There is no way to take down the cavalcade of thoughts. After coming back the nightmares of the past are a part of his life. He plans a suicide, there is always a rope under his pillow. Doctors who are trying to treat Kon are helpless and see a last resort in moving back to Poland, as this might heal poet’s mind. Liz does not want to go, but finally she gives in and the family moves again. Thanks to friendships from the period when they used to live in Poland (and the fact that Liz was born in Poland), they are granted Polish citizenship. Ina remembers that her father was drunk with happiness when they were crossing the border. After living for some time in Przemyśl, Czerwińsk and Otwock they settle down in Warsaw. The flat they occupy becomes full of poems and memories. There are a lot of people visiting, including the cultural attaché of the Israeli embassy. At some point a KGB agent in disguise becomes a friend of the family. He plants bugs in the flat and the family is observed closely the security police. The author travels a lot to Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia to write about the situation of Jews there. In one of his pieces he equals the ruling of communists with the Nazi period. Polish “Fołks-Sztyme” does not want to print the article; therefore Hertz sends the story to his brother who owns a printing house in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, the security police put hands on the letter. The future is easy to imagine. A day before Christmas Eve in 1960 the police knock to the Kon’s doors. They arrest him and all his writings and notes kept in his flat are confiscated.
Hertz’s case receives a lot of attention internationally. There are articles printed in the US, France and Israel. Nothing is being published in Poland. International human rights organisations appeal to the Polish authorities. As an effect of the pressures the accusation of espionage is dismissed and after 11 months Kon is moved to a mental hospital. Though he finds it even worse than being under arrest. The sentence in his case is pronounced 19th March 1962: a year of prison and a fine 250 zloty. He leaves the hospital a day after as the period under arrest has been calculated as imprisonment.
The poet wants to get back his belongings confiscated when he was arrested. In 1963 the decision is taken by the court that they are being treated as a proof therefore will not be returned. Kon decides to emigrate to Israel, where he starts a new life with a 10 years younger Anna. Naftali Hertz Kon dies suddenly in 1971 never seeing his writings again.
Recently, in October 2012 the district court in Warsaw decided that the daughters of the writer should be returned the confiscated items. Those are not released though. The warrant was sent to Władysław Stępniak, the head of the Polish State Archives. He explains that the materials are in Milanówek and he has no authority to make them available. The judge should have sent the warrant to the department in Milanówek. The daughters are waiting.
I would like to thank Bożena Aksamit for sharing with me this story.
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December 23, 2012 | 10:24 am
Posted Ian Shulman
A Ukrainian-born American actress Mila Kunis could have become a real pride of the country and join a beautiful company of other Hollywood beauties of Ukrainian heritages (listing her namesake Mila Jovovich, Bond girl Olga Kurylenko and many more). Instead, she unwittingly became a part of a nationalistic provocation.
It’s not that Ms Kunis is not talented enough to be an example of a Ukrainian success story in Hollywood. It’s just that some people strongly believe that a person can only be either Ukrainian or Jewish. Mila belongs to the second group; hence, it’s Jewish people who can be proud of her if they wish, but not Ukrainians.
It all began when Ukrainian far-right Igor Miroshnychenko posted a Facebook status stating that there is no reason to be proud of Mila Kunis or to attribute her to Ukraine since she is not an ethnic Ukrainian, but a Jew. He added that Kunis is proud of being Jewish, while all her remarks regarding her childhood in Ukraine are plainly negative.
The story would not cause a scandal of such scope if not for a tiny detail. While referring to the Jewishness of Kunis, Miroshnychenko used the word ‘zhydivka’ (жидівка), which is offensive in modern Ukrainian.
Being accused of antisemitism, Miroshnychenko answered that by labeling Kunis ‘a Jew’ he was only referring to her ethnic background; moreover, he doesn’t consider the word ‘zhydivka’ offensive. Politician’s supporters claim that the word has been present in Ukrainian language for ages and used by many important Ukrainian authors. Later, the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that using the word ‘zhyd’ (male) or ‘zhydivka’ (female) is appropriate and can be used on any occasion except for official documents.
To explain the essence of the situation, one should deal with some basic linguistic. The word ‘Zhyd’ (or ‘Żid/Žid’) is a perfectly normal and the only possible word for ‘a Jew’ in most of the Slavic languages. It used to be so in Ukrainian too. However, in the 1920s and 1930s the word was declared inappropriate (just as it is in Russian) and substituted with a neutral word ‘yevrey’ (‘єврей’), meaning ‘a Hebrew’. ‘Zhyd’ in modern Ukrainian is perceived rather like ‘kike’ in modern English; the difference is that the word ‘zhyd’ used to be appropriate before. Even though the word is still in use in some remote Western parts of the country (which was annexed to the Soviet Union only after WWII and where Polish cultural and linguistic influences are strong), it’s not a surprise anymore that one can feel offended by this word. Even though the secretary of Kyiv’s Chief Rabbi has recently stated that he likes the word ‘zhyd’ and doesn’t mind being called like this (though he admitted that some people don’t like this word so much), the word ‘zhyd’ for a greedy and tricky person is in use in vulgar Ukrainian.
The word ‘zhyd’ is the one you can see written on a fence, while the word ‘Jew’ written there would sound slightly awkward. Many antisemites would be happy to explain you the difference between a Jew and a zhyd (the first category is less dangerous and you can be friends with one or two of them).
In other words, Miroshnychenko’s surprise of finding out that someone can be offended by a word ‘zhyd’ is doubtful. I am not quite sure if Mila’s got to know about this nationalistic remark, but to all others, the incident became a sad and unfortunate proof of Kunis’ negative memories on her Ukrainian childhood.
December 11, 2012 | 10:26 am
Posted by Klaudia Klimek
Up to 1945 Trzebiatów now a town of Polish West Pomerania was part of Germany. The history of the last 60 years, gradually erased all traces of the former local Jewish community. Devastated during Kristallnacht, the synagogue survived the war, but was demolished in the early years after the arrival of the new settlers. The Jewish cemetery was destroyed in the early 70s. The city without those places and forms of commemoration lacked the memory of the people.
It might have been like that still, but thanks to Krzysztof Baginski, a resident of Trzebiatow and a student of Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and his project this can change.
The main feature of his project "Ner Tamid" is its apparent immateriality. The project is based on the technical properties of the ultraviolet radiation. Located on the eastern wall of the building (and the former eastern wall of the synagogue) the word "Ewiges Licht / נר תמיד / Wieczne Światło" made with colorless ultraviolet paint, will be visible only after dark, with a special UV lamp. The inscription, though physically exists, is readable only by highlighting that will take place for 8 nights connecting it to the holidays of Hanukkah. However, it began on Dec. 9, in the second of the eight days of the holidays and will end one day later symbolically extending the memory of the Jews of Trzebiatów.
The project is co-organized by the Cultural Centre of Trzebiatów, Jewish Community in Szczecin and Vocational Training Centre in Trzebiatów. The project was granted full support of the mayor of Trzebiatów Mr Zdzisław Matusewicz.
The illumination of the monument was accompanied by lectures and workshops related to the presence of Jews in Trzebiatów and Poland which were organized by the members of the Young Jews Club “Be’Yahad” from the Jewish Community in Szczecin.
December 3, 2012 | 2:25 pm
Posted Ewa Popowska
It was in 1987, when Polish catholic periodical, „Tygodnik Powszechny”, published on its first site the article Poor Polish looking at the Ghetto by Jan Błoński. One of the most significant texts in the magazine’s history, concerning complex Polish – Jewish relations during World War II, provoked a range wave of comments, including lot of disagreements. Why did it cause so much buzz around itself?
’80 in Poland it was still a time of mythologizing the mentioned relationship, which in many ways continues to this day. Post-war literature, as well as cinematography was not recalling any acts of Polish part in Nazi-made Holocaust if such existed. War movies were telling stories of people throwing food above the Warsaw Ghetto walls, some of heros were trying to take part in a Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Noone was literally giving a name for any kind of participation. Noone was giving a name for inaction.
Jan Błoński, inspired by Noble prised poet, Czesław Miłosz, is looking back at the history from a point of view of a Polish catholic, considering the time that has passed since the tragic years of war. Miłosz, in his 1943 poem, Campo di Fiori, compares Polish society looking at the flames of burning Ghetto to Rome street sellers who did not wait for the ashes of Giordano Bruno’s pile to become cold before they got back to selling and haggling. The reason of this comparison is the carousel wchich used to stand just next to the walls of Ghetto. It did not stop working when the Uprising began nor when it was finished. Is it enough to blame Polish citizens of participation? Błoński disunites two different figures: participation and the complicity. No matter of what were the circumstances, no matter for how many of Polish were helping Jews and how many were not, in order to safe their families life during the Nazi occupation, Poland must work on its national memory to admit its trespasses and wrondoings. This is the only way to achieve the peace of mind and conscience.
This is the point, where Błoński takes inspiration from another poem of Miłosz, Poor Christian looking at the Ghetto. Lyrical subject is hiding from a mole, a personification of a remorse, digging in the ground. Błoński is asking why do we have to hide from it? To run awal from conscience, from questions? From a conversation? Isn’t it a sign of feeling guilty? Why in every conversation about Polish anti-Semitism he takes part in when abroad, he must run away from tricky questions to arguments from which the new accusations grow up? Author claims that Polish catholic has got to stand up and admit that not in every inch we were perfect in the past. History in its complexity cannot be considered as black and white, nevertheless, we must face up also the darkest elements. Using words “we”, not thinking of the concrete numbers of gulity and not guilty personas. Take the responsibility of whole nation. This is the necessary way to work the subject through and clear the memory. Not by forgeting, but by the analising – it allows us to understand the mechanism and learn. Miłosz said clearing the national memory is a obligation of Polish poetry. Błoński, not disagreeing, adds that it must be done by Polish people.
November 24, 2012 | 3:14 am
Posted Dana Haddadi
November 16, 2012 | 7:27 am
Posted Adi Halfon
Three years ago, Polish director Michal Tkaczynski was standing with a friend outside the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw. "There was an Orthodox-Jewish guy who had come outside for a smoke. My friend asked me if I knew who he was. I thought him just an ordinary Orthodox Jew, but I was wrong. My friend told me that this Orthodox Jew standing next to us used to be an anti-Semitic, racist and violent hooligan, radical fan of the Legia Warszawa football club," Tkaczynski recalls. He decided to make a documentary about this Jewish man. "The Moon Is Jewish" is a movie about Pavel - a racist football hooligan, who discovered that he is actually Jewish and went on to become an Orthodox Jew, who grows his beard, keeps kosher, and wears Hasidic clothes.
Tkaczynski explains, "After World War II, and after many years of communism, the Jewish identity of Pavel's family was erased. They assimilated into the Catholic environment, and began acting accordingly - going to church etc."
Pavel, as he appears in the movie, is a person searching for identity. "He is definitely an extreme character," Tkaczynski admits, "his brothers, for example, didn't make a big deal out of discovering their Jewish roots." When Pavel was a football fan, he went all the way, to become more than an ordinary football fan - and when he discovered Judaism, again he went beyond becoming an ordinary Jew. As Pavel himself says in the movie, "I don't want to be a dime-a-dozen Jew, I want to do something meaningful." This meaning, a meaning, plays an important role in Pavel's life, and in the movie. Pavel's search is not just for an identity, but also for meaning. Just like in Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning", Pavel is looking for something that can fill his simple life, as he described it, with content. First he finds it in being an extreme football fan. Later, he finds this content in Judaism. It is something done for one self, but also for future generations: finding some "truths" about life and teaching them to the children.
In the movie, football hooligans want their children to also be fans of their team. As a Jew, Pavel wants his kids to grow up as good Jews - he sends his son to a yeshiva in the USA, and he forbids his daughter to leave the house wearing a short skirt.
But what is a good Jew? Do you have to be religious and orthodox in order to be a good Jew? Would Pavel still be a Jew if he did not become orthodox? The movie does not answer this question.
"In every faith there are more devoted religious people and less religious people." explains Tkaczynski. "I personally think that the religious ones are better people. They are trying to help others, trying to make the world a better place. Pavel amends his behavior and path from being a hooligan. Also, the movie takes a look at current Jewish life in Poland, which is a subject not many people really know."
In one scene we see Pavel, with his long beard and black Hasidic clothes, in the empty stands of the football stadium. This image creates a dissonance, by putting an Orthodox Jew in a place where he supposedly does not belong. However, during the movie many similarities between these two distant worlds are exposed. In both cases, it took Pavel a long time to graduate the long and slow process of becoming a member of the group; they both offer a community closed to the outside; and both hooliganism and the orthodox way of life Pavel chose do not allow for compromise. Pavel moved from one uncompromising way of life to another. Unfortunately, the film does not try to find out whether there is another way, a way of compromise.
Tkaczynski, during interviews with people from the Jewish community in Poland, emphasizes the obvious difference between hooligans and the Orthodox Jewish way of life. That being, naturally, the purpose of each of them. Hooligans harm people, religion fixes - that is the focus. While football hooligans spread hatred, Pavel as an Orthodox Jew, tries to avoid it. He even teaches his children not to use the word "hate". Pavel looks for a way in which he can work for the common good of Jews in Warsaw, so he helps Jewish restaurants to set up kosher kitchens.
Despite his good efforts, he also ends up harming people. Pavel's mother is not happy with the fact that her son and grandson are Orthodox. She is not happy with the fact that he did not attend his father's funeral, because it was in a Catholic church. Is Pavel intolerant of his mother's beliefs, or is she intolerant of the path he chose? Is it possible to fix the world without causing any more harm? Tkaczynski has an answer. "Generally, I think it is possible. But in Pavel's case I am not optimistic, since his family doesn't care about Judaism and his brothers are skinheads. They were not happy with the film."
November 5, 2012 | 1:03 pm
Posted Pavel Pustelnik
How to talk about Judaism in an inter-religious environment? Rabbi Tanya Segal has showcased her mastery in this area at the World Student Christian Federation / European Interfaith Network seminar “Who is my neighbour. Migration and Xenophobia in Europe” finished last week in Italy.
Tanya was born in Moscow and “came back” to Israel in 1990 as she says. “I was not a religious person. I had a secular family. We lived in a very poor area, I knew that we were different” Today she is the rabbi of a progressive Jewish community in Krakow. At “Who is my neighbour?” Tanya took part in a panel discussion, explained how Judaism work (not an easy task in some 90 minutes) and was answering millions of questions that people may want to ask a rabbi.
Tanya's workshop takes place in a small chalet. We sit around a table. All together “as in a Jewish school” she says. The room is not too cosy, a bit coldish as the end of October even in Rome tends to be a chilly. There are not more than 7 participants – Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic coming from several countries. Tanya fills the space with her personality. Looking deeply in participants' faces as they introduce. “Don't keep your mouth shut as if you were in a Russian school. Be as Jewish students are, challenge me, ask questions, be curious!” Tanya wears a tight turquoise sweater, same colour nail polish. Her hair are curly and elegantly wind around face that never stays calm. She sits, suddenly she stands up, grabs paper, writes and continues talking. English is being mixed with Polish, Hebrew and Russian. A Polish guard of some 20 years and angel-like face reprimands the rabbi, that not everybody understand Russian here and almost nobody Hebrew.
It is difficult to say what is the topic of the workshop or rather discussion. We start with the meaning of religion for Jews and non-Jews. “We need to meet religion at the spiritual level, the law, the structure and development of practice is the second thing”. It is explained later on that those rules however are extremely important for Jews. A couple of examples concerning orthodox observing of Sabbath and non-Jews are laughing. “Halakha keeps us in a structure but the historical past present and future are those that consolidate” she explains. “The Torah says who the Jews are. He does not say that we've been chosen that we were great. We were stubborn. Torah gives the rules of everyday as well” further comment is coming.
A brief break, another deep look at our faces and we switch into discussion about the Ten Commandments, which allegedly should be something we have in common. “Everybody knows Ten Commandments? (nodding around) but the thing is how you approach them. How you understand them”. Tanya pauses, takes her Bible, which is both in Hebrew and Russian and reads and translates into English. “So, we have Ten Commandments. The first says that you have to remember the Sabbath. How do I remember about it? Should I remind people about it? Should I have it my mind? At some point we say <<observe>>.” With the next commandments, the issue is not that easy as translations are not that easy to make. We start discussing. People understand them differently. Tanya seems to be excited by the discussion she has started just through talking about the Commandments.
She proceeds quickly to the issue of women in Judaism. It is interesting to see the perspective of a first female rabbi in Poland. “Emancipation, French Revolution, changes in the structure of lives – women can be politicians and men can stay and raise children. It's a natural split”. Obviously, that is not all that Tanya wants to share. “Women needed to do the job and support husbands who were supposed to study the Torah. But this means that the women were excluded. We can see why it was like this. Man is studying, he is tired, he needs to eat, to sleep, to relax. Women are suppose to make their men lives easier” Is there going to be a counterargument – I am asking myself. It comes sooner that anybody could have thought. “But there is no passage in Torah that would say that women cannot perform the duties that usually men would!” Tanya explains her understanding of the position of women, which pretty much resemble what Western culture would say. Nothing about wearing wigs or being inferior to men. “In Poland there was never a female rabbi. Women were very active in education but not in spiritual life of the Jewish communities. The first female rabbi was working in the US in 1970' ”. Tanya however does not talk about her experiences as a pioneer in Cracow. Times up. Ninety minutes with Judaism is over and as always, there are more questions than answers.
October 30, 2012 | 5:53 am
Posted Zuzanna Jakubowska/ Poland
During all my visits to Israel and throughout the time I lived there, I always wondered what it is like in the country next to the Holy Land, the country to which travel is strictly prohibited. Especially because my Jewish grandfather lived there for several years and I have friends in Beirut. I "saw" Lebanon many times from across the Israeli border and in my dreams I could just walk across. In 2010 I went there for the first time, putting behind me the whole political issue... and I really fell in love with this country.
When we think about Lebanon, especially never having been there, we don't have in mind the best associations. And of course, especially for Jews, it is not the easiest place to visit, but I discovered there a country full of culture, beautiful architecture, great people and the best of food and nightlife. Lebanon is different from other Arab countries, with so many types of religion - Sunni, Shia, Druze, Maronite Catholics, Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox and others, making for an amazing mix of people. I was very lucky to meet Hiba, a wonderful Shia girl from Beirut, who was very interested in Jewish history, the Arab - Israeli conflict and had some knowledge of Hebrew. During my stay in Beirut she told me a lot about Jewish history in Lebanon, and showed me what is left of it there.
The Jewish population in Lebanon, located mainly in Beirut, then Saida and Tripoli, reached around 24 000 people in 1948, with sixteen synagouges located just in Beirut. In the mid-50's only 7,000 people were left and finally in 2008, fewer than a 100. Now only 30 Jews live in the entire country. The main Jewish quarter - Wadi Abu Jamil, formally known as Wadi Al-Yahoud, located in Beirut's center, was the hub of the Lebanese Jewish Community. Alongside the main, oldest and largest of them - Beirut's Maghen Abraham Synagogue. The synagogue was constructed in 1925 and badly damaged during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Wadi Abu Jamil is really a beautiful area, but the old Jewish quarter that surrounded the synagogue was never rebuilt. When we walked by I saw high stone walls and Lebanese soldiers looking at my camera, telling me that "the building is closed" and "no photos". I was really disappointed, hoping to see the building from the inside. In 2009, Magen Abraham Synagogue started to be renovated by the Lebanese Jewish Community Council, with its leader - Isaac Arazi. The project was confirmed by the Lebanese government, Hezbollah, and other community leaders. Arazi has managed to collect 40 000 dollars, however the full cost of renovation may reach 1 million. The situation regarding the only Jewish cemetary in Beirut is no better, located near Sodaco on Damascus road, it was used as a boundary for the Christian Phalange and was damaged during the Lebanese civil war. The first burial took place in 1829, and since then 3,300 people have been buried there. The Jewish Community Council of Beirut is hoping to renovate the cemetery as they are the synagouge. Thanks to Hiba, I saw the cemetery by climbing a wall, it does not look good, however - half of the graves are destroyed and the entire cemetery is overgrown like a jungle. In any case, my entire trip to Lebanon was a great experience. So great that I went back. The website of Lebanese Jews - www.thejewsoflebanonproject.org