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Jewish Journal

Identity. Who is this polish Jew?

Michał Zajda/ Poland

May 31, 2012 | 3:50 pm

The next topic I would like to consider is the issue of self-determination. For over a year, I have been collecting the stories of people who are, one could say, interesting! Indeed, these are the witnesses of a history most dramatic – the history of suffering. These are people stigmatised with the mark of the twentieth century.

A beautiful childhood is a breath of crisp air before a huge cloudburst. Really! For everyone, childhood is, or rather should be, a big gulp of fresh air. Sometimes though, the things that come next are not the ordinary downpour which we experience at times. It can be a real flood! Those few human beings who survived the Shoa, just like in the biblical ark, engage us in stories from the verge of madness, which today are impossible to embrace with one’s own mind. It is to be remembered that the cataclysm of God lasted forty days and forty nights, whereas the one we ourselves put us through – over six years! As you can see, the worldly insanity came out of God’s control and became the point of reference for defining good and evil. But maybe that was the way God thought it up…

The topic of these conversations, however, is not only suffering and the war that caused it. We talk about their lives, mainly the post-war ones. How that pack of survivors, who experienced holocaust and outlived Soviet Poland, have managed to see freedom. How? Well, hundreds kilometres south, their dream of freedom had already come true. A country was born, where they could have done anything they wanted. They would have been at home. But would they? This is the question we will try to answer.

At the beginning, I ask who they are. This seemingly easy question brings lots of emotions and difficulties. I am a Polish Jew. This is one of the most frequent answers I hear. And it evokes instantly another simple question. Who is this Polish Jew? A Pole or a Jew? One is tempted to say that both. But in which proportions? In the pre-war times one could say that they were Jews, but today they would probably identify as Poles!

In order to understand the issue comprehensively, I suggest a bit of history. According to the 2nd census in December 1931, there were three million one hundred thousand Jews, which was exactly ten percent of all citizens of the Republic of Poland. In February 1946, the people’s authority conducted the 3rd census. The outcomes were dramatic. The population of Poland decreased by over seven million! And what happened with the Jews? They got lost in the ruins of the Third Reich. The census mentions only people who are subject to rehabilitation or verification procedures (417,000) and the so called “Others” (300,000). No word about the Jews. Just as if they ceased to exist! The most current research estimates that only one in ten Jews residing on the territory of Poland until 1939, survived the war—bring us to about 300,000. Where are they? Between 1949 and 1950, within the framework of the Self-determination Action, approximately 30,000 Jews left. Through Gomułka’s mouth, the socialist power said that “some of the Jewish comrades do not feel bound with the Polish nation”, and consented to emigration. ‪Another period when the Jews could have left Poland fell on the turn of October 1956, when, within several years, approximately 47,000 people emigrated. Between 1960 and 1967, another four thousand left. By the data of the Social and Cultural Association of Jews (TSKŻ) from July 1967, Poland was inhabited by approximately 25,000 Jews. Of course these are only the people who confessed to being Jewish. The others are impossible to count. As a result of the events of March 1968, around 13,000 additional people of Jewish nationality left Poland with the so called dog passport (it was a travel document telling who the passenger is not – “holder of this document is not a citizen of the People’s Republic of Poland”). Summing up, we get a number of approximately 95,000. Where is the rest? The territory of Poland decreased drastically as a result of war, and what follows is many people forced to love their “new homeland”. By experience, I know that everyone who could, came back. Let’s assume that there were around 30,000 people who left in the Soviet Union, another 20,000 chose a different place, having unspecified possibilities. To round this number, nowadays there should live around 150,000 people being lineal descendants of those who survived. Most of them do not identify themselves with the world of their ancestors. Usually baptised, they merged into the Polish society.

The war broke the spines of many people! They had no sense of spirituality. Their Jewish Poland was no more, and Israel was not, in the physical sense, their homeland. Many of them did not know Hebrew, Yiddish practically disappeared. I know only two elderly men who have good command of this language. Examining everything they have and everything they are, they feel closer to the Vistula river than to Jerusalem. One has to remember that the secular People’s Poland quickly liquidated all the religious schools. This mean that to cultivate the tradition, it would need to be done privately. It didn’t help that the young people who did not want to stand out, rebelled and chose Polishness. It was more convenient. Those who survived, had already received their education after the war. Whether they wanted it or not, they found Polish wives who gave birth to their Polish children.The head of the family, this true Jew, in order to accept their family and themselves, had to assume something. He had to determine himself somehow. The “proportions” of which I referred to in the beginning, gain an almost symbolic dimension. This is a peculiar relocation of weight, determined by one’s circumstances.

Who is this Polish Jew? This is a man who is Polish and Mosaic. And can they be Catholic? Or being Catholic, can they call themselves Jews? This question is faced usually by young people of Jewish nationality who in search of their identity come back to their roots. In my opinion, however, one has to assume something. We have to be flexible because someone, sometime in the past, gave us no choice. The war destroyed Jews in Europe, this needs to be said clearly. The Jews, together with the Poles, lost the war. This is an undeniable fact. All the pretty and bold words spoken out by the politicians are aimed at covering up the facts. Sadly, Poland lost over 80 thousand square kilometres and seven million people, including almost all Jews. Usually, these were the educated people who died, as the Soviet and the Nazi invaders tracked just them. It was done on purpose, and the Krakow and the Lviv professors were its best example. Nobody cared then, whether they were shooting at a Jew or at a Pole. They aimed at a professor – the heart and the brain of the Polish statehood. The most eminent citizens were dying in the Katyń forest, in Ponary or in the chambers of Auschwitz, no matter whether they attended a church or a synagogue before. It was a Polish citizen who paid their taxes from honest work. And this is not a look through the prism of holocaust. This is a sober and clear point of view of a Polish rationalist. The king lost 3 million of his subjects! And this king should be happy? I am asking, about what?

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