The long history of the Jews in Poland has been almost wholly eclipsed by the Holocaust. Fully half of the victims of German mass murder were Polish Jews, who numbered approximately 3.5 million on the eve of World War II. But the fact remains that Poland was the seat of a vibrant and enduring Jewish civilization that survives on the printed page and, in a real sense, in many of our own ideas about what it means to be Jewish.
The point is vividly and memorably made by Hava Bromberg Ben-Zvi in the pages of “Portraits in Literature: The Jews of Poland, An Anthology” (Vallentine Mitchell: $74.95), an extraordinarily rich collection of more than 50 excerpts from fiction, reportage, poetry, memoir, correspondence, folklore and humor, all touching in one way or another on the Jewish experience in Poland.
“My Jewish ancestors resided in Polish lands for approximately 1,000 years,” affirms the author, who shares a Polish-Jewish heritage with millions of American Jews. “This book is a saga of Jewish life in Poland as reflected in the mirror of literature.”
Ben-Zvi has selected some of the most affecting and enlightening passages from her remarkably diverse source material, and she makes them even more meaningful by providing her own annotations and illuminations. For example, she begins with a passage from Sholem Asch’s novel “The Rebel,” and she introduces the once-revered Yiddish writer to a new generation of readers who know little or nothing about him or his work. She points out that his novels about the life of Jesus, intended to show “the common roots of Judaism and Christianity and to bridge the gap between them,” resulted in a charge of apostasy. “Misunderstood, he defended himself for the rest of his life,” she points out, “mostly without success.”
Other selections are meant to remind us, quite literally, of the rhythms, sounds and tastes of Jewish life in Poland. A charming memoir by Nina Luszczyk-Ilienkowa, for example, evokes the experience of a modest little store that was, in the eyes of the writer, nothing less than a place of wonder. “Look, ladies and gentlemen, what we have here. Hats of Vilnius milliners, from Zamkova Street, slightly out of fashion, but at convenient prices. Christmas ornaments and colorful tissue paper, laces, beads, pins, ribbons, clasps for girls’ braids. Tooth-combs, side combs, and gloves of fabric and wool, or lightly knit and transparent. On the other side, on little shelves, choice morsels galore.” Even now, the writer confesses, “I swoon at the memory of the aromas long forgotten, not experienced for sixty years.” And so do we.
Of course, Ben-Zvi feels an obligation to remind us that the victims of the Holocaust were flesh-and-blood human beings and not merely numbers. Aliza Melamed recalls the unspeakable sights that she saw in the Warsaw Ghetto, but she also gives us a glimpse of the famous ghetto fighter Mordecai Anielewicz at an unguarded moment: “He always wore a gray coat, sports trousers and golf-socks; he had a thin face and greenish eyes with daring in them, which would sometimes smile, and then they looked so fatherly and forgiving.”
Another intimate view of Anielewicz is given in an essay by the ghetto documentarian Emanuel Ringelblum, who recalls how the young man would borrow books on history and economics. “Who was to know that this quiet, modest, pleasant youth would, three years later, be the most important person in the ghetto, and that his name would be spoken of with veneration by some and with fear by others?” Anielewicz himself, who died in combat during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, speaks for himself in a brief letter: “The last aspiration of my life has been fulfilled,” he wrote in the last moments of his heroic life. “Jewish self-defense and Jewish revenge are a reality.”
“Jewish literature and culture did not perish from the face of the earth,” Ben-Zvi concludes. “Inherited and transformed by a new generation of writers, it was reborn, changed and enriched, finding new configurations, images and expressions.” Ben-Zvi’s beautiful and stirring book is a superb example of the same phenomenon.