Poland - In the Shadow of Memory

In a land that was once home to a great Jewish civilization, some Jews and non-Jews construct memorials to "a vanished people" while others rebuild a living Judaism.
Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Jedwabne, Poland-July 10, 2001. The market square is like a movie set. A makeshift stage awaits the principal actor in this historic drama--Aleksander Kwasniewski, president of the Polish Republic. We join the international ensemble of reporters and cameramen who vie for positions behind police barricades. All but a handful of the town's inhabitants have disappeared into their homes, taking up positions behind lace curtains. A sign on the window of the Sido Cafe reads: "We do not apologize. It was the Germans who murdered the Jews of Jedwabne [pronounced "Yed-vab-neh"]. Let the slanderers apologize to the Polish nation." Three local girl scouts dutifully wipe the rain-soaked stage with bath towels, as the whirring of the president's helicopter draws our eyes toward the darkened sky.

At precisely 11:00 am, Aleksander Kwasniewski steps up to the microphone. At his side is Shevach Weiss, the Polish-born Israeli ambassador to Poland, who will deliver a response. On this day, the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre of as many as 1,600 of Jedwabne's Jews, the people of Poland will confront a terrible truth: Poles in this town collaborated with the Nazis in the brutal ethnic cleansing of their Jewish neighbors.

"We are here to make a collective self-examination," the president announces. "We are paying tribute to the victims and we are saying never again." Aware that only 30% of the population supports his decision to make a public apology, Kwasniewksi declares: "I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime. In the name of those who believe that one cannot be proud of the glory of Polish history without feeling, at the same time, pain and shame for the evil done by Poles to others."

Following the president's address, Ambassador Shevach Weiss recalls how Jewish life in Jedwabne had come to an abrupt and shocking end on July 10, 1941. "People who lived together with the Jews--who knew them by name and were friendly with them--set upon their Jewish neighbors, dragging them to a barn to be burned alive." In stark contrast, he then recounts how, as a child, he was rescued by Polish neighbors during the Holocaust. "Thanks to these people I am standing here before you today. I know also of other barns where Jews were hidden away...and saved as a result of the brave actions of their Polish neighbors--courageous and noble people."

 Poles of conscience point with pride to this legacy of heroism and resistance to the Nazis. Indeed, of the approximately 18,000 recipients of the title "Righteous Among the Nations" presented by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, one third--6,000 of 18,000--are Poles. Poland's postwar Communist regime publicized this legacy of the heroic Polish resistance to fascism and withheld information from the public about war crimes committed by Poles, reinforcing the common perception that Polish Catholics and Jews were "equal victims." The Polish public, therefore, reacted with shock and disbelief when articles on Jebwabne began appearing in the press. How, they asked in anguish, could this have happened in "the Christ of nations," which had paid so heavy a price for resisting the Nazis? Inconceivable.

 Among the doubters was Andrzej Kaczynski, a journalist who hitched a ride with our group after the memorial ceremony in Jedwabne. When the first article on Jedwabne by Jan Thomasz Gross (who later wrote the highly publicized book Neighbors) began to circulate among Polish intellectuals, Kaczynski was convinced that the testimony cited by Gross had been faked. (Poles routinely dismiss any evidence collected by the Communists.) To disprove the story, he traveled to Jedwabne and started asking questions. "The townspeople spoke openly and without inhibition about how Poles had killed the Jews," he tells us. "But after the public learned about the massacre, the townspeople began to hide the truth, terrified that the world would learn about the murders. Exploiting this fear, antisemites came to Jedwabne and persuaded the people to defend the good name of Poland, and that is when they began to emphasize German participation." We learn later that Kaczynski's article had set off a year-long national debate on Jedwabne.

The fact that Poles played a role in the massacre is no longer in doubt, but apportioning responsibility among Germans and Poles remains a highly contentious issue--one that will be settled, at least officially, by the Institute of National Remembrance (INR), a government commission established in 1998 to investigate Nazi and Communist crimes against the Polish nation. In June, the INR conducted a partial exhumation in Jedwabne at the site of the burned barn, uncovering the charred remains of 150-250 victims and a broken bust of Lenin, confirming testimony that several Jewish men and the rabbi of Jedwabne had been forced to parade a statue of Lenin through the town. A more extensive exhumation was ruled out because of protestations from the rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, Michael Schudrich, who argued that removing the remains would be a violation of Jewish religious law. On the basis of the exhumation and testimony from forty-two witnesses, the INR issued its preliminary finding: "...it can be assumed that Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne had actively participated in the crime. These were mainly young men, about forty in number, acting jointly with eight German gendarmes present at the site."

 In Warsaw, we meet with a senior INR official, Krzysztof Golaszewski, who disparages Neighbors as "a kind of pamphlet to raise consciousness." He tells us that Jan Gross had underestimated the participation of German forces in Jedwabne by failing, among other things, to take into account "striking similarities" in other Polish towns that were occupied by the Germans when Soviet forces withdrew in June of 1941. In town after town, he explains, the Germans followed a prescribed strategy that played on the fears and prejudices of the local peasantry, sweetened by the promise of plunder. The Germans would accuse the Jews of having conspired with the Communists, order them to remove weeds from the cobblestone street in the main square, and force them to sing Communist songs and dispose of Communist monuments by burying them or dumping them in the river. From our INR briefing, it appears that the final report, due in several months, will attribute much of the blame to the Germans, who, according to Golaszewski, had masterminded the killings, and to the individuals who had perpetrated the crime. In doing so, the INR will avoid what it calls "harmful generalizations" about the Polish people during the war.

The weighing of blame intensified in Poland as the date of the apology approached. Representatives of the victims fought with Polish government officials over the proposed text of the new stone monument to be unveiled at the site of the burned barn (see accompanying article by Ty Rogers). The original, Communist-era memorial, which has been removed, stated that the Jews of Jedwabne had been killed by the Germans. After weeks of negotiations, a "compromise" was reached. The new inscription--in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish--does not identify the perpetrators, only the victims: "In memory of the Jews of Jedwabne and surrounding areas / men, women, and children / fellow dwellers in this land / murdered and burned alive at this site on 10 July l941."

 After President Kwasniewski, a former Communist who is thought to be of Jewish patrimony, announced that he would beg forgiveness at the commemoration in Jedwabne, the primate of Poland's influential Roman Catholic Church, Josef Cardinal Glemp, announced that he would not attend. Politicians, he said, should not dictate to the Church how to accomplish an act of sorrow for atrocities committed by "a morally crazed group of believers." Instead, he declared, a mass would be held on May 27 to unite Jews and Poles in common prayer--to "widen the formula" so that Jedwabne would become a symbol of evil on both sides. "We want to include in our prayers other evil as well, evil that was done to Polish citizens of Catholic belief and in which Poles of Jewish belief also took part.... Poles were killed by the Nazis for saving Jews, and suffered evil from Jews, among others, in the times of introduction of Communism in Poland. I expect that the Jewish side will examine its conscience and will have the strength to apologize to the Poles for those crimes." In a sense, the Polish primate's quid pro quo offered a solution to the equivalency dilemma--if Jews were not equal victims, they would be equal villains. Poland's Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, leader of the Solidarity Party (in opposition to President Kwasniewski's Democratic Left Alliance), praised Cardinal Glemp's proposal. "We should speak about our own guilty deeds," he said, "and about the guilty deeds others perpetrated against us. Then reconciliation is possible." The prime minister did not attend the Jedwabne commemoration; instead, he sponsored a memorial concert in a Warsaw Lutheran church.

One hundred bishops and 2,500 worshipers attended the mass led by Cardinal Glemp in the All Saints' Church in Warsaw, which houses a large bookstore containing antisemitic literature. Rabbi Schudrich was unable to participate because the service conflicted with the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The rabbi did comment, however, on the primate's earlier call for mutual apologies by saying it was "unnecessary" to link "our own wrong doings with others' wrong deeds. I have said before that I regret the deeds committed against Poles by the Communists of Jewish origin. However, Poles must understand that those Communists with Jewish roots were also traitors to their own Nation and their own religion." Rabbi Schudrich's statement, quoted in Poland's most widely read newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, angered Holocaust survivor Severyn Ashkenazy, a leader of Beit Warszawa, the Liberal Jewish congregation in Warsaw. "The rabbi failed to refute Cardinal Glemp's charge that Jews are to blame for Communism in Poland," says Ashkenazy. "While it is true that certain individual Jews were leading Communists, more than 99% of Poland's Jews rejected Communism. And tens of thousands of Jews were dispossessed and exiled to Siberia by the Soviets in 1939. Let there be no doubt, equating Jews with Communism serves the same purpose as accusing Jews of deicide or killing Christian children to make matzah--it is a justification for antisemitism."

"The public debate around the Jedwabne affair has brought out a lot of antisemitism that had gone underground during the Communist period," says Helen Datner, a sociologist and president of the Warsaw Jewish community. She cautions us, however, not to perpetuate the stereotype of Poland as an antisemitic country because doing so "would harm the open-minded clergy who have shown the civil courage to fight xenophobia and antisemitism in this deeply divided country." Among these "open-minded" clergyman is Father Stanislaw Musial of Krakow, one of a dozen priests who attended the Jedwabne commemoration as private citizens. Father Musial, former secretary of the Polish Episcopate's Commission on Dialogue with Judaism, condemned Cardinal Glemp's proposed "deal" as "trading in moral values." He also faulted his Church for failing to acknowledge its complicity in promoting antisemitic propaganda before, during, and after the war; and demanded an end to "anti-Jewish catechisms in our schools" as well as the distribution of antisemitic materials on church property.

Another friend of the Jews in Poland is Janusz Makuch, the co-founder and president of the Jewish Culture Festival Society in Krakow. Makuch, an energetic man with a long dark beard, could very well pass as a Jew, but doesn't think he will ever convert. We ask Makuch when his interest in Jewish culture began. "I was born in the town of Pulawy, where half of the town's population was Jewish before the war," he explains. "The synagogue had been burned by the Germans and not a trace of Jewish life remained. In the sixth grade, I was shocked to learn from one of my teachers that Pulawy had once been half Jewish. By the time I entered Krakow University in 1980, I was full of fascination for the Jewish people. That same year, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I made my way to the Tempel Synagogue [home of Krakow's prewar Liberal congregation] and an elderly man asked me in Yiddish to stay for services. Later, I joined a group of seven young Jews and non-Jews who were studying Hebrew, Yiddish, and a variety of different Jewish subjects. In 1988, as Communism neared its end in Poland, I organized a Jewish cultural festival in Krakow, which attracted more than 100 local people. Two years later, with a $10,000 contribution from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the event expanded into a three-week international festival, featuring several bands from Germany and the Conservatory Klezmer Band from the United States. After an article in The New York Times reported that some Jews took offense that Germans are teaching Poles about Jewish culture, I went through a difficult period of soul-searching and decided that future festivals would include only authentic Jewish artists. To find them, I signed up for Klezcamp (a learning retreat for klezmer players in the Catskills) and met such greats as Andy Statman, Michael Alpert of Brave Old World, and the Klezmatics. They have all since performed here in Krakow."

Last July's eleventh Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, the largest in Europe, opened with a cantorial concert in the Tempel Synagogue. Subsidized mostly by Polish institutions and a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the week-long event included "the last klezmer of Galicia" Leopold Kozlowski, Hassidic New Wave, Brave New World, and Zmiros (Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics accompanied by pianist Rob Schwimmer). Thousands of Poles danced ecstatically for more than six hours to klezmer music at the Grand Finale concert on Szeroka Street in the heart of Kazimierz, the city's historic Jewish quarter; millions more watched it on television. And no one enjoyed the music more than Janusz Makuch, who has made the festival his life's work. "We cannot rebuild Jewish life here in Krakow," says Makuch, "but we can preserve the memory. It's both a way to celebrate life and to say Kaddish at the site of the world's largest Jewish cemetery. That is why these great Jewish musicians have come here to play for Jews and non-Jews alike."

The efforts of Makuch and other non-Jewish Poles who are dedicated to preserving the memory of Jewish culture in Poland is often based on the belief, shared by many Jews, that Jewish life in Poland will soon come to an end. In fact, the goal of the most ambitious Jewish project in Poland, the proposed $75-million Museum of the History of Polish Jews to be built on land opposite the Heroes of the Ghetto monument in Warsaw, is designed "to restore and preserve the history and rich culture of Polish Jews." Why does a Jewish community that does not have a single working mikveh and cannot afford to pay a rabbi's salary feel the need for a mega-museum? Museum chairman Marian Turski, a Jewish survivor in his late seventies, whose father and a brother died in Auschwitz, explains: "When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they took an oath never to come back, as if they had never been in that land. If we forget Maimonides and the other great Jews of Spain, who is the poorer? If we were to erase a thousand years of Polish Jewish history, who would be the poorer? Poland would be the poorer, and so would we. If we can prolong the memory of the Jews, it is our duty to do so."

The museum's objective is not to rebuild actual Jewish life, but to recreate a virtual Jewish world "using contemporary multimedia technology." It will not be for the Jews, but "for Poles, Jews throughout the world who come to Poland to reconnect to the history of their families and their people, and for those of other cultures who in visiting Poland seek the traces of a vanished multiethnic world."

Many Jews think of Polish Jewry as a terminal patient with orders not to resuscitate, an attitude most often expressed in a question that is more an accusation: "Why are you still living in Poland?" Samuel Norich, general manager of the Forward Association, once led a group of Jews on a tour of Eastern Europe. "We visited many cities that had large prewar Jewish populations and several death camp sites," he says, "but the place that produced the greatest emotional ambivalence was a kindergarten in Warsaw run by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. They couldn't understand, nor could they accept, Jewish children being raised in Poland." The late Lubavitcher Rebbe reflected this attitude when he refused to send emissaries, declaring: "We do not send Jews to Poland."

Poland's struggling Jewish community has not been totally abandoned by world Jewry. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides vital aid, including meals for the elderly poor and a summer camp for children. The American Jewish Committee runs educational programs. And philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder has spent millions of dollars to restore Jewish communal properties and fund more than a dozen educational, literary, cultural, and social programs in Warsaw, Lodz, and Krakow.

Is there a future for Polish Jewry? Rabbi Schudrich thinks there's hope, but views the situation as very fragile. "The numbers are not great--as many as 20,000--and the intermarriage rate is over 99%; the Jewish identity of people who learned only recently about their Jewish roots is shaky; people have no money to pay dues and we have no tradition in Poland of giving donations; we have no rich Jews to support the community; and there's an embarrassing lack of support from the West, with the exception of the JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation." To cover his salary, Rabbi Schudrich must spend about half of his time raising funds in the United States, where his wife and daughter live. As for his own role in Poland, Rabbi Schudrich says, "I am committed to giving these individuals an opportunity to reconnect to their Jewish past. They will decide on their own how to live their Jewish lives. If they want to stay in Poland, I will help them, but there is no historic or halachic imperative to live in the Diaspora. It is no greater mitzvah to live in New York or Warsaw."

Bronx-born Rabbi Schudrich, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) in 1980 and by Yeshiva University (Orthodox) last year, has not been very supportive of the city's Liberal Jewish congregation, Beit Warsawa (BW). Established a year ago by eight American expatriates and twenty Polish Jews on the model of Prague's Liberal congregation Beit Praha, BW now has grown to 200 and regularly attracts sixty-five to seventy people to its monthly Oneg Shabbat, held at a member's apartment. The Liberal congregation sees itself as more welcoming than the Orthodox Noyzk Synagogue to the kind of people who are returning to Judaism--individuals with one Jewish parent or grandparent, a Catholic spouse, and very limited Jewish knowledge. "What separates us most from the Orthodox synagogue is how we treat women," says Severyn Ashkenazy. "Picture a couple coming to the Noyzk Synagogue for the first time. The rabbi cannot shake the wife's hand, tells her to go upstairs during services, and informs her that her children are not considered Jewish. Most people will never return after that kind of introduction to Judaism." Rabbi Schudrich insists that "as a modern Orthodox rabbi, I feel obligated to any Jew out there. Whether I agree with somebody or not, I want to celebrate being Jewish with them." Aside from the issue of equal treatment for women, the major divide between Rabbi Schudrich and BW is how each defines "Jew"--according to halachah or not. When BW eventually affiliates with a Jewish Movement, its leaders say it will be either Reform or Reconstructionist; otherwise most of the children will not be considered Jewish.

To find a rabbi to conduct High Holy Day services last fall, BW sent out an Internet appeal. Although the congregation could cover only travel and living expenses, 100 rabbis applied. Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper, a convert from Catholicism and a 1995 ordainee of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), was selected. Before arriving in Warsaw from Birmingham, AL, Rabbi Culpeper received a phone call from Rabbi Schudrich. "He told me that my coming could have the potential of dividing a very fragile community. I tried to assure him that I would do everything possible to be cooperative. He didn't say a word for a long time. Finally, he suggested that, perhaps, we could use a room in the Noyzk Synagogue, but added, 'you would have to erect a mechitza.' 'That doesn't make sense,' I said. 'After all, I will be leading the services and reading from the Torah.'" BW chose to hold Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in a rented theater. Rabbi Culpeper returned to Warsaw for Pesach 2001 to teach and lead a communal seder for ninety people in a Jewish-style restaurant, and again for this year's High Holy Days.

"Through Beit Warszawa," says Rabbi Culpeper, "the flame of Liberal Judaism burns once again in Warsaw in the tradition of the Great Synagogue on Tlomacka Street. It had a mixed choir, organ music, and a rabbi who preached in Polish rather than Yiddish." The Great Synagogue was blown up by the Germans on May 16, 1943, in celebration of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. Today, a modern glass skyscraper advertising the Sony corporation stands in its place.

"If we could get a rabbi for an entire year," says Clifford Aron, an American and one of BW's founders, "it will change things in Poland, because there is a great fascination with Judaism among a certain segment of open-minded Poles. We have a window of opportunity today that did not exist before." Severyn Ashkenazy agrees. "The next five to ten years will be critical if we hope to bring them back to Judaism. But it cannot be done without outside help. The Jewish world should recognize the importance of the growing Liberal Jewish community in Poland."

Crucial for the revival of Polish Jewry is the recovery and restoration of synagogues. In Wroclaw (Breslau, Germany before the war), the only synagogue that survived the war was built in 1829 as a Reform temple. In 1992 Jerzy Kichler, now the president of the Jewish Religious Communities of Poland, initiated litigation to recover the Pod Bialym Bocianeam ("Under the White Stork") synagogue, succeeding after a four-year battle. Journalist Ellen Friedland and her husband Curt Fissel, a documentary filmmaker, made history last year when they became the first couple to be married in the synagogue in thirty-six years. Friedland recalls her first visit to the site. "I walked with Jerzy amidst the rubble of this massive structure. He felt he had achieved a Pyrrhic victory, because the Jewish community lacked the financial means that a massive renovation project would require. Today, Wroclaw [pronounced 'Vrotzwav'] is home to a thriving synagogue with one of Europe's finest Jewish choirs, one of only two Jewish day schools in the country (where the number of applicants far exceeds the number of enrollment openings), an annual Jewish cultural festival, and an autumn series-in-planning of adult education classes ranging from basic synagogue skills to Hebrew instruction."

The fact that the Jewish pluralism issue has emerged in Poland is a sign of Jewish vitality. Rabbi Schudrich is correct, however, about the fragility of Polish Jewry. That is why Jewish visitors to Poland must guard against making demoralizing declarations such as "Poland is a Jewish cemetery," when what the Jews of Poland need most is financial and professional support from the Jews of North America.

It may be said that, after the Holocaust, it is a hillul hashem, a desecration of God's name, to say Kaddish for a Jewish community, where Jews--no matter how few--are committed to teaching Torah to the next generation. All the more so in Poland.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer, HUC-JIR class of 1976, is editor of Reform Judaism magazine. His eight-day Jewish press tour of Poland was sponsored by the Polish National Tourist Office.