Arts & Culture

A (Limited) Defense of Poland

Let’s play a word association game.  You know how it goes: I give a word and then you tell me the first thing that pops into your head.  Ready?  The word is, Poland. I’ll bet that seventy-five percent of you … Read More

By / February 6, 2009

Let’s play a word association game.  You know how it goes: I give a word and then you tell me the first thing that pops into your head.  Ready?  The word is, Poland. I’ll bet that seventy-five percent of you just thought, anti-semitic.  And the other twenty-five percent, pogrom. That’s okay.  I used to feel that way too.  I still do, to a limited extent, even though I adore Polish poetry and Polish food and I’ve bored a lot of people at dinner parties with my detailed explanations of Polish history.  You see, I spent a year in Poland on a Fulbright.  (The book I wrote about my experience is being considered by publishers.)  I learned that while Poles like Americans, and they’re nice to (white) foreigners in general, many Poles do have strange ideas about Jews.  I’m not talking about outright anti-Semitism.  It’s there; but more often, in my own experience, I sensed an unhealthy preoccupation with Jews-a chronic fascination that reminded me of a lingering cold. (A friend and I referred to this as having a "Jew in the throat.")  There’s no doubt that many Poles also have strange attitudes about homosexuals and people of color.  There’s no doubt, for that matter, that many Poles have strange attitudes about anyone who isn’t "Polish."  Nevertheless, after reading Joe Lockard’s and Tomasz Kitlinski’s "Still Racist After All These Years" in Zeek, I felt obligated to respond.  While the piece rightfully exposes the unsavory aspects of Polish culture, it is one-sided, at times evincing the same historical "aphasia" with which the authors have diagnosed the Poles. Lockard and Kitlinski argue that the Polish press’ evisceration of Jan Gross-author of the seminal Neighbors, about the Jedwabne massacre of 1941, and Fear, about the postwar Polish pogroms-is evidence of that "historical aphasia."  I agree.  The Polish national myth speaks of a nation that kept its identity through centuries of oppression, which is true enough; but it also-and try not to laugh-speaks of centuries of generosity towards Jews.  A certain kind of Pole (like a certain kind of American) sees questioning any part of the national myth as treason.  Thus the reactions to Gross’ books have frequently been a display of nationalism in its most nauseating forms.  But it is unfair to categorize the reaction to Gross’ books as completely representative of the Polish take on Polish-Jewish relations.  In fact, well before the publication of Neighbors, Polish intellectuals were questioning their national myths.  (See Jan Blonski’s eloquent "A Poor Pole Looks at the Ghetto," which was first published in 1987.)  In addition, there are a number of established, well-known organizations, like the Znak foundation or the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, that have been investigating the complexities of Jewish-Christian relations for years.  Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s newspaper of record, so frequently has articles about Jewish issues that some refer to it, ironically but not without affection, as the "kosher" paper.
In addition, Lockard and Kitlinski make no mention of the individual Poles who have been working, assiduously and without much fuss, on Jewish issues for years.  Just a few examples include Robert Gadek, who founded Krakow’s Center for Jewish Culture; Robert Kuwalek, the Director of the Belzec Memorial Museum; or Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, who, at Lublin’s Center for Jewish Studies, is training a generation of historians.  Make no mistake: in Poland, the guardians of Jewish history are non-Jewish Poles.  But Lockard and Kitlinski don’t mention this.  Perhaps because it would show Poland in a more nuanced light.  Indeed, in their article, there is the suggestion that nuance is to be avoided.  They quote one Pawel Machcewicz, a Polish historian who felt that the negative reaction to Gross’ books was a "scandal."  So far so good.  But when Machcewicz dares to add that Gross’ language is "counter-productive," Lockard and Kitlinski lump him in with Poland’s worst elements.  They write: "This sort of ‘yes, but’ response is quite typical of both mainstream and right-wing responses to Gross."  But Machcewicz, I’m guessing, was responding to Gross’ tone of righteous indignation in Fear-a tone that prompted even this Jew to wonder, "Why does he keep reminding me that a pogrom is a bad thing?"  (I had a similar reaction to Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners; admittedly, though, Gross is a much better writer.)
Here, for me, is the heart of the matter.  Lockard and Kitlinski tell us that, "Current right-wing political sentiment in Poland does not want to be reminded that it was not only the Nazis who were responsible for the elimination of the country’s Jewish population."  While I might ask if a sentiment can be reminded of anything, I don’t disagree with the essence of this statement.  But it is a conflation of culpability.  The interwar atmosphere of anti-Semitism; the pogroms before, during, and after the Nazi occupation; the expulsions of 1968: all these events point to a consistent history of anti-Jewish sentiment.  However, I am extremely uncomfortable with the mention of Nazis and Poles in the same breath.  During the Nazi occupation, thousands of Polish Christians risked their lives, and died, saving thousands of Polish Jews.  I can understand that for many Jews, this heroism is mitigated by the brutality of Jedwabne and Kielce.  But to portray Poles as consistently brutal or consistently heroic is not telling the whole story. And what about today?  Well, again, Lockard and Kitlinski are right: we are seeing an increase in unfavorable attitudes about Jews in Poland (and elsewhere).  And again, this is not the whole picture: we are also seeing Poles becoming more interested in their country’s Jewish past.  (Speaking personally, I will admit to cynical feelings about Krakow’s Kazimierz district, with its "Jewish" restaurants and Schindler’s List tours, but I have met too many sincere Poles to see this interest as completely mercenary.) One afternoon, in the summer of 2004, I stopped by the Center of Jewish Studies to drop off a book.  I dawdled when I overheard a (Polish Christian) professor giving an oral exam to one of his (Polish Christian) students. "And what happens on Yom Kippur?" the professor asked. "Um, we don’t eat," the student said.  "Good.  For how long?" "For, um, twenty-four hours." I stifled a laugh.  There was something very sweet about this exchange, how casual it was, in the student’s halting responses and his unconscious use of first-person plural.  He obviously hadn’t studied much, but so what?  Here were a couple of Poles, talking about Jews as an aspect of their own history.  I suppose, in the end, that this is another "yes, but" response.  Yes, in Poland, I saw much that echoed the atmosphere of racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia that Lockard and Kitlinski describe.  But I also a people longing for normality-longing to prosper, to reconsider their past, and to nurture an atmosphere of tolerance.

Gordon Haber was formerly Zeek’s Fiction Editor and is currently at work on a novel about the messiah.

All by images from artist Zbigniew Libera’s series Lego. Concentration Camp, 1996