POLAND - POLOGNE - POLEN - POLÓNIA
Poland and the Jews
There are numerous memoirs, academic studies, and fictions about the events surrounding the Holocaust. Scholars argue that the Polish public was highly receptive to Nazi propaganda against Jews. The Polish government's position was reinforced by the old practices of the Catholic church which resulted in Polish collaboration and satisfaction with Nazi genocide. Other scholars contend that Poland resisted German ideology far more than other countries, except in relation to Jews.
During the last decade we have witnessed an avalanche of memoirs, academic studies and fictions about the Holocaust. Jerzy Zubrzycki's broadly adversarial review (Quadrant, November 1997) of Mark Verstandig's Holocaust memoir, I Rest My Case, which I edited and translated from Yiddish, confirms the observations of seasoned participants in Holocaust "debates" that witnesses and historians of the Holocaust are sharply divided along ethnic lines and recycled arguments slot into well-worn grooves. Apparently neither repetition nor time exhaust the passions aroused by the subject.
When I began my translation of what started as just a family history, I found myself on a journey of discovery of a past which I was repossessing, if only in imagination. After the uphill battle for publication, I was naturally gratified to find my own excitement mirrored in reviews in, among others, Eureka Street, the Australian Book Review, Overland, the Adelaide Review, the Age, the Australian, the Herald-Sun, the Canberra Times and the TLS. Letters and phone calls from appreciative readers also streamed in. What they all liked about the book was the human richness and variety of Verstandig's personal narrative, underpinned by the cool intelligence of his social and political analysis. In his fore word, Sam Lipski, the editor of the Australian Jewish News, called it "memorable journalism and literature", while Harry Shukman, a lecturer in Modem Russian History at Oxford University, and former director of the Russian and East European Centre at St Antony's College, Oxford, praised it for "lucid intelligence ... balanced views and [an] abiding sense of humour".
Impressed by reviews, a special commendation by the judges of the 1996 Victorian Premier's Award, and the rapid sell-out of the small first edition, in 1997 MUP published a second more scholarly edition, which added photos of the deportation of the Jews of Mielec, maps, glossary and index.
However, this appreciation did not extend to a section of the local Polish community represented by Tygodnik Polski, a weekly tabloid of the gutter press variety which has been the subject of complaints under the NSW racial vilification legislation and to the Press Council. I am sure neither Professor Zubrzycki, nor any associate of the Institute of Polish Affairs, cares to be mentioned in the same breath as a newspaper which hides behind the unfamiliarity of its language to promote views reminiscent of the Polish prewar neo-fascist party known as the Endecja.
While Zubrzycki observes the civility which makes it possible to enter into a dialogue, 1 was disturbed by his bullying expressions of outrage that a university press such as MUP had published Verstandig's radical accusations about the wartime Polish government in exile. Apparently the old prerogatives of lese majeste, which used to ensue in routine prosecutions of Jews (documented by Verstandig) for belittling the Polish emblem, die hard.
In deploring the anti-Jewish discrimination he witnessed in his youth, Zubrzycki displays his liberal credentials, while confirming, somewhat obliquely, Verstandig's solidly documented analysis of the increasingly fascistic and anti-Semitic orientation of the newly independent Polish republic of the interwar years. However, he draws the line at Verstandig's observation, which, incidentally, is broadly representive of the mainstream of Jewish experience and opinion, that these policies and ideologies, reinforced by the centuries-old anti-Semitic practices of the Catholic church, persisted during the war years, and were largely responsible for Polish reactions to the Nazi genocide ranging from indifference to satisfaction and outright collaboration.
As numerous worried memoranda in the Polish government files of the period attest, the Polish public was highly receptive to German anti-Semitic propaganda, which played on existing communal divisions. Zubrzycki is justly proud of the fact that, unlike France and other occupied countries, Poland withstood the harshest occupation regime in Europe without any significant collaboration with the Germans -- except, I would contend, in relation to Jews. The impressive, perhaps unparalleled, record of the "underground state" In maintaining internal social discipline and cohesion intensified the Jewish feeling of abandonment and betrayal by their fellow citizens.
However, reactions were not uniformly negative. In fact, as Harry Shukman points out in his foreword, "the too-often unrecognised importance of Polish help in saving Jewish lives is well documented [by Verstandig]". Zubrzycki seizes as a contradiction or weakness in Verstandig's argument that in a small Galician town, his warm personal and professional relationships in the judiciary enabled him to continue to practise law under the nose of the Nazis for two years before he was betrayed -- most probably by a Jewish blackmailer and his Polish partner in crime. It is an exemplary story of solidarity against the common enemy. It IS also a tribute to the power of moral leadership by individuals in the community, such as the respected Polish lawyer Antoni Droba, who boasted a Jewish mistress, and the German Reichsdeutsche Dr Frank. Their authority in the community clearly inhibited the open expression of anti-Semitic tendencies by others such as the lawyer Uminski. Sadly, this kind of leadership was never manifested at the political level.
The historian of Poland, Norman Davies, is notorious for the observation that you might as well ask why Jews did nothing to help Poles, as the other way around. That is exactly what Verstandig attempted to do. In the early stages of the war, during the Nazi round-up and murder of Polish elites, his professional colleagues seemed as endangered as he was. The protection they extended to him was reciprocated by his ingenious ruse to deceive German authorities into believing that the court was working overtime -- a plan that ultimately saved him, as well as his colleagues. In answer to Davies, where solidarity existed, reciprocity naturally ensued.
Of their large extended families, my parents were virtually the only survivors of the Nazi occupation in Poland, and despite the help of many courageous individuals they survived by the narrowest of margins. Survivors, typically, must bear witness, not only to their own good fortune, but to the incommensurable losses of their families and communities.
It is estimated that out of a prewar community of three and a half million, between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews survived outside the camps in Poland during the war years, each of whom, like my parents, had several courageous helpers. However, as historian David Engel points out, these often quoted figures mean little unless we know the number who were betrayed, for whom there are no overall records.
However, the case of my parents presents some grim calculations. By sheer courage, quick thinking and luck, they survived two anonymous denunciations to the Polish police and the attempt of the soltys (headman) of one village to ferret out their secret, while boasting of the number of Jews he had sent to Hell. On Easter Sunday 1943, in the sleepy village of Chrzastow, my parents witnessed a mob lynching of a hidden Jew and his teenage daughter. At this time, his helpers reported that my father's sisters were executed after betrayal by Poles to the Polish police. (I have not found any research into the collaborationist role of the Polish police, who usually acted as intermediaries when hidden Jews were betrayed to the Germans.) A month before the Russian liberation, they narrowly escaped a massacre by a local unit of the Polish underground AK (Home Army) of the other family members, three women and a twelve-year-old boy, with whom they were hiding. (In the darkness my father jumped into a ditch and hid under water; my mother, who fought a six-foot attacker, and was clubbed to the ground and left for dead with a dumdum bullet in her back, crawled away to safety.) There is a story like this behind the door of every Polish-Jewish survivor in Melbourne; the statistics do not bear thinking about.
Nor do these acts appear to have been committed by marginal criminal elements, like the stereotyped "roving bands of szmalcownici", who pace Zubrzycki are not part of Verstandig's narrative. The perpetrators seem to be the ubiquitous nosy neighbours, or even the relatives, of the protectors, in close-knit, stable communities.
Zubrzycki approvingly quotes Nechama Tec's study of the righteous gentiles who saved Jews. The cross-section of rescuers she studied defied classification by the usual criteria of social class, education, income, age and occupation. The only conclusion she drew could be described as tautological: these people who showed exceptional courage and altruism were dissimilar in every respect, except for one trait -- they were all in some way marginal, and thus, she speculates, freer to disregard communal norms with regard to the Jews. (I quote this disturbing conclusion because of Zubrzycki's reference to her work. In fairness, I must add that her conclusions do not seem to fit what we know about my parents' helpers, who were all closely integrated into Polish society.)
Zubrzycki concludes his review by relating these faraway long ago atrocities to our still lucky country. Thus anti-Semitism should not define Poland, "just as Pauline Hanson does not define Australia, the country which willingly gave hospitality" to Verstandig and other refugees. Is it therefore inappropriate to link the Hanson phenomenon to the political echelons of the state?
When Hanson made her first speech in parliament Prime Minister Howard resisted all urgings to repudiate her views. Shortly afterwards there was a steep rise in incidents of abuse, intimidation and violence reported by ethnic communities. It was widely observed that the government's silence, and Howard's personal lack of moral leadership, gave the green light to expressions of racism which disturbed our image of ourselves as a tolerant nation. The government's subsequent condemnation of racism, after reported damage to business and tourism from Asian nations, was a blatant exercise in damage limitation, a case of too little, too late.
Such too little, too late, tokenism is precisely the profile of the reaction to the plight of the Jews under occupation which emerges in David Engel's meticulously documented two-volume study of the Polish government in exile and the Jews, In the Shadow of Auschwitz: The Polish Government-In-Exile and the Jews, 1939-1942 and Facing a Holocaust: The Polish GovernmentIn-Exile and the Jews, 1943-1946 (University of North Carolina Press, 1987; 1993).
In Zubrzycki's categorical denial of the accusations regarding the role of the Polish government in exile, "the facts speak for themselves". What are these facts?
There can be no doubt of the importance of the information about the extermination of Jews in Poland which was gathered by the Polish and Jewish underground and transmitted in turn by the Polish government in exile to Western allies. Jan Karski's heroic mission to publicise the massive deportation of the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto for gassing in Treblinka led to the first and only specific Allied condemnation of Nazi extermination of the Jews, accompanied by threats of retaliation in December 1942. And it was certainly not for lack of urging by the Polish government that the Allies issued no further declarations along these lines.
However, Engel's investigation of the chronology of the Polish declaration about the Warsaw ghetto deportations reaches some disturbing conclusions. The Polish government in exile only publicised the fate of the Warsaw ghetto four months after the first reliable information about 6000 deportations a day was received, and eleven weeks after the deportation of over 265,000 people had concluded, at a time when it was clear that this information would in any case emerge from other sources.
Broadly, Engel's thesis is that the Polish government in exile did not feel any greater responsibility or urgency than other Allied governments in promoting the relief and rescue of the three and a half million Jews who were Polish citizens because it did not include Jews in its "universe of obligation". The persisting ethos of the interwar Polish republic assumed that the government represented the interests of ethnic Poles. It thus negotiated with, and on behalf of, Jewish interests only in the framework of a Realpolitik, when such actions were deemed to advance the interests of the ethnic Polish majority.
Thus, while freely, repeatedly and unsuccessfully urging Allied governments to issue declarations threatening reprisals for the treatment of the occupied population, including the Jews, the government In exile was equally obdurate in its resistance to pleas by Jewish leaders to broadcast appeals to Poles in the homeland to assist their Jewish fellow citizens. And although, eventually, the Polish underground did channel some of the funds collected by Jews abroad to the Jewish underground in Poland, no such funds or any material assistance were allocated by the Polish government from its own resources.
I question also the accuracy of Zubrzycki's claim that the Polish government publicised information collected by the Jewish members of the Delegatura, the representative body of the Polish government inside occupied Poland. Although there were two prominent Jewish members of the Polish National Council, the advisory body to the government in exile, there were, according to Israeli Holocaust historian Yisrael Gutman, simply no Jewish members of the Delegatura. (Mark Verstandig had personal experience of the barriers to Jewish participation in the Polish underground.) Until late 1942-1943, when a little -- too little -- help was given to the fighters in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, no effort was made by the well-organised Polish underground to contact or support any Jewish organisations. In his ediition of Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, by the historian and archivist of the Warsaw ghetto, Emmanuel Ringelblum, Joseph Kermish notes that in September 1943, General Bor Komarowski, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, issued Order No 116 to the units under his command directing them to take active measures against (that is, kill) Jews in the forests, who included survivors of the ghetto uprising.
Engel's research supports Verstandig's argument that throughout the war broad sections of the Polish population regarded themselves as beneficiaries of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. A major theme of prewar Polish policy towards the Jews was the desirability of mass Jewish emigration. Verstandig's observation, that this was a constant topic of everyday conversation in occupied Poland, is paralleled by Engel's and Kermish's documentation of similar discussions in government circles throughout the war. Memoranda in 1940, 1943 and 1944 by the Delegatura's foreign minister, Roman Knoll, expressing the fear that "too many Jews" would survive the war, that Poles would violently resist the postwar return of Jews to their homes and properties, and that plans should be made for the evacuation of Jews to closed reservations in the east, are the smoking guns which lead Verstandig to conclude that the rise in killings and denunciations of hidden Jews in the last phase of the war, when Germans were already retreating, was hardly coincidental.
Engel also presents a detailed analysis of the controversies over discrimination and anti-Semitic harassment in the Polish exile army, which were a growing headache for the government in exile. He quotes a controversial and widely reported speech to the division commanders of the Polish army in exile by General Anders. In it Anders explains the urgent, political rationale for banning anti-Semitic harassment within the army.
All soldiers must understand ... that our raison d'etat
requires that we do not annoy the Jews, for at present
anti-Semitism can bring the most disastrous and
incalculable effects upon the Polish cause. Therefore I
recommend that our position be explained discreetly and
responsibly to the units under your command, and that
for now no manifestation of the struggle against the Jews
is under any circumstances allowable, and ... will be
punished by me as harmful to our cause. When we are
masters in our own home after our victorious campaign, we
shall dispose of the Jewish question as the greatness and
sovereignty of our homeland and ordinary human justice
The last topic discussed by Zubrzycki is the Kielce pogrom which took place in July 1946. After rumours had circulated that a missing Polish boy, subsequently found safe and well with relatives in a village, had been abducted by Jews for the purposes of ritual murder, a mob attacked a house belonging to the local Jewish committee. During the ensuing riot forty-two Jews were killed, and up to a hundred injured.
After describing the Kielce progrom as one of the ugliest chapters of modern Polish history. Zubrzycki revives a long-discredited Polish theory that the pogrom was really a provocation of the UB, the notorious Soviet-controlled security apparatus, which had many Jewish members. (Apparently, another still-current Polish theory is that the pogrom was really instigated by the Zionists, to encourage survivors to emigrate to Palestine.)
We are informed that last July, fifty-one years after the event, the alleged victim, Henryk Blaszczyk, publicly confessed that he had been forced to repeat the story of abduction by the UB. On hearing of Henryk Blaszczyk's latest confession, the third to date, Verstandig observed that he would just as readily believe that the witches of Salem had stage-managed the Kielce pogrom. If it was indeed instigated by the UB, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, since the mobs on the streets were completely receptive to the provocation. Even more telling was the reaction of the church hierarchy, who declined repeated appeals by Jewish leaders during the weeks in which tension was building up in Kielce to denounce either anti-Jewish violence or ritual murder accusations.
In fact, the Kielce pogrom was not an isolated incident. There were other ritual murder accusations and smaller pogroms and killings of Jewish Holocaust survivors throughout Poland at this time -- the latest research indicates that 1500 to 2000 Jews were killed in the immediate postwar period, for no other reason than that they were Jews. Apart from Germany and Austria, where a number of Jews were murdered by former SS and Gestapo members, Poland was the only country in Europe where such killings are known to have taken place. As a consequence, the abiding Polish goal of mass Jewish emigration was fulfilled. In the next few months, over 140,000 Jews, over half the surviving Jewish population, fled from Poland. The remainder, mainly committed communists, were forced to emigrate by renewed state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaigns in the mid-1950s and finally in 1968.
Is it a sign of desperation, or is Zubrzycki unconsciously revealing his deepest allegiances by echoing the apologia of prominent churchmen such as Cardinal Hlond, Bishop Kaczmarek and Bishop Wyszynski that the violence was the retaliation of Poles for the "active part" Jews were assuming in the nation's political life, and that there were too many Jews in authority "endeavouring to enforce a system inimical to the majority of the nation"?
Zubrzycki's parting thrust is that "by his own admission Verstandig, perhaps reluctantly, was one of those who sought a position in the infamous Ministry of Security (UB) set up by [a] quisling formation [of the Soviets]". He earlier used the word despicable about Verstandig's accusations of the Polish government in exile. However distasteful it is to trade insults, I can think of no more appropriate word for Zubrzycki's attempt to explain or justify the Kielce pogrom and other manifestations of postwar Polish anti-Semitism by resurrecting the spectre of the Zydocomuna, the bogeyman of the Jewish bolshevik menace. The insinuations about Verstandig's membership of the UB, barely qualified by that "perhaps reluctant", are disgraceful, since he is fully aware of the circumstances in which Verstandig joined that organisation. As he and his wife were the sole survivors of an AK massacre, he was advised in August 1944 to Join the UB as a legal counsellor to obtain both physical protection (a weapon and a guarded residence) and the means to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to justice. He remained in the organisation only long enough -- a few months -- to accomplish this goal, and left in a hurry, after warnings that he was himself in danger of arrest.
The predicament Verstandig found himself in vis-a-vis the Soviet occupation was hardly unique. It is summed up by the title of a recent book about Jews who sought refuge in the Soviet Union during the Second World War: the lesser of two evils. Though Verstandig was never personally attracted to communism, the appeal -- usually short-lived -- of communist ideology to significant numbers of Jews can be explained by their experience at the receiving end of exclusivist, explicitly anti-Semitic nationalism of the Polish variety.
One of the most interesting explanations of the apparently insurmountable divide between Jewish and Polish interpretations of the Holocaust is to be found in Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust by Michael Steinlauf (Syracuse University Press, 1997). Steinlauf bases his argument on Robert Jay Lifton's psychological theories about the trauma experienced by witnesses of genocide. Thus he claims that the spectre of the absent, murdered, Jew has never been exorcised from Polish memory, thwarting the Polish need to assume the victim's role. While the theory is too complex to summarise here, it sheds light on an incident in Verstandig's book, which I had always regarded as ironic without exactly understanding why. When the AK murderer Antom Makson was arrested by the militia, he made a run for it. Warned that they would shoot, his last words were: "Would you crucify me for a few scabby Jews (parszywe zydy)?" This illiterate peasant's spontaneous recourse, in extremis, to a religious metaphor of victimisation by Jews, explains a great deal.
Felicity Bloch is a freelance reviewer. She edited and translated I Rest My Case, Mark Verstandig's memoir of Jewish life in interwar Poland, the Holocaust. and postwar emigration to Australia.
Fri., April 29, 2005 Nisan 20, 5765
Circles of attraction and repulsion
By Yossi Avni-Levy
eretz yeruka" ("Poland is a Green Country") by Aharon Appelfeld, Keter
Publishing, 217 pages, NIS 79
"Poland is a cemetery that has been plowed over. It's hard to pray in such a place. All that rich greenness can drive you crazy," says a fellow passenger to Yaakov, the hero of Aharon Appelfeld's book, on the plane back to Tel Aviv at the end of his journey to Poland. The man captures the feelings of many people who find themselves drawn to the black magnet of Poland's soil, where a millennium of Jewish life was swallowed into oblivion.
Appelfeld, a particularly prolific writer who enjoys a position
of unshakable prominence in contemporary Hebrew literature, makes a double leap
in his new book, moving rapidly across both time and space. He abandons the
landscapes of the individual soul, that childhood terrain to which he has so
obsessively returned, and instead takes a chilling, complex journey to the black
vortex itself - a vast and alien Poland (which he knows not from childhood, but
from his visits to Krakow). For this purpose he chooses a tiny village called
Szydowce, which may or may not exist in reality.
The plot is simple and highly symbolic. Yaakov Fein, a clothing merchant who lives a boring family life in Israel, arrives in a Polish village, all trees, cornfields and a fast-flowing river. He spends the night in the first house he sees and soon discovers that Alexander Penn was right: Only coincidence can be believed. The owner of the house, a buxom peasant woman named Magda (the kind of mythic female Appelfeld enjoys sketching), cooks him country delicacies and soon offers him access to her bed, heart and secrets. (The description of their first amorous night is sloppy and disappointing: Folks, the mysteries of sex are well known to Polish men, and even to Polish women.)
Yaakov opens a window in Magda's life, and through this window the memories begin to drift. The language is pure Appelfeld, a powerful language of contraction, lined with yearning for a landscape of water, grass and light. Appelfeld, who in his previous books infused such mundane words as "the merchants" or "the old people" with imagination and force, this time kneads with great pleasure that very un-Jewish word, "the peasants."
But the stroll through the country fields drags the "real story" behind it, and with it the central message of the book: In elliptic circles of attraction and repulsion, fascination and loathing, Appelfeld exposes to the reader a rural Polish world, dark and haunted by its past - a stereotype that accords well with the common Israeli belief that "the Poles are anti-Semitic."
One by one, as though they were passing by him on a conveyor belt, Yaakov Fein meets colorful types from the tranquil Polish periphery, where prejudice, cruelty and obtuseness coexist with natural beauty, religious faith and human kindness. One by one Appelfeld pushes the buttons, with the help of his hero, and the Polish peasants respond like human ATMs, spewing out hatred, fear, horror, nostalgia and even hints of guilt - a welter of emotions fluttering within the enormous void that was left behind by Poland's 3.5 million murdered Jews.
"The Jews awaken the darkness in man," says the old woman Wanda. "The dead Jews are frightening." "They were killed because they were Jews," says old Nikolai, the only peasant who was willing to hide Jews in his yard, and that for a hefty sum. "A man doesn't just kill for no reason. Only rebels against God are hunted and killed," he explains. The Jews, we learn, are hardworking, tight-fisted and unpopular even in death. An elderly farmer in the field makes a lofty philosophical declaration to the visitor: "The fate of the Jews was rooted in themselves." A nameless farmer in a bar says: "Even now there are so many of them. But now they are hard to tell apart. They look a bit like the Germans, a bit like the Poles. They hide their origins, and that's a despicable trait."
Stinking of garlic
A few days ago, on tram No. 36 from Filtrowa Street to Zbawiciela Square in downtown Warsaw, I saw boys putting up handmade posters of President Kwasniewski hanging from a rope, with a beard and long earlocks added to his face. "The Jews stink of garlic," the poster said. "Poland is dominated by the Jews. God help us to save our country."
I asked the boys if they had ever seen a Jew. "The Jews are everywhere," they snickered. "How many Jews are there in Poland?" I asked. "Millions," they answered. "Only 2,000," I corrected them. They burst out laughing. "Poland is swarming with Jews," they said, "especially in commerce and the government. Even the president is Jewish. His real name is Stulzman, not Kwasniewski," they insisted, then shook my hand amicably and got off the tram. A popular radio station known as Radio Maria, located in Torun, Copernicus' lovely hometown, is freely broadcasting anti-Jewish slander.
That is the other, hidden face of modern-day Poland. The country's most lively Jews are its dead Jews. They are conspicuous by their absence. Moral and intellectual Poland is filled with a touching nostalgia for the vanished Jews. Many young locals are obviously curious about, and even nostalgic for, the rich culture left behind by the Jews and the enormous cities abruptly erased from Polish demographics: One-third of the people of Warsaw and Lodz were Jewish, 40 percent of the people of Lublin, no less than 67 percent of the people of Bialystok (higher than the rate of Jews living in Jerusalem).
The philo-Semitism in Poland is among the most thrilling of its kind in contemporary Europe. Young patrons at Warsaw's modern cafes boast of Jewish grandparents, which may be only figments of a wishful imagination. The Jewish festivals held in Krakow and Lodz are bigger than those of Tel Aviv and Haifa. A town called Kutno, located on the road from Warsaw to Poznan, is now building a museum in memory of the Hebrew author Shalom Asch, who was born there. Does anyone in modern-day Israel remember Shalom Asch?
"The Jews were stuck in our throat. They were ours, very much ours, and at the same time foreign," says another nameless peasant to Yaakov Fein. A very Appelfeldian statement, precise and electrifying: That is how Jews and Poles lived for generations, until the Nazis spread their destruction.
While reading, I was reminded of the words Amos Oz recalls hearing from his aunt Sonia: "The Polish attitude toward the Jews was one of disgust, like someone who has bitten into a piece of bad fish and can neither swallow it nor spit it out ... they were keen to look good. Like a drunk trying to walk straight, so that no one can see he's weaving ... But under the table they oppressed and humiliated us, so that we would gradually all go off to Palestine" ("A Tale of Love and Darkness," English translation by Nicholas de Lange). And go they did: a few to Palestine, a great many to the crematoria and mass graves.
The Polish ambivalence was evident to the Jews even in the midst of the atrocities. Some Poles turned the Jews in; others risked their lives to save them. One-third of the Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jews who saved Jews during the war) are Polish. This is important to remember - even on days when the Poles' ratings in Israel are particularly low.
On July 9, 1942, a few days before the mass deportation to Treblinka, Polish hoodlums threw rocks into the Warsaw Ghetto. The Polish intelligentsia frowned on harassment of this kind. The head of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, who two weeks later would swallow a cyanide capsule at his desk on Grzybowska Street, recorded the incident in his diary. He had always wondered, he wrote, "whether Poland is Mckievicz and Slovacki or the street thugs"; the truth, he concluded, lay somewhere in the middle.
The truth lies in the middle: a rule that (almost) always applies. The classic Polish anti-Semitism of the 1920s and 1930s, whose vague echoes can still be heard in the radical fringes of Polish politics, may have been vicious and poisonous, but it neither created the Holocaust nor allowed it to happen. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek were not built by Poles. It was Nazi Germany that murdered the Polish Jews; the Poles were one of the few peoples in occupied Europe that did not collaborate with the Nazi invader or contribute soldiers to the Nazi ranks.
Quite a few Israelis have over the years developed a distaste for the Poles, and with impressive acrobatics created a formula that, through an exaggerated account of the Polish "contribution" to the extermination of the European Jewry, somewhat diminishes and flattens the Nazi culpability. This is an injustice not only to the Poles, but first of all to ourselves, and to the truth.
Yes, some Poles turned Jews over to the Germans, tattled on them on the streets of the "Aryan side" and even brutally murdered their own neighbors, as the investigation of the July 1941 massacre in Jedwabne has shown.
Even the village (real or imagined) whose fields of denial and longing are explored by Appelfeld's hero has its secret. "This village is under a horrible curse," the barmaid at the local tavern tells him. "Since the Jews were burned, the village has been cursed," reveals a nameless old man. One fine day "the soldiers" (is it a coincidence that Appelfeld does not explicitly say "the Germans?") gathered up the 40 local Jews and burned the women and children inside the synagogue. Dozens of cities and towns in Poland witnessed something of this sort. Frightened Jews seek refuge in their neighbors' homes, but to no avail. And so the pharmacist Laufer, who treated the poor free of charge, goes up in flames, along with the Sternbergs, a family everyone loved. The neighbors, almost all of them, lock their doors and hearts before the Jews. That, it seems, is the core of the accusation currently hurled at the Polish door: You could have saved them, but you refused to.
It would have been one thing had Appelfeld settled for that. His hero, Yaakov Fein, tries to save and transport to Israel some uprooted headstones being used as paving stones by the local council. The description of the act of sly blackmail, peppered with the words of God, is masterfully drawn.
A few months ago I happened to visit a Polish village south of Lublin, and I asked the head of the local council if Jews had lived there. Flustered, he consulted with his colleagues and finally sent me to a nearby village. Eventually it turned out that he was not being truthful: Some one-third of the villagers had indeed been Jewish. The official was afraid that revealing the past would lead to property claims. The terror of Jewish (and German!) property haunts quite a few Poles nowadays.
Especially heartrending is the wonderful description of the hero's meeting with Uncle Leszek's converted son. The latter denies any connection to the stranger, but is also magically drawn to him. It is, however, a seemingly bland line Appelfeld gives to Magda that hints at his deeper, more serious accusation against the Poles. "In their heart they [the villagers] know that killing and also taking possession is not something God easily forgives," says the large-breasted peasant.
Taking a moral stand on the issue of the Polish failure to rescue the Jews undermines the credibility of the words, already problematic, that Appelfeld gives to his villagers. The Jewish phrases he occasionally puts in their mouths are baffling; and if the old woman Wanda speaks Catholic Polish, how is Yaakov able to understand her, having only ever heard the language in his parents' Israeli home?
At the beginning of his journey Yaakov meets a Jew on the train to Krakow. "A man walks up to him and asks in Yiddish, `Jewish?'" The description sounds as though taken from Poland's demographic landscape before the devastation; it is therefore not quite believable. The chance today of being approached out of the blue by a Yiddish-speaking Jew in southern Poland is only slightly greater than having a dolphin address you in Mongolian and offer to sell you a Van Gogh. The symbolism, however, is clear: Yaakov meets a Jew at the beginning of his journey ("It is strange to travel to a place where there is nothing," the first Jew tells him) and another, tired Jew on the plane back to Tel Aviv ("Poland is a cemetery that has been plowed over," the last Jew tells him). Because everything has ended there, in Poland, and everything so yearns to begin anew.
Yossi Avni-Levy, author of "The Garden of Dead Trees," "Four Sons" and "Auntie Farhuma Wasn't a Whore After All" (all in Hebrew), is a senior diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in Poland.