Poland and the Jews

It was a gray, cold, rainy day in Warsaw late in the summer of 1969. A 15-year-old American student was walking down Marszalkowska street reading a book he had just purchased on the Warsaw Ghetto. A middle-aged Pole suddenly loomed over him, hissed Psakrev zhid,  “Kike, blood of a dog!” and spat in his face. Welcome to Poland.

I had come from five weeks in the USSR with a study group of kids run by the Choate School in Connecticut. It was a difficult time: the year before, the armies of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact had invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the “socialism with a human face” of Alexander Dubcek, and Poland had attempted to forestall a reform movement of its own — the Free Speech movement — by purging what was left of the country’s Jewish community. Before World War II, there had been three million Jews in the country. In 1968, there were only some 30 thousand; by the time I got there, only a few hundred.

My grandmother, Bronya (Bertha), was born in a little village, Wolka Turebska, not far from Kraków: we are related to great Hasidic rabbis. She came to the US with her family in 1906, and most everybody who remained was murdered by the Germans a little over three decades later. It is a common story.

The Choate kids toured Auschwitz, where the official guide did not mention the Jews once. In the Soviet Union, everybody had mingled, but in Poland the five or six Jewish students in our group had strangely banded together, and we were served our meals late or not at all. I remember how beautiful Kraków was, the strains of the Heynal trumpet call, the wonderful bookshops, the good chocolate, the rich greenery of the countryside. One of our guides was a Polish university student who whispered to me, “We are not all like that.” One day, we stood with hundreds of people in the pouring rain, in absolute silence, listening to a pianist play inside Chopin’s house.

The next summer, I took an advanced Russian course at Columbia. My teacher, the stern, exacting Irena Morisovna, was one of the Jewish professors who had been expelled two years before. After a while, we took to eating lunch together on a park bench and she told me about her life.

The Germans had forced her family into a cattle car for extermination and she was somehow thrown out of the moving train. Polish peasants nursed her broken back and got her to the Soviet Union, where she was evacuated far to the east. She remembered Lake Baikal and the taste of the omul fish. At the end of the war the Russians suggested she go home. In the ruins of Warsaw, she heard music, and she moved towards a single kerosene lamp in the darkness. It stood on a piano, many people were standing about, and an enormous water rat sat on the piano in rapt attention. When the Chopin finished, the rat padded away. Gentle reader, Irena Morisovna married the musician.

By this time, you are perhaps thinking of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Pianist in the movie. One more story. Well, maybe two. At Harvard, I had a friend and colleague who taught Sumerian; he and his wife once asked me over to their home for lunch and we talked about the Polish-Jewish relationship, which was and is difficult, so we agreed instead to talk about our common love of cats. (The best poem ever written about a cat is Wislawa Szymborska’s, about a cat in the empty apartment of a suicide.) Some years later, when the movie came out, Piotr told me that when he was in high school back in Warsaw ,he wanted to host a jazz program on the radio and talked to the music director: yes, the real W. Szpilman. If I recall rightly, Piotr’s parents preferred he spend his time doing more Latin homework.

One more story. When I began my semi-retirement and moved from the snowy northeast here to the Central Valley, my partner and I looked at a house for sale. There was a tapestry of Kraków on the wall: the owner explained that his deceased wife, Anna, a Holocaust survivor born in Grodno, had continued to visit the city of her childhood. We bought this house. A year later a former pupil of mine came here on holiday with his beautiful wife, Anna, an artist from Kraków. They now have a little son, Adam David. Anna may have a little Jewish blood, but whether she does or not, I’ve promised to teach Hebrew and Torah to Adam David when he’s old enough, if God grants me strength and health. Adam David will be bilingual in English and Polish. In the summer, they go to stay with his grandparents in Kraków. Anna brought back from there a poppyseed cake that I ate with the feeling of Proust tasting his Madeleine. She does not care about the demands her husband’s brilliant career makes on his time, or about the American worship of money. He should be home for dinner. She is an old world wife and Mom with the right values.

Last night, I was reading the newly published Historical Atlas of Hasidism. The authors are Poles and much of the material comes from Polish archives. I know that Catholic Poles wore their damn Easter bonnets and children rode carousels while our heroes were dying in the burning Warsaw Ghetto. The massacre in Jedwabne is true. The pogrom in Kielce is true. I know that the Polish Home Army did next to nothing to help us — and anyone who cannot admit this is either in denial or is just lying. It is probably true that many Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk, as an Israeli minister remarked the other day.

But it is also true that the Polish Army lost 200,000 soldiers fighting back against Hitler in September 1939, when Britain and France did not raise a finger to help. Polish and Czech pilots fleeing the mainland made the difference for the RAF in the Battle of Britain. The Germans would not and could not form a collaborationist regime in Poland: there was no Pétain, no Quisling. It was a gentile Pole, Jan Karski, who brought the news of the Holocaust to the West, and despite his best efforts that news fell on deaf ears. There are more Poles among the Righteous Gentiles of Yad Vashem than any other nationality.

Gershom Scholem once dismissed the relationship between Germans and Jews as one-sided. We attempted to ingratiate ourselves with a cold-hearted, intrinsically hostile culture that never responded, except, in the end, with genocide. Poland is different. Although the vast Jewish community, with our very different faith, culture, and languages, presented a challenge of diversity that it is fair to say Polish society often failed to meet, there was also a tremendous richness to that heritage in a place we called home, and the picture is a very nuanced one indeed. When I moved here to the west coast I had a friend, a very brilliant writer, who recently severed his friendship with me: the relationship was ultimately too difficult, he said, to be worth further effort. Some folks here in sunny California like human relations neatly packaged and all smiling, easy exterior, like yoga classes, tennis tournaments, expensive cars. In the end, their god is the dollar, not the Creator.

Poles and Jews are temperamentally different from that. Not better all the time, but definitely other. We compose poems about cats that become the battle standards of student protests, we bake poppyseed cakes and carry them thousands of miles, we fight the Germans when there’s absolutely no hope of survival, we insist everybody be at the table at dinnertime, we spit at each other and call each other names, we write books about mystics… and listen to Chopin, in the ruins, in the rain, everywhere and everywhen. It sounds like a married couple, to me, with a relationship worth working on, a relationship with a past and a future. A white eagle, a mazurka as a national anthem. I love them in spite of it all.

Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła/ Kiedy my żyjemy: Poland is not yet lost, as long as we are alive.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.