Weeping for Poland. Where Were the Jews?

In 1939 before the outbreak of war on September 1st, there were 425 synagogues in the capitol, Warsaw. The largest of them was the magnificent Tlomacki synagogue, named for the street on which it was located. At the end of the war, only one synagogue remained standing, the Synagoga Nozyka. The Nozyk synagogue is still in use today.

In 1968 Poland saw a rash of bitter anti-Semitism. Jews were fired from their jobs, positions were closed to them, and the bitter hatred of pre-war Poles against Jews reared its ugly head once again. The Polish government did not declare it as a “war” against the surviving Jews. Rather it was Poland’s reaction to Israel’s 1967 war against Poland’s friends, the Arabs. Polish Jews were considered Zionists, ergo, enemies of the Communist regime in Poland.

In that year I began writing a series of articles condemning the rise of anti-Semitism, condemning the murders of returning Polish survivors from the death camps in 1945 in search of their former homes and in hopes of finding living family members. More than forty Jews were murdered in the Kielce pogrom. The church did not condemn it but the Polish government was forced to find and arrest those responsible for the pogroms. They were arrested, put on trial and imprisoned.

Similar pogroms occurred in other Polish cities and towns.
Before the war, the leaders of the Polish Communist party were mainly Jews and the Poles blamed all the Jews for years of communist oppression.

Some of my articles reached the Polish Embassy and were translated into Polish and forwarded to PAP, the Polish Press Agency, which reprinted several of them in leading newspapers such as Zycie Warszawa, Trybuna Ludu, Glos Polski and other widely-read papers.

In 1969, I was invited to visit Poland by the editor of “Polska” and by an agency of the Polish Ministry of Culture. I arrived in June of that year, was met at Okecie airport in Warsaw by a representative of the Ministry and driven to the Hotel Europejski in the center of Warsaw. I was to be a guest of the Polish government.

I was completely free to wander the streets of Warsaw unaccompanied. The city of Warsaw had been completely destroyed by the Nazis in 1945 but after the war, architectural plans of the city had been discovered in vaults and like the phoenix of mythology, Warsaw rose up from the ashes and was completely rebuilt, once more the Paris of eastern Europe.

Poles walking along the Marszalkowska, the Nowy Swiat and the Jeruzalemskie, the main boulevards in the city’s center, were well-dressed, well-fed and most of them employed.

I discovered the restaurant Amica, the only “kosher-style” Jewish restaurant in the city. I bought a ticket to an evening performance at the Estera Kaminska Yiddish theatre of Sholom Aleichem’s play, “Skarb Cezara”. The Emperor’s Treasure. The play was in Yiddish.

Many of the actors were non-Jews who had learned Yiddish. And the audience had earphones attached to their seats for translation into Polish.

I noticed that only two people were watching the play without earphones. One of them was me, the other a Pole about my own age. At the end of the play, he came over to me, introduced himself as Zygmunt and invited me to a café for tea and cake. We spoke in Yiddish, mainly, and also in some Polish.

He had been a survivor but was not in the camps. He had been hidden by a non-Jewish family. He had a job with a small salary but it was sufficient for him. He was awaiting a visa to leave Poland and to live in Denmark. He had no interest in Jewish religion and was openly critical of the Polish communist regime.

A day later, the official who had met me at the airport came to my hotel. A series of interviews with the Polish press had been arranged for me. As it was on a Saturday morning, I wanted to attend Shabbat services at the Nozyk Synagogue. He escorted me and sat with me throughout the service.

At the entrance to the synagogue, a man was busy building wooden crates. He addressed me in Yiddish. I told him I had come from Israel and he excitedly told me that his son and daughter were living in Tel-Aviv. He scribbled down their names and telephone numbers and asked me to tell them that he was alive and well, busy building crates in which those who were able to leave Poland could pack their furniture and household belongings.

In the shul, I was invited to chant the mussaf service. One gentleman asked me if I needed to exchange currency. He had a daughter living in Holon and I promised to contact her at the address he had written for me.

After the service, I was invited to join the minyan for vodka and cakes, while the member of the Polish Ministry of Culture kept pointing to his watch, indicating to me that we would be late for the interview.

Questions were totally about my impressions of Warsaw, what I had seen within the Jewish community, had I witnessed any incidents of anti-Semitism, and why the western press was so hostile to Poland. Cameras recorded the interview which was later shown on Polish evening television.

A few days later I took the train from Warsaw to Krakow. In my hand I carried openly a copy of the Yiddish weekly newspaper, Volkstimme, which had been given to me earlier by the proprietor of the Amica restaurant. Throughout my stay in Poland, the Yiddish newspaper was always with me as an open sign that I was Jewish and hopefully might be a way of meeting other Jews.

On the train, a conductor passed through the compartments to examine our tickets. When he saw the Volkstimme on my lap, he signaled me to follow him out of my compartment. He told me that until 1968 he had been an officer in the Polish army but following the expulsion of all Jews from government positions, he had lost his position and pension and took up the job of collecting tickets from train passengers.

Returning to Warsaw, an interview had been arranged for me with the editor of “Polska”. I kept a recorded transcript of my statements to the editor and of his rely to me.


BEN-SOREK: “Mr. Piorkowski, I am grateful for the opportunity of this meeting with you. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the tragedy of anti-Semitism in Poland. As you know, Jews have lived in Poland for one thousand years. Many of those centuries were peaceful and Jews lived with Poles in cordial relations. Sometimes however, and often at the bequest of Catholic Church leaders, there were pogroms, riots, destruction of Jewish property and lives.

My father was in Bialystok at the time of the 1906 pogrom. Cossacks attacked the entire Jewish community. His mother was beaten and became paralyzed in one arm as a result. Although the Cossacks were not Polish but rather Russians and Ukrainians, my father remembers Polish neighbors cheering the Cossacks and shouting “Kill the Jews and save the Fatherland”. This, of course, happened at a time when Poland was not an independent nation but was divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia.

But let me refer to modern pre-war and post-war history. A relative’s parents were born in Warsaw, educated in the public high schools of Warsaw and were Polish-speaking Jews. One daughter and her husband and young son lived in the Praga section of the city. In 1929, the Primate of the Catholic Church in Poland, Augustus Cardinal Hlond, a bitter anti-Semite, wrote letters to the churches of Poland telling priests to urge their parishioners to boycott all Jewish-owned shops and not to have business dealings with Jews. As a result, Jews suffered economic burdens.

In the mid-1920’s after Poland gained independence, my relative’s father served in the Polish army and was a Polish patriot. But in the late 1920’s Poland became a fascist state. In the early 1930’s her grandfather was not able to travel from Warsaw to his home town Dzialoszyce to attend his mother’s funeral. He was an Orthodox Jew with a long beard. A few days earlier, a bearded Orthodox Jew was assaulted on a tramway in Warsaw by a Pole who cut off the man’s beard and shouted at him “Zydzie do Palestina” (Jews should go to Palestine).

Things got worse for Poland’s Jews. The family emigrated from Poland to Palestine in 1934 as a result of the anti-Semitic outbursts in Poland. After the war, surviving Jews made their way from concentration and death camps to their former homes in Poland. Many of them returned to the city of Kielce where, on July 4, 1946, there was an organized pogrom against Jews seeking to go back to their pre-war homes. Forty-two Jews were massacred in the Kielce pogrom. The Church was silent but the Communist courts in Poland had nine people who were involved in the Kielce pogrom against the Jews put to death. You are aware, as editor-in-chief of a large Polish journal, of the condemnation of the Western press against Polish anti-Semitism.

Also, I would like you to consider another historical fact. From 1939 to 1945 Hitler and the Nazis conquered and controlled most of the countries of Europe. At the Wannsee conference in Berlin it was decided to put an end to the Jewish problem… the extermination of Europe’s Jews.

How does it happen that the death camps where six million Jews were gassed and cremated were on Polish soil? Not in France, Belgium, Holland, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia nor even in Germany…. But only in Poland?

The answer is simple. Hitler knew very well the hatred of the Poles for the Jews. He knew that building death camps in Oswiecim, Brzezinka, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec and other Polish towns would not arouse protest from the local non-Jewish Polish population. And so, Polish soil was soaked in the blood of the Jews.

Mr.Piorkowski, I have not criticized the present Polish regime. I am referring only to pre and post war events. I would appreciate your response. Thank you”.

PIORKOWSKI: “Let me be honest with you. Some of your remarks have been unhappily true. But things are changing in Poland today. Attitudes are changing. I will not deny that anti-Semitism was a rabid sickness of Polish society for a long time.

After the First World War in 1918 the Polish government was fascist and dictatorial. Even though Marshall Pilsudski was a philo-Semite and with one stroke of his pen he granted full Polish citizenship to Polish Jewry, he is often portrayed abroad as being anti-Semitic. Nothing is further from the truth. He was a true friend of the Jewish people and defended their rights.

Also, as you certainly know, during the Second World War, hundreds of Poles risked their lives and suffered great sacrifices to help their Jewish brothers and sisters. At the same time, I am sorry to admit that there were many Poles who informed on Jews to the Gestapo and the Nazi authorities for the price of loaf of bread. But there are such people in every society.

Our constitution grants complete freedom of religious expression and observance to all Polish citizens. But a constitution is only something written on paper. In order to make it work it must be written on the hearts of people. Many people are moving into Warsaw and other large cities from the farms and backward rural areas. They bring their old prejudices with them. It is unfortunate that our Church in Poland is so conservative. It would be better for all people if the Polish Church changed according to the new liberalism of the Vatican.

The Polish Cardinal Wiszinsky has a strong influence upon the peasants. He has made no efforts to end age-old prejudices. We want to eradicate all vestiges of chauvinism in our country. We know that a portion of our population is anti-German and many are anti-Russian. This is the older generation who have preserved their hatreds. With these people we can do nothing. But our hope is with the new post-war generation.

I read last year in a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that German youths had desecrated eight hundred tombstones in Jewish cemeteries in Germany. The London press and the BBC devoted only a few words and no commentary about the situation. But this year, when two Polish children broke a tombstone in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, the Western press devoted several columns about this incident. Why? Why do they always condemn Poland and keep silent about anti-Semitism in England, France, or even for that matter, in America? Why is Poland always to be blamed?

Yes, of course there are anti-Semitic people in Poland today just as there are in every country. America has its racist problems; in Israel, Polish Jews, for example, treat badly dark-skinned Jews from North Africa. Some of my friends who fought with me during the war in the Armija Krajowa went to Israel after 1945 and fought with the Haganah and the Irgun Zvai Leumi.

We in Poland are not anti-Jewish. Let me stress this point very clearly. We want our Jewish citizens to stay here and build up a new society with us. But for those who cannot or do not wish to stay in Poland, we say ‘go to Israel’. A man cannot give his loyalty to two countries. Our quarrel is not with Jews but with the chauvinistic elements of Zionism, founded on imperialistic principles.

As you know, Poland stands on the side of the Arabs. Before 1967 we enjoyed cordial relations with Israel. There were trade agreements and cultural exchanges. But we are disappointed in Israel’s unwillingness to stop the hot-cold war, cease its military provocations, and return the Arab lands. We understand that, right or wrong, it is natural for Israel to act in this way. It is perhaps a reaction from the war years.

We understand the feelings of the people of Israel. But we cannot find justification for their hostile position. If Israel would make peace with the Arabs, the anti-Semitic elements here in Poland would quickly disappear.

Our press is naturally sympathetic to the Arabs and when our people read the Polish newspapers they become angry against Israel. While there is no official anti-Semitism here, there is sensitivity for the Arab people.

When you go to Israel, please assure the people that we in Poland would like to resume our friendship with them, but first they must act to make the peace.

Our school children are taught about the destruction of Polish Jewry. Classes are required to visit the ghetto monument and the museum in Auschwitz. We do not allow the past to be forgotten.

Israel can help us in our task of building a peaceful society. But first she must correct her injustices. Our older generation – the generation between the two wars – will die, and we hope that their prejudices will die with them. It takes many years to eradicate old hatreds. We have made a beginning here in Poland. It is our hope that the new generation will be purged of all chauvinistic hates.

Prof. Ben-Sorek, we welcome you here in Poland and we hope you will see and learn many things about the new Poland. Thank you very much, and enjoy your visit in Poland”.

Before leaving Poland, I made a second visit to Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery. There I wept bitterly for the lost Jews of Poland. Where were the Jews? I visited their last remains at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidanek and Treblinka. Visits that haunt me to this day.

Upon my return to Israel, there was one day a knock at the door. A man told me I was “invited” to a meeting at the Kiriya in Sarona, offices of Israel’s Security Services. A pleasant man invited me to be seated while he told me all about my visit in Poland and the remarks I had given to the Polish press. I was astounded.

How could he have known? But with all credit to Israel’s Security Services (Shin Bet), they are extremely well-informed and I had and have immense pride for our country’s intelligence services.

Forty-six years later I still weep for the Jews of Poland. There is a resurgence of Jewish culture there now but it can never compare to the one thousand years of the glories of Polish Jewry.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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