Historical ignorance has been in the news recently, with polls indicating widespread lack of awareness of the Holocaust, especially among young people in North America and Europe. (See jewishindependent.ca/much-work-left-to-do.) Some media reports got the story wrong, however, claiming that many people “don’t believe” six million Jews died in the Holocaust. The reality is that many people “don’t know” this fact, and there is a big difference between not knowing and not believing. Then there is a different phenomenon altogether: denial.
Plenty of well-informed but ill-intentioned people know the truth of the Holocaust but, for various reasons, take a position that the facts are falsified. The notorious Holocaust denier David Irving is reportedly again making the rounds in Britain, promoting his ahistorical ideology. In a nice contrast, Irving’s nemesis, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, is back in the news promoting her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now.
Lipstadt went from respected Emory University professor to a sort of global superstar when Irving sued her for libel in a British court in 1996 for correctly characterizing him as a Holocaust denier. Although Lipstadt is an American, she and the book’s U.K. publisher were targeted because Irving apparently thought that country’s libel laws might serve his cause. In the United Kingdom, libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant instead of the plaintiff. As a result, the trial played out as a public history lesson, with Lipstadt’s legal team forced to prove the historical truths of the Holocaust. They did, of course, and won the case. Nonetheless, Irving’s career as a provocateur and historical revisionist continues.
More serious than a nasty British gadfly is the Holocaust denial taking place in Poland right now, a phenomenon that has led to a collapse in Israeli-Polish relations.
Until recently, Poland was one of Israel’s closest allies on the world stage. While Polish society has never undergone the self-reflection that Germany did after the Holocaust, Polish governments developed excellent relations with the Jewish state. After the fall of the communist regime, relations between the two countries grew quite warm. Trade and diplomatic relations at the highest levels flourished.
With the election of the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party, in 2015, things began to change. Last year, the Polish government passed a law criminalizing speech that references Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Canadian Prof. Jan Grabowski, who spoke in Vancouver last fall, heads a team of researchers, most of them in Poland, who are scouring archives throughout that country amassing what is probably the most comprehensive assessment ever compiled on the subject of Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust. Without Polish collaboration – frequently offered willingly and without compulsion, the research indicates – the Nazis could not have succeeded nearly so completely at their murderous destruction of Polish Jewry, Grabowski insists.
Politicizing this history – that is, criminalizing the truth – has put the Polish government on a trajectory of institutionalized denial. Unlike masses of young North Americans and Europeans, the Polish leaders know very well what transpired in their country during the war. As Grabowski notes, it is not the collaborators and their descendants who are today ostracized in small communities across Poland but rather those families whose members helped their Jewish neighbours.
It was inevitable that Poland’s approach would have repercussions in the Polish-Israeli relationship. It happened dramatically in recent days. The Visegrád Group, which is a cultural and political alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, was slated to meet with Israeli leaders at an extraordinary summit in Israel this week.
A week ago Friday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was visiting the Museum of Polish Jews, in Warsaw, when he stated, in a meeting with Israeli reporters where recording devices were not permitted, that Poles had aided the Nazis. A flurry of confusion followed as the prime minister’s office clarified that he had said “Poles,” and not, as some media had reported, “the Poles” or “the Polish nation.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki decided to snub Netanyahu by withdrawing from the summit and sending his foreign minister instead.
Yisrael Katz, on his second day on the job as Israel’s foreign minister, dumped fuel on the simmering conflict in a TV interview. Ostensibly sent to smooth over the matter, Katz used the opportunity to quote the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to the effect that “the Poles imbibe antisemitism from their mothers’ milk.”
Suffice to say the summit is off. The leaders of the three other countries are still slated to travel to Israel for bilateral meetings but Polish-Israeli relations are on the rocks.
The conflict illuminates a strange dichotomy. The government of one of the countries most affected by the Holocaust tries to blot out what they certainly know to be the truth. Meanwhile, a generation of young people look on, unaware of even the barest details of what is at the root of the uproar.
University of Ottawa’s Prof. Jan Grabowski delivered the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa professor who is a leading scholar of the Holocaust, delivered the annual Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15 – the same day he filed a libel suit against an organization aligned with Poland’s far-right government.
The Polish League Against Defamation, which is allied with the country’s governing Law and Justice Party, initiated a campaign against Grabowski last year, accusing him of ignoring the number of Poles who saved Jews and exaggerating the number of Jews killed by their Polish compatriots. Grabowski’s book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, won the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research. An English translation of an even more compendious multi-year analysis undertaken by a team of researchers under Grabowski’s leadership will be published next year. His Vrba lecture provided an overview of some of the findings in the new work. It is a harrowing survey that brought condemnation from Polish-Canadians in the Vancouver audience.
The new book, which does not yet have an English title, is a work of “microhistory,” Grabowski said. Holocaust studies is one of the fastest-growing fields of historical research, he said, partly because it got off to a slow start and really only picked up in the 1980s. Much of the written work being completed today is in the area of survivor memoirs, second- and third-generation experiences, including inherited trauma, and “meta-history,” the study of the study of the Holocaust.
“This assumes that we actually know what has happened,” he said. Grabowski maintains there is still much primary research to be done. “We are still far away from knowing as much as we should about this, one of the greatest tragedies in human history.”
There are millions of pages of relevant historical documentation almost completely untapped – primarily in provincial Polish archives, police records and town halls – that spell out in detail the often-enthusiastic complicity of Poles in turning on their
Jewish neighbours. By combing through these previously ignored records, Grabowski and his co-authors have amassed evidence of widespread – and eager – involvement of Polish police and other Poles in assisting Germans to identify, hunt down and murder Polish Jews.
The work has been met with official condemnation. Earlier this year, the Polish government adopted a law that would expose scholars involved in the study of the Holocaust to fines and prison terms of up to three years. The criminal component of the law, including imprisonment, was rescinded after international backlash, but the atmosphere around Holocaust inquiry in Poland remains repressive.
Grabowski said that the “explosion of right-wing extremists, xenophobia and blatant antisemitism” in Poland is related to the “undigested, unlearned and/or rejected legacy of the Holocaust” – the fact that Polish society has, by and large, refused to acknowledge the wounds of the past or to deal with its own role in the extermination of three million of its Jewish citizens between 1939 to 1945.
The concept of microhistory, which is the approach Grabowski’s team uses, is not local history, he said, “it is an attempt to follow trajectories of people.” He instructed his researchers to focus on the exact day, often hour by hour, when liquidation actions took place in hundreds of Polish shtetls and ghettoes. To do so upends a conspiracy of silence that has existed for decades.
“Why the silence?” he asked the audience. “There were three parts to the silence. One was the Jews. They were dead. They had no voice … 98.5% of Polish Jews who remained under German occupation, who never fled, died. You have a 1.5% survival rate for the Polish Jews. So, the Jews couldn’t really, after the war, ask for justice, because they were gone.”
The communist regime that dominated Poland for a half-century after the war was viewed not only as a foreign power inflicted on Poles from the Soviet Union, Grabowski said, “but, more importantly, as Jewish lackeys – that was a term that was used.
“So, it wouldn’t really stand to have trials of those accused of complicity with the Germans for murdering the Jews,” he said. “That would only confirm the widespread accusations that the communists were here doing the Jewish bidding.”
The third factor in the silence were the interests of Polish nationalists, whose ideology is inherently antisemitic, and who are the dominant political force in the country today.
While clearly not all Poles were collaborators, it would have been impossible for almost anyone in the country to claim ignorance of what was happening.
“Mass killing was taking place in the streets,” the professor said. Researchers found bills of sale charging city officials for the sand municipal workers needed to cover the blood on sidewalks.
“When you say that blood was running in the streets, it’s not a metaphor, it’s just a description of what really happened,” he said.
In some ghettos, as many as half the Jewish population was killed on the day of the action, with massive participation from Polish society.
“One area more, one area less,” he said. “Usually between 10 and 20% of Jews were slaughtered simply in order to frighten the remaining 80% to go to the trains, to be herded to the trains,” said Grabowski.
In Poland’s smaller communities, centuries of Jewish and Polish social, commercial and civic interactions did not result in camaraderie – on the contrary.
“The deadliest places of all [were] small shtetls, small towns, where anonymity was not available when the authorities were not far away,” he said. In one instance, a Jew in hiding heard his neighbour assure the Nazis he would return with a hatchet to help them break into the hiding place seconds before the door was axed down.
In another example, Grabowski described in minute detail the atrocities committed by Germans, Poles and Ukrainian recruits in Węgrów, a town in eastern central Poland with a Jewish population of about “10,000 starving Jews who have been terrorized for nearly three years and now the final moment has come.”
Rumours of liquidation swirled for months, as Jews fleeing neighbouring communities brought narratives of destruction. In the day or two before the liquidation, wives of Polish military and other officials rushed to their Jewish tailors, shoemakers and others craftspeople to obtain the items they knew would soon become unavailable.
“With mounting panic, people started to prepare themselves for a siege,” said Grabowski. “They built hideouts to survive the initial German fury, they started to seek out contacts on the Aryan side of the city, looking for help from former neighbours, sometimes friends and former business partners.”
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1942, Polish officials in the town were instructed to assemble horses, wagons and volunteers. A cordon of Nazis and collaborators surrounded the city at intervals of no more than 100 metres.
The mayor of the town wrote: “Jews who woke up to the terrible news ran like mad around the city, half-naked, looking for shelter.” The same leader noted that, when the Germans demanded he produce volunteers to help with the task of rounding up their Jewish neighbours, he feared he would not be able to meet their needs.
“Before I was able to leave my office, in order to assess the situation and issue orders for the removal of the bodies,” the mayor testified, “removal of the bodies had already started. There were carts and people ready. They volunteered for the job without any pressure.”
For Jews, the Germans were to be feared, but their Polish neighbours were also a threat.
“The greatest danger was not associated with the Germans, but with the Poles,” said Grabowski. “Unlike the former, the latter could easily tell a Jew from a non-Jew by their accent, customs and physical appearance.”
Poles were rewarded with a quarter-kilo of sugar for every Jew they turned in.
“The searches were conducted with extreme brutality and violence … the streets were soon filled with crowds of Jews being driven toward the market square, which the Germans had transformed into a holding pen for thousands of ghetto inmates,” he said.
On the streets, “the cries of Jews mixed with the shouts of the Germans and the laughter of the Poles,” according to an eyewitness.
“All of this was done in a small town where everybody knows each other,” said Grabowski. “It’s not only the question of geographic proximity, it’s social proximity. These people knew each other.”
People were taking clothes, jewelry and other possessions from the dead bodies. A husband would toss a body in the air while the wife pulled off articles of clothing until what was left was a pile of naked cadavers.
“They even pulled out golden teeth with pliers,” said Grabowski. A court clerk responded defensively to accusations that the gold he was trying to sell was soaked in human blood. “I personally washed the stuff,” he protested.
The prevalence in the Polish imagination of a Jewish association with gold partly accounted for the actions.
“This betrayal, due to widespread antisemitism and hatred of the Jews, was combined with the seemingly universal conviction that Jewish gold was just waiting to be transferred to new owners,” Grabowski said. “The myth of Jewish gold was so popular and so deeply rooted among Poles that it sealed the fate of [many Jews].”
The historical records indicate many Poles saw no need to cover their collaborationist tracks. Police and others who took it upon themselves to aid the Nazis without pressure defended their actions.
One policeman, after the war, depicted the killing of Jews as a patriotic act, one that saved Polish villagers from the wrath of the Nazis, who would have learned sooner or later about Jews in hiding and who then, he claimed, would have burned down the entire village.
As efficient as the Nazi killing machine was, Grabowski contends it could not have been as effective without the enthusiastic complicity of so many in Poland and other occupied countries.
“It was their participation that, in a variety of ways, made the German system of murder as efficient as it was,” he said.
With trepidation, Grabowski and his fellow researchers followed the documents and met with people in the towns. They would review documents from a 1947 trial, for instance, then go to the village in question.
The entire village would be conscious of its war-era history, he said. And the people who are, decades later, ostracized by their neighbours are not those who collaborated in the murder of Jews.
“The person that is ostracized is the family who tried to rescue the Jews, because they broke a certain social taboo and it still visible 75 or 76 years after the fact,” he said.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide.”
In the question-and-answer session, Grabowski shut down a persistent audience member who identified as Polish and who took exception with Grabowski’s research, arguing that Poland has more Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem than any other country.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide,” said Grabowski, who was born and educated in Warsaw. “The thing is, do you know how many Jews needed to be rescued? Poland had the largest Jewish community and using today Polish righteous as a universal and, let’s say, fig leaf behind which situations like I described here can be hidden is absolutely unconscionable. I protest against any attempt to overshadow the tragedy of Jewish people [with] the sacrifice of very, very few Poles.”
While Poland’s far-right government removed the mandated jail sentence for anyone found guilty of “slandering” Poland or Poles with complicity in Nazi war crimes, acknowledging the participation of Polish collaborators in the Holocaust remains a civil offence and Holocaust scholars in the country – and in Canada – face death threats and intimidation.
In introducing Grabowski, Richard Menkis, associate professor in the department of history at UBC, paid tribute to Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped Auschwitz and brought to the world inside information about the death camp, its operations and physical layout. Vrba, with fellow escapee Albert Wetzler, warned in 1944 that Hungarian Jews were about to face mass transport to the death camps. The news is credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives.
Vrba migrated to Canada and became a professor of pharmacology at UBC. He died in 2006.
The Vrba lecture alternates annually between an issue relevant to the Holocaust and an issue chosen by the pharmacology department in the faculty of medicine.
Gerrer Chassidim consider the burial place of Rebbe Avraham Mordechai Alter and his son, Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter, a holy site in Jerusalem. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Among the many events this spring marking 70 years of Israel’s independence is the yahrzeit of Rebbe Avraham Mordechai Alter, known as the Imrei Emes, who served as the fourth admor (rabbinic sage) of the Gerrer Chassidim from 1905 until his death in Jerusalem on June 3, 1948, during Shavuot.
Since the capital of the nascent Jewish state was under siege during the War of Independence, the rebbe’s disciples were unable to bury their sage in Mount of Olives Cemetery, where the pious have been laid to rest since biblical times. Unwilling to bury their master in the city’s improvised graveyard in the abandoned Palestinian village of Sheikh Bader (today Givat Ram), they instead turned his shtibl (small house of prayer) on Yehosef Shwartz Street near the Machane Yehuda food market into a mausoleum.
The Sfas Emes Yeshiva, which Alter founded in 1925 during a visit to Palestine, and where he lived from 1940 – after escaping Nazi-occupied Poland when his followers paid an enormous bribe to gain his release – has today evolved into one of the most unusual shrines in Jerusalem. His son, Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter, the seventh Gerrer Rebbe, also resided in the yeshivah complex and was buried alongside his father in 1996. On the yahrzeits of the two rebbes, thousands of Gerrer Chassidim – who distinguish themselves from other Chassidic groups by placing their peyot (sidelocks) into their skullcaps and tucking their pants into their socks, called hoyzn-zokn – flock to the pilgrimage site.
The decision to entomb Pinchas Alter, known as the Pnei Menachem, beside his father sparked opposition from the Jerusalem municipality, but the funeral went ahead. A red-brick ohel (tent) was erected over their twin graves, turning the courtyard into a holy site for the Gerrer Chassidim, who constitute the largest such ultra-Orthodox group in the country, numbering more than 100,000 members, who are concentrated in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Ashdod.
The ohel includes separate men’s and women’s sections. A garden lies to the side of the ohel, and the façade of the adjoining building recalls the original Ger yeshivah in Góra Kalwaria, Poland – a small town on the Vistula River, 25 kilometres southeast of Warsaw. A partially open roof above the ohel permits ritual impurity from the dead to exit so that kohanim (Jews of the priestly caste) may visit the gravesite.
Toronto businessman and philanthropist Daniel Goldberg wants to build on the fame of Jerusalem’s Gerrer shrine to secure and restore the sect’s historic home in Góra Kalwaria. The name means Mount Calvary or Skull Hill in Polish, explained Goldberg, whose mother’s family came from the area. But the town, called Ger or Gur in Yiddish, was also called Nowa Jerozolima (New Jerusalem), reflecting its holiness for both Jews and Christians.
Goldberg, who together with other Canadian donors has supported the preservation of several historic synagogues in Hungary, views the restoration of Jewish landmarks in Góra Kalwaria as critical to combating antisemitism and acknowledging Poland’s complex role in the Holocaust.
“I am visiting Poland after Pesach and will be meeting with various people from our Jewish community there,” he said. “I have been in contact with the different leaderships, including in Gur. So many communities were wiped out during the war. It is vital that we support our history in such places.”
In 1802, Góra Kalwaria’s “de non tolerandis Judaeis” law prohibiting Jewish settlement was annulled, and Jews became the predominant ethnic group in the town, Goldberg noted. Between 1852 and 1939, the Jewish population tripled, from 1,161 (half of the town’s population) to around 3,600, as Góra Kalwaria became an important Chassidic centre.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, they immediately targeted Góra Kalwaria’s Jews. The town’s ethnic German mayor Ewald Jauke banned Jewish residents from engaging in trade, crafts and pigeon breeding. Jews were also forbidden from listening to radio broadcasts. A group of 100 Jews was conscripted daily in front of the town hall for forced labour.
In the spring of 1940, some 400 Jews from Lodz, Pabianice, Aleksandrow, Sierpc, Wloclawek and Kalisz were deported to Góra Kalwaria. That June, a ghetto was established with 3,500 residents. The ghetto was liquidated Feb. 25-26, 1941. About 3,000 Jews were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto, and ultimately murdered in the summer of 1942 in the Treblinka death camp. Only 35 of Góra Kalwaria’s residents survived the war. The Jewish community was never reconstituted after liberation.
For Goldberg, the coming 70th yahrzeit of the Imrei Emes and the controversial amendment to Poland’s 1998 Act on the Institute of National Remembrance by the country’s ruling Law and Justice party, criminalizing the words “Polish Holocaust,” offer an opportunity to celebrate Jews’ deep roots in the country.
Goldberg wants to preserve the physical remains of Góra Kalwaria’s Jewish community. These include the 1903 synagogue building at ulica Pijarskiejj, now used as a shop. Across the street is a metal gate at the yard that marks the home and house of prayer of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter (1798-1866), the founder of the Gerrer dynasty, known as the Chiddushei HaRim, after his primary rabbinic tome by that title. Above the entrance, one can still see the Magen David rosette window depicted in the Gerrer Jerusalem mausoleum.
“I am continuing my efforts [in Góra Kalwaria and elsewhere] despite the discomfort it always causes politically with the local municipalities. No town or city likes to admit to antisemitism,” said Goldberg.
Left to right: Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke in We Keep Coming Back, which plays March 13 and 14 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. (photo by Jeremy Mimnaugh)
At first, we expected the piece to focus mainly on the past and how sad the absence of Jewish life in Poland is. After going and also spending more time in Poland, we now propose that it is through focusing on the present and future, with an aim at building positive perspectives, that will ultimately lead to transformation and genuine healing,” said Michael Rubenfeld about We Keep Coming Back, which plays at the Chutzpah! Festival March 13 and 14.
Rubenfeld created the multimedia work with Sarah Garton Stanley, as well as his mother, Mary Berchard, and filmmaker and translator Katka Reszke. Rubenfeld and Garton Stanley are co-directors of Selfconscious Theatre. We Keep Coming Back is based on a trip that Rubenfeld and his mother took to Poland in 2013.
“It was always our intention to make a piece of theatre and the trip was connected to a desire to explore intergeneration trauma and, also, more specifically, the problems in my relationship with my mother that stem from unresolved trauma and disconnect from our family’s roots in Poland,” said Rubenfeld. “So, the trip was an experiment of sorts; to see if going to Poland with my mother, visiting her mother and father’s hometowns and going to Auschwitz, would give us the opportunity to mourn together, which might also bring us closer together.”
According to a blog on Selfconscious Theatre’s website, after surviving the Holocaust, “Berchard’s family moved from Poland to Sweden, where she was born. They then immigrated to Canada in 1951, where she grew up and eventually had a son, Michael.”
Rubenfeld and Berchard were in Poland for about two weeks. “My mother has since been back three or four more times, and I now have a home in Poland with my wife,” said Rubenfeld – the couple lives in both Krakow and Toronto. “We’ve toured We Keep Coming Back to Poland three times,” he added.
The project has worked to bring mother and son closer.
“It’s been really nice for us to have a piece that we do together,” said Rubenfeld. “It gives us an excuse to spend time together to do something we know we’re going to enjoy. It’s also given us commonality, which has been really essential for our relationship.
“My mother has always been very supportive, though we don’t always have a lot in common. This project has changed that. We also now have Poland in common, and our mutual interest. My mother really loves it in Poland. She’s also become quite interested in uncovering more about our history and has started researching and archiving our family tree. It’s brought her a lot of happiness and has been a really healing thing – which, in general, has been good for our relationship as well.”
We Keep Coming Back “speaks so openly and honestly about what it means to love a parent, or to be loved by a child, and how so many of the resources for a good and enduring love were torn apart by the Holocaust and all of the horrors, throughout the generations that linger,” said Garton Stanley, who is also associate artistic director of English theatre and interim facilitator for indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
“Honestly, as someone on the ground since the get-go, I was most curious about Michael’s developing love for Poland and how, over the course of the play’s creation, he not only fell in love with a Jewish woman from Poland but that he now lives there,” she said. “Michael and I are very interested in the line between fiction and reality and the space for realizing possible worlds through dramatic form. Michael now speaks some Polish. He’s making deep-rooted reconnections and helping contribute to a vibrant Jewish life in Poland.”
Garton Stanley and Rubenfeld met just over 10 years ago, after she saw him in a show. “He was performing in it with my partner at the time,” she said. “He was amazing. We became fast friends shortly thereafter.”
At Selfconscious Theatre – which they started together – the two have also co-created The Book of Judith; Mother, Mother, Mother; and The Failure Show.
For We Keep Coming Back, Garton Stanley is not only co-creator but the director. “My co-creation,” she explained, “was part facilitator, part conceiver, part devisor, part writer, part mediator, part friend and always enthusiast.”
How Reszke became involved in the production is a little more circuitous and fortuitous.
“Once we decided to take the trip to Poland, we connected with a producer named Evelyn Tauben, who was doing research around contemporary Jewish Poland,” explained Rubenfeld. “Through Evelyn initially, we started learning about the renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland, which, at the time, I knew nothing about. Once learning about it, we determined that it was important to us that we engage with it on our trip, and that’s when Katka came into the picture.
“We knew we needed a translator to join us, and we also knew we wanted to document the process. We joked that it would be incredible if we could find someone who could both translate, film and be a Polish Jew who might want to collaborate with us artistically. On a lark, we Googled ‘Polish, Jewish, filmmaker,’ and that’s how we discovered Katka. We sent her an email, and one thing led to another.”
“Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke,” added Garton Stanley, “are fascinating performers and neither of them has any training in this area. Their stories and their curiosity combine with Michael’s to create a new family. And this feels like one of the piece’s hidden successes.”
As for what has most surprised her about the project, she said, “That we are still doing it and learning from it. And learning from the audiences whose histories intersect with Michael’s, Mary’s and Katka’s own generational challenges and traumas. And that the piece resonates as deeply as it does. It has a beautiful heart and this is always surprising, in the best way.”
“I believe that, in our desire to never forget what happened during the Holocaust, we have also forgotten that Poland was one of the most important contemporary homelands for the Ashkenazi Jewish people for over 500 years,” said Rubenfeld. “So much of our contemporary culture was bred in this land, and we forget that the Jewish people were happy living in Poland before the war. We are raised to think of Poland as only the place of tragedy. While I understand why, I think that it’s essential to remember and celebrate a time when there was such vibrant Jewish culture. Most was destroyed because of the war, and it’s impossible to not feel sad. But, as we move into the future and the pain continues to recede, it is just as important to remember the incredible prewar Polish Jewish world of Poland. It was very profound.”
For tickets to We Keep Coming Back at the Rothstein Theatre, and for the full Chutzpah! schedule, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
For years, Poles have bristled at terms like “Polish death camps” or “Polish concentration camps.” Rightly so. Places like Auschwitz-Birkenau were Nazi German camps on Polish soil. Calling them Polish camps was misleading and imputed the murder of millions of Polish Jews (and many other Poles) to Poles themselves. This is a linguistic formulation that should be avoided.
But it should not be illegal. There are few, if any, words that should be illegal, in our judgment. But the Polish government thinks otherwise and has passed a law that penalizes any suggestion that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. So, anyone who uses such terminology as “Polish death camps” could face fines or up to three years’ jail time.
However, while the camps were German, there has never been any question about the willing complicity of plenty of Poles in the extermination of most of their Jewish compatriots. Many Poles were conscripted into the Nazi killing program, but others willingly advanced the mission. Notably, the murder of Jews in Poland did not end with the Nazis’ defeat. There were many instances of Holocaust survivors returning to their homes after the war only to be murdered by their former neighbours, the most notorious example being the Kielce pogrom of July 1946, in which about 40 Jews were killed and as many injured. To utter these facts in Poland now is presumably illegal. On the other hand, it is presumably not illegal to state the fact that many Poles risked their lives to save the lives of Jewish Poles.
The dreadful and confusing new law has been condemned by the American and Israeli governments, among others. Israel’s criticism hit a particular nerve with Andrzej Zybertowicz, an advisor to the Polish president and a sociology professor at Nicolaus Copernicus University. He suggested that Israel’s response to the law resulted from a “feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust” and he accused Israel of “clearly fighting to keep the monopoly on the Holocaust.” He went on to say: “Many Jews engaged in denunciation, collaboration during the war. I think Israel has still not worked it through.”
The irony is as stark as it is distressing, that Zybertowicz could accuse Israel of failing to work through its Holocaust history when his own country has just codified its own refusal to do just that.
Conversely, Germany has just announced that it will acknowledge as Holocaust survivors Jews who lived in Algeria under the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy French regime. This means about 25,000 people will be eligible for some compensation under the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. This is a positive development, no matter how late it has come.
These two very different present-day actions, 73 years after the liberation of the camps, are but two examples of how we are still navigating the facts of the Holocaust. We are still determining, among much else, who are to be included among the perpetrators and who among the victims. And these are not even the much more difficult, perhaps impenetrable, moral questions and issues raised by the Holocaust. We have not come close to understanding the patterns of antecedents, the human and historical prerequisites that allowed the Holocaust to happen – and which permit genocides to continue happening.
A photo from Lublin: Faces of a Nonexistent City, likely taken by taken by Abram Zylberberg. (photo from Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre Centre)
From July 3-7, the Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre Centre in Lublin (Osrodek Brama Grodzka – Teatr NN), Poland, will host the Lubliner Reunion – the first international meeting of Jewish inhabitants of the city and their descendants in 70 years.
Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre Centre is an organization run by non-Jews dedicated to preserving Jewish memory. It has been actively pursuing this mission for 25 years, and its program includes meetings, discussions, sightseeing tours, commemorations and artistic events. The reunion will constitute an important element of the celebrations, which mark 700 years since the founding of the city of Lublin, and is designed to emphasize the significance of the Jewish community for the history of the city.
The history of Jews has been intertwined with that of Lublin for several hundred years, and has helped shape its identity. The story of Lublin has been enriched with, among other things, the presence of a well-known yeshivah (Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin), the meetings of the Council of Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratzot), the activities of local rabbis and social organizations and the work of writer and Nobel-laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Just before the Second World War broke out, the 43,000 Jewish citizens of Lublin constituted one-third of the city’s population. The majority of Lublin’s Jewish inhabitants were murdered during the Holocaust and one of the German death camps, Majdanek, was located on the outskirts of Lublin. The story of Lublin cannot be told without the stories of its Jewish inhabitants, which is why, during the festivities organized to celebrate the 700-year-long history of the city in 2017, the presence of their descendants is vital and symbolic.
“The Lubliner Reunion is a way to build a bridge across time,” said Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, founder and director of Grodzka Gate. “It’s meant as a meeting in which both the people and their stories are important. Grodzka Gate is engaged in protecting the ‘memory of the place.’ We want to preserve what is left of Lublin’s Jewish community. The Lubliner Reunion will allow us to share knowledge and fill the blank spaces in the stories about Lublin and its inhabitants.”
The program of the reunion covers meetings devoted to the history and culture of Jewish Lublin, workshops in genealogy, walks along tourist trails, commemorations and a variety of artistic events. One of the central features of the reunion will be presentations of Lubliner family stories. Guests will have a chance to get to know both historical and contemporary Lublin, visit the former Jewish district and meet non-Jews working to preserve the memory of the Jews of Lublin for generations to come.
Apart from sightseeing within Lublin, Grodzka Gate is also planning tours of the region – Zamosc, Kazimierz Dolny, Belzec and Wlodawa, among other places. Apart from these excursions, all events are free of charge for participants. The inauguration of the reunion will take place on July 3 in the Museum at the Lublin Castle.
“We want to get in touch with and invite all those whose families come from Lublin,” underlined reunion coordinator Monika Tarajko. “We already have participants coming from Israel, the United States, France, Belgium and Great Britain. However, we are still striving to reach as many prospective participants as possible and inform them about the reunion. We are expecting more than 100 people to visit Lublin as part of this special event. Feel welcome to join us!”
Grodzka Gate’s other projects include Lublin: Memory of the Holocaust, a trail commemorating the Jewish inhabitants of Lublin who perished in the Holocaust; The Mysteries of Memory, an artistic happening involving a piece of the city with its specific topography, history and technical infrastructure; and Henio Zytomirski: The “Letters to Henio” Project, where, on April 19 (Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland) every year, citizens of Lublin send letters to Henio Zytomirski, a Jewish boy who was born in 1933 in Lublin and was murdered by the Nazis in a gas chamber, probably in November 1942.
Grodzka Gate’s Lublin: Memory of the Place Exhibition is dedicated to Lublin before the war. A considerable part of the former Jewish district today has been covered with concrete, under which the foundations of Jewish buildings and the memory of those who once lived there are buried. Over the years, Grodzka Gate has become a place where old photographs, documents and testimonies can be preserved for posterity.
As well, there is Lublin: Faces of a Nonexistent City. In May 2012, Grodzka Gate received a collection of 2,700 glass plate negatives found in the attic of the house at Rynek 4 by workmen doing repairs. The photographs were taken between 1914 and 1939 and were, based on Grodzka Gate’s research and recent findings, taken by Abram Zylberberg.
The first “character” we meet in Marcin Wrona’s coolly fascinating Demon is a yellow bulldozer, rolling menacingly through the empty streets of a Polish village. It’s a harbinger, as well as a metaphor, but of what?
Bulldozers dig, and they bury. Both tasks are central to the plot of Demon, which seizes on the disturbing idea of the dybbuk – a ghost who takes possession of a bridegroom on his wedding day – and reimagines it in the contemporary world. A world, that is, in which the Holocaust is part of our experience – even for those who have buried it in hopes of forgetting.
A Polish-Israeli co-production that is by turns deeply unsettling and absurdly funny, Demon follows the arrival of handsome architect Python (Israeli actor Itay Tiran of Lebanon) from England for the unambiguously happy occasion of his wedding. The groom is Polish, like his lovely bride Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and her family, but we have the disquieting feeling from the get-go that he is apart, on his own, an innocent outsider who has (in horror-film tradition) unknowingly ventured into a situation of unimaginable dangers.
Setting to work on the yard behind the decrepit farmhouse that Zaneta’s family owns and has bequeathed to the couple, Python hops on the ominous, aforementioned bulldozer. A noise makes him stop almost immediately, whence he discovers that he has unearthed bones.
So begins Python’s descent from a rational, regular guy to a tormented figure of unreachable despair. Unfortunately, but also comically, his transformation mostly takes place during the marathon rain- and vodka-soaked reception following the wedding ceremony.
Wrona and writer Pawel Maslona freely adapted the latter’s 2008 play, whose title translates as “Adherence” or “Clinging.” The director’s decision to shift the setting to a wedding was clearly inspired by the 1937 Polish-Yiddish film Der Dibek (The Dybbuk), itself adapted from a play by Shimon Ansky.
In the press notes, Demon producer Olga Szymanska says, “We wound up doing a lot of research into the history of the [dybbuk] story, not to mention Jewish-Polish history in general. If you read the studies on the dybbuk, those who became possessed by the spirit find themselves unable to speak. It originated in a very orthodox society of Jews, so it was the idea of this voice that could never have been heard which was longing to be heard.”
Given the clue or two I planted above, and this review’s appearance in a Jewish publication, you will have an idea of the general nature of the long-suppressed secret that the spirit who inhabits Python desperately wants uttered. The specific details are melancholy and enigmatic, and Wrona conveys them with chilling effectiveness. (The viewer is haunted also by the knowledge that Wrona died – reportedly of suicide – at 42, shortly after the film’s world première a year ago.)
It’s always of interest when Polish filmmakers choose to address their country’s past and the spectre of antisemitism, in part because they (and their fellow citizens) have historically been more reluctant to do so than their German and French counterparts. So, Demon provokes memories of Aftermath, the excellent Polish thriller from 2012 that likewise involved the physical excavation of the Jewish past (gravestones, in this case) and also invoked an otherworldly presence.
The kind of movie that lingers in the mind for days afterward, Demon contains any number of images that don’t just stick but demand to be puzzled over further. The more literal-minded viewer, meanwhile, will find plenty to mull in the movie’s slicing comments on present-day Poland.
Demon screens at Vancity Theatre Oct. 28-Nov. 1. In Polish, English and Yiddish with English subtitles, it is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
In August, Poland’s right-wing cabinet approved a bill that would criminalize using the phrase “Polish death camp” or “Polish concentration camp,” with punishments including fines or imprisonment.
The bill raises questions about Poland’s role in the Holocaust. It echoes the country’s communist-era stance on the Second World War – that Poland was a victim and heroically saved Jews.
Growing up, I was told the opposite by my family, my Jewish day school and the broader community – that Poland was antisemitic and complicit in the Holocaust.
But recently, I’ve come to believe that both narratives are true. As we approach the High Holy Days and Yizkor, I think it’s worth reflecting on whether we as a community can see Poland’s role in the Holocaust differently.
This summer, I visited Poland for the first time with my sister, and the trip was full of contradictions. For example, we learned that Christian Poles – including our local guide’s grandparents – were sent to concentration camps, too. The Nazis killed two to three million Christian Poles and three million Jewish Poles. In total, Poland lost one-fifth of its prewar population – more than any other European country. But, those numbers represent roughly 10% of the Christian Polish population and 90% of the Jewish Polish population.
At the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, I learned about Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews. The Polish government-in-exile created it to support and fund Jewish resistance in Poland, including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; it was the only such organization created by a European government.
At Yad Vashem, Poland has the most Righteous Among the Nations of any country. Yet, it also lost one of the highest percentages of Jews of all European countries.
We found that Holocaust memorials were also inconsistent, dependent on local policies rather than a unified national one. In our baba’s hometown of Wlodawa, the Jewish cemetery is now a park, without a Holocaust memorial, unlike the many memorials around Warsaw, Krakow and the preserved camps. This inconsistency seems to reflect the divisions within Polish society about whether, and how much, Poland took part in the Holocaust.
In our zeyda’s (z”l) hometown of Bilgoraj, we spoke with three people (through our guide) who live near his former house, which was recently torn down to build a shopping mall. One of them, who had the same build and attire as our zeyda, recognized our family name and said that our zeyda’s next-door neighbors were rumored to have hidden Jews (including, possibly, one of our zeyda’s younger sisters). Another neighbor said her mother hid a Jewish man for three days before he fled town, and that Jews and Christians lived in peace before the war. (Our grandparents never expressed that.)
Nearby, a new development claims to recreate the town shtetl, including Isaac Bashevis Singer’s house, a Belarusian-style (not a local-style) synagogue and luxury apartments. We called it “shtetl Disney.” We didn’t see any information on display about why the real shtetl disappeared, and I only hope that no one will want to live in a place that seeks to profit from nostalgia for a lost community. But that, too, depends on how people see their country’s role in that loss.
At the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, we took a synagogue walking tour with a guide who, like a growing number of Poles, has discovered her own Jewish ancestry since communism ended. (She’s now a Yiddish lecturer at Columbia.) We learned that Polish-Jewish history dates back 1,000 years, since Jews fled the Crusades and got special protection, including freedom of religion, from a series of Polish kings. We also saw “Jewish-style” restaurants run by and for non-Jews, and “shtetl rabbi” statuettes being sold in the Old Town – we felt uncomfortable seeing people exoticize and capitalize on our culture.
We also saw a play, based on a true story, about a Jewish Torontonian with Polish roots who visits Poland for the first time, confronts the history and legacy of the Holocaust and witnesses the country’s “Jewish revival,” led by Jews and Christians. Seeing some of our experience reflected back at us emphasized, for me, that Polishness and Ashkenazi Jewishness are partly intertwined, whether or not we acknowledge it.
Realizing that our family is more Polish than we’d thought was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. On our way to Wlodawa, we bought fresh forest blueberries along a highway, and realized our grandparents would have grown up eating them, rather than discovering them in Vancouver as adults, as we’d assumed. In Wlodawa, the restaurant where we ate lunch could have been our baba’s dining room: the walls were peach, the curtains were lace and doilies covered the tables. In Lublin, flea-market stalls sold porcelain figurines just like the ones in her glass-doored cabinets. Were we in Poland, or at home?
Several times, I’ve wondered what to make of these contradictions.
The Jewish community, coming from collective trauma, can insist that Poland was a perpetrator; the Polish government, wanting to avoid collective reflection or partial responsibility, can insist it was a victim or martyr.
The truth is, some Christian Poles collaborated and killed Jews; some joined the partisans or hid Jews; most did nothing. The country was occupied and partitioned, and no one (Jewish or Christian) knew what was going to happen. There was a death penalty for resisting or hiding Jews. The truth is, societies are messy and heterogeneous, and we can’t make universal statements about them.
My question is, do Jews and Polish society want to perpetuate narratives that deny the differences within Polish society during the Second World War? Or do we want to heal?
If we want healing, I believe both communities need to accept that Poland was both perpetrator and victim, complicit and righteous – much as we may not want to, and much as that may feel difficult or even impossible. If we can accept this paradox, maybe then we can move from our respective pain to some kind of healing.
Tamara Micneris a playwright and journalist from Vancouver who lives in London, England. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Wall Street Journal and London Review of Books.
If you were rolling in money, what would you do with it? Would you build a town for yourself? That’s what Jan Zamoyski did.
As you approach the town’s main square, you might be inclined to think that someone has fooled with your itinerary. On first glance, it might well appear that somehow you have been detoured from Poland to Italy. Before you stands Zamosc, which can only be described as a stunning example of a planned, late-16th century Renaissance town. Designed by Italian architect Bernardo Morando, it follows the model of the citta ideale, or ideal town.
More than 400 brutal years have passed since the town’s inception. Yet, Zamosc has remarkably withstood the enormous devastation of the Second World War and the utilitarian, unesthetic architecture of the communist era. It largely retains its original layout, a large number of original buildings and fortifications.
Zamosc stands in southeast Poland, 142 miles (228 kilometres) from Warsaw. Zamoyski founded Zamosc on his own property in 1589. He was an intriguing character, an extremely wealthy and educated man who juggled a variety of careers, including in the military and politics. He was a hetman (head of the army) and a chancellor. His taste in things Italian probably began during his student days at the University of Padua.
While he was an army man, Zamoyski’s focus in establishing Zamosc was seemingly more economic than military. It should be noted, however, that he did not forget to commission an imposing fortress and city ramparts.
Located on the trade route linking western and northern Europe with the Black Sea, Zamoyski envisioned Zamosc as a thriving trade centre. He invited Italian, Turkish and Dutch Jewish merchants to work and live in his new town. His liberal policy toward outsiders was likewise extended to Armenian, Greek and Scottish merchants, and to Ruthenes (Slavs of the Orthodox Church). His outreach to foreigners did not spring as much from liberality, as from a strong desire to see Zamosc succeed. At the time, all of the mentioned ethnic groups had reputations for jump-starting floundering economies.
Zamoyski’s concerns went beyond the economic, though. As an intellectual ruler who was likewise a devout Roman Catholic, he had an academy – located today at Academy and Perec Streets – a high court and a large church, which was originally dedicated to Saint Thomas the Apostle and the resurrection, but was elevated in 1992 to cathedral status, and an imposing palace centrally constructed. Altogether, Zamosc’s buildings reflect the idea that institutions should be in physical harmony with the residents of a town. Just as the organs of the body support the human being, so Zamosc’s institutions were designed to organically mesh with the populace.
As mentioned, when Zamoyski decided to build his town, he imported a skilled Italian architect. It seems clear, however, that the chancellor also considered Morando because of his sensitivity to Polish culture. Morando had already worked in Poland and had gained an appreciation of Polish life.
The 16th-century Great Market Square features colorful arcaded houses characteristic of Morando’s native Padua. These houses, located at the northern end of the square, were designated for the Armenian merchants, hence the street’s name, Ormianski.
In length and width, the square measures exactly 100 metres. It is here that the two main axes of the old town cross. The 600-metre longitudinal axis runs east to west: from Bastion No. 7 to the Zamoyski Palace. The 400-metre crosswise axis runs north to south, joining the Great Market Square to the two smaller market squares: Solny (this area, translated as the Salt Market, was assigned to Jewish merchants) and Wodny (translated as the Water Market). The original buildings in these smaller markets complemented those of the Great Market.
The town hall in particular was an enormous enterprise, taking nine years to complete (1591-1600). It was meant to draw attention. And, with its fan-shaped double staircase and imposing tower, it certainly achieved this purpose. During the early part of the construction work (1591-1593), Morando also served as the town mayor. His appointment ended before he was able to hang his name on the door of town hall’s mayoral offices.
In 1992, the town of Zamosc became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hopefully, this award will help to preserve the beauty of this Renaissance town for years to come.
More on Zamosc
From July 11 to July 18, Zamosc is hosting the international folklore festival Eurofolk. About seven international carriers fly regularly between Vancouver and Warsaw.
Famous people who lived in Zamosc include L.L. Zamenhof, founder of Esperanto. He had the revolutionary idea that hatred would disappear if people spoke the same language. A revolutionary who was born in Zamosc was Rosa Luxemburg.
The old town of Zamosc stands largely intact. Humans fared far worse. For instance, the Jewish population, which had comprised almost half the city’s pre-Holocaust population (12,531), has vanished. Those who could, fled from the Nazis. Others were forced into a ghetto. In a series of four deportations, many Jews were sent to Belzec. Others were shot in marches and in roundups. As a reminder of the once-thriving Jewish community, visit the synagogue (9-11 Zamenhofa St.), which has been undergoing an extensive renovation project.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
March of the Living International (MOLI) has published a study examining the effects that the program has had on its participants. The educational program takes, on average, 10,000-20,000 students annually to Poland and Israel with the goal of educating and inspiring future generations to learn from the destruction of the European continent during the Second World War. MOLI accepts applicants from all walks of life and religions, hoping to ensure that not only is the Holocaust not forgotten, but also that it is never repeated.
The report studies the impacts that the program has on its Jewish participants, and highlights the educational and religious changes that the program has inspired since its creation in 1988. Of the population surveyed, most initially signed on to the program in order to better understand their Jewish culture. Many of the participants in the study said that the program has directly impacted them, leading many to visit, study in or move to Israel. Fifty percent of the respondents said that the program caused them to consider moving to Israel later in life.
The study was conducted by Prof. William Helmreich of CUNY Graduate Centre and the Colin Powell School at City College, a sociologist and expert on ethnic identity. “What’s most remarkable about the March is how deeply it impacts participants over a period of many years,” he states. “These include life choices like selecting a mate, moving to Israel and career choices. In addition, it greatly impacts not only on Jewish identity but also on compassion toward other people as well.”
Indeed, 54% of respondents said that the March had made them more tolerant towards other groups. And the effect increases over the years, as 66% of those who attended the March 10 years ago, reported it had made them more tolerant.
The study also found that 86% of the participants asserted the importance in their spouse being Jewish, and 91% in raising their children with some sort of Jewish education; 65% felt the importance of raising their children in a Jewish neighborhood.
Of those surveyed, 90% felt the March instilled in them the importance of reacting to confrontations with antisemitism, and 95% stated the March had strengthened their sense of Jewish identity.
“To think that the March is such a successful program in terms of ensuring and enhancing Jewish identity and in making people realize the importance of engaging as a Jew within their communities and caring for those outside of them, truly illustrates the goals that we had when initially forming the first March so many years ago,” said Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, MOLI chair.
March of the Living brings individuals to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate. Since the first March in 1988, more than 220,000 participants from 52 countries have marched down the same three-kilometre path leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom Hashoah as a silent tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. March of the Living is a partnership between March of the Living International, local MOTL foundations, the Claims Conference, individual donors, private philanthropists and Jewish communities around the world. Visit motl.org.