Afterlife is Isa Milman’s first work of nonfiction. (photo by Shea Lowry)
Midway through Isa Milman’s Afterlight, which came out this week, the author cites Reb Nachman of Breslov, who said, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.” In Victoria-based Milman’s new work, we encounter bridges of various sorts: those that serve as a crucial lifeline to the survival of the denizens of cities, particularly at a time of war, and the bridges that bring together people from different continents in the pursuit of understanding an unconscionably horrific time in Eastern Europe.
And then there are the bridges that link us poignantly to our past – to those we know through words and photos but have never met. In Afterlight, one such bridge connects Milman to her mother’s twin sister, her aunt Basia, who perished in the Holocaust, and who, like Milman, wrote poetry. (Milman is a recipient of the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry.)
Milman’s journey began in 2013, when, following her mother’s death, she sought to find Basia’s poems from the 1930s. The book alternates between the present and the past (the war years), as Milman tries to uncover a layered tale. She travels to Europe where, at times, her quest for information leads to dead ends and, at other times, she finds details in unlikely places – a photograph in Amsterdam, for example.
At one stage, Milman finds poetry written in a Polish publication from the 1930s. She writes, “Reading the children’s poems, I felt a terrible nostalgia rise up – a dangerous nostalgia. Even now it hurts too much, this intense longing for a conversation with Basia, for a meeting, a recognition that we’ve lived on the same planet, come from the same earth, share blood and bone. We share a love of poetry, but I shall never know her, not even as smudged ink on a page.”
At one point in her exploration, Milman pens a poem to her aunt. “How many tiny flowers make one lilac sprig? / How many stars in the night sky have names? / How many yet to be seen? They disappear with morning sun too soon but in darkness or in light tucked in their beds they remain,” the poem reads.
Basia’s story is but one piece of the book. Afterlight also traces the journey of Milman’s parents and her other surviving aunts through the Holocaust and examines questions about the trauma, displacement and identity caused by the Holocaust to succeeding generations.
“I’d lived my life in a black hole of absence, of never having the experience of grandparents, of feeling rooted and at home with extended family. And this was not because of a tsunami, an earthquake, forest fire or plague. It was because of tribal hatred,” Milman writes.
As well, she explores the issue of reconciling the Poland that Jews thought of as their home with rampant antisemitism and the brutality of the war years. “Why couldn’t I choose how to think about Poland, even if it meant going against most everything I’d learned?” Milman asks. “Why couldn’t I revise my notion and accept that Poland is a place that I can love as well as despise and fear? Why must it be either/or? Was it possible to live in the uncomfortable in-between, where both realities coexist?”
Afterlight is Milman’s first work of nonfiction. At first, Milman, whose collections of poetry include Prairie Kaddish, Between the Doorposts and Something Small to Carry Home, was reluctant to write a nonfiction account of the Holocaust. However, recent surges in antisemitism around the world led her to change her mind.
“The lessons of the Holocaust need to be taught, and not just by citing facts and reportage,” she said. “Telling stories about real people and their experiences is the most effective way of reaching and teaching people about how evil can happen, and how we must fight our worst human inclinations and speak out against hatred and inhumanity.”
A big part of her decision to write a memoir was realizing that her family’s story did not match a more common Holocaust narrative. Hers is a lesser-told account of Jews from eastern Poland, some murdered in what’s known as “the Holocaust of Bullets” and others, like her parents, who survived because of deportation by the Soviets to the Gulag.
“I loved entering the world of creative nonfiction,” she said. “Using my imagination to create scenes where I clearly was not present enabled me to inhabit the places and people I needed to describe. Everything became more real as I entered into the minds of my characters, who happened to be my parents and close family.”
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
A Polish court’s ruling that a Canadian Holocaust scholar must apologize for tarnishing the memory of a wartime mayor in Poland continues to reverberate around the world.
The case is being condemned by Jewish organizations and historians as an attack on free academic inquiry. Scholars warn the ruling could further chill an already touchy area of research: the role played by Poles in the murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In a long-awaited ruling on Feb. 9, a civil court in Warsaw ordered two prominent Holocaust scholars to apologize to an elderly woman who claimed they had defamed her late uncle over his wartime actions.
Prof. Jan Grabowski, an historian at the University of Ottawa, and Prof. Barbara Engelking, a sociologist and founder of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, were accused of defaming Edward Malinowski, the wartime mayor of Malinowo, a village in northeast Poland, by suggesting in a book that he delivered several dozen Jews to Nazi occupiers.
The professors were ordered to apologize for a passage in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland, a two-volume work they co-edited, which the court said “violated Malinowski’s honour” by “providing inaccurate information.”
The court declined a demand for monetary damages of 100,000 Polish zlotys (about $34,000 Cdn) but ordered the scholars to apologize to Malinowski’s niece, 81-year-old Filomena Leszczynska, who brought the case; publish a statement on the website of the Centre for Holocaust Research; and correct the passage in any future edition.
Leszczynska had argued that her uncle had actually aided Jews and was acquitted of collaboration in 1950.
Grabowski, whose father survived the Holocaust, called the outcome “a sad day for the history of the Holocaust in Poland and beyond Poland. I have no idea what will be the consequences as well as the implications of this trial. But I can say for certain this thing will be studied for a long time by historians,” he told the Globe and Mail.
Prior to the verdict, he warned that, if the lawsuit were successful, “then basically it will mean the end to the independent writing of the history of the Holocaust in Poland.”
The professors were sued under a Polish law allowing for civil action against anyone claiming that the Polish nation or state was responsible for Nazi atrocities. The law was amended in 2018 to drop plans to criminalize the offence.
In her ruling, the judge said the decision “must not have a cooling effect on academic research,” but that is how it is being perceived.
As a senior tenured professor, the verdict, Grabowski conceded in a Postmedia interview from Poland, is “unpleasant. But, imagine you are a 25-year-old graduate student of history. Do you think you’re going to embark upon discovery of difficult history? I don’t think so.”
Grabowski and Engelking said they will appeal the ruling.
Mina Cohn, director of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship at Carleton University in Ottawa, called the campaign against Grabowski and Engelking “ugly.”
“The Polish government’s attempt to discredit them, and to silence and distort the historical facts of the Holocaust in Poland is appalling,” Cohn told The CJN. “It endangers the basic right of the future freedom of historical research of the Holocaust in that country.”
She said that, as daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors with roots in Poland, “I find this blatant attempt by the Polish government to reject the reality of inherent antisemitism within Polish society before and during the Holocaust, and to discredit survivors’ testimonies, very offensive.”
For Prof. Piotr Wrobel, a specialist in Polish history at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, the case is an example of the current Polish government’s attempt to control the historical record.
“They try to shape the ‘official’ version and persecute people who do not share [it],” he told The CJN. “This is very sad.”
It was “very clearly” the intention of those behind the lawsuit “to freeze scholarly research into the Holocaust. This was supposed to be a warning. Young people should remember this. If your opinions [and] historical interpretations are different than the official ones, then do not touch the Holocaust,” Wrobel said. “There is a choice between comfort and truth.”
In a statement on Feb. 10, the University of Ottawa offered its “unwavering support” to Grabowski and his “widely respected” Holocaust research. The university called the verdict “unjust.”
“Prof. Grabowski’s critical examination of the fate of Polish Jews during World War II shows how knowledge of the past remains vitally relevant today,” said university president Jacques Frémont. “The impact his work has had in Poland, and the censorious reaction it has generated, demonstrates this truth.”
The university “emphatically supports” Grabowski’s “right to pursue historical inquiry unencumbered by state pressure, free from legal sanction and without fear of extrajudicial attack.”
In Israel, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum decried the ruling as “an attack on the effort to achieve a full and balanced picture of the history of the Holocaust.”
Even before the verdict, David Silberklang, a senior Holocaust historian in Israel, said the libel case intended for the two scholars to be “sued into submission.”
The decision “damages an open and honest coming to terms with the past,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which sponsors historical research on the Holocaust.
Taylor said Poland “must encourage open inquiry into its history, both the positive and the negative aspects.”
Canadian historian Frank Bialystok, who has written extensively about the Holocaust, sees the verdict against Grabowski and Engelking as a flipping of political extremes in Poland.
The murder of Jews in Poland, even after the war, was documented at the time. “This research was acceptable during the communist era as a weapon against nationalism,” said Bialystok. Now, the two professors are being “vilified” by the nationalist camp.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre said the ruling could have “a devastating impact on Holocaust research and education.” The organization said it is reaching out to senior government leaders, urging them to speak out against “Holocaust distortion in Poland.”
The American Historical Association went so far as to write Polish President Andrzej Duda, saying “a legal procedure is not the place to mediate historical debates” and urged Polish leaders to “uphold the rights of historians to investigate the past without legal harassment and with no fear of reprisals for making public their historical- and evidence-based findings.”
In 2018, Grabowski announced he was suing the government-funded group that backed Leszczynska’s libel case for allegedly libeling him. He claimed that the ultranationalist Polish League Against Defamation had itself defamed him by questioning his findings about the complicity of Poles in the wartime murder of Jews.
This article originally was published on facebook.com/TheCJN. For more on Prof. Jan Grabowski, see jewishindependent.ca/revealing-truth-elicits-threats.
This photo, called “Generations,” was taken by Tim Gidal in Tel Aviv in 1935. (courtesy Zack Gallery)
The current show at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery, Invisible Curtain: The 1932 Polish Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal, was organized in partnership with the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, which runs Feb. 20-25. Gidal (better known as Tim Gidal or Tim N. Gidal) was a renown photojournalist of the last century and the exhibit’s images come from the new book Memories of Jewish Poland: The 1932 Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal. (For a review, click here.)
The driving force behind the book’s publication was Yosef Wosk, who wrote its preface. Wosk approached Zack Gallery director Hope Forstenzer and Jewish Book Festival director Dana Camil Hewitt about a year ago, Forstenzer told the Independent. “He suggested we have a Tim Gidal show at the gallery to coincide with the festival and his newly published book,” she said.
Both Wosk and Forstenzer curated the exhibit. “Together, we chose about 50 images for the show, as many as the gallery could fit. It couldn’t include all the images in the book, of course,” said Forstenzer.
The history of the photographs is best described by the photographer himself in the book’s introduction. In 1932, Gidal, then 23, traveled with two friends to Poland from his hometown of Munich, Germany. It was his first trip abroad. “My knowledge of the political, economic and social conditions of the Jews in Poland didn’t seem to square with my feelings about their spiritual life,” he wrote. “So I decided to go and see for myself.”
Gidal, who passed away in 1996, took numerous photographs of people and places, as he went from shtetl to shtetl on his three-week “little odyssey.” He wrote: “I encountered spiritual and material heights and depths: material well-being and abject poverty, rejuvenation and dissolution. Some were rich, but many more were very poor. It was a hopeless poverty, endured with an incredible humility. I met men of faith and hypocrites … atheists, socialists and communists, Zionists and Bundists, Orthodox and assimilationists. We also experienced the all-pervading Jewish humor.”
Everything the young photographer experienced was reflected in his images, including those now on display at the Zack. We see children laughing and women looking far older than their real years. We see ancient eyes and tired, worn hands. We see educated men reading in front of a synagogue, and broken windows and peeling walls the next street over. And we know something Gidal didn’t know at the time, which makes this book and the show all the more poignant: not many years later, most of these people would be murdered in the Holocaust, and they and their entire way of life would be lost. But, in Gidal’s photos, his subjects remain alive. According to Wosk, “Each photograph is a monument, a letter in light.”
Gidal’s 1932 Polish photo essay comprises only a small portion of the master’s body of work. His photography journey spanned almost seven decades and encompassed most major players and momentous events of the 20th century.
One of the pioneers in the field of modern photography, Gidal made his debut in 1929 with his first published photo report. He was a proponent of the style of the “picture story” and he captured most of his subjects unaware, instead of staging elaborate scenes. Very few of his subjects posed for his photos, and every image tells a story.
Four years after his trip to Poland, Gidal moved to Palestine. During the Second World War, he served as a staff reporter for a British army magazine. A wanderer and a chronicler of life, he traveled a lot and lived in the United States for awhile. He taught and illustrated books. He exhibited widely.
A portion of the Zack exhibition is dedicated to Gidal’s artistic photography after 1932. The pictures demonstrate his technical progress, as well as his breadth of interests and subjects. There is a lyrical photo, “Generations,” taken in Tel Aviv in 1935 and another – a dramatic portrait of the youngest survivors of Buchenwald, taken in 1945 upon their arrival in Palestine. There is a photo of Mahatma Gandhi at the All-India Congress in Bombay in 1940 and the fascinating picture called “Handshake,” taken in Florence in 1934, which shows two men shaking hands in front of a wall covered with multiple posters of Mussolini.
Half a century before Photoshop was invented, Gidal experimented with his images, compiling them in different combinations and creating something unique, like his triptych of Winston Churchill of 1948 or the Rhomboid photomontage of 1975.
As a photo reporter, Gidal used his camera to record the 20th century in all its glorious and painful contradictions, and his early 1932 Polish photographs serve as a symbol of his multifaceted canon.
The book Memories of Jewish Poland: The 1932 Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal lets the photos do most of the talking. And they speak strongly and with passion of a lively, bustling and diverse community, the vast majority of whom were killed in the Holocaust.
“Of the 3.3 million Jewish residents of Poland before World War II, only 380,000 were still alive by 1945,” notes the book’s curator, local scholar, writer and philanthropist Yosef Wosk, in the preface. Wosk will help launch the release of Memories of Jewish Poland on Feb. 11, in a “prologue” event of the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, which opens Feb. 20. He also helped organize Invisible Curtain, the current exhibit of Gidal’s work that is being co-presented by the festival with the Zack Gallery.
Wosk was friends with Gidal, who he met in Jerusalem, where Gidal lived. Born in Munich in 1909, Gidal had made aliyah in 1936, but then lived in various places before returning to Jerusalem in 1970; he passed away in 1996. It was not only Gidal’s dying wish that the 1932 Polish photos be published in book form, but that they be allowed to “speak for themselves.” And that request has been honoured. In addition to Wosk’s brief preface, the book opens with some notes written by Gidal for a 1984 exhibit and includes an introduction to Gidal’s work by photography historian, researcher, author and curator Nissan N. Perez, founder of the Israel Museum’s photography department. At the end, there is a list of the plates included in the book and a brief biography of Gidal. A map of Poland, indicating the locations in which the photos were taken, bookends the commentary and photographs.
“This book illustrates the largest number of photographs from Gidal’s Polish photo essay ever assembled. It is not, however, a catalogue raisonné: more than 20 images are not included,” writes Wosk. The reproductions included in the volume are taken from prints in Wosk’s collection and that of the Israel Museum. Wosk thanks Diane Evans, “master teacher, photographer, bookseller and friend in photography,” for serving “as a patient, experienced and disciplined midwife in giving birth to this book.”
Gidal – born Ignaz Nachum Gidalawitsch – was motivated to travel to Poland “by his desire to know more about his family’s background,” writes Perez. The photographs Gidal took were “actually a rather small chapter of his oeuvre at the beginning of his outstanding career, an exercise in perfecting his vision.”
“He gains the interest of the viewer not by staging elaborate scenes, but by capturing expressions and gestures that can only be described as both intimate and straightforward,” explains Perez. “As he said in one of the many meetings conducted toward the exhibition in 1995, ‘My photographs, I like to think, are variations on the everlasting tragicomedy of human life.’”
The images in Memories of Jewish Poland are prime examples of Gidal’s ability to capture images of life as it is happening, in all its unromantic but beautiful distinction.
“In the heterogenous assembly of the Polish galut (diaspora), I myself became immersed in the flow of Jewish life from the past to the future,” wrote Gidal for the 1984 exhibit. “When we left Poland after three weeks, I had passed through an invisible curtain, which had separated East and West. Now the curtain had opened, and I was made to feel the unifying presence of Jewry.”
A selection of Gidal’s 1932 Polish photos is currently on display at the Zack Gallery (for the full story, click here). The Memories of Jewish Poland book will be launched at a virtual Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival prologue event Feb. 11, 7 p.m. For tickets to the prologue and other Jewish Book Festival events, visit jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival.
Andrzej Mańkowski, Poland’s consul-general in Vancouver, shared some reflections on his country’s history with the Jewish Independent, including about the Ładoś Group, which tried to help Jews escape the Nazis by the issuing of fake passports. (photo from Andrzej Mańkowski)
The wartime actions of Poland and its people provide a prime example of the human capacity for good and evil. Many Poles today proudly point out that there are more of their compatriots recognized in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations than there are heroes of any other nationality. By contrast, the work of Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski and a team of researchers in Poland chronicles in great detail the collaboration by Polish officials and ordinary citizens in assisting the Nazis in the goal of executing the “Final Solution” in that country.
Poland’s government prefers to focus on the more positive fact. So sensitive and contentious is the history that, in 2018, Poland passed – then, in the face of international outrage, rescinded – a law that criminalized expressions of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. At the time, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged that many Poles had aided Jews during the war era, but also that “Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination” of Jews during the Holocaust.
Poland’s consul-general in Vancouver spoke to the Jewish Independent last week and shared some personal reflections on his country’s history – including how his own grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz.
Andrzej Mańkowski wanted readers of the Independent to know of a recently discovered story of a group of Polish diplomats in Switzerland who provided faked passports to help Jews flee Europe.
Called the Ładoś Group, after Aleksander Ładoś, the Polish envoy in Bern from 1940 to 1945, the six individuals included four Polish diplomats, one of whom was Jewish, and two representatives of Jewish organizations that conspired with the officials. The RELICO Assistance Committee for the Jewish Victims of the War, established by the World Jewish Congress, and the Agudat Yisrael worked with Ładoś and his colleagues.
In addition to Ładoś himself, three other Polish diplomats were members of the group: Stefan Ryniewicz, Konstanty Rokicki and Juliusz Kühl. The two members of Jewish organizations in Switzerland who rounded out the group were Abraham Silberschein of RELICO and Chaim Eiss of Agudath Israel.
Beginning in 1941 (or possibly earlier) until the end of 1943, the six men illegally purchased passports and citizenship certificates from Latin American countries, primarily Paraguay. The documents were sent to Jews in nations under German occupation, where possessing them increased chances of survival.
“Many of those passports came too late to save people,” Mańkowski said. “The recipients or the holders of the passports ended up in Auschwitz in spite of already having the false passports in their hands.”
As many as 10,000 forged passports may have been obtained, but most reached their intended recipients – primarily German and Dutch Jews, as well as some Polish Jews – too late. Of about 3,200 passports issued to individuals whose names are known, it is estimated that about 800 individuals – approximately 25% – survived the war.
Mańkowski’s own family history is deeply impacted by the horrors of the Nazi era. His grandfather, Emeryk Mańkowski, fled Ukraine after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and settled in central Poland, where his wife’s family owned land. Part of that land was forested and, during the German occupation, Nazi officials discovered a radio communications device in the forest on the property. Unable to identify the owner of the contraband device, they arrested 10 members of the local intelligentsia – including Emeryk Mańkowski – and sent them to Auschwitz as a warning to the rest of the population.
At the time, Polish inmates were permitted 100 zlotys per month from their family. During the second month of his incarceration, Mańkowski’s family had their monthly stipend returned, with a message telling them that the prisoner was no longer present in the camp.
“The German Nazi bureaucracy was so precise and honest to send back money after killing the victim,” said his grandson, the consul-general.
While Poles suffered at the hands of the Nazis, Mańkowski acknowledges the magnitude is incomparable. Three million Polish Jews died during the Holocaust and, during the same period, three million non-Jewish Poles also died, he said. This represented about 10% of the larger Polish population, but 90% of the Jewish population. After the war, he said, a Polish family of 10 would have a relative missing from their holiday table. A Polish Jew from a family of 10 would be alone.
The consul lamented that Poles and Jews have incompatible narratives.
“We have two separate histories,” he said, citing the visits by Israeli students to the memorial sites of the Shoah in Poland. “These groups of Jewish youths from Israel walk around in Warsaw and see only ghetto, only death all around. They never see us, living Poles. They are coming with bodyguards, they are insulated from Poles.”
The controversy around the now-rescinded law proscribing discussion of Polish complicity led to a major diplomatic eruption with Israel, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki acknowledged that it was not any respect for civil liberties or historical veracity that led to the reversal, but international pressure.
“Those who say that Poland may be responsible for the crimes of World War II deserve jail terms,” Morawiecki said at the time. “But we operate in an international context and we take that into account.”
Chrystia Freeland, then Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, wrote on Twitter that Canada is “concerned by the potential impact on free speech” of the Polish law and urged that country to “ensure open discussion and education about the horrors of the Nazi death camps.”
The consul emphasized that the law didn’t apply to scientific publication, research or artistic activity, as these fields were excluded from the jurisdiction of this law.
World attention has focused on Poland in recent years not only because of concerns around free expression and inquiry into Holocaust-era history. Poland has been called the worst country in the European Union for gay rights. Expressions of hate speech are leveled against LGBTQ+ Poles by individuals at the highest levels of government. There is a lack of legal protections for sexual minorities and criminal charges have been laid against individuals exhibiting Pride flags. Dozens of Polish communities have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.”
Mańkowski acknowledged that Poland is a conservative country. Last month, a new abortion law was promulgated, banning abortion in almost all cases.
“It’s a question of some conservative attitudes and opinions on the part of Polish society,” he said. “We are quite conservative, that’s true…. It’s a hot discussion within Polish society and, if you follow polls and opinion research, you will see the real judgment of Polish society and maybe the political system is not following the tendencies of the changing trends.”
George Heyman, ninth from the right, with family members in Poland last year. (photo from George Heyman)
Like scores of other British Columbians, George Heyman owes his life to Chiune Sugihara.
Heyman, who was reelected Saturday as MLA for Vancouver-Fairview, was born after the Second World War. But his parents escaped Poland via Japan thanks to the assistance of Sugihara, who was the vice-consul for the Japanese Empire in Kaunas, Lithuania. At risk to his career and probably his life, Sugihara betrayed orders of the Imperial Japanese government and issued transit visas that are credited with saving the lives of at least 6,000 European Jews.
Heyman, who was minister of environment and climate change strategy in the last government, was sketchy on some of this family history. So, at the urging of a distant cousin who is “a ferocious researcher,” Heyman, his sister and other family members from around the world convened in Poland last year.
“[The cousin] found others as well and he started communicating with us and sending us snapshots of things that he’d found in archives and going back a couple of hundred years,” Heyman said of the cousin, who is a retired professor in Denmark. “He found information about the village that our ancestors had once lived before they migrated to Warsaw.”
The diverse group of family members spent about 10 days together in the summer of 2019.
“We met in Warsaw, we had an initial family dinner of 20 people, three generations,” he recalled. “Everybody said a little bit about what it meant to them to be back, as well as where their lives had taken them.”
The cousin had prepared a family tree and presented each guest with a scroll outlining their genealogy. They then traveled as a group to Praszka, the village where the family had originated but left for Warsaw, probably in the late 1700s or early 1800s.
Both of his parents, Stefan Heyman and Marta Eliasberg Heyman, were born in Warsaw and they were family friends with the noted pedagogue and child advocate Dr. Janusz Korczak.
“My grandmother had been a volunteer working with him and my grandfather, who was a doctor, had also worked with him,” said Heyman. “We visited the site of the orphanage, which is now a commemorative museum. We went to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.… I was so pleased to see that so much had been done to rehabilitate much of the cemetery. People had been working on it since the end of the Second World War, but work continues. We wandered, we found gravestones of relatives and people we thought might be relatives. We talked to people we met there.”
They also visited the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Heyman’s maternal grandmother had been confined but from which she was rescued before the ghetto was liquidated, in 1943.
His maternal grandfather had died before the war and his grandmother, Stella Bernstein Eliasberg, had remained behind when Heyman’s parents fled. She was incarcerated in the ghetto, but was rescued in a scenario of which Heyman knows only the barest details. The ghetto wall abutted the side of a church and someone – friends of his grandparents, he thinks – brought clothing as a disguise and smuggled her out through the church and into hiding for the rest of the war. Heyman does not know whether there was any communication during this time between his mother and his grandmother. But, shortly after the war, Heyman’s parents were able to bring his grandmother to Vancouver, where she lived with them and played an important role in his life, until she passed away just before Heyman’s bar mitzvah.
Nothing is known of the fate of Heyman’s paternal grandparents.
“I often wonder what it must have been like for my father,” he said. “It’s hard enough when we remember a loved one who has died and we know the circumstances of their death. It’s horrific, as it has been for so many, many, many people … they are left only to imagine what their loved ones went through in their final days and hours. That was my father.”
The trip refashioned Heyman’s conception of his family.
“I always thought of my family as being very small,” he said. “In fairness, I didn’t know that some of these people even existed…. It gives me a sense of continuity and history.”
The trip also helped emphasize for him the lessons of the past for the politics of the present.
“We see right-wing violence, we see the beginnings of fascism appearing in many countries,” he said. “We don’t have to look far to see what happens if we take things for granted.”
He brings that experience back into his current work.
“That’s one of the reasons that our government, after 16 years of its elimination, reinstated the B.C. Human Rights Commission,” he said, “because it’s not enough to just deal with racist behaviour, hate behaviour, after it happens, we need a commission that will be responsible for educating people and recommending programs to raise people in an atmosphere of tolerance and love, not suspicion and hate. So that is also a very significant and often unnoticed achievement of our government, and we did it very early.”
He reflected: “The trip was meeting a family that I never knew I had and having more of a sense of being grounded in my family history, as well as the terrible recent history of what happened to our and so many other families, just dispersed, another diaspora all over the world.”
Norman Ravvin (photo by Allen McInnis/The Gazette)
For anyone interested in the history and landmarks of Vancouver, especially, but also cities in Poland, reading Norman Ravvin’s new novel, The Girl Who Stole Everything (Linda Leith Editions, 2019), will take longer than its 310 pages would suggest. You’ll want to allot time for side trips to the internet to see what the Army & Navy building on West Cordova Street looked like in the middle of the last century, for example, or Stan Douglas’s mural at the Woodward’s complex of the 1971 Gastown riot. Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw? The main square in the town of Radzanów, Poland?
While The Girl Who Stole Everything is set in real places described in detailed accuracy by Ravvin, there is still much left to the imagination. The discovery of family secrets – in one case, which were literally buried; in the other, figuratively – leads to events that bring Vancouver dulcimer musician Nadia and bookseller-café owner Simon together and, eventually, take both to Poland. Nadia’s father never told her that her uncle, who owned a pawnshop on West Cordova, was murdered in 1962, beaten to death in a robbery gone wrong, and Simon’s father told him nothing of their prewar Polish heritage. Both a little lost in life before friends drop these revelations on them, Nadia and Simon find meaning and direction as they search out the truth of their histories.
The Jewish Independent interviewed Ravvin, who lives in Montreal, about his novel, which is available for purchase most anywhere. Ravvin said he will be in Vancouver for the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival in February, for readers who would like the chance to speak with him themselves.
Jewish Independent: I was struck by your attention to detail in the history and geography of Vancouver, and I imagine the same with Warsaw and Radzanów, though I wouldn’t know that from personal experience. Have you lived in all these places? If not, from where did you gather your local knowledge?
Norman Ravvin: I came to know Vancouver as a child, traveling from Calgary with my family to visit my mother’s mother, who lived on Willow Street. Those trips and her presence in the city contributed to my coming back to study at UBC, where my dad went for a few years in the wartime before enlisting in the Navy. I did my undergrad degree and a one-year MA in the English department.
So, I lived in the city, altogether, only about six years. I lived at UBC, then on the West Side, then in the West End, which I came to think of as “my neighbourhood.” Having left in the mid-80s, with family still there, I continued to come back and never really let go of it as “home,” or maybe a “second home.” We tend to spend two or three weeks in the city in the summer each year. My background knowledge of the city then is also connected with my mom’s youth in the city, my dad’s time there in the wartime, and my grandmother’s life in the city.
Radzanów requires a longer answer. It is my ancestral place on my mother’s side. I first visited it in 1999. I have traveled to Poland seven or eight times since then, making three follow-up trips to Radzanów. I went with different guides in each case, so some of the visits were more revealing than others. In a few cases, standing in the village square, we ended up talking to locals and, in one case, sitting for a beer in a local kufelek, or little beer hall. Going with Poles is key: you cannot access the locals or understand the scene or get a feeling for things otherwise. I met people who remembered my family. I was shown the interior of the intact synagogue building.
More recently, I was back as part of an event organized through a high school class and teacher from a larger nearby place called Mława. The students and their teacher took part in a program that Polish schools follow, called To Bring Memory Back. In their case, they held an event to “open” the synagogue – which took place in the village community centre, since the synagogue is a hollow shell – hoping to raise interest and funds to have the building renewed in some way.
As you’d expect, I added great amounts of reading and research to these visits, in order to try to understand Radzanów from a contemporary as well as historical perspective. I did not want to make up things on this front. The scenes with a film crew are imagined, but a film on the wartime was in fact filmed in the Radzanów square, a kind of lucky coincidence for me. I looked at how that film looked. And research into the Germans’ activities in the area is quite developed, since there was an SS headquarters in the nearby town of Ciechanów. I have not had the guts or the opportunity to live in Radzanów. That aspect of the book is built from all the other related work and research and visits.
JI: In a similar vein, your references to music seem from an insider’s view. What instruments, if any, do you or have you played?
NR: I play the guitar. My son is a first-rate musician, which I am not. So, music is a very established fact in our home life. I am interested in things that overlap between Jewish and Polish identity and, certainly, along with food, music was an area of shared culture and knowledge before the war. Aspects of this inhabit the realm of cliché in contemporary “world music” culture. Klezmer, as it was played before the war, and its nearness to other Polish folk music, is really a kind of untapped source of possible nearness between the two groups. So my character, Nadia, almost inadvertently stumbles into this territory. She finds her way to Eastern European music and is drawn, without her meaning it to happen, to Poland.
JI: The Night Jew, Gentle Jew, Dulcimer Girl, Typewriter Girl … could you talk a bit about these “labels” that appear in the novel? Are they to evoke an archetype, a uniqueness or something else?
NR: This is a challenging query, which goes to the matter of how this book changed over time, through different drafts, and also points to other key aspects of the book.
For a long time it had the title The Dulcimer Girl, which is one of Nadia’s alter egos once she arrives in Poland. And the instrument itself, key to early klezmer, in its Polish guise, as a hammered instrument, was something I thought of as a talismanic object, which evoked the locale, the culture of Jews and Poles in another time.
The Typewriter Girl was also an early title that fell by the wayside, and relates to the other main female character, Ania. She is “the Typewriter Girl” by way of her work for a Polish government bureaucratic special office, which is tasked with investigating the files kept on people during the communist era. Understanding the typewriters used on each file is a way of verifying the files or revealing fraudulence.
The typewriter, like other technologies in the book – cars, books, recorded music – is evocative of a time when things worked in a way that they no longer do. So, the dulcimer and the typewriter, even hardcover books, are surely objects of nostalgic and loveable possibilities.
The Night Jew is central to the novel’s sense of Poland being haunted by the Jews murdered in the wartime. One can spend time in Poland and either look for these Night Jews or, as I sometimes feel, be one. There are plenty of real Jews in Poland today. But the Night Jew must be someone from another world altogether.
The Gentle Jew is in fact a particular nickname for a key figure in the narrative. He is an early ’60s denizen of West Cordova Street.
JI: There are many parallels in the lives of Simon and Nadia – a father’s secrets, their love of walking, etc. – and their lives do overlap, of course, but what inspired you to connect these disparate stories?
NR: Some of these parallels develop intentionally, but then others work themselves out as a book goes through drafts. Certainly, you’re right, walking is a returning motif. Nadia does seem to walk cities after the example of her father, as if she walks to be like him when she cannot know him.
The secrets of fathers: I guess, in this book, one of the premises is that ancestral stories, which go untold, can irrupt without warning. So, in the case of the younger characters in Canada, Simon and Nadia, they share this predicament, and their own lives are changed by the irruptions when they finally happen. It is satisfying when these kinds of patterns develop almost without meaning them to. This is where writing can be a bit like making music, where refrains, verse and chorus structure allow for such catchy and satisfying effects – a rhyming of sound and idea.
JI: If there is anything else you’d like to add, please do.
NR: I guess it’s important to say that I’ve returned to Vancouver in fiction for another try at it. My second novel, Lola by Night, was a Vancouver book. And, in The Girl Who Stole Everything, I felt strongly about doing things with the city that others hadn’t. I’m a walker in Vancouver, whenever I can be, so that element, which you ask about, is motivated by my own appreciation of what different parts of the city have to offer. When I walk, I do think of what’s changed since my last visit, so it may be that writing about a place can be well done from afar, as long as you keep it close enough and periodically in view. It’s interesting to have a Vancouver book come out in Montreal, where the West Coast is a kind of terra incognita.
Craig Darch’s L’Chaim and Lamentations (NewSouth Books, 2019) is a bittersweet collection of seven short stories. Most of the characters in his first foray into fiction are older Ashkenazi Jews whose pasts are almost characters themselves. Yet, as strong as are their memories, these Jews are doing their most to live in the present, and to even assure the future.
Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University, in Alabama, where he has taught for 37 years. He has lived several places in the United States, but New York City and Poland are the locations of import in these stories. At least one – “Who’s the Old Crone?” – was inspired by his birthplace, Chicago.
Having moved to South Bend, Indiana, with his family when he was 6 years old, Darch shares in an article on the Auburn website, “We attended synagogue in South Bend and continued to travel to Chicago to see my grandparents, where we frequented the famous Jewish deli called Ashkenazi. I remember always seeing the same three old men in there. I wondered about them, about their lives. Now, through fiction, I can give them names and their own story.”
In the humorous tale Darch has imagined, Rabbi Fiddleman, “held court each day in Schwartzman’s with his two followers – Pincus Eisenberg and Mendel Nachman.” As described by another customer at the deli, the “group of three old men, the only other customers in the place, huddled together with covered heads at a booth in the far corner, all remnants from the Romanian synagogue, bankrupt and boarded up years ago. Now, with no place for them to go, the octogenarians arrived early each morning and stayed for several hours – sipping tea, noshing on the cheapest fare, and kibbitzing about spiritualism and life after death, debates that frequently drifted into polemical arguments concerning the metaphysics of Spinoza and Kant. Though generous with their opinions, when it came to money each one was more frugal than the next, and each had a knack for consuming great quantities of Schwartzman’s tea while nibbling a single bagel over the course of several hours.”
Darch’s characters are recognizable people with whom readers will feel loneliness and friendship (“Sadie’s Prayer”), fear (“Wasserman’s Ride Home”), heartache and bewilderment (“Kaddish for Two”), justice tinged with bitterness (“Leonard Saperstein & Company”), mystery and hope (“The Last Jew in Krotoszyn”), joy and possibility (“Who’s the Old Crone?”), acceptance and perseverance (“Miss Bargman”).
The young people in these stories represent both forces of change and the need for new traditions, as in the emotional story “Kaddish for Two,” in which a son finally gets the courage to tell his Orthodox parents that he is gay, and as preservers of the past, as in the somehow cheering “The Last Jew in Krotoszyn,” in which Magda, a 13-year-old non-Jewish girl, befriends Ruta, the story title’s last Jew.
“Ruta watched Magda run out the cemetery gate, heading toward home,” writes Darch. “Then Ruta shuffled slowly away, each step more difficult than the last. She stopped for just a moment to catch her breath. Bone tired, she rested her hands on her hips. She understood such fatigue was just one more signal, a tweak from the Almighty himself; her time in this world was coming to an end. But strangely, she had no fear of dying. She had faith that Magda would tend the cemetery and pass on the stories, the truth of Krotoszyn.”
Human connections – positive, negative and in between – are at the foundation of every story in L’Chaim and Lamentations. Enjoy.
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.