Category Archives: travels in Poland

Communing with Julian Tuwim

I recently spent a couple of days in Łódź (which due to the oddities of Polish orthography is pronounced woodge, hence, as seat of the Polish film industry, Holly-Łódź), mostly to commune with the memory of Julian Tuwim. Tuwim is a major figure in Polish literature, a poet, songwriter, and author whose songs and children’s poems are still widely known and performed, but I came across him because of one piece that  – not accidentally – was left out of the official five-volume edition of his collected works.

It was an impassioned essay called, “We, Polish Jews,” published in 1944 on the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in a Polish-language newspaper in New York, where Tuwim was living in exile. (He described the city to a friend as “Łódź, but with elephantiasis.”) It was dedicated, “To my mother in Poland or her most beloved shade.” His mother had been shot in August 1942 during the extermination of the Otwock Ghetto, though I’m not clear whether he knew that when he wrote.

I ran across Tuwim’s essay while traveling in Israel/Palestine, and have run across it a couple of times since. The section that caught my attention, and that tends to get quoted is about his Jewish identity. He wrote that he was a Jew because of “blood” – not, he immediately added, in the sense of race, but “Exactly the opposite.” As he explained:

“There are two kinds of blood: blood in the veins and blood from the veins. The first is a bodily fluid; therefore its study is properly the province of the physiologists. Whoever ascribes to this blood any special attributes and mysterious powers other than its organic ones in consequence, as we are now seeing, turns cities into ruins, slaughters millions of people, and ultimately, as we shall see, will bring down slaughter upon his own tribe.”

The other kind of blood was what the Nazis were spilling, “not blood concealed in the arteries but blood on display.” And, he wrote, it was that blood, “the blood of the Jews (not ‘Jewish blood’),” that made him write as a Jew.

I’ve found myself repeating that formulation in various conversations, because I am working on a project on immigration, nationalism and borders, and didn’t want to write simply as a white American defending the rights of people from the southern hemisphere. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Vienna, my father’s parents were immigrants from Central Europe. I grew up on those stories, and I’m tracing them now, which means I’m thinking a lot about my own family history, and about the history of Jews in Central Europe – and the diaspora from Central Europe – and about the question of what it means if I say I am Jewish, and what it means if someone else says that.

Re-reading Tuwim’s essay, I’m struck by my original focus on the part about being Jewish, and the extent to which other writers have highlighted the same sections and phrases. Because that is not how Tuwim starts his piece. He begins by addressing the question of why he claims the pronoun “WE” for both Jews and Poles, writing, “Jews, whom I have always assured that I am a Pole, ask it of me; and now Poles, for the majority of whom I am and will remain a Jew, will ask it of me.” And, he wrote, “Here is my answer for all of them:

“I am a Pole because that’s how I like it. This is my completely private affair which I have no intention of explaining, clarifying, demonstrating or justifying to anyone. I do not divide Poles into ‘pure’ or ‘not pure,’ but leave that to the pure racists, to native and not native Hitlerites. I divide Poles, just as I do Jews and other peoples, into wise and stupid, polite and nasty, intelligent and dull, interesting and boring, injured and injuring, gentlemen and not gentlemen…”

But, in fact, he does explain and clarify. He first notes that “to be a Pole…is neither an honor, nor a glory, nor a privilege. It is like breathing. I have not yet met a man who is proud that he breathes.” That said, it is his identity:

“A Pole—because I was born, grew up, matured and was educated in Poland; because in Poland I was happy and unhappy; because I want ultimately to return to Poland from exile even though heavenly delights were to be guaranteed me elsewhere….

“A Pole—because that is what I was called in Polish in my parents’ home; because from infancy I was nourished there on the Polish language; because my mother taught me Polish poetry and songs…; because that which became most important in my life—poetic creation—is unthinkable in any other language, no matter how fluently I might speak it….

“A Pole—because I have adopted from the Poles a certain number of their national vices. A Pole—because my hatred for Polish fascists is greater than for fascists of any other nationality. And I consider that a very important feature of my Polishness.

“But above all else… a Pole because that’s what I like to be.”

When Tuwim’s essay first appeared, it got a lot of attention and was translated into numerous languages. Not all the attention was positive; in Palestine, Zionist critics took him to task for declaring his Jewish allegiance only now, under pressure, after decades of writing as a Pole. He had never denied his Jewish ancestry and indeed had regularly made reference to it and written poems attacking antisemitism. But he had also written poems satirizing traditional Jews: “Dark, cunning, bearded/ With demented eyes/ In which there is an eternal fear… People/ Who do not know what a fatherland is/Because they have lived everywhere.”  (You can find this and other poems in an article published by the American Association for Polish Jewish studies.)

Today that criticism is often reversed, and Tuwim is taken to task for his naiveté about Poland—his passionate essay concludes with the prophesy that yellow stars will be adopted by the postwar Polish state as the highest badge of honor, pinned on the chests of military heroes, and that was not how things turned out. Poland would continue to be swept by waves of antisemitism, and in the years between the arrival of the Communist government and his death in 1953 Tuwim wrote very little and by some accounts was deeply depressed. But he lived those years in Poland and never seems to have considered leaving, and one of the main streets in the center of Łódź is called Tuwima, and his statue is on the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare.

I’m not saying that’s a happy ending. It’s messy and complicated.

But some of the complications and messiness feel very familiar to me. As those of you who follow my Songobiography know, I have spent my life playing the folk and popular music of the United States. I’ve hitchhiked through all 48 contiguous states, and know the country well. It is my home and I feel very much part of it, for good and bad, better and worse. When a friend who has been active in the Polish klezmer revival (and who is not Jewish) asked if I ever played or wrote about Jewish music, my response was, “Well… I’ve written a book about Bob Dylan.” Who is, I would note, the patron saint of what is now called Americana music. Take that however you choose.

I was recently in Frankfurt, going through an exhibit on possessions looted or otherwise acquired by local gentiles and institutions—including the museum holding the exhibition—from local Jews who were deported or exterminated, and I was struck by a descriptive panel early in the exhibition which referred to “religious Jews and those first turned into Jews by the Nazis.”

I had never before seen that framing of identity, but it immediately struck home, because that was essentially my mother’s story. Her parents were Viennese socialists who dismissed religion as medieval superstition. I am not going to call them “assimilated,” because that word suggests they were somehow less Viennese than their socialist, atheist friends whose ancestors were Catholic. It is like the suggestion that someone in the United States who has one African and seven European great-grandparents is “passing” if she says she is European. It is letting the racists set the terms, and I won’t do that. I cannot deny the power or harm of the racist taxonomies, but I can point out that they are racist and refuse to use them.

My father grew up in Brooklyn, and was far more affected by antisemitism than my mother, the refugee from Nazi Vienna. For her, the racists were the Nazis. For him, they were the kids on his block. And, to make it messier, those kids weren’t unhyphenated Americans. They were all from families of recent immigrants, and when he went off to Washington Square College, he described the student body as “Jewish, Italian, Latin American, Greek, almost all Mediterraneans of one kind or another—and an occasional Christian blond, whom we tended to think of and speak of as the ‘white men’.”

Meanwhile, my mother grew up thoroughly Viennese, daughter of two physicians, one of whom was also a concert-quality pianist, immersed in Mozart, Goethe, the earthy Viennese street dialect, and the certainty that she was at the cultural center of the universe. Her childhood foods weren’t latkes and gefilte fish; they were schnitzel, Kaiserschmarrn, and pastries slathered in whipped cream. When the Nazis labeled her a Jew, that changed the course of her life but didn’t change how she thought about herself. She felt rejected by Vienna and often referred to herself not as Viennese but as European, but her views remained thoroughly Viennese, and socialist, and atheist.

When I graduated high school, one of my college applications had a line asking my religion. Being less sure than my mother, I wrote “agnostic.” That was fine with her, but not with my father. He said, “That’s not what they’re asking,” and told the story of applying to the Brooklyn Athletic Club, responding to the question of religion by saying “atheist,” and having the young man behind the desk smirk and write, “Jew.”

So I’m here communing with the ghost of Julian Tuwim, who insisted he was Polish because he liked to be, and Jewish because Hitler was killing millions of Jews. That formulation bothers me, and makes sense to me. It’s not my formulation, and I have problems with a lot of what Tuwim wrote, both politically and aesthetically. But that essay suggested some different ways of framing these subjects, made me wrestle with some new questions, and helped me clarify my own thinking.

It also led me to study Tuwim’s life and work, which among other things suggested what his response would be to my disagreements: one of his most famous compositions is titled “A Poem Wherein the Author Politely but Firmly Requests a Multitude of Fellows to Kiss His Ass.” (There is a nice modern cabaret version — and yes, the list of “fellows,” includes both antisemites and Jews.)

And lastly… in case there aren’t already enough ironic notes in this story… the Lonely Planet guidebook to Poland cheerfully reports that there is a local custom of rubbing the nose of Tuvim’s statue for luck. The Jew’s nose.

Look for the names…

I recently spent a day at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, where my mother’s favorite cousin, Jutte, was shot at age 16, along with her mother and 996 other Viennese Jews, on November 29, 1941. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to go there, but now I know – it was a powerful experience to be where I know a particular family member was killed, on a particular day.

And it made me angry, because so much of the Ninth Fort museum and the whole project of memorializing the history of genocide and terror in Lithuania is dedicated to keeping the hundreds of thousands of Jews killed here in the Nazi era from overshadowing the murders and terror visited on non-Jewish Lithuanians during the Soviet eras.

Two days earlier I visited the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, which dedicates one room to the genocide of the Lithuanian Jews and dozens to the oppression of Lithuanian non-Jews by the Soviets. (In response to years of protests, this museum has officially been renamed the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, but all its signage still says the Museum of Genocide Victims.) In fairness, the museum is in a building that served for decades as a KGB prison, where thousands of Lithuanians were held, tortured, and in some cases killed. That story is real, and deserves to be commemorated. But…

…the use of the word “genocide,” and specifically the use of Jewish deaths in service of the narrative of non-Jewish Lithuanian suffering is striking. For example, the panel giving numbers of Lithuanians killed: First, during almost fifty years under the Soviets between 1940-1990: 20-25,000 “prisoners who died”; 28,000 “died in deportation”; 21,500 “Partisans and their supporters killed.” Then, during the four years of German occupation between 1941-44: “240,000 killed (including about 200,000 Jews).” In parenthesis.

Of course, it’s fair to argue that numbers are not the whole story – except, in the case of Jews, in this museum, numbers ARE the whole story. Not one Jewish Lithuanian is mentioned by name in the entire museum.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of naming since reading Ari Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land.” For those who don’t know it, it is a liberal Zionist’s exploration of Israeli history, which purports to fairly acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinians. But Shavit’s careful evenhandedness is consistently numeric and falls apart  at the level of naming and specificity. In a long chapter on the terrorist bombings and killings of the 1930s, he scrupulously notes that there were more Palestinians killed by Jewish terrorists than Jews killed by Palestinians – but the Jewish victims are consistently named, along with their ages and details about who they were and what they were doing when they were killed (walking home from a movie, tending an orchard, studying), while the Palestinian victims are just numbers, only a couple named, no ages provided. I’m guessing Shavit did this unconsciously, but that’s not a defense: on the contrary, it underscores the degree to which Jews, for him, are individual human beings, while Palestinians are not.

After reading that book I started paying closer attention to when historical narratives include names, ages, photographs, and details of individual victims and when they only give numbers. It is an interesting exercise, and often very revealing – it is now common to read US historical narratives that refer to the genocide of Native Americans, but how many mention any of the murdered Native Americans by name?

I came to Lithuania following the story of my mother’s younger cousin Jutte, bringing her picture and the story of how she got stuck in Vienna, and the number of the transport that brought her to Kaunas, and the date when the 998 Viennese Jews on that train were chased up the hill at the Ninth Fort, pushed into mass graves, and shot – or in some cases shot, then pushed into mass graves. I wondered if the museum might be interested in having a copy of the photograph of Jutte and her mother, Gustl.

Then I went through the museum at the entrance to the fort. The first section is a dramatic, full-room stained glass installation titled “Undefeated Lithuania.” Then we get the history of the first Soviet occupation, 1940-41, with photos and biographies of Lithuanians who were exiled or killed, and details about what happened to each of them. There is a panel on the “Priests’ Massacre in Budavone Forest,” showing the three priests who were killed. There is a panel on the “Massacre of Panevezys Physicians,” with names and photos of the four physicians who were tortured and killed. Then there are multiple panels on the deportations of Lithuanians during the second Soviet occupation, after 1944, with names, photos, and objects belonging to the victims, like the seven-string guitar V. Lapiusko brought with him to Siberia.

There is a display in this room about the Nazi period, with photographs of the Kaunas ghetto, yellow stars, and Jewish corpses. It gives the numbers of Lithuanian Jews killed, and displays personal items – eye glasses, shaving brushes, a pair of child’s shoes – found in the mass graves. It is a touching display. Not one Jew is named.

There are pictures from Nazi extermination camps outside Lithuania: Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The photos are horrifying, but identified only by camp, except for a display titled “Lithuanian intellectuals at Stutthof concentration camp,” which includes names, photos, and biographies of the title figures, and mentions that 85,000 people were killed there, including 1,100 Lithuanians.

The Nazi display also includes one document that suggests why a patriotic Lithuanian museum might have problems with this period, and might want to shift the discussion from local details to the broader German genocide. It is a typed report from a German officer on July 11, 1941, explaining that a ghetto has been established for the remaining Jews in Kovno (Kaunas). The accompanying label translates a key paragraph: “In Kovno a total of 7,800 have now been killed—a portion through the pogrom, a portion shot by Lithuanian commandos. All corpses have been disposed of. Continued mass shootings are no longer possible. Instead I explained to a committee of Jews that up to now, we have not had a reason to intervene in the internal conflicts between the Lithuanians and the Jews…” Unlike every other display in the room, this document is labeled and translated only in English – not in Lithuanian.

There is a second museum in the fort itself, for those who wish to delve deeper. It does include rooms with photographs of individual Jews, their names, their stories. There is a powerful display on a transport of 878 French Jews killed here in 1944, the walls lined with named photographs, sponsored by “Les Familles et Amis des Déportés du Convoi 73, Paris (France).” There is a room about the Kaunas ghetto, with family pictures, names, and stories from survivors. There is a room about the escape of 64 prisoners who were brought in 1943 to burn the thousands of corpses, naming them and noting that 60 were Jews, along with three Russians and a Pole. There is a room with stories of survivors, saying what happened to them in later years. There is a room about the Japanese consul who in defiance of his government provided 6,000 Jews with exit visas. There is a room about “Lithuanians, the Saviours of the Jews,” with stories of non-Jewish Lithuanians who hid or helped their Jewish neighbors. And there is a room about Hitler and the genocide of European Jews, with names of 1,344 Jews from various parts of Europe who were killed here, each with their age and home town. Jutta and Gustl were not included – I looked for them, and the omission bothered me. But to continue…

At the back of that room is a curtain, and if you go through there is a smaller room with a film showing the testimony of eight Lithuanian soldiers who were sentenced to death by the Soviet government in 1962 for participating in Nazi-organized massacres. One mimes standing at the edge of the mass graves and shooting down into the crowds of people, and explains how he would sell items he picked off the victims to buy a drink afterwards because “when you do such kind of thing you need to wet your whistle.”

I was in that section for fifteen minutes, and maybe two dozen people wandered through the first room, looked at the photos, looked at the quotations from Hitler, looked at the wall of names. Only a couple pulled back the curtain, and not one bothered to watch the film. I understand; there was a lot to see and watching a film takes time. Not one plaque or label anywhere else mentioned that Lithuanians were involved in any of the Nazi murders. I was taking note, because in the Vilnius genocide museum they use the same technique: the room on the Nazi period includes a video that mentions Lithuanian involvement in the murders, but you have to watch the video to get that information – the wall displays do not even hint at that possibility.

I’m not trying to make a point about the Lithuanians. I mentioned an Israeli historian above, and US historians. I’m making a point about how nationalists construct national narratives. Some are more subtle than others, but the process is pretty general.

At the Ninth Fort there are memorial stones placed by the city of Frankfurt in memory of the Jews transported from there to Kaunas; by the Families and Friends of the Jews transported and killed from France; by the city of Berlin in memory of 1000 Jewish children, women and men transported on Nov 17, 1941 and killed here on Nov 25; by the city of Munich in memory of 1000 Jews transported from there on November 20, 1941, and killed here five days later. There is no stone from Austria, or from the city of Vienna, commemorating the transport on November 23 that included my cousins. Like the Lithuanians, the Austrians prefer to recall the Nazi period as their own tragedy, not a Jewish tragedy. They do not deny that Jews were particularly selected for extermination, but they have their own issues, and feel we must remember it was a tough time, and everybody suffered…

Which is true enough, in its way. The Ninth Fort museum even has one photograph that, if you get close enough to read the minimal caption, turns out to show “the exhumation of remains of Soviet prisoners of war.” They aren’t denying that there were Soviet deaths in the Nazi period. If asked, I’m sure they would acknowledge that the Nazis killed millions of Soviet citizens, including some in Lithuania. That’s just not the story this museum is here to tell.

History is always an effort to preserve and remember what is important from the past, which always requires selecting what is important, which always means what is important to us, whoever we may be. But this post is particularly about how national histories are framed to suit nationalist needs. The idea of a nation requires stories that define a national “us” and also make us feel good about being part of that “us.”

One of the most powerful ways of creating a unified us is by recalling the terrible things other people did to us, and how we survived and overcame those trials. That often requires a bit of creative amnesia, since other people often have their own horror stories in which we were the perpetrators. Some people just deny the ugly parts; some are more subtle and figure out ways to make them seem less ugly, or just less meaningful, or less visceral.

In the last few weeks I’ve visited Auschwitz and Majdanek, where far more people were killed than at the Ninth Fort, but neither of those visits hit me as hard as this one. Because this one is personal: I have the photo, the names, the dates, and my mother’s memory of her younger cousin and the crazy, sad story of how she ended up in Kaunas, and what happened to her here. I’m telling some of that story here, and will be writing more of it soon, because individual stories are powerful.

The people making these museums understand that. Their displays are full of individual heroes and martyrs. And, looked at another way, full of absences.

Tatars, Jews, and so forth… some thoughts in northeastern Poland

I recently spent a quiet couple of days in Kruszyniany, a tiny town in northeastern Poland that is notable for having the country’s oldest functioning mosque… and thereby hangs a tale. Indeed, several tales.

This particular mosque apparently dates from the 18th century, but the community that built it has been in the region since the mid-17th century. They are Tatars, descendants of the Golden Horde that reached Eastern Europe shortly after the death of Genghis Khan. Since I’m traveling here as part of a project on borders and migration, and in particular looking into my own family’s history, when I read about the Tatars I immediately wondered what happened to them during the Nazi occupation.

The short answer is not much – but the longer answer is complicated and interesting, because there was a lot of overlap between the Tatar and Jewish communities. In part that was simply because they lived in the same region, so necessarily overlapped with each other as they overlapped with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Poles, Lithuanians, and everyone else who happened to be around. But because there weren’t many Tatars – at most around six thousand and by the 1930s more like half that – and Jewish and Muslim traditions share some important characteristics, Tatars turned to the much larger Jewish communities for some functions that in other parts of the world would have been managed by Muslims.

For example, Tatars tended to buy their meat from Jewish ritual butchers, whose methods of animal slaughter are similar to halal rules, and in some communities also had their sons circumcised by Jewish mohels operating under the supervision of an imam.

The shared practice of circumcision took on a new significance during the Nazi period, because the Nazis could expose Jewish men who were attempting to pass as Gentiles by examining their penises and some Jews in northeastern Poland attempted to pass this test by claiming to be Tatars. Holly Robertson Huffnagle, who has written a study of Tatar-Jewish relations, tells several stories of Jews who survived the Nazi period in this way, one making up a Tatar biography on the spur of the moment, others borrowing identity papers from Tatar friends or leaving their children with Tatar neighbors. 1

Of course, many more Jews survived by passing as Polish Christians or were hidden by Polish Christians – the Tatar community was limited to a small area of the northeast – and there were also some stories of personal clashes and of Tatars who worked with the Nazis. On the whole, though both Jews and Tatars recall regular, close, and friendly interactions before that period and Jewish refugees and survivors seem in general to recall the Tatars with particular affection.

Robertson also writes that the Tatar Mufti of Poland, Jacob Szynkiewicz, helped protect the Karaite Jews by calling Goebbels to make the case that they were racially Turkic. I haven’t found corroboration of that particular story, but there is plenty of evidence that the Nazis considered the Karaim related to the Tatars both by ancestry and as communities that interacted on a regular basis – and therefore (except in a few notable instances) did not subject them to ghettoization or extermination. As a result, some Jews – meaning Ashkenazim – also managed to survive the holocaust by passing as Jews – meaning Karaim.

I hadn’t known about this quirk of the Nazi racial laws (though, once I started looking, there turns out to be a rich literature), and it underlines just how crazy those laws were. The Karaim were a clever bunch and had already gotten themselves exempted from Russian anti-Semitic laws and taxes by arguing that they were from a branch of Jews who had immigrated to the Crimea in the first century BC and hence had an alibi proving they were not around Jerusalem during the crucifixion. The Nazis didn’t much care about that, but crazy as it seems, many of them were extremely assiduous about establishing the details of their race theories.

That is something I’d never thought about, and it deserves some thought. I’ve just read a long paper by Kiril Feferman on the effort the Nazis put into determining whether or not the Karaim should be considered Jewish,2 and it was not just an arbitrary decision: they commissioned studies, consulted experts from several countries, debated the various opinions, and finally concluded that the Karaim, though practicing a Judaic faith based on the Torah, were practicing a different form of Judaic faith and were not racially Jewish – hence, were not Jews for purposes of extermination.

Feferman notes that this craziness included elements of realpolitik: the Nazis wanted to maintain good relations with the Turks and other Muslim powers, and the Tatars claimed the Karaim as allies, especially in the USSR, where both had a history of opposing the Bolsheviks. He notes that the Nazis also made exceptions for a few other “quasi-Jewish groups… such as the Georgian and Bukhara Jews in France and the Mountain Jews in the North Caucasus…” and by now my head is spinning.

So, getting back to the Tatars: the tour of the mosque in Kruszyniany was conducted entirely in Polish, so I understood virtually nothing, but I did catch the words, “Charles Bronson…Charles Buchinski.” I assumed the guide was claiming Bronson as a Tatar, so checked and found that yes, indeed, his father was apparently a Tatar from Lithuania, and this touch of Mongolian heritage presumably was what made him so easy to cast as a Native American…

…and while on that search I also learned that Rudolf Nureyev was a full Tatar and took pleasure in describing himself as a Mongol barbarian.

On a more serious note, the Tatars have recently been caught up in the anti-Muslim violence sweeping Europe. A mosque built by Tatars in Gdansk in the 1990s was firebombed in 2013, and in 2014 the historic mosque and cemetery I visited in Krusziniany were defaced with anti-Muslim slogans and a drawing of a pig. Which is ugly, and the ugliness is underlined by a story in the New York Times that quotes local Tatars blaming the violence on the influx of Muslim immigrants, which they see as raising justifiable concern among Poles that is causing friction where none existed before.

Of course that reminds me of the German and Austrian Jews in the interwar years who blamed rising antisemitism on the influx of Ostjuden – Jews from Eastern Europe – who were strange, poor, and whose arrival was regarded by many western European Jews as causing ill feeling towards proper Germans and Austrians who happened to be Jewish.

That story is usually told with the moral that the western Jews lacked solidarity with their eastern brethren and their punishment was to share a common fate. But I’m going with a different moral: racism and nationalism are sicknesses and discrimination doesn’t make anyone immune from them.  The Nazis viewed Poles as a lower species of humanity, fit only for menial labor – and why should German Jews have felt more solidarity with Polish Jews than German Christians felt with Polish Christians? One can argue that they were oppressed, so should feel sympathy with their co-religionists who were still more oppressed, and some did. But many felt that after centuries of discrimination they were finally becoming recognized as normal Germans and Austrians and the Ostjude were messing that up.

I’m not trying to provide answers, but I’m interested in the questions. Everything I’ve found about the relationship between Tatars and Jews frames that story around coexistence in a vanished past when people of different faiths were neighbors and got along with one another. That story is of course simplified, but the recollections seem honest and I’m sure they reflect real experiences in many communities and situations. I find it  appealing, both as a counterpart to the more familiar stories of Polish Christian antisemitism and as a reminder that Jews and Muslims throughout much of history have lived in overlapping communities and formed common alliances. But like all such stories, it is complicated. I’m on a long journey, and this is just one stop.

 

Traveling in Poland, Reading about Israel, Thinking about Nationalism

I wish the news didn’t feel so familiar…

I’ve recently been traveling through Poland, visiting the region two of my grandparents came from, and it is a complicated experience, because of the ways in which those places are and are not where my grandparents lived. Przemysl is still there, many of the houses are still there, the churches are still there, two of the five synagogues are even still there… but the synagogues are abandoned and boarded up, because the Jews who used to be almost a third of the population are not there anymore, nor are their descendants… and same in Lesko, where 70% of the town used to be Jewish, and now the only remaining synagogue is an art gallery, and much of the art is Christs and Madonnas and saints… and I recently posted a funny story about a recreater acting the part of a “Jew” in a historical park.

So I’m thinking a lot about nationalism and erasure, and the way I keep seeing monuments to Polish victories and Polish historical figures and Polish deaths and Polish resistance to the Nazis and the Soviets… and then separate monuments to Jewish figures and Jewish deaths and Jewish resistance, as if those Jews weren’t Polish… and I know identity is complicated and plenty of Jews didn’t identify as Polish, or as fully Polish, though plenty of others did identify as Polish, and some even identified more as Polish than as Jewish, and some even converted and considered themselves Polish Christians until the Nazis showed up. And it wasn’t not just the Nazis, of course — in the Warsaw Jewish museum I saw an exhibit on 1968, when the Polish government purged Jews, including very thoroughly Polish Jews, as covert or incipient Zionists…

…and then, right in the middle of my exploration of that history, the Israeli knesset passed the Nation-State Bill, which says “the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — which is another way of saying if you are an Arab Israeli, you may live there but it is not your country.

I was in Israel/Palestine a few months ago and nice people were still telling me it was a multicultural democracy, though not perfect and with plenty of problems, and that everyone had equal rights, and Arabic was even an official language, alongside Hebrew. Well, with that bill Arabic ceased to be an official language, though it still has something called “special status.”

The original version of the bill would have explicitly encouraged segregated communities in which only Jews could live — as opposed to the status quo, which is communities that refuse to sell or rent to Arabs, complete with protest marches to keep Arabs out — and that section didn’t pass in full, but a clause remains saying “the state sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” And it’s hard to read “consolidation” as meaning anything except encouraging Jewish-only areas, and “settlement” as anything except encouraging Jews to keep expanding those areas.

Am I trying to make a parallel, an analogy, a comparison? As I’ve written before, the simple answer is no. I’m not trying to make any comparison. I’ve been traveling through Poland, immersing myself in the history of nationalism, exclusion, and segregation directed at my family and people like them, and when I read about laws being passed that tell some citizens they can stay if they behave but they have to remember they don’t belong, and maybe they can’t stay in this particular village, even if their grandparents planted those trees… it feels miserably familiar. Familiar, as in this happened to my family. They lived in Galicia for centuries, it was where they belonged, where they farmed, where they built homes and formed their culture, the place they still in exile referred to as “the old country.”

Przemysl is a lovely city on a river, surrounded by forests and rolling hills, and my ancestors were in that region for generations, and it seems to me it was their country as much as anybody’s. Their country, in the sense of the place where they lived — not of the glories of the ancient Polish nation, the ancient Hebrew nation, the ancient German nation, or any of those mythical military fantasies that quicken the blood of adolescent boys of all ages.

Those myths are what killed my cousins and left me with nothing to visit but graveyards.

Aaron the Polish Jew

A short story: make of it what you will.

I was recently in Sanok, Poland, where they have the country’s largest skansen, an open-air museum of past lifestyles and architecture, like Plymouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg in the US… except that their romantic past is the turn of the twentieth century, when my grandparents were leaving this region for Vienna and New York.

The    skansen reflects the multi-cultural nature of rural Galicia in 1900, with sections showing the lifestyles of the Eastern Orthodox Boyks and Lemks, the Catholic (now often called “ethnic”) Poles… and a large wooden synagogue and two “Jewish” houses on the main square.

Unlike Plymouth or Williamsburg, these buildings are not staffed by people in period costume or demonstrating period crafts. At least on the day I visited, the guides were dressed normally in modern dress, with one exception…

The guide for the Jewish house had a long beard, wore a long black coat and hat, and had a character name-tag: Aaron.

He spoke some English, and enthusiastically showed us around: the bedroom, for example, where he pointed out the curling iron for shaping the men’s peyos and the peculiarity of the marital bed, which could be separated when the Jewish woman had her period or had given birth, hence was “unclean,” and pushed together again after she had bathed in the mikveh. He showed us the special dishes for meat and dairy, and the sabbath dishes. All very strange and exotic…

He was funny and charming, with a gleam in his eye and a spring in his step. And, finally, as we were leaving, I had to ask: “So, are you Jewish?”

He grinned, pointed at his watch, and said: “Till six o’clock!”