Monday, April 18, 2011

Kielce Journal: The Holocaust and Anti-Semitism in Poland

Yesterday morning we left Warsaw and headed south toward the town of Kielce. The history of the town is mired in the destruction of Jewish lives and culture both during and after World War II. Before the war, the town had a vibrant Jewish community with an impressive synagogue. The population of this community stood at about 27,000. When the German occupation came, a ghetto was devised and the Jewish population was crammed into 5,000 houses. Deportations to Treblinka and other death camps followed. In a sickening example of German brutality, thirty pregnant women were shot in front of the synagogue. I have been teaching the history of the Holocaust for about eighteen years now, and I feel as though it is becoming harder to come to terms with what happened in these hellish years. In places like Kielce, Jewish life and culture were erased from the face of the earth forever; at the end of the war, only 400 Jews were left alive. The most difficult part of the day in Kielce revolved around discussions with the Polish tour guides and how they interpreted the destruction of Jewish life in the town both during and after the war. They were determined to leave us with the impression that most Poles shielded Jews from deportation by hiding them in their homes or through other means. This interpretation, however, flies in the face of historical research. It is true that there were dramatic examples of Polish families who risked their lives (the Germans shot entire families for this "crime") to help save Jewish lives. However, the evidence supports a darker reality: that a large number of Poles were involved in denouncing their Jewish neighbors and, in some cases, actively helping the Germans in their quest to solve the "Jewish Question." I don't mean to downplay Polish suffering during the war. It was unimaginable. But it doesn't address the part that anti-semitism played in the destruction of the Jewish community in Kielce and in other parts of Poland. Events that occurred after the war are also telling. In 1946 a pogrom took place in the town. Strange, given the fact that the Germany was defeated and the Soviet army had troops in Poland and much of Eastern Europe. We were told that the pogrom was the result of communist propaganda that reported that Catholic children were being kidnapped and murdered to satisfy Jewish rituals. Incensed at this, local Poles murdered Jews in full view of the police. The tour guides blamed the Soviets for the lies and that it was pure manipulation of the populace. Again, the evidence points in other directions. One interpretation points to the massacre of Jews being in revenge for bringing on the German occupation and the suffering of the Polish nation. Another interpretation focuses on the pogrom as an example of Poles identifying Jews as communists and therefore a threat to Polish independence from the Soviet Union. In both cases, anti-semitism was the common denominator. Anti-semitism was part of Polish (and European) culture for centuries. It cannot be whipped into existence through propaganda at a moment's notice. As for the synagogue, which stood as the pride of the Jewish community and was the site of terrible scenes of suffering during the Holocaust, it now stands as an archive, the symbols of Judaism stripped away. It's just another municipal building in a town with a cruel past.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Warsaw Journal: Poland Past and Present

Yesterday I arrived in Poland as part of a travel course organized by a close friend and colleague. The course includes 19 students who are studying World War II and the Holocaust. I am tagging along as co-leader of the trip. We are planning to stay in Poland until Thursday and will visit Warsaw and Cracow, with a trip to Auschwitz on Tuesday.

We arrived in Warsaw yesterday by way of Frankfort, Germany. Warsaw is a fascinating city--once rooted deeply in the past but lurching forward, away from its communist past. Everywhere you see signs that a new capitalist order has been embraced wholeheartedly, from the posters advertising the new Easter movie "Hop" to the brand new mall downtown that resembles Copley Plaza in Boston. In contrast, one cannot help but be reminded of Poland's turbulent past. Most of the city was destroyed by the Germans during World War II, leaving it a type of architectural patchwork. Neighborhoods may sport buildings from the prewar period, when Warsaw was called the "Paris of the East" because of its esteemed place in European culture. Then, just as quickly, our bus passes rows of communist-era apartment complexes that have been painted bright pastels, as if to say that the difficult years before 1989 could be swept away with a few buckets of paint.

However, despite the friendly exterior of most Poles I've met, it is difficult to ignore the weight of Polish history. Once part of the Russian empire, only to gain independence for a short time after World War I, the German invasion in September of 1939 wiped Poland off of the map and threatened to erase Polish nationhood forever. Examples are all around. Today we visited a museum dedicated to the suffering of Poland's Jews who were forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto under unimaginable conditions. Thousands of men, women and children faced starvation, disease and violence before being transported to Treblinka for extermination. In 1943 an uprising in the ghetto by Jewish resistance groups was ruthlessly crushed by the Germans. For me, it put to rest the erroneous assumption that the Jews went passively to their deaths. The bravery of those doomed fighters will always stick firmly in my memory. Despite the intense suffering of the ghetto and its place in Polish, European and world history, all is left of the ghetto today is two wall fragments, both of which are located next to a quiet apartment block. This in a city where,in 1939, on the eve of the war, close to 30% of Warsaw's population was Jewish. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews remain in the entire country. The Germans may have killed two million Jews in Poland proper between 1941-1945. The more I talk about it with my fellow historians and try to make some sense of this enormous crime against a people and their culture, the more inadequate the explanations of "why" seem. I'm wondering how I will fare at Auschwitz, since it has been 13 years since I last visited. I know so much more about the Holocaust and have been teaching it for years now, but somehow I wonder if I'll ever be able to comprehend the worst mass murder in history.

I hope to continue blogging for the remainder of my stay in Poland. Stay tuned.