A Tale of Two Polands

By Richard Zimler

A Grandson of Polish Jews Returns to the Old Country

 


My mother’s father, Itzhak Gutkind, grew up in a three-story townhouse in Brzeziny, a small but bustling city at the center of Poland’s textile-producing heartland. Back then, at the end of the nineteenth century, Brzeziny’s colorfully painted row houses were home to a mishmash of 7,500 Jews, 5,000 ethnic Poles, 1,200 Germans, and several hundred Russians. Three thousand of the residents stitched garments in small factories, and a majority of the Jewish boys—including Izhak—trained as tailors.

Antique shop window in Poznan with menorah (and central square reflected)

Happily, Itzhak and his Brzeziny-born wife Genendel Kalish—my grandparents—emigrated to America long before the Nazi occupation of Poland. Eight of their brothers and sisters remained behind, however, and none of them would survive the Holocaust. Even today, 67 years since the end of the Second World War, one could say that Brzeziny represents an ongoing victory for the Nazis; like thousands of towns and cities across Poland, it remains Judenfrei—free of Jews.

It’s understandable, then, that when my Polish publisher proposed a book tour for their edition of my latest novel, The Warsaw Anagrams—set in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and 1941—my heart did a small dive toward panic. My mother had died several years before, but I could clearly see her throwing up her hands and exclaiming, “Don’t you dare go!” Like most Jews with roots in Poland, she and my grandparents always raged more bitterly against the Poles than the Nazis themselves, and they regarded all Poles as anti-Semitic to the core.

Despite Mom’s warning, I decided to go; I realized that a grandson of Polish Jews coming to Poland to promote a novel set in the Warsaw ghetto might prompt some discussion in the media of the country’s 3.3 million Jewish citizens who died in the Shoah. And so it was that on November 20, 2011, I became the first person in my family to walk Brzeziny’s slanting, potholed streets in nearly seventy years. And just before noon, I saw what I never thought I’d see: my grandfather’s house.

Standing in front of that grim, unpainted house—watching my vapor-puffs of breath form in the frigid air and thinking of how worried but astonished my mother would be—I felt as though I’d accomplished the impossible simply by being there. And I realized I was tingling with a heightened sense of self because it had been Hitler’s goal that no Jew should ever set foot in this town again. And, yet, here I was!

 

Zimler - At grandfather's house in Brzeziny, which had 7,500 Jews before the Second World War and now has zero.

 

It was the local museum director, Paweł Zybała, who had discovered the address of my grandfather’s house and led me there. In posing together for a photograph, I put my hand over his shoulder, and he placed his arm around my back. A Jew and a Pole embracing in Brzeziny seemed a wonderful testament to how far Poland has come over the last decades. Yet, as I got in our car for the ride to Łódź, 20 kilometers away, Adam Drzewucki, the young, long-haired publicist assigned to chaperone me, told me, “One of the museum people just confided in me that the residents of Brzeziny are still very anti-Semitic.”

That revelation shocked me. Realizing how easily I could be fooled by my own enthusiasm, I decided to talk to all the journalists, bookshop employees, and readers I would meet on my tour about the current state of anti-Semitism. And yet I received so many contradictory answers over the next few days that it took me nearly to the end of my visit to make sense of what I’d heard.

Katarzyna Markusz, a 29-year-old freelance photographer who spent the last several years researching the blood-soaked history of the Jews of her hometown of Sokolow Podlaski, added an important nuance to my conclusions at our interview in Warsaw. Over tea at the MDM Hotel in busy Constitution Square, she told me, “We Poles say that the country is divided into two regions, A and B. A is everywhere to the west of the Vistula River [which passes through Warsaw and Krakow]. It is open-minded and relatively wealthy, and the people there look toward Western Europe. Poland B is backward, isolated, and more traditional, and its people look toward the East. In Poland B, anti-Semitism remains strong, while in Poland A, it is slowly disappearing.”

Unfortunately for Katarzyna, Sokolow is very definitely located on the B side of this psychological fault line. “Most people there have never met a Jew and still hate them!” she told me. She herself has paid a high price for uncovering the story of the town’s vanished Jewish community of 5,500, having frequently quarreled with both local authorities and family members. No one in Sokolow will hire her as a photographer.

With Katarzyna Markusz, a freelance photographer who has documented the lives of the vanished Jewish in her hometown of Sokolow

 

Still, one recent triumph brought out her brilliant smile. With her dark eyes moistening, she said, “My campaign to save the abandoned Beit Midrash [room for study of the Old Testament]from destruction has been successful!”

After I congratulated her on that small but decisive victory, Katarzyna told me about the visit to a local primary school she’d recently organized for the Israeli ambassador and several children of Holocaust survivors. In a country of 40 million with no more than 25,000 Jews, none of the kids had ever seen a Jew before.

On the day after my conversation with Katarzyna—having been made aware that I might be something of a curiosity even in Poland A—I subverted the planned opening of my talk to students at a Warsaw public high school by first asking, “How many of you have ever met a Jew before?” Only about 10 of the 65 students in the classroom raised their hands.

Teachers at Maria Konopnicka High School had selected one of the students who had already read The Warsaw Anagrams to comment on the book and ask me questions as a way to open the session. To my relief, the student, Naomi Di Biasio, described the book as very moving in her sweetly hesitant English, but she and other students soon expressed two concerns that reveal, I think, important facets to the Polish perspective on the tragic fate of the country’s Jews.

Their first concern—expressed to me over and over on my tour—was that my portrayal of Poles in the book might have been too negative. In The Warsaw Anagrams, the narrator, an elderly psychiatrist named Erik Cohen, is denounced by Christian neighbors while in hiding and is arrested by Nazis. Unfortunately, it was a fate that awaited many Polish Jews. And, yet, the majority of Poles I spoke to seemed to truly believe that most of their parents and grandparents did their best to protect their Jewish neighbors.

According to Professor Bohdan Michalski, a Holocaust specialist at Warsaw University, however, the most reliable estimates are that about 5 percent of the Polish population—one person in 20—came to the aid of the country’s Jews. Another 5 percent would have actively collaborated with the Nazis.

“And the remaining 90 percent?” I asked him.

“They did nothing. They kept quiet.”

To the students at Maria Konopnicka High School, I said, “Before the Second World War, about 30 percent of the residents of Warsaw were Jewish.” Pointing around the room to every third student, I added, “You and you and you would have been Jewish. So don’t you think it was appropriate for me to include something in my book about those neighbors of yours who denounced you to the Gestapo, or who did nothing when you were forced into the ghetto and then sent to the death camps?”

 

Zimler - With students at Warsaw high school

 

I then addressed two other sensitive points that had already come up in interviews with journalists. I told the students that I didn’t write the novel to make them or any other Poles feel guilty, but instead to explore the day-to-day courage of those who were interned in the ghetto and who managed to retain their generosity, kindness, and even sense of humor. And I’d taken care to include two wonderfully brave Polish Christians in the book—a friend of Erik’s named Jasmine and her sister Lisa, who help him escape from Warsaw. Indeed, one of the most important questions raised by my novel might be: What is it about some individuals—about their upbringing, in particular—that enables them to risk their own lives to save others?

Although the students and I moved on to other topics, I wasn’t sure that all of them were satisfied with my reply, because I had learned by then that some Poles see themselves exclusively as victims of the Nazis and not as victimizers themselves. Although that’s not true, it is true—even if Jews with Polish roots are sometimes loathe to admit it—that the Nazis treated Poland with particular brutality and violence. About 2.5 million non-Jewish Poles were killed in the Second World War, 200,000 alone in the failed—but heroic—Warsaw Uprising, in which the Polish Home Army attempted to free the city from German occupation.

Bohdan Michalski made this perspective movingly clear to me when he confided over lunch one afternoon that his mother was four months pregnant with him when his surgeon father was arrested in a Nazi roundup of civilians and Polish resistance fighters. “This was in September of 1944, during the Uprising,” he told me, “and it was the last time my mother ever saw my father.”

Bohdan explained to me that his mother and other arrested women were led off to a temporary concentration camp while his father and a couple of hundred other men were taken into Gestapo headquarters. “At the end of the Uprising,” he added darkly, “their charred bodies were found in the yard behind the building.”

“But what could the Nazis have possibly gained from the death of your father?” I asked. “After all, a surgeon might have proved useful to them.”

Had he been hoping I’d ask my naïve question? With his eyes gleaming, Bohdan shot back, “Have you forgotten? The Nazis hated the Slavs as well! Especially the most educated ones.”

His simple but forthright answer made me realize that from Bohdan’s point of view—and maybe now from mine as well—my question revealed my prejudice against Poles. Indeed, the only question more absurd would have been for me to have asked him, “What had the Nazis to gain from killing all the Jews of Brzeziny and every other Polish town?”

Still, 90 percent of Poles survived the Second World War and only 10 percent or less of the country’s Jews survived—most, after enduring the horrific brutality and deprivations of the Nazi death camps.

 

Richard Zimler standing in Warsaw Cemetery

 

The second concern expressed by many of my Polish readers was with the book’s plot, in which Erik vows to learn the identity of the Nazi—or Jewish traitor—who has murdered his grandnephew and other ghetto children. His transformation into an amateur sleuth gave them doubts because—as I soon realized—most Poles believe that mystery novels are, by nature, superficial entertainment. My reply was that I believed a mystery could be a serious, literary novel in the right hands and that, in any case, the mystery element in the story grew directly out of my research into the black market in the Warsaw ghetto, in which children were recruited as smugglers.

Later, in thinking about their concern, I realized that Jewish writers may feel more freedom to develop new and different ways to explore the enormous range of themes raised by the Holocaust for the simple reason that we are less likely to be accused of taking it lightly. Regarding the Shoah as a sacred and supremely solemn event was a characteristic of all the Polish readers, journalists, and bookshop workers I spoke to. It seems to me a wise and healthy attitude, especially in a country with a sinister B side to its sentiments toward Jews.

Near the end of my talk with students, when I asked them how prevalent anti-Semitism was in Warsaw, one long-haired girl raised her hand and told me forthrightly, “Anti-Semitism just isn’t a part of our lives.” When I expressed my doubts, the other students assured me that, for their generation, it’s a nonissue.

I still didn’t entirely believe them until I went to the small reception for me in the principal’s office. Around a table of butter cookies tasting just like the ones my father used to buy at our local Jewish bakery on Long Island, the French teacher, Marguerite, told me that she and several other teachers take seniors to Auschwitz on a volunteer basis at the end of every school year. “I know that being there makes real everything that we talk about with them,” Marguerite told me in her delicate, Polish-accented French. “You can tell from their silence how very deeply it affects them.”

Window of the only Jewish restaurant in Poznan

The most moving moment on my six-day tour—more moving even than standing in front of my grandfather’s home—came when Naomi asked me about a particular scene near the beginning of The Warsaw Anagrams. While recalling the gentlemanly manners and cultured sensibilities of his long-dead father, Erik comes to understand that Nazis are trying their best to murder an entire way of life. This was a moment in the novel that struck Naomi as particularly powerful. After a brief hesitation, she asked me if, in a sense, Hitler might not have succeeded in his goal. After all, the Nazis nearly killed off Jewish culture in Poland; vestiges of it are visible only in a few select places.

Her implication created a knot in my gut, but as I looked around the room at the sixty teenagers waiting eagerly for my reply, a window seemed to open in my heart, and I had one of those rare moments when I knew exactly what I wanted to say.

“My being here is something I’d have never believed possible,” I told them in my quivering voice. “And Erik…he might not have believed it would be possible either. But I think he’d say that my being here today with you, in this classroom, just a couple of kilometers from where he was interned in the ghetto, is absolute proof that you and I will have the last word about Jewish culture in this country. We will decide what is dead and what is living, not Hitler or anyone who still thinks like him.”

 


Publication Information

  • The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler (Corsair, 2011; first published in the United States by Overlook Press, 2012).
  • Jewish Sokolow Podlaski, Katarzyna Markusz’s website on her work to uncover the Jewish history of her town.

Art Information

  • "Antique Shop Window in Poznan with Menorah (and Central Square Reflected)," "At Grandfather’s House in Breziny," "With Katarzyna Markusz," "With Students at Maria Konopnika High School," "Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw," and "The Only Jewish Restaurant in Poznan" © Richard Zimler; used by permission

  


Richard Zimler

Richard Zimler was born in Roslyn Heights, a suburb of New York City, in 1956. He now lives in Porto, Portugal. Lorraine Berry's interview Richard Zimler: "The Subversive Side of my Personality" appeared in TW in May 2012.

Richard has published nine novels over the last 15 years. They have been translated into 23 languages and have appeared on bestseller lists in 12 countries. The Warsaw Anagrams, released this year in the United States, has been longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the richest prize in the English-speaking world.

He also recently published his first book of poetry, Love's Voice: 72 Kabbalistic Haiku. Four of his works—The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, and The Seventh Gate—form the “Sephardic Cycle,” a group of inter-connected novels about different branches and generations of a Portuguese Jewish family.

An abbreviated version of this essay was published as “Welcome to Poland—It's Where My Family Were Killed” on December 22, 2011, in the Jewish Chronicle Online.


 

Comments

Kinga,

While I appreciate what you're saying about the Polish point of view, there is no excuse for murder, or the failure to stand up against it. Of course, this has happened many times throughout history, and many of us are guilty of this same sin (eg Sudan). And perhaps in this case the Polish reaction does stem from vulnerability, just like the theory that the Germans accepted Hitler because suddenly they had food and shoes, and they couldn't think beyond those necessities. But the theory of "clinging to their religion" as one of the only ways to maintain identity does not hold water, as Catholicism certainly does view murder, and the Holocaust, as evils. As we know, in many countries the Catholic Church worked to hide and protect Jews during this time.

Thank you for the link to the Miłoszewski book. I must confess that while my open mind is interested, my Jewish gut clenched at the reviewer's choice of the word "legendary," which usually has positive connotations, to describe the totally false belief that Jews killed children ritually. Anyone who worked and lived side-by-side with Jews, like the Poles did at the time, given the large Jewish population, would have to come from a place of deep-seeded prejudice and ignorance to have believed this terrible rumor. I have a problem with any book, even if it condemns this rumor, that keeps it alive simply by repeating it.

Richard, this piece spoke to my heart. We have never met but I have carried around the angst for many years about the portion of my DNA that is Polish. I have an awareness of the Holocaust which is deeper than the casual observer, but also a family connection to Poland. My issue is that in my own family from that side, I can see the A & B Poland. I have never been comfortable with the role of the population of Poland in WWII and the percentages you have discussed here, very elegantly and mathematically give science to what I have felt all along. The collusion of certain aspects of the population, based in ignorance and the belief that silence would protect them, cloaking themselves in their religiousness, makes me suspect of even some of my distant relatives there today. Somewhere in my heart of hearts I am a Jew or have such great affinity and empathy for them that I cannot readily accept my relationship, my real relationship to Poland. Our family is also French, and I bear no Polish last name, my grandparents immigrated at the turn of the century, as did my grandfather from Austria Hungry, I cling more fervently to his identity and his Jewish name than anything else about myself. It is more real. Although I know he did not practice any non Christian religion when he arrived here as a young boy, his name is one that is commonly Jewish. We know nothing of his family, his birthplace, etc. one can draw their own conclusions. I have often thought what you have said here, and how it actually fits with my instincts and feelings.

Yes, A & B. Yes.

Richard,
This moved me. I had another Jewish friend who went to Poland and felt as if he were walking among ghosts. He could not get over the fact that the land of his forefathers was empty of Jews, even if some of their old buildings still stood.
This is a tragic tale, but your ending gives me hope that perhaps things will change with the new generation.
I worry that the more new details of the Katyn forest will once again plunge Poles into thinking that they were the only victims of WWII, but your work there has opened some eyes, changed some minds, and from that small seed, perhaps great things will grow.

Such a poignant and vivid portrait of modern Poland coming face to face with its own history. I'm particularly hoping that students and young people in general will be inspired to stay curious and reflective about the past and what it can teach us all. And, I hope THE WARSAW ANAGRAMS will continue to find an audience throughout the world!

I was deeply moved by what you have written here. But the "emotion" doesn't feel like any sort of "emotion," it feels like cleanliness. I can't explain what I mean any better than that except to add that there is something about the clarity, the simplicity, of your prose makes me feel as if I have been standing under a water fall of pure and delicate flowing water. All the issues you raise are relevant for me as are the questions you ask and struggle to answer. Furthermore, I agree wholeheartedly with your "I believe(d) a mystery could be a serious, literary novel in the right hands and applaud you additionally for saying so.

Richard,
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I'm particularly impressed, that despite your lingering doubts about the attitudes of B Polies toward Jews, your story has a positive message: by educating youth we can hope for a better world. Thank you for doing so.

I hope you'll indulge me, because I have a story that wants to be typed right now. When I was in Dubrovnik six years ago, I visited the synagogue in the old city, which is also a museum. The dolcent bragged that the congregation was 41 strong.
"So, how many Jews live in Dubrovnik in total?" I asked.
"41," said the dolcent.
My response: "I'm related to more Jews than that!"
God bless America.

Abby

Hello,

Just one more thing and I will shut up, I promise. :-)

We can also look at the reasons that made Poland B into what it is today. It goes back to 19th century when that part was under Russian occupation (the Partitions) and unlike the other parts of Poland (under other occupation at the time), suffered more political oppression. This fervent clinging to their nationality and religion was the only way for those people to preserve their culture when Poland was wiped from the map. Unfortunately, such attitude comes with its own set of prejudices.

Every year there is at least one big book in Poland that tries to talk about this difficult subject, be it a memoir, a novel, a historical book, or even a crime novel.

The latest book by Zygmunt Miłoszewski (one of the biggest names in Polish crime fiction) - A Grain of Truth has just been published in English and I do recommend it http://www.amazon.com/Grain-Polish-Prosecutor-Szacki-Investigates/dp/190...

Hi Richard,

Thanks for your reply.
I think I referred mostly to Lorraine's and others comments more than your article. Because it seems that people said your article spoke to their heart and then followed it with some anti-Polish tirades.

I agree that our cities and towns have now holes in them, and more than just bullet holes. But the comments almost make it seem as if it were OUR fault we have been robbed of part of this cultural heritage. Look how Germans have been granted the luxury of separating themselves from those who committed those atrocities - they are only referred to as the Nazis.

I have obviously never known Poland the way it was before the war but I miss it nonetheless. And I can assure you it's a sentiment shared by many people. If you look at some of our favourite artists from before the war, they were Polish-Jewish. And they were loved then and they are loved now. Every year Warsaw holds Singer's Warsaw Jewish Festival, when the old Jewish quarter is being brought back to life. It's a beautiful thing.

Also, let's remember WHY Poland had the largest Jewish community in Poland. It wasn't a coincidence. It was because it did offer more religious and social freedom than any other country in Europe at that time. Of course, then Poland went under occupation itself and lost the control over its own politics.

We have truly regained our independence only after the fall of communism (if you don't count those 20 years between the wars) and look at that - since 2000 the Polish Jewish community almost doubled (going from 30 000 to 55 000).

I don't know. Maybe what I've written here will make people like Sheila Luecht a little less ashamed of her Polish heritage.

And also we can talk about Poland A and B, but that's also very unfair to many people who live in Poland B. If we call the guilty Germans nazis, we might as well talk about idiot anti-semitic rather than Polish people.

And to Sheila, who "has never been comfortable with the role of the population of Poland in WWII", I recommend Jan Karski's book (The Story of a Secret State) which talks exactly about that. Maybe it will bring her some comfort.

I should have written "Nazis' main victim."
Also, the "c" in "Certainly" at the end of the article should obviously be uppercase.
Typing too quickly....

Hello,

This was very interesting and obviously a very sensitive subject.

Being Polish born and raised, I can assure Lorraine Berry that we're under no impression we 'were the only victims of WWII'. Quite the opposite. At school we spend two years almost entirely reading Holocaust literature and it's quite clear who the main victim was.

The reason Polish people are so sensitive about it is that internationally it is usually forgotten that the Polish people were ALSO the victims of the Holocaust.

When I told my friends in America that siblings of both of my grandmothers died or spent time in concentration camps they said: oh, we didn't know you were Jewish.
I'm not.

While sadly I can't deny anti-semitism in my country, especially among people who have never actually even met anyone Jewish I'd say what I've read here and in these comments is full of very strong anti-Polish sentiment that is frankly, quite sickening, especially that it is based on ignorance as well.

And to even imply that the Polish people were somehow worse than the Nazis.. I don't even know what to say to this. It made me really sad.

Thank you for this powerfully honest essay. It moved me to go to my local library's website (in Kentucky!) not really expecting to find "The Warsaw Anagrams" among its listings--but--I will be walking over to pick it up today! Having visited Poland decades ago, including the remnants of the Warsaw ghetto, and Auschwitz, and more recently, Germany itself, including many rarely visited cemeteries, and neighboring Terezin, the essay imparted a familiarity bordering on dread and nostalgia. Thank you for introducing me to the work of Richard Zimler, a person I now feel I have already met.

Dear Ann,
Many thanks for your kind comments. Glad to hear my work is making it to the local libraries in Kentucky. I hope you will like The Warsaw Anagrams!
All the best,
Richard

Dear Kinga,
Thanks again for your intelligent and well-considered comments. How the Germans did their best to destroy Polish towns and cities was brought home to me in Brzeziny. It is still miserably poor, 68 years after the end of World War II. The Germans murdered 55% of the population - the Jews - and destroyed all the economic infrastructure - the textile factories, in particular. Then the residents of the city suffered 60 years of Russian control, which meant little chance of an economic and cultural recovery. And I imagine there are hundreds of towns across Poland like Brzeziny (which was once a thriving and beautiful city of 17,000 residents!). Sad. Let's hope that such places can once again become economically viable and dynamic.
As you so rightfully point out, Poland is independent now and Jewish culture is returning. The Polish-Jewish past is highly valued in many places and by many wonderful people.
As you point out, Poland A and Poland B is a generalization, and like all generalizations can lead to misunderstandings. My Polish contacts told me, however, that it is a generalization that Poles themselves use, and I thought it might be helpful to give my readers an overarching picture of the situation with regard to anti-Semitism. Obviously, one can find many cosmopolitan, free-thinking people in Poland B and many ignorant anti-Semites in Poland A. For that matter, one can find many ignorant anti-Semites in supposedly sophisticated places like Paris and London!
Happy New Year to you!
Szczesliwego Nowego Roku!

Dear Lorraine, Liz, Sheila, Abby and Susan,
Thank you very much for your kind comments! I'm grateful you took the time to write.
Sheila - my Polish friends assure me that there is an ongoing discussion in Poland of much of what you say. Of course, there will be ignorant anti-Semites in many places in that country for many years to come, but things are improving. And the young people in the cities there gave me a lot of hope.
Abby - Yes, the numbers are small. I feel lucky to have grown up on New York, where being Jewish, Italian-American, Irish-American or anything else was no big deal.
Susan - Cleanliness...! Thank you for that feedback Writing an intelligent, literary and moving mystery is what I tried to do in The Warsaw Anagrams. And The Seventh Gate, as well...

I obviously don't know who wrote the review but I'm pretty sure they meant 'legendary' as in that it was a legend, an urban myth if you like. It's rather hard to write a book that tackles the prejudices against some group of people without saying what those prejudices are.

As for the first part of your comment, I don't think you understood what I meant. I was just trying explain the division between Poland A and Poland B, not try to excuse murder (?!).
I was saying that if you focus all your energy on preserving your identity in a hostile environment, it is very likely to make you suspicious and even hateful - it is a psychological reaction and I think that's what originally caused anti-semitism in 'Poland B'. I am not saying it excuses it.

The thing is that during WWII Poland was tested like no other country was tested. This sort of thing brings the best and the worst out of people. And that's what it was.

I'm getting tired having to constantly defend my country when I read things like 'Polish concentration camps' in big US and UK national newspaper.

Here is the same article from JC.com. The title says:
Welcome to Poland - it's where my family were killed
The acclaimed novelist Richard Zimler visits his grandparents' homeland and finds the old prejudices dying hard

First of the title implies that it was the Polish that killed his family.
I do have a problem with this title. Yes, this is Poland. Here is where MY family was killed too. When Germany attacked it.
Second of all, 'the old prejudices dying hard'? I thought it was supposed to be a positive article after all?

Over and out.

Dear Kinga,
Thank you for your comments. Like many Poles, you are obviously certain who the Nazi's main victim was, but I have met quite a number of other Poles who aren't. That is understandable, of course - they grew up in a country where less than 0.1 % of the population is Jewish and that has systematically neglected its Jewish past. And they have lived all their lives in a country where anti-Semitism - both visceral and subtle - is still very common.
Hundreds of Polish cities had Jewish quarters and no longer do. And in most of them, there are no longer any vestiges of their once-thriving Jewish communities. Brzeziny, where my maternal grandparents grew up, is just one example. So it's natural - though unfortunate - that most people in Poland know nothing about Jewish history and culture.
I agree with you that the world tens to forget that Poland also suffered enormously in World War II. And to forget, as well, that throughout most of its history has been targeted - and its people bitterly oppressed - by two very powerful neighbors, Germany and Russia. Poland has suffered enormously under governments controlled by those two countries.
Many Jews whose grandparents and great-grandparents came from Poland tend to know very little about the country's history. I only started to understand the Polish perspective on World War II when I began researching "The Warsaw Anagrams." I also learned a lot on my book tour, especially about the way Poles view the Holocaust. I tried to bring that out in my article. I tried to step outside my Jewish perspective and see the past from the viewpoint of the wonderful Poles I met.
I am not aware of any anti-Polish sentiment in my article. To the contrary, I tried to focus on how much I learned on my book tour and how much I admire people like Bohdan and Katarzyna who are doing wonderful work with regard to their country's Jewish past. And how much I admire those in the Home Army who tried to liberate Warsaw from the Nazis.
If you read my article again, I think you will see that I did not imply that Poles were worse than Nazis. What I said was, "Like most Jews with roots in Poland, (my mother) and my grandparents always raged more bitterly against the Poles than the Nazis themselves, and they regarded all Poles as anti-Semitic to the core." In my experience, that is the way that nearly all Jews of Polish descent feel. It is unfair of them, in my opinion. And yet I think we must deal with their feelings and explore them if we are to understand relations between Jews and Poles. Yes, it was the Germans who were primarily responsible for murdering three million Polish Jews. So, logically, the children and grandchildren of Polish Jews should save their worst scorn and hate for them. But maybe German responsibility for the deaths of their relatives - and the destruction of an entire culture - is a fact that is too obvious to dwell upon. Or too painful for those who survived the Holocaust. Maybe what creates so much scorn and contempt in the descendents of Jews from Poland is the complacency of most Poles - the fact that nearly all of them said and didn't nothing to help their Jewish neighbors as they were led off to the ghettos and then transported to the death camps.
Yes, there were thousands of brave Poles who saved Jews. In my novel, I include two wonderful Polish sisters, Jasmine and Liza, who do their best to save the book's two main characters, Erik and Izzy - and who pay a very high price for their courage. In my book, I tried to focus on such heroism. As I say in my article, one of the most important questions raised by the novel is, "What is it about some individuals—about their upbringing, in particular—that enables them to risk their own lives to save others?"
certainly a topic worth researching.

As a TW editor, I believe it' s necessary to speak truths that are hard to hear—and also to wrestle with our own prejudices. When writers do that honestly, as Richard has done here, it allows others to talk about what was formerly considered "unspeakable." If I do have a strong faith of my own, it's that talking about what we feel and believe matters, both for us as individuals and for the societies we live in.

Kinga, I really appreciate having you involved in this conversation. Don't feel that you have to "shut up" —! This discussion about Poland's history and divisions and its tragic past is one worth having, and one we should continue having. You make clear that Poles are actively involved in coming to terms with their past and in shaping a new kind of future.

As an American, I am often awed by the way the survivors in countries like Poland, Vietnam, and Rwanda forge ahead and come to terms. The U.S. has its share of problems and divisions, but we have yet to deal with a legacy of genocide or oppression in any kind of public way (as most Native Americans or Japanese Americans might note). The closest we've come is the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement a century later. And yes, we're still dealing with racism, even with an African American president. The discussion is far from over.

Abby, it's great to hear from you, too, and I agree that Richard's essay is powerful as testimonial. What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust should never be forgotten. But I didn't read Kinga's comments as apologizing for the Nazis or as questioning what actually happened to Jews in Poland. I believe she just wanted American readers unfamiliar with contemporary Poland to have more context about the debate there. I'm also less sanguine than you about Catholicism, especially historically, as a humanitarian force for change. Yes, Catholics helped Jews in Poland, and Catholics were persecuted as well. But the Catholic Church was far from the good guy during the Inquisition, just for instance.

Last but not least, let me speak as a magazine editor about that "Welcome to Poland—It's Where My Family Was Killed" headline. Magazines, in print and online, are in the business of hooking readers, and they speak to particular audiences. At TW, we used Richard's title for his longer version of the essay. That's because we're speaking to a literary audience that represents more than Jewish readers. I never would have chosen "It's Where My Family Was Killed" as a headline—but I do get it for the Jewish Chronicle. And here we are, still talking about it, yes? From an editorial standpoint, what I care most about, amid the chaotic swirl of modern media, is that pieces like Richard Zimler's get read.

Dear Kinga,
Thanks, again, for your comments. I understand your difficulties with the title that was given the short version of my article published in the Jewish Chronicle in England. The editors chose the title and I think they meant to imply that because my family members were killed there, going to Poland created many conflicting emotions in me (which was true!) The positive connotation of "Welcome to Poland" and negative of "It's Where My Family was Killed" were meant to highlight that contrast and capture the readers' attention. I cannot believe that they meant to imply that the Poles set up the death camps or organized the murder of six million Jews (though I understand your wariness about the language used). I can assure you that EVERY Jew I have ever met knows exactly who is responsible for organizing the murder of our relatives: The Nazis. And every Jew I've ever met has known that although many of the camps were in Poland, it was the Germans who had them built and who supervised all levels of their functioning. Also, many Jews - like me - are coming to understand that a great many Poles suffered unbearably under the Nazis. Tens of thousands of courageous Poles did everything they could to free their country (the Warsaw Uprising). The statistics I've seen indicate that about 3 million ethnic Poles died in World War II. Hundreds of thousands of others were used as slave laborers.
As I say, I do indeed understand your sensitivity to the language being used. Both Jews and Poles are understandably sensitive about all texts written about the Holocaust and World War II. And I think that's a very good thing.

Dear all,

Dear all,
Even if 75% of jews survived the war in France, I am pretty sure that the ratio of population 5-90-5% can be applied to my country.
According to André Halimi’s book “La délation sous l’occupation”, it is estimated that between 3 and 5 millions letters of denunciation have been sent in France during the war.
Poland has a complex and rich history which need to be discovered in order to begin to understand this country. Also post-war period is not taken into account in your discussion, the period of communism during which parts of history were reconsidered. Keep in mind that the word “Holocaust” made it first apparition in a school book in 1993 in Poland.
Antisemistism is still a problem in that country with so few jews, but I think today except some cases, it is not stronger than in France where it is growing in some parts of population (for other reasons).

Dear Jacques,

Dear Jacques,
Thank you for your comments. You are quite right that I did not include any discussion of the post-War period in my article. Not only was there no room for that in such a short piece, but I really did not intend to discuss Polish history after the destruction of its Jewish communities.
There are undoubtedly many reasons why anti-Semitism remains a factor in Poland, but, as my piece makes clear, I am not an expert in such matters. Certainly some anti-Semitism has to do with the country’s Communist past, for reasons too complex to examine here. With regard to any comparison between France and Poland, it would be wonderful to have a pan-European survey of feelings toward Jews. I think the results would be fascinating to analyze.
Thanks again.
Richard Zimler

Ok, let us get some facts

Ok, let us get some facts straight.

Hitler Germany and Stalin Russia invaded Poland 1.9.1939 and 17.9.1939.
They killed ~3.000.000 Jewish and 3.000.000 christian citizens of Poland.
German "Generalplan Ost" tried to destroy 85% of the Polish population and 100% of Polish elites. (see wiki)
Poles and Poland should not exist anymore. 15% survivours should become Germans. Forced adoptions. (see Zamosc children in wiki)
German "Pabst Plan" tried to turn Polish heritage into dust (see wiki)
From the beginning Germans and Soviets antagonized Jews and Poles against eachother. They created a divide et impera system in occupied Poland.
Help led to death penalty and collaboration led to survival.
Jews collaborated in the murder of Poles and Jews. For example Jews captured 2.10.39 senator Tadeusz Kaniowski who later died in a soviet camp.
Poles collaborated in the murder of Poles and Jews. (see szmalcowniki)
Jews saved Polish and Jewish lifes (google: baran+ komorowski)
Poles saved Polish and Jewish lifes (see Zegota)
Jews and Poles who did nothing were not automatically "indifferent" or "anti semitic".
Fear and lack of resources was the main reason why people did nothing. Jews and Poles were both starving most of the time and trying to survive under a German and Russian terror regime. Jews more, Poles less. But only to some degree. Once a Pole helped, his living (food) conditions worsened dramatically for many months and years.
German and Soviet occupied Poland was a hell for Jews and for Poles. For girls like Czesława Kwoka and for your family.

And it would be nice if Jews were a little bit more sensitive when it comes to WWII and Poland. Poles aren't ignorant when it comes to Holocaust and WWII. In Poland there are more schools and streets named after Jewish heros than elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately Jews seem to confuse Poles and Germans way too often...

ps: Polish anti semites like Sofia Kossak Szczucka helped Jews. German racists killed Jews.

Dear unidentified Polish

Dear unidentified Polish reader:
Thank you for your comments.
I think my article is quite sympathetic to the loss of (ethnic) Polish lives in World War II. Among other things, I write: "Even if Jews with Polish roots are sometimes loathe to admit it...the Nazis treated Poland with particular brutality and violence. About 2.5 million non-Jewish Poles were killed in the Second World War, 200,000 alone in the failed—but heroic—Warsaw Uprising, in which the Polish Home Army attempted to free the city from German occupation."
And yet you write: “It would be nice if Jews were a little bit more sensitive when it comes to WWII and Poland.” Does what I wrote in the above paragraph – and in the rest of the article – really seem insensitive to you? Or are you referring to other Jews you have spoken with about this subject?
Yes, you are quite right – the Nazis treated Poland with terrible cruelty and did their best to destroy the Polish elite. If you read my article again, you will notice that I’ve quoted my friend Bohdan Michalski, a Holocaust specialist at Warsaw University, as follows: “The Nazis hated the Slavs as well! Especially the most educated ones.”
I’ve also told the story of how Bohdan’s surgeon father was murdered by the Nazis. That would seem to be an indication of my eagerness to present a Polish perspective on German brutality.
In my article, I also freely admit the prejudice I felt toward Poles before embarking on my book tour. It is a prejudice felt by most Jews whose ancestors came from Poland. I don’t mention that now that as an excuse, but simply to state a fact. While on my book tour, I went a long way toward freeing myself of my preconceived notions toward Poles, as I thought the article made clear. I would very much like there to be a free and honest dialogue between Jews and Poles about their shared history. That was one of the reasons I wrote my article. And I am very grateful that my Polish friends have helped me to understand their perspective on World War II.
There are many historical reasons why Jews still harbor resentment and anger toward the Poles, among them the traditional marginalization of Jews in Poland and the anti-Semitic pogroms that occasionally decimated Jewish communities. But probably the most important reason for this anti-Polish feeling is that 92.4% of Polish Jews died in the Holocaust - 3.05 million in total, according to "The War Against the Jews" by Lucy S. Dawidowicz. Every Jew with ancestors in Poland lost relatives in the Holocaust. Polish-Jewish culture was destroyed. In my own family, dozens of my mother’s cousins, aunts and uncles were murdered in Treblinka.
Jews are well aware that the Nazis were responsible for these deaths but many of us can’t help feeling that the Poles should have done more to save them. That seems a natural desire, to me, though it’s probably unfair. And it’s unfair for the reason you point out: that any Pole caught helping Jews risked imprisonment and execution – which is why I do not imply anywhere in the article that those Poles who did nothing to help the Jews were necessarily anti-Semitic.
Looked at from a distance of 80 years, it’s easy to judge the Poles who did nothing to help the Jews – who kept silent – but I find it harder and harder judge them. Because I don’t know what I would have done under similar circumstances. I don’t think any of us can know that.
You are quite right, as well, that there were wonderful and courageous Poles like Irene Sendler who did indeed save thousands of Jewish lives. In my opinion, Sendler should be a role model for all of us. As you undoubtedly know, she helped save 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto and finding them safe housing. It would be hard to imagine anyone showing more bravery than Sendler.
In your comments, you say: “Poles aren't ignorant when it comes to Holocaust and WWII. In Poland there are more schools and streets named after Jewish heroes than elsewhere in the world.”
At this risk of irritating you, I must take issue with something these statements seem to imply: that most Poles value Jewish culture and history. On the contrary, in my many conversations with ethnic Poles, I have yet to find a Pole who knows a great deal about Jewish culture and religion. Yes, educated Poles are often aware of the names of the death camps, and they can often site statistics about the numbers of Jews and others murdered by the Nazis, but they know virtually nothing about Jewish literature, film, theater and music. And nothing about Jewish history before the Holocaust. Additionally, they are almost completely ignorant of the basics of the Jewish religion. I’m not blaming them – as I say above, Jewish-Polish culture was destroyed by the Nazis, so any Pole growing up in the 1950s, 60s or 70s would have grown up in a "Judenfrei" environment. My point is that having streets named after Jews isn’t the same thing as appreciating Jewish culture or putting great value on Jewish history – or sympathizing with the unbearable suffering of Jews in the Holocaust.

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