My Trip to Poland
A new Jewish museum has opened in Warsaw. I am reminded of the essay I wrote in 1990, after my first visit to Poland:
My wife and I visited Poland for the first time during the summer of 1990. There were two very different motivations for my trip: the Jewish reason and the Chinese reason. The Jewish reason was the more compelling. My parents were born in what is now Poland, in Galicia. It was Poland when they left, in the 1920s, but it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when they were born. Poland between the First and Second World Wars had had the second largest Jewish population in the world, below that of the United States but above the Soviet Union’s. It was in Poland that Hitler built his major deaths camps, whose victims included aunts, uncles and cousins of mine. Poland is where my ancestors lived for five centuries or so, but today I have no relatives there; it is now merely my ancestral graveyard.
But I shall talk of the Chinese reason first. I lived in Baoding, China, and taught at Hebei University for two different spring semesters, in 1984 and 1989. In May of 1989, the China I worked in was—briefly—a land of hope and happiness. My Chinese reason for wanting to visit Poland was to see the fulfillment of the dream of 1989, a dream that turned into a nightmare on June 4 in China but came true in Poland. Yet the Poland that my wife and I visited didn't look like a dream at all. There was none of the feeling of exhilaration that I felt in Beijing two weeks before the Tiananmen Massacre. Crossing the frontier from Czechoslovakia by train was a real Communist experience, like entering China: there were forms to fill out on which we had to list all the cash and travelers’ checks we were carrying. We were told to save receipts every time we changed money. Polish currency, unlike Chinese money, is now convertible. Yet we still would have to be ready to account for every zloty we wanted to change back when we left the country.
From the train windows, Poland looked as shabby and sloppy as China, but when we got off the train in Cracow, everything looked better. Cracow is old and beautiful. History is alive; the center of town must have looked the same two hundred years ago. Warsaw’s Old Town, destroyed during World War II, was rebuilt to look like the paintings of Canaletto the Younger (Bernardo Belotto, also spelled Bellotto, nephew of the Venetian artist Canaletto), who lived in Warsaw and painted its streetscapes before his death in 1780.
China, despite its 4,000-year history, contains little visible evidence of the age of the country. There are tourist sites like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City—old and beautiful, to be sure—but not integrated into the life of modern China. Even in a country as young as the United States, there is more evidence of history--more plaques, more preserved and restored buildings and neighborhoods—than in China. Beijing is determinedly modern. Buddhist temples, now partially restored, were vandalized by Red Guards who were following Chairman Mao's order to destroy the “Four Olds”: old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking. Could one imagine gangs of young toughs trashing Poland's Catholic churches? Never in a million years.
Dogs. That was the biggest surprise of all, to see Polish people walking their well-fed, well-groomed dogs down the street. It had never occurred to me that citizens in a country just emerging from Communism might own dogs. Nor had I ever expected to see people showing love for their dogs in a country where psiakrew (dog’s blood) is a common expletive. Although there are dogs in the Chinese countryside, it is illegal to own a dog in a Chinese city. I suspect that dogs were outlawed not only because they eat precious food, but because owning a pet is too individualistic, too personal, too much of an example of bourgeois selfishness. Love is not to be squandered on dogs: “Ardently love the country. Ardently love socialism. Ardently love the Party,” said a billboard I saw in China in 1984.
The Poles would have laughed at such propaganda. The Chinese made their own revolution and continue to believe in its dogmas today, despite the fact that they hate the regime that their “Liberation,” as they call it, gave them. The Poles never had a Communist revolution; socialism was forced upon them by the Soviet Union, and they always considered it a foreign doctrine. That is why Poland continued to love its old cities, its religion, and yes, even its tradition of owning and caring for pets.
China has billboards; Poland has graffiti. The billboards, some showing the smiling faces so typical of public art in Communist countries, exhort the Chinese to follow the one-child policy, to oppose bourgeois liberalization, or simply to be careful on their way home from work. The graffiti in Poland were uglier, but showed that Poland is a free country, for better or worse. “We love Reggae. Rasta Rewolution [sic],” was written in English in a Warsaw underpass. “Fuck Army,” also in English, had been stenciled on walls all over Warsaw, not by visiting midshipmen from Annapolis, I assume, but perhaps by anti-military Poles who do not know how to use the definite article in English. “Polska dla Polakow, Zydzi do Izraela” (Poland for the Poles, Jews to Israel) was chalked on a building in Cracow.
Graffiti are not a good indication of popular opinion, since one person can write lots of slogans. Expressions of anti-Semitism are extremely disturbing, but the fact that East European nations are no longer training, hiding or arming terrorists is more significant than the appearance of racist graffiti. Soviet Jews can now fly directly from Warsaw to Israel via LOT Polish Airlines. The establishment of democracy in Eastern Europe will mean, one hopes, that there will be no more protection or hiding of guerrillas like those who launched the deadly attacks on synagogues that have taken place in Paris, Rome, Istanbul, etc.
Because Poland is facing new problems of inflation and unemployment, political controversy now rages over these and other issues. The Solidarity Movement is no longer solid, but has split into fragments whose members give the impression of hating each other more than they ever hated the Communists. It is natural for political opponents to become extremely hostile to each other, and factional strife should not be viewed with alarm. Democracy not only permits disagreement but draws strength from it. Yet at least some Poles fear that strident partisanship indicates the failure of democracy.
The same sort of fragmentation happened to the Chinese Democracy Movement, which never even succeeded in achieving democracy. Despair reigns among those who escaped from China and among their supporters in the Chinese-American and Chinese student communities here. Many complain that the students in China asked for too much and went too fast. The East European experience, however, indicates the opposite. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary are free precisely because the people were ready to demand complete freedom and willing to throw the bums out. The democracy they created is tormented by factionalism because that is what democracy is, not because the East Europeans somehow weren’t ready for freedom. When the Chinese realize that the Communist Party serves no purpose whatever, when they are willing to say that truth is more important than Marx, when they are willing to laugh at nonsensical dogma, China too will be free.
My Jewish reason for going to Poland may not be clear to many American Jews, whose ancestors, like mine, came from Poland, but who never had the least desire to go there. My parents, like most Polish Jews, did not consider themselves Polish, although they could both speak Polish; my father, in fact, spoke Polish more fluently than Yiddish. Neither parent would ever have considered speaking Polish to me, though. "Why should an American Jewish child know Polish?" they thought. Little did they know that I would grow up to be a professor of linguistics and would study several languages, including Mandarin Chinese. I would have been grateful for a little Polish, and a better knowledge of Yiddish as well.
I have never doubted that I am ethnically Jewish rather than Polish. There is such a thing as looking Jewish—quite different from looking Polish, despite the obvious fact that Jews from Europe don't look especially similar to Jews from Ethiopia or Kaifeng, China. German Jewish immigrants to New York moved into Jewish neighborhoods like Washington Heights, not German areas like Ridgewood. Polish Jews rarely wound up in Polish sections like Greenpoint, although many of my own relatives on the Jochnowitz side lived there and some still do. Jews worked in the garment industry but not in the coal mines, as some Poles did. Any politician knows that there are Jewish voting patterns. Any college admissions officer knows that it is Jews who are overrepresented. Sociologists have no trouble identifying Jewish patterns of behavior, which differ from Polish patterns.
On the other hand, East European Jews are united with other East Europeans by a taste for rye bread, blintzes and stuffed cabbage—a taste not shared by South European or North African Jews. Furthermore, there is an East European political style, simultaneously sober and passionate, which is shared by Jews and Gentiles. Even if my ancestors were not Poles, they were shaped by their centuries of contact in the same territory.
I found the Prague Spring movement of 1968 extremely affecting. My emotions went beyond a natural identification with a people's need for freedom. Somehow the Czechs were distant relatives. My mother's family had fled to Bohemia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and lived there during much of World War I. But that didn't explain it. Rather, there was just something about the political tone of Czechoslovakia that evoked sympathetic vibrations. I felt a similar identification with Poland's Solidarity Movement twelve years later. It was my movement too.
I knew quite well that Poland, between the two world wars, did not succeed in establishing a stable democracy. As in China after the Revolution of 1911, Poland's democratic institutions were attacked by domestic dictators, destroyed by the murderous invasion of the Axis Powers, and replaced after the war by Communist tyranny. More to the point, anti-Semitism was part of Poland's political history. Why should I think of such a place as either congenial or democratic?
There are two reasons. For one thing, the political institutions of the 18th century were hardly ever tried in Eastern Europe. Therefore, there is no disillusion with reason and liberty—no search for a higher reality in drugs, astrology or unfamiliar religions.
For another thing, East European democrats have no illusions about Marx and Marxism. In the United States—and, oddly, in China—even after the events of 1989, articulate thinkers are not unlikely to claim that Marxism has never existed anywhere, that human nature has failed rather than Marx, that the totality of Marx's writings are true even if all the particulars happen to be incorrect. East Europeans know from experience that Marxism is anti-democratic by its very nature; a philosophy that looks forward to the ultimate disappearance of disagreement and conflict of interest cannot logically accept the legitimacy of differing opinions. Westerners are much more likely to split the world between capitalism and socialism, somehow missing the fact the real difference is between freedom and oppression. Consequently, in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it is understood that democracy, together with rights and the rule of law, can insure political stability and lead to prosperity. In the West, democracy has been taken for granted ever since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville.
The dark side of East European intolerance remains, but I believe it is less dark than before. The slogan, "Poland for the Poles, Jews to Israel" is anti-Semitic but not anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism had become a central tenet of Communist belief. When Poland renounced Marxist dogma, it abandoned anti-Zionism as well, and established diplomatic relations with Israel. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria—even Albania and Mongolia—have done the same. Wherever the statue of Lenin is torn down Israel has been recognized. Elsewhere, anti-Zionism, the child of anti-Semitism, remains the major threat to the world's Jews. It is no accident that the anti-Semitic riots that took place in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in September 1991 included anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian slogans.
Poland's president, Lech Walesa, speaking in New York on March 25, 1991, said he was ashamed of Polish anti-Semitism. He has come a great way, which is both appropriate and natural for the leader of a democratic nation. Democracy is always good for the Jews. It will be good for the Poles as well.
I had no trouble finding the apartment house where my father had lived in Cracow, at 49 Ulica Dietla. The building was shabby, but the street looked familiar, and not just because my father had described it to me. It resembled a number of old, wide streets in neighborhoods in America that had once been Jewish. It looked like Commonwealth Avenue as it passes through the Brighton section of Boston, or like Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. The neighborhood was filled with synagogues, most shut down for the past fifty years, but one was still open, the Remu (Rema) Synagogue, built by Rabbi Moses Isserles in 1553, which my grandfather may have belonged to. It was easy to imagine the area as a Jewish neighborhood, whose residents were neither like Tevye nor like Wanda Landowska, but like me.
It was much harder to think of Jews living in Ropczyce (Ropshits in Yiddish), my mother's town. I knew that the famous Ropshitser rebbe, Naftali Tsvi, had made his home there. I knew that before World War I the town had been about 30% Jewish. But the buildings and the streets didn't look as if Jews had once resided there. What could it have been like?
No one had ever told me how beautiful Galicia is. We rented a car in Cracow and drove the hundred miles to Ropczyce, through hills, fields, woods and pastures, all magnificently green. The towns were shabby and poor, but most of them still attractive, with their old European market squares. The villages, with their log houses, had a distinct rural character of their own, nothing like the towns. Cracow has always been lovely and always been a center of culture. Why is it considered so awful among Jews to be a Galitsyaner?
Ropczyce has two bookstores, which is two more than I would have expected. Cracow has bookstores everywhere. I can't read Polish, but I could recognize Philip Roth's Kompleks Portnoya, Graetz's six-volume History of the Jews and various other books by Jewish authors and on Jewish themes in bookstore windows. I must add that I also saw a book of Jewish jokes, with lots of caricatures of Jews. Anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism coexist. Jewish ghosts remain. Poland, in this respect, is rather different from Austria, whose president is an unrepentant Nazi, but which has forgotten about its Jews. There are living Jews in Vienna, but not very much evidence of the Jewish presence in the city before Hitler.
Eastern Europe, like so much of the world, has been torn by conflicting nationalisms. The former Yugoslavia is one example of how tenacious these hostilities are. In the case of the Jews, nationalistic antagonism was compounded by old religious hatreds. There are still Jews and Poles, not surprisingly, who feel old resentments and believe old stereotypes.
Bulgaria too is a country where the prejudice against the Turkish minority is both ethnic and religious. Yet democratic elections there have given Turks a role in forming a coalition. Similarly, Poland's first elected president since the Communist Party lost its power has said he will fight the “Zionism is racism” resolution of the United Nations. Jewish and Polish interests in the world coincide; both Polish democracy and Jewish security require a world free from fanaticism and totalitarianism.
There has been a great deal of controversy among American Jews concerning the visit of Jozef Cardinal Glemp to the United States in September and October of 1991. The Cardinal condemned anti-Semitism and expressed regrets that a sermon he delivered in August 1989 might have fostered anti-Jewish stereotypes. Yet he refused to retract some of his accusations: that Jews in Poland had spread alcoholism, for example.
There is a Chinese proverb that offers advice on this question: “Don't fear slow progress; just fear no progress” (Bu pa man; jiu pa zhan). Prejudice will not vanish overnight. Democracy cannot change human nature and does not try to. Controversy will exist as long as there is thought. Human beings were not designed to agree with each other. There are problems that can never be solved, and people will always get angry about them. That is precisely why we need democracy.
It makes perfect sense for a democratic Poland to open a museum devoted to Polish Jewish history.
This article appeared on Perry Greenbaum on October 29, 2014.