Poles, in black and white
A new book examines how Jews perceived their Polish neighbors during the Holocaust, and documents a shift from one extreme to another.
"Anu Yehudei Polin? Hayehasim Beyn Yehudim Lapolanim Betekufat Hashoah Min Hahebet Hayehudi" ("We Polish Jews - Polish-Jewish Relations during the Holocaust: The Jewish Perspective" ) by Havi Dreifuss (Ben-Sasson ). Yad Vashem Publications, 280 pages, NIS 78
The Holocaust of the Jews of Poland has been studied by a relatively large number of historians - relative, that is, to Romania and Tunisia, but not relative to the actual size of the largest Jewish community in Europe before the war, which numbered more than 3.5 million people.
Nevertheless, as in contemplating Pablo Picasso's painting "Guernica," you can always find new aspects by studying the details and the picture as a whole. The new historians are dealing, for example, with a new field - image and perception - and this is the subject of this new study by Havi Dreifuss . "We Polish Jews - Polish-Jewish Relations during the Holocaust: The Jewish Perspective" (in Hebrew ) shows how the perceived image of a people is not just a philosophical or aesthetic matter, but rather a historical and even a current issue.
In the book, Dreifuss describes an interesting change in how the Jews perceived the Poles during the Holocaust. As raw materials, she uses only testimonies from that time, because she wants to recreate that perception as it looked in "real time." In the collective Jewish memory, the Poles are accused of indifference, if not collaboration; the Righteous Gentiles (of whom there were more in Poland than anywhere else ) are the exception that proves the rule.
Dreifuss relies on materials produced in Poland during the war - in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew - and especially on the Oneg Shabbat archive kept by Emanuel Ringelblum, which was buried in milk cans in the Warsaw Ghetto and most of which was discovered after the war. She sketches a transition from a positive perception of the Poles to the very negative one that has remained with us until recently.
However, in 1939, with the outbreak of the war, the Jews remembered positively their joint effort against the German invader, in which which Jews and Poles fought shoulder to shoulder in defense of Poland.
For hundreds of years, Poland swung back and forth between aspiring to be a Catholic nation state and aspiring to be a multicultural state that would include Jews. In the independent Poland established after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the second model seemed to prevail. For the first time, Jews were given equal rights, and they - including the Orthodox Jews - began to grow closer to the Poles and Polish culture.
In the 1930s, nationalism, which saw the Jews as a problem in need of a solution, gained the upper hand. Nonetheless, in 1939 the Jews believed that they and their Polish neighbors were sharing the same fate and the same catastrophe, and took some comfort in this.
For example, Yiddish poet Zusman Segalovich wrote at that time: "Then Jews and Christians proved / their shared fortitude / The same ceaseless language of guns / The same stabbing, angry eyes / The same crushing cannon fire."
Anti-Semitic language and incidents were considered exceptions, and even harassment of Jewish soldiers by Christian commanders "contradicted the overall image of the Poles held by many Jews, and could not dispel it."
Dreifuss demonstrates that during the first years of German occupation, the Jews' positive image of the Poles gained even firmer footing. She quotes Chaim Aron Kaplan, who wrote in his diary: "At long last the Poles too have begun to understand that the hatred of Jews that the occupier is spreading among them is nothing but opium, an intoxicating drink to dazzle them and turn their eyes away from the real hater."
In fact, even during their isolation in the ghettos, when as Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his poem "Campo dei Fiori" they were "the lonely / forgotten by the world": The Jews yearned to believe they "had a strong bond of courage with the forces of freedom outside the wall," to the Polish smugglers, for example, or those hidden in the ghetto to prevent their deportation to labor camps in Germany.
The author suggests a psychological explanation for how this positive image took such firm root at such a difficult time: "The shared fate of Jews and Poles at the start of the war created a certain lens through which the Jews looked at the Poles ... In situations of stress ... one of the mechanisms that enables a person to cope is reliance on a known and stable world. When the reality of the familiar existence is lost and the contexts of normal life disappear, the individual needs a strong anchor."
An image shatters
However, from 1942 onward, the Jews' positive image of the Poles shattered. Testimonies from eastern Poland about their participation in the slaughter, as well as their general apathy amid the destruction of the ghettos and the sending of the Jews to slaughter, led to an extreme change. The taste of the neighbors' betrayal was caustic. Mordechai Gebirtig, author of the song "It Is Burning," wrote: "The pain is terrible, not because of the foreign foe - because of them, Poland's daughters and sons / whose land will weaken them too when the day comes / who with their wicked laughter watch how our bitter foe, who is also their bitter foe / abuses the young and shows no mercy to the old."
And Mieczyslaw Parker-Pokorny wrote in his diary: "And to think that we Jews lived for hundreds of years among people who in truth are wolves, plain and simple, who lurk to tear us to shreds."
From then on the Jews saw the Poles as no less bitter enemies than the Germans, and perhaps even more so. Just as the image had been initially positive despite the reality (Poles harming, exploiting, robbing, informing on and even murdering Jews ), now the image became negative, even though there were many Poles working to save Jews - more than in any other country in occupied Europe .
It would be interesting to examine whether this perception also changed among ideological groups that from the outset, even before the war, believed in the alliance between the Jews and the Poles, such as the Bundists. Did they try to cling to the positive image despite everything, or did they sober up even more? And did the people of Agudas Israel, for example, have to go through such a far-reaching process?
In any case, image perception is not a theoretical matter but rather one with very practical import. The survivors (less than one-tenth of pre-war Polish Jewry ) returned to Poland with a very negative image of their countrymen, and it is no wonder that most were easily persuaded that Jews had no future in that country. Would they have tried to start new lives in the land of their birth had they retained the positive images of 1939? It is hard to say, but the Jews certainly packed up that negative image with them when they left Poland, and that is the perception that took hold in Israel.
In the decades after the war, it was easier to hate the communist, poorer Poland than it was to hate "the other Germany," which went through an economic miracle. And thus, at a time when we had already almost forgiven Germany, the schadenfreude and resentment toward Poland remained.
Now that Poland is a member of the European Union and also has gone through an economic miracle, its image is changing again and many people are already seeing "the other Poland." Contributing to this, undoubtedly, is Poles' reckoning of conscience that started in the 1980s, regarding both the Holocaust (such as the recognition of the slaughter of the Jews of Jedwabne by Poles, in July 1941 ) and the establishment's anti-Semitism of the end of the 1960s.
The Poles' side
Memory and guilt are the subject of "Facing Memory: The Polish Account," a recent collection of articles written by Poles (edited and translated into Hebrew by Miri Paz, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2007 ). In this collection, Polish writers address questions about their guilt - meaning, questions of image. Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, for example, asks: "How are the Poles translating what they know - about themselves and about the Holocaust - into Polish non-guilt?"
Further along, the author hones in on the attempt to transform guilt into non-guilt and thus - alas - her research becomes relevant to Israel of our day. We too, after all, are very familiar with the attempt to free ourselves of guilt, to dismiss all criticism as anti-Semitism and to transform guilt into non-guilt.
And in fact, anyone who reads these two books will find it hard to avoid thoughts about the resemblance between the current situation, especially the perception of the Arabs in Israel, which never remains merely a perception, and that of the Jews in Poland before the war. Comparative research of this sort has not yet been conducted, but the modern-day milk cans are filling up with testimonies.