The Holocaust is ours
The Jews did not choose to leave Poland and Ukraine. Does Laor think they have no right to bring to Israel at least part of the memories of their lives, their work and their culture there?
Several days ago, on May 25, Haaretz published an article by Yitzhak Laor entitled "The east is ours." In the piece, Laor discussed the frescoes of writer and artist Bruno Schulz, which were brought to Yad Vashem, in Israel. Laor complains, "The truth is that Hebrew readers knew nothing about Schulz until 1979," the year when "Cinnamon Shops," a book of his stories, was published in Hebrew.
Schulz is a great writer, a master craftsman of the Polish language who belongs to a very small group that created a new literary stream in Europe, experts say. Nevertheless, Schulz is not a writer whose works address the average reader, and he certainly does not belong to the category known as "bestsellers." This is not unique to Israel. I recall that a well-known Polish intellectual, with whom I spoke about the uproar in the Polish press over the transfer of Schulz frescoes to Israel, said to me with a smile: "I didn't even know that so many among us admire Schulz."
Most of Schulz's stories deal with the depths of his childhood experiences. Artur Sandauer, a Polish Jewish literary critic who knew Schulz well, wrote of "Cinnamon Shop" that the stories "are passages from a fantastic autobiography." The book manuscript lay for several years in a drawer, and it was published only thanks to prominent Polish writer Zofia Nalkowska, who was fascinated by the work.
Schulz was born in Drohobych, a medium-sized city in eastern Galicia, where he spent almost his entire life and was also murdered in 1942. The Jews, who lived alongside the Poles and the Ukrainians, constituted about 40 percent of the city's population. The city changed hands several times during Schulz's life. When he was born it belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire; after World War I it became part of the new Polish Republic; and in the aftermath of World War II it was annexed to Ukraine.
The 1930s, the most creative decade in Schulz's writing and art, also saw a serious rise in anti-Semitism in Poland. In 1982, Sandauer published a book "On the Situation of the Polish Writer of Jewish Descent in the Twentieth Century," in which he enumerated the numerous slanders by Polish cultural figures against famous artists only because they were Jewish, and noted that a complete citation of those expressions "could fill volumes."
Laor describes the transfer of the frescoes to Yad Vashem in poetic language: "The act of deceit was necessary because of something that was obscured here, something no true common sense can explain, and which certainly does not fall within the sphere of international law, namely that the work of an artist who was a victim of the Holocaust belongs to Israel, because the Holocaust is 'ours.'"
The decisive and unremittingly painful fact is that the Holocaust really is "ours," even if Laor refuses to accept that. Three million Polish Jews were cruelly exterminated, and the center of Jewish life there was destroyed. The survivors found a home mainly in Israel, and a few moved to the United States and several other countries as well. Very few of them remained in Poland.
The Jews did not choose to leave Poland and Ukraine. Their families were murdered, their houses were taken and their property was systemically robbed; does Laor think they have no right to bring to Israel at least part of the memories of their lives, their work and their culture there? Do only the Ukrainians and the Poles, on whose land the murder of their Jewish neighbors was carried out, have the right to collect the orphaned cultural assets and display them proudly in the museums of their countries, which are almost empty of Jews?
There is a strong and multifaceted connection between the State of Israel and the Holocaust, and it is only natural that the cry for generations to come, which reflects the horror and the crime of the German nation and of certain other European nations, be in Israel and the remaining Jewish centers. It is no coincidence that museums for commemorating the Holocaust were built in Jerusalem and in Washington, D.C.
The frescoes Schulz painted on the wall of a Drohobych apartment, which Laor discusses in his article, were not simply objets d'art, the artists' "work." The simple truth is that Schulz was a janitor in the home of a uniformed Nazi, and the frescoes were created by order of the German. Schulz's life was in danger only because of his Jewish origin, but amazingly, no admirer, acquaintance or underground institution in Poland took action to rescue him. After the war, on the other hand, Poland diligently collected Schulz's paintings and graphic works. Was anything done to discover what had happened to these works and through whose hands they had passed? Isn't there some doubt as to whether Schulz's works of plastic art are in fact a Polish inheritance?
Not long ago, Yad Vashem received a bundle of letters belonging to the historian and chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum, who at a late stage in the war was removed from a bunker on the "Aryan" side of Warsaw and murdered along with his family. During the war, Ringelblum established an underground archive of written testimony, diaries and documents in the ghetto. After the war two parts of this archive were discovered in underground hiding places. This is the largest and most authentic collection remaining from the Holocaust period.
Ringelblum's writings were stored in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. For a time there was no access to this material, because the People's Republic of Poland, which belonged to the Soviet bloc, did not have any relations with Israel. When during calmer times a request was made to receive the original duplicates of the documents and writings, permission was refused. And now, in one of those same letters that were recently discovered, Ringelblum says, in a kind of last will and testament, that after the war this archive should be transferred to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, or to historian Raphael Mahler, who for years was a professor at Tel Aviv University and died in Israel. In Warsaw there was uncertainty, and perhaps even fear, that we would demand the material be transferred, but no such demand was made. We make do with the proper cooperation between the institutions and that everyone has an opportunity to use the archival material.
This example illustrates that our aim is to preserve the historical materials and to display the historical facts from the Holocaust to communities the world over. Laor's article demonstrates that he is not interested in how Yad Vashem works, but is motivated by an ideology that finds fault with any activity that he sees as connected to an Israeli factor.
Historian Israel Gutman is a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust and an academic adviser to Yad Vashem.