Imagine finding out that your grandfather was a partisan hero, responsible for saving thousands of Jews from the ghetto. Now, imagine picking up Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (2010) and reading how that same grandfather was an ardent Stalinist, cruelly condemning the insufficiently communist Jews of Poland. In his new hybrid journalistic memoir-family history, “Mauvais Juif” (“Bad Jew”), French journalist Piotr Smolar describes exactly that. He goes in search of his grandfather Hersh Smolar and the bizarre logic of Jewish Stalinism.
“‘[Hersh] Smolar promised purges to Jewish political activists who failed to accept Polish national communism,’” Piotr Smolar quotes Snyder in “Mauvais Juif.” “‘And if there turn out to be people among us who are going to buzz on like flies about some sort of supposedly higher and more essential Jewish national goals, then we will eliminate those people from our society, just like the fighters of the ghetto pushed aside the cowards and those of weak will.’”
The weight of Jewish history is heavy on the Smolar family. “Mauvais Juif,” published last month in France, sets out to unravel three generations of a complicated family story, unflinchingly tying it into the difficult questions of the moment. The narrative switches back and forth between wartime Minsk (Belarus), post-war Poland and contemporary Israel. Along the way, Piotr Smolar confronts his own ambivalence about being a Jew – especially a “bad” one – in the world today.
His grandfather Hersh (1905-1993) was a hero of the Minsk ghetto, leading the escape of as many as 10,000 Jews from it. After the war, he returned to Poland, where he remained a staunch party loyalist. His reputation, as Piotr learned while writing “Mauvais Juif,” is more saintly than Stalinist among the Jews working to preserve the memory of World War II partisans in present-day Belarus. But the story of his leadership in the resistance owes everything to the organization and training provided by the communists – the same party that in the immediate post-war period demanded that Jewish heroism be officially minimized.
In the late 1960s, Hersh’s son Aleksander (Piotr’s father) was imprisoned for student activism that was considered hostile to the Communist Party and the state. Hersh was already under scrutiny for exhibiting insufficient anti-Zionism in his journalism. As editor of the Yiddish newspaper Folks-shtime, he was accused of staying silent about the “Israeli aggressions” of June 1967 while suggesting that the party tolerated anti-Semitism. (Decades later, as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem, Piotr would find himself accused by Israelis of being insufficiently Zionist.)
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Hersh offered his own self-exile in Israel in return for his son’s release. Hersh left for Israel in 1970. The following year, Alek left for France, where Piotr was born, but he remained politically active in Polish dissident politics.
Growing up in France, Piotr had a sense of Jewishness that was tied almost entirely to the specifics of his family history, though even those specifics remained nebulous to him for decades. As an adolescent, Piotr suggested to his parents that he be baptized. That religious phase passed as quickly as it came on, and he drifted into a comfortable but distant respect for religious belief. In a sense, his life is a rebellion against the ideological commitments of his father and grandfather – if ideology provides answers, good journalism is committed to questions.
Asked if he saw any commonalities between his journalism and his grandfather’s, Smolar answers, “I … don’t want to look back with contempt on history because those were very different times. But we have nothing in common. It’s not the same job. He was a propagandist. He worked for a cause, I work for a newspaper.”
'Smolar promised purges to Jewish political activists who failed to accept Polish national communism.'
One-third of the book reflects on Piotr’s five-year stint (2014-2019) in Jerusalem as a correspondent for the French daily Le Monde. The Jewish identity he brought to Israel isn’t exactly celebrated there. “This book is a confession,” he says. “I am a bad Jew in the sense that I’m an ignorant Jew: about Judaism, religion and culture. … I didn’t even know about Jewish holidays before coming to Israel. I was also ignorant about my own family.” Smolar had long intended to learn more about Hersh, but his assignment to Israel finally set his personal journey in motion.
A ‘plural’ identity
Though most readers won’t have a similarly dramatic family history, many will relate to Piotr’s “Bad Jew” ambivalence. His life has been shaped by Jewish culture and Jewish history, but his own access to that culture and history is limited. His insistence on a personal, non-nationalist identity places him outside normative Jewishness in Israel, and he’s entirely comfortable with that.
“I don’t need a grade or diploma or to be kissed on the cheek and told I’m a great Jew,” he says. “This is a meaningless perspective and I’m comfortable with who I am.... I wasn’t looking for a magical answer to an identity crisis; it’s the contrary.”
As a journalist, his in-betweenness is a professional advantage. Smolar knows his name doesn’t identify him as a Jew. In the book, he tells how his file with Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip mistakenly lists him as Christian. He doesn’t protest. Revealing his Jewishness might affect or diminish his access and if he has to hide it to do so, no matter.
For his sister Ania, though, it’s different. She made "Polish aliyah,” as Smolar calls it, establishing herself as a top theater artist there. As their father is well known in Poland for his political activity as well as his Jewishness, she has no choice but to embrace it.
Smolar sees no need to choose sides: “The book says my identity is plural. You can be supportive of the existence of the Israeli state but nevertheless detached and critical of what is going on there. The attacks on democratic values and minorities is contrary to the values that Judaism should represent.”
Smolar is a strong critic of the current Israeli government, and writes with great empathy about the conditions under which Palestinians are living. All the while, he fastidiously avoids polemic and invective. The tripled structure of his narrative is put to excellent use when he brings his historic and contemporary materials into dialogue. There is no black and white here, just the endless, bloody plot twists of the 20th century.
Where you go looking for heroes, you may find villains.
In the book, he interviews the Israeli military ethicist Asa Kasher, who was one of a group of civilian and military experts convened to propose combat guidelines during the Second Intifada. Part of the group’s work was to devise a calculus of proportionality. If a Palestinian kills one Israeli, how many Palestinians may the Israel Defense Forces kill in return? Three? Four? Ten? “I refused,” Kasher says, “to participate in this amoral discussion.” Smolar’s elegantly matter-of-fact reporting style only underscores the horror.
Then we’re back to postwar Poland and its decimated Jewish population. In yet another dizzying change of position, the communist government plans to provide military training for Polish Jews who want to fight with the Haganah pre-state underground army in Palestine, and 3,000 Jews depart for its shores. When it becomes clear after May 1948 that Israel will not join the Soviet bloc, Poland switches its support to the Arabs.
Hersh was committed to Yiddish culture and Marxist revolution. He stayed in Poland, fighting for the synthesis of the two, even as that became more and more untenable. A theme of the book is Piotr putting himself into an intimate, imagined dialogue with Hersh to try and understand his complicated life path.
The time has obviously come for Hersh to receive a full biography, but “Mauvais Juif” isn’t it. “The balance of the book is very fragile, and very complicated to preserve, because it’s three fates, three men from one family,” says Piotr. “I didn’t want any fat. I wanted it to be very sharp and dry.”
In “Mauvais Juif,” Smolar successfully raises urgent questions of wide relevance and then fails to provide an entirely satisfying answer. The reader feels the need for a little of that fat he so carefully trimmed.
Bearing the tension
Jewish life today is marked by enormous discontinuities across generations. How do we begin to relate to our grandparents, or even our parents? Piotr struggles to understand Hersh’s total investment in a political system that rested on the nonsensical premise of Polish-Jewish Stalinism.
How did he bear the tension? And why? It’s not an easy or simple question, but it’s an important one. And Piotr, who doesn’t read Hebrew or Yiddish, can’t answer it. Without access to Hersh’s Yiddish writings, it is impossible to understand what drove him to make the choices he did. Reading them, at the source, provides some keys that eluded the grandson.
For example, in one of the volumes of his Yiddish-language memoirs, “Vu Bistu Khaver Sidorov” (“Where are you Comrade Sidorov?”), Hersh opens with the period of intense fighting between the Polish and Red armies, 1918-19. It was a time of terrible pogroms by the Polish army, and Hersh’s brother Nusn (Nathan) was rounded up with other Jewish socialist youth and shot. Hersh’s participation in a local workers council offered an alternative to victimization.
It wasn’t unusual for Jewish revolutionary youth to be shaped by feelings of weakness or powerlessness. But Hersh also came of age in that brief moment when youthful revolutionary fervor could be lived entirely in Yiddish. He even went to Moscow’s Communist University for the Peoples of the West, where he enrolled in the Yiddish department and worked on the university’s student newspaper, Mayrevke (“Western,” in English). Having seen its potential, Hersh’s dogged commitment to the grinding paradoxes of post-war Yiddish communism are slightly less perplexing.
In 1949, the legendary African-American singer-actor-activist Paul Robeson visited the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. It’s likely that he met Hersh on that visit. They shared a close mutual friend in Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer. Robeson was at that time one of the most famous men in the world. But his refusal to disavow the USSR and Stalin ensured he would be posthumously consigned to obscurity in the United States.
Robeson shared that fate with thousands of passionate Jewish communists who saw him as one of their own. Jewish communists are often written out of American Jewish history. In the documentary Lou Reed made about his elderly cousin, “Red Shirley,” the word “communist” is not mentioned once, despite her decades of political activity and her marriage to Paul Novick, editor of the communist Yiddish newspaper Morgen Frayhayt. Author Irving Howe devoted an entire chapter to the Yiddish press in “World of Our Fathers” (1976), but simply excluded the communist Yiddish press from his purportedly comprehensive popular history of the Eastern European immigrants and the world they built on the Lower East Side.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest among a younger generation of American Jews in those Jewish communists and in the non-Zionist socialist Bund movement. They are seeking their own usable past and looking beyond officially sanctioned community narratives. That project, however, comes with a thorny set of questions. Without sufficient historical grounding, those doing the seeking are ill-equipped to face the moral quandaries of the past. Where you go looking for heroes, you may find villains. They may even be the same person. Are we really ready to meet our Bad Grandpas?
Rokhl Kafrissen is a freelance journalist in New York and a Tablet columnist on contemporary modern Yiddish arts and culture. As a 2019 LABA fellowship recipient, she will be writing a play exploring the culture clash between interwar avant-garde Yiddish theater and modern academia. Twitter: @RokhlK