Novelist Joanna Bator Writes of a Poland Where anti-Semitism Thrives - Even Without Jews

Bator went as far as Japan to gain insight into her homeland, Poland, and its anti-Semitism. Now her book, translated into Hebrew, is a self-fulfilling prophecy

Novelist Joanna Bator
A. Blachut / Znak Publishing Hou

In Joanna Bator’s novel "Ciemno, prawie noc" (“Dark, Almost Night”), recently translated into Hebrew, she returns to the scenes of her childhood in Wabrzych, the mining town that was the setting of her previous book, “Sandy Mountain.” In that book, she dealt with a Poland devoid of Jews who actually think of themselves as Jews, as well as with the roots of the Polish nation. In her latest book, she tells the story of a journalist who returns to the city of her birth in Poland, to write about three children who disappeared. She reveals a Poland where anti-Semitism and xenophobia continue to exist, even though there are hardly any Jews or foreigners in the country.

The Hebrew language cover of the book 'Dark, Almost Night'
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“I foresaw the contemporary situation – something I would be proud of if only my prophecy were less terrifying,” says Bator in an e-mail interview with Haaretz.

There is no direct connection between her book and the law passed recently by the Polish government that criminalizes any public statements to the effect that the government or the Polish people were complicit in Nazi war crimes. However, in Bator's opinion, even if the death camps erected in her homeland were Nazi camps and not Polish camps – this is dangerous legislation that is aimed at whitewashing history and punishing rather than explaining. When she talks about the hate speech in the Polish parliament and the Polish media, for a confused moment one might think she was talking about Israel.

The book is replete with prejudice, trading in saints’ relics, idolatry, incest, pedophilia and xenophobia. In what way do these phenomena reflect the atmosphere in Poland nowadays?

“I wrote this book in 2011 in Japan. I think the distance I had there gave me a very focused perspective with respect to seeing what was coming, what was already bubbling in internet forums, in people’s minds. Now the grotesque language of hate that I artistically recreated in my novel can be heard in the Polish media, in the Polish parliament. It is sad and shameful. When a society is focused on hate, those who are truly evil can flourish.”

In your previous book, “Sandy Mountain,” you spoke about a Poland without Jews, and depicted a very dull atmosphere. Nonetheless, the only charming character in it, Dominica, is of Jewish origins. In “Ciemno, Prawie Noc,” you also discuss the theme of Polish children and their fate, perhaps as a symbol of the future of Poland – and it looks very dark.

“I think I always give my readers a glimpse of hope. Dominica is a strong, evolving character and a survivor. I continue her story in my novel 'Cloudalia.' However, I also think that there are more, even if not cheerful, let’s say, complex characters whom my readers love. One of them is Jadzia, Dominica’s mother.”

This image of digging and exposing remains and old bones runs through the book from beginning to end. Does this have a connection to Poland’s history and, in particular, its history during World War II?

“This is an obsession with the past, that longs for the forgotten glory and greatness, and uniqueness, of Poland. We are good at digging in the past and blaming others. The digging itself is not bad, if we want to understand and not blame and feed our resentment. We live in a special time – those who personally experienced things are disappearing, so very soon it will be too late to ask them questions. Feliks Gross [the uncle of Polish-American sociologist and historian Jan T. Gross], a Polish Jew from Krakow who escaped the Nazis, once told me that when such witnesses die, people will be ready to start a new war.”

Novelist Joanna Bator
A. Blachut / Znak Publishing Hou

Nowadays there is a very stormy debate going on in Israel about the Polish law that forbids mentioning the part that Poland and Polish people played in the genocide committed against the Jews in their country, during World War II. What is your opinion about that?

“I think that the Polish government’s attempt to penalize the use of the phrase ‘Polish death camp,’ which is in fact inaccurate, is just a part of its nationalistic whitewashing propaganda. Of course, the death camps were not Polish, they were Nazi death camps established on the Polish soil, and Poles (including my grandfather) were murdered there together with Jews. But the message the government is selling to its supporters is as follows: We, the Poles, had nothing to do with the Holocaust. We must remember that we are talking about a government whose representatives have expressed anti-Semitic views many times, including one who called the Jedwabne massacre a matter of opinion" (a reference to the incident in July 1941, when 340 Polish Jews were rounded up by their gentile neighbors and burned to death in a barn).

“Speaking of opinions – it is better to explain than to punish, and more freedom rather than less is always a better solution. In my view, punishment will bring no good and can only exacerbate antagonism in Polish society and also open the door to other, similar restrictions. Because, as we know, for example, about the homophobic and misogynic tendencies of the Polish ruling party – why not penalize the expression of homosexuality? Or take away women’s other rights since, for instance, abortion is already prohibited? A new book by Prof. Joanna Tokarska-Bakir on Polish-Jewish history will be published soon, about the Kielce massacre. I want to believe that as long as we are not afraid to talk we are still able to defend democracy in my country."