By lying we kill again*
Four years ago, I wrote a rather personal entry for this blog entitled Holocaust Studies vs. Mental Health. Back then, I was a student of the second cohort of the Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies. The first semester ended and I felt overwhelmed by the difficult topic with which I had decided to engage.
The entry was partly humorous, (if nobody else then my Mom laughed for sure), and partly serious, (it was a really tough period in my life, I thought), where I tried to grasp how studying the Holocaust influenced my life. All Holocaust scholars know that humour can sometimes save you from madness and despair.
It has been almost four years since then. Not much has changed and at the same time, a lot has changed. I am still working on my dissertation on contemporary Polish and Czech Shoah literature, and, on and off, I am still depressed. Even though in my research I analyse literary fiction, the Holocaust happened in reality, and even if you chase this thought away, the reality of this event always comes back, hits you with all its force and knocks you out. And there is no way to escape it, especially if you come from Poland. I’m also often down because writing a PhD is not an easy task and even though you gather more and more knowledge, it never seems enough to write a decent piece of scholarship. Especially if you come from Poland and struggle with the not-so-much-up-to-date-anymore complex of never being good enough for western standards.
With the uphill moments of my research, I try to deal with humour. As any forever student, I look in the mirror from time to time and the veil of melancholy about a yet unfulfilled academic career and family plans lifts, and I laugh about the prolonged non-adulthood and the wisdom forever more beyond my reach. I guess we all get to that point sometime in our lives. Besides, nothing is lost, after years spent in the library, protected from the influence of environmental factors, and interactions with people, I still feel and look like a baby, even though I’ll be 30 this year.
But these days I lose hope and I am definitely not in the mood for joking.
The reasons for which I don’t feel like laughing today are obvious to anybody who has any interest in either Holocaust studies or international relations. The political situation in Poland is not an enviable one. Despite what the ruling party and the public television say, it is not a “Good Change”. But, ok, we chose these people to rule our country. Let them rule. Let them spoil our education system, let them destroy the judiciary system, and introduce more religion-based laws which limit women’s rights. Let them do that to all of us, we chose them. And let’s protest if we don’t like it. But why the Jews again?
After I graduated from Holocaust Studies, my then boyfriend and I moved to Kraków. He was Jewish, so we signed up to be members of JCC Kraków. For a few months, we participated in Shabbat dinners, Torah learning sessions, Israeli dance lessons and other activities. We made friends. People we met there were mostly Jews from abroad, there were a few Holocaust survivors or children of Holocaust survivors there and a lot of non-Jewish Polish volunteers. And I felt that they all were hopeful. I too felt that these were the good days. I even heard the Chief Rabbi of Poland say that Poland is a place to be for the Jews of Europe. That was in 2014. My heart lifted. What do they think today? I can only imagine.
Many commentators say that the PiS party “let the genie out of the bottle”. Indeed, they created a space in which it is possible and acceptable to express anti-Semitic views. It is horrible, scary and outrageous. I am angry and sad. And, I assure you, so are many, many others in Poland. We are frustrated that the fragile friendship that was cautiously built for many years is now in danger. But, maybe, this is not the point. Maybe it is not today that is important. After all, the PiS party didn’t invent the genie, (please don’t read that as any kind of justification for the politicians in charge. I am a million miles from that). It was already there.
Marcin Wicha, a Polish contemporary writer, who was asked to comment on the current wave of anti-Semitism, said: “We all know the tap with anti-Semitism exists. I just didn’t think they would open it now.”
Yes, Polin museum is amazing, yes, there are 40 Jewish festivals all over Poland every year, yes, Klezmer music is enjoying a revival, and yes, we’ve Jewish restaurants all over. Yes, cheap flights to Israel from Kraków, Katowice, Warsaw and Lublin. Great success! Yes, yes, yes… But isn’t it only a facade? An exorcism?
Meanwhile, the word “Jew” (“Żyd”) can still function as an invective in Polish, jokes about Jews and the Holocaust come up at any occasion, one can buy paintings and figures portraying a Jew with a coin on every corner. Anti-Semitic notions are present in our folklore religious rituals. A few years ago I witnessed a children’s Christmas play at my Grandmother’s village in which a Jewish character was beaten by the shepherds who came to greet baby Jesus. The shepherds shouted: “Beat the Jew! Beat the Jew!” And the oh-so common conviction that the Jews want to steal our leadership in the history of suffering and martyrdom. A constant outcry: “But we too, we too suffered, we suffered like no one else!”
The examples I list above are not, perhaps, representative, maybe a broader context should be provided, and obviously they don’t speak about the whole Polish nation. However, they show how deeply anti-Semitic stereotypes are embedded in Polish culture, for they are connected with emotions, (among them anger and jealousy), with painful historical issues which build our national identity, with rituals which define us, with our beliefs and superstitions, and we are surrounded by them from a young age.
The harrowing discrepancy between the revival of Jewish life in Poland and the growing anti-Semitism is especially and painfully vivid, I find, in the case of Olga Tokarczuk. In 2015, this Polish writer won a Nike price for The Books of Jacob. A wonderful book which deserved the national literary prize and recognition. However, the book was not only recognised as a literary masterpiece, and the author as a great mind. The book was also labeled by some as anti-Polish and the author faced a wave of hatred, which included being called a “Jewish whore”.
There were times when I felt that I was betraying Poland for speaking so harshly about how we dealt with the difficult past and with the issue of our complicity in the crimes committed against the Jews of Poland during WWII. After all, the discussion about Jedwabne was not a complete one and especially about Polish contemporary anti-Semitism.
But, how can you pass indifferently when a puppet representing an Orthodox Jew is being burned on a public gathering of ONR (National Radical Camp) on the main square in Wrocław in 2015?
How can you pass indifferently when a Holocaust survivor, Aleksandra Leliwa-Kopystyńska on a TV show just a few days ago, has to remind again, like during the Holocaust or in 1968, that Polish Jews are also Polish, they are us, we are one nation?
Instead of posing this as a rhetorical question, I should probably really ask myself. How can one pass indifferently? After the Christmas play in my Grandmother’s village, I didn’t say anything, I didn’t want to shame the children, because obviously they didn’t understand that it was wrong, I was afraid to talk to their parents. I only complained to my parents afterwards, but I was preaching to the converted. So often I go back to this evening and wish I had more courage then.
Poland is not an anti-Semitic country, but Poland has a problem with anti-Semitism. And I have to see it as my problem too.
So what now?
Let’s hope it is a turning point for Poland again – a similar one to the publication of Jan Gross’s book about Jedwabne in 2000. Let’s hope it is a crisis which will awaken those who still can’t face the truth about the complicity of the Polish population in the crimes committed against the Jews during World War II and about Polish anti-Semitism both past and contemporary.
Let’s hope we will have enough strength to stand in front of a mirror and see more than our own suffering and the history of Polish righteous among the nations. Let’s hope we will be truthful for once.
Let’s hope we will have enough courage. This, I say particularly to myself.
* This is an inscription made with a fluorescent orange spray by a courageous person on the walls of IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) building on Marszałkowska Street in Warsaw. I passed by it a few days ago.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/