Warsaw July 28
I wondered if taking this trip made sense. My mind and body should be elsewhere. In no particular order: I should be in Israel helping Israelis during this war, I should be home helping my family deal with our domestic displacement as we watch the nerve center of our home—the kitchen—be taken apart and put back together, I should be in New York City in the years 1902-1915 hanging out with Solomon Schechter as I try to tell his life story. Probably because of those things instead here I sit, in as the Jewish legend named it PoLin.
Tonight I began to answer the question of why I came, and perhaps the more important question of why it matters that here I sit. Facing History and Ourselves and the Forum for Dialogue brought me, and my fellow travellers, a group of American educators who all in some way or another deal in their schools with Jewish history, Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust, and the Holocaust itself.
The Forum for Dialogue emerged out of the energy of contemporary democratic Poland as it sought to create a new present, which involved rethinking the Polish past. The organization fosters Jewish-Polish dialogue, tries to eradicate Polish anti-Semitism, and teaches tolerance through education here in Poland. Many obstacles lie in its path.
Different pasts and different often competing motives drive all of us who work in this area. Some of us want to share stories, share narratives, to remember and to be heard, to listen to others and to connect to them. Some of us want to study the past and get our stories straight, what really happened, as a positivist might put it. We believe that only by doing so can we not only teach well but also learn the right lessons from that better historiography. Some of us want to resolve conflicts in the present, want to get beyond “Polish” and “Jewish” and think in richer more suppler ways of our identities.
Three stories hint at the challenges in working through all this, which our opening dinner served up to us. Yoni shared the existential and pedagogic frustration that five hundred years of Polish Jewish history went up in smoke in five years of destruction, and that no amount of concerted thought and good educational practice seems potent enough to enable students to learn and truly remember the richness of Polish Jewish life “before the Holocaust.” That is precisely the point: everything before 1939 is remembered as “before” rather than as a story lived forward of flesh and blood people, of culture, religion, peoplehood, and politics, in its own right. Memory lies, especially of trauma, it narrows, it distorts, it makes ever more difficult the ultimate task of history which is bringing us to other people in other times and trying to understand their world and all of the choices they made and all of the things that happened to them.
Andrzej, the President of the Forum, spoke about his shock upon encountering Israeli survivors who forgave and related more easily to contemporary Germans than to Poles. That requires more analysis than I can muster just now but my first instinct tells me that it’s more complicated with Poles because we lived with these people, they were our neighbors, sometimes business associates, sometimes schoolmates, sometimes friends and even lovers, but always our neighbors.
And this place, Poland, a place of hundreds maybe even thousands of communities, was our home. These communities existed for hundreds of years, and it was quite possible that families traced their lives in these towns and cities for generations. As Zionistic and as Jewish as I am I still see that such a rootedness suggests that calling Poland “Exile” seems far too limiting to get at the depth of attachment here, and the consequent sadness and rage and loss that must dwell inside of many survivors.
Finally, Zuzanna, a Polish journalist and theologian, spoke about her childhood and how she began to think about Polish Jews, and her grandmother. As a child she knew little or nothing about Jews here, and the frequent and almost sacralized memory of the war and the uprising and the suffering and the heroism of Poles and Poland never mentioned Jews. Her grandmother came from what Jews might call a shtetl, a large town/small city that typically contained a large plurality if not a majority of Jews. One day she asked her grandmother about the Jews. A young mother during the war, her grandmother replied that of course she remembered Jews, but recalled nothing of what finally happened to them because her mothering duties took up all of her time. On Zuzanna’s visit with her the following day her grandmother told her something different. “When I can’t sleep at night I see them.” Finally, she could speak of it all, and now she wanted to remember the past as it happened, however painful. She wanted not just a narrative of self but also a moral memory of the suffering of others, of her friends and neighbors. Grandmother and granddaughter each gave something precious to the other.
I guess that’s why I came. To hear stories, to see those people, Jews and Poles, to get beyond mythologization of the past. By listening to stories maybe we can think and write and understand history better, and as Antony Polonsky, a noted scholar wrote, “move beyond strongly- held competing narratives of the past and reach some consensus that will be acceptable to all people of good will and will bring about a degree of normalization both in Poles’ attitudes to the past and in Polish-Jewish relations.”