Systemic? Individual actions? When it comes to prejudices, it is, indeed, a small world, after all.
Poland holds a special place for our family.
Sharon’s father was born in Łomza, Poland, emigrating to America when he was seven-years old. Because he was originally a Polish citizen, after much research, several years of pulling documents together and finally employing a Polish immigration lawyer, Sharon and our two daughters received Polish citizenship and passports entitling them to full EU rights of travel and residency – I will have to get a Polish “green card,” I guess.
Beyond that, years of investigation and chasing down both leads and dead ends, we were able to trace Sharon’s Polish paternal family back to the early 19th century. We even created a presentation:
By the way, for those of you who’ve actually met us, the woman in that picture is not Sharon taken at one of those nostalgia photo studios, but the engagement photo, taken in Novograd, of her paternal grandparents, Ethel (Elka Dworja Kon) and Ralph Kolnick (Rafal Kolniak).
Our first visit to Poland was in the late 1980’s to see our younger daughter perform with a company of Polish, Soviet and American kids in an international musical show called “Peace Child.” The Peace Child company toured Poland promoting peace between East and West. Poland, still Communist at the time, was gray…the buildings, the people, the sky…were gray and unhappy. Warsaw, now a vibrant international capitol, was so poor that I speculated that for one twenty U.S. dollar bill, I could have bought all the merchandise in a barely stocked grocery store near our hotel. At one restaurant, when I asked for the menu, the waiter’s response was, “We have chicken.” When I went to pay for the “chicken” with an American credit card, he admonished me, “Pay cash in U.S. dollars, it’s better,” and cut the price of the meal in half. Of course, paying cash in U.S. dollars was illegal at the time. But, in the end, a win-win for both the waiter and me.
On a subsequent trip to Poland we met a young woman in Krakow who was brought up Catholic but discovered, when she was 21, that she was actually Jewish. That young woman, now in her thirties and one of our dear friends, has a daughter of her own who will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah in the next year or so.
While Jewish life is coming back in Poland, most vibrantly and visually evidenced by the annual Krakow Jewish Festival and the ever-expanding Krakow JCC (funded in part by Prince Charles), there is still evidence of anti-Semitism. In a visit to Łódź, Poland’s third largest city and former home to both the Polish textile and film industries (and therefore, by definition, a major center of Jewish life), anti-Semitic graffiti is everywhere. Our walking tour guide, a young orthodox Jewish man, David, was wearing a baseball cap to cover his yarmulke. Why? So, he wouldn’t be teased or worse by anti-Semitic thugs. “But David,” I said, “your tzitzit (a four-cornered under garment bound by specially tied fringes worn by orthodox men) is showing.” “Oh,” David replied, “that’s OK. They just think I’m making a ‘fashion statement.'”
With all of that in mind, it was even more troubling, to say the least, when I read the other day about Poland’s planned changes to property restitution rules that would potentially prevent Jewish claims for compensation or property seized during the Holocaust and communist times.
As most of you know, before World War II, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, some 3.5 million people. Most were killed in the Holocaust under Nazi Germany’s occupation, their property confiscated. In fact, the Jews in region of Sharon’s heritage were virtually wiped out, with most sent directly to the nearby Treblinka extermination camp. Poland’s post-war communist authorities seized the left-behind properties as well. The end of communism in 1989 opened the door to restitution claims, most of which would be coming from Poles.
The Polish government has been moving steadily to the right. But, I’m usually fond of saying, “it’s still not as repressive as the Hungarian government.” Yet, according to the AP, “Poland is the only European country that has not offered any compensation for private property seized by the state in its recent history.” Even Hungary is doing more. According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO): “In 2007, the Hungarian government pledged $21 million to be distributed to assist Holocaust survivors in Hungary and survivors of Hungarian origin living abroad. That program continues today, despite the government’s shift to the right.
As I was pondering why Poland is the way it is, our young Jewish friend from Krakow sent me this article from a Polish newspaper (which I loosely translated with Google Translate):
For the repair of tombstones at the Jewish Cemetery in Bielsko-Biała, devastated during an act of vandalism
By Jakub Nowak
June 26, 2021. Unknown persons broke into the Jewish cemetery in Bielsko-Biała, devastated the cemetery and demolished the tombstones. As a result, 67 monuments suffered.
The cemetery at Cieszyńska Street is an architectural gem entered in the register of monuments. On a daily basis, it is under the care of the relevant religious community and people of good will. All people involved in the revitalization of this place devote their hearts to it. Each of us wants to keep the memory of people without whom Bielsko-Biała would not be as we know it today.
Generations of Jews from Bielsko lie in this cemetery. The famous architect Karol Korn is buried here, here is the tomb of Lazar Frankfurter, the first rabbi of Bielsko, here lies one of the pioneers of the Zionist movement – Michael Berkowitz, but also the famous Bielsko opticians from the Kulek family, known from our times. Dozens of figures who are part of the history of our city were buried at ul. Cieszyńska.
This is not only an unacceptable desecration of the place, but also a blow to the history and spirit of the city and its inhabitants. Because Bielsko and Biała are the cities where we lived and where we still live together. It is a borderland land and meetings, not only of Silesia and Lesser Poland, not only of Catholics and Evangelicals, but also of Poles, Germans and Jews. Multiculturalism is with us even after death, and evidence can be found at the Jewish cemetery in Bielsko, where Muslims who died during World War I are buried. It was, is and will be.
Therefore, I am asking for your support. Let us show our brotherhood and solidarity. Bielsko and Biała were famous for their tolerance and respect for other people, regardless of age, sex, nationality or religion. Always walking shoulder to shoulder together. This is our inheritance and intangible heritage. These are qualities we have grown up in and are proud of.
We will not rest in further activities aimed at understanding and nurturing history, learning tolerance and multiculturalism! Despite adversities and aggression, we will continue to spread the good name of people who lived in the same lands in the past as we do today.
The money raised will be fully used to renovate the cemetery and repair the damage caused.
I wrote back to my Polish friend, “This is awful. But, the good news, at least, is that people like Jakub Nowak are writing about it and encouraging people to do what they can to repair the wrongs.”
And then I learned from her that the desecration of the cemetery in Bielsko was done by 12 and 13 years old kids.
Think about that. Where are these kids getting their hate from? Some might say that this was just prankish behavior on their part. Ok. But, why not the parish graveyard, why the Jewish cemetery? More than pranks, I think. Despite some gains, Poland has been, and probably always will be, anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitic parents (like racist parents here) raise like-minded kids. Governments and religious organizations, here and there, that won’t cotton to truth in education but dictate curricula that supports mis-education to further political goals, take over where the parents leave off.
In my last post, I wrote about critical race theory (CRT) controversy here in America. I asked, as many others have, whether racism is systemic (I think it is) or just demonstrated by individual people with prejudices, as the right will have it. The same question can be asked about anti-Semitism in Poland (and around the world, for that matter). Is it fostered by individual actions or is it systemic, supported by biased education and people in people power for their personal benefit?
A few years ago a Polish film called, “Aftermath,” was released, It was a fictionalized telling of the true story of the massacre of hundreds of Jews in the village of Jedwabne. The film was inspired by a book, “Neighbors” by Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross who posited that Polish gentiles had murdered the hundreds of Jewish residents of Jedwabne. This was contrary to the official history which held the Nazi occupying force accountable. Gross was vilified, a Warsaw-based investigative reporter who conducted more research that confirmed Gross’ account, was shunned and the star of the film, a well-known Polish actor, had difficulty getting roles after his participation in the film.
Years later Sharon and I visited the city of Białystok, not far from Jedwabne and her own family’s towns. We met a young man named Piotr who guided us through the city. Piotr was an historian, fluent in English, German, Polish and Russian as, given Poland’s history of invasions and occupation, is essential for any historian. I even asked Piotr to translate some Russian language documents we had just uncovered for our Kolnick family genealogy project.
I also asked Piotr about the Jedwabne massacre. Without any hesitation, this highly educated, thirty-something Pole said, “Gross’ account was just made up. It was the Germans, not the Polish people of the village who committed the atrocity.” I was shocked by Piotr’s response. Should I have been? Was his answer simply an individual prejudice or is he the product of systemic anti-Semitism? I think I know. What do you think?