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The Jew in Polish and Russian Literatures

Harold B. Segel

The topic of my lecture is the Jew in Polish and Russian literatures. At the outset I want to make two clarifications. When I speak about the Jew, or Jews, in one literature or another my focus is on the representation of Jewish characters in texts by non-Jewish authors. While there certainly have been prominent writers of Jewish background in both Polish and Russian literatures, how the Jewish author portrays Jewish characters and issues is less interesting to me than what a given literature tells me about the perception of Jews in texts by writers representative, if you will, of the host culture. A non-Jew writing about Jews may have a very similar approach to a Jew writing about Jews, but will invariably be perceived differently. I'll return to this point later. I should also like to mention, mostly for the record, that Jewish writers in both Polish and Russian have not in most instances felt a need, culturally or morally, to write about their fellow Jews. Three of the finest Polish writers of Jewish origin in the twentieth century, the poet Julian Tuwim and the prose writers Bruno Schultz and Kazimierz Brandys, showed little demonstrable interest in Jewish subjects. Adolf Rudnicki, Julian Stryjkowski, Hanna Krall, and Henryk Grynberg, on the other hand--to mention just a few names--have drawn extensively on the Jewish experience in Poland, above all the Holocaust, in their works. The same pattern is true for the Russians. With writers such as Eduard Bagritsky, Ilya Ehrenburg, Osip Mandelshtam, and Boris Pasternak, their Jewish origins inclined them only to a fitful interest in things Jewish or to a less than universally sympathetic disposition toward their Jewish characters. Isaac Babel, reared in heavily Jewish Odessa and intimately familiar with the city's Jewish culture, was less reticent about writing on Jewish subjects and gave serious thought to the entire matter of the Jews in Russian post-revolutionary society and culture.

A Christian writing about Jews may have a very similar approach to a Jew writing about Jews, but will invariably be perceived differently.

Both Poland and the Soviet Union had huge Jewish populations on the eve of World War II. In the case of the Poles, the Jewish community amounted to about ten percent of the total population of the country, or some 3,500,000 people, the largest Jewish population in the world at the time outside the United States. This is staggering when one considers that out of a population of over 50,000,000 people in interwar Germany, no more than 500,000 were Jewish. Moreover, the German Jews were highly assimilated and well woven into the fabric of German social and cultural life. Although assimilation had made important strides in Poland from the rebirth of the country after World War I to the German invasion in September 1939, many Jews still lived isolated lives in small provincial communities known as shtetls and in predominantly Jewish districts in the large Polish cities. The majority of Polish Jews on the eve of the war still spoke Yiddish as their primary language. Yiddish of course was also spoken by Jews in the USSR, but by fewer people than in Poland. During the years of Soviet rule from the Revolution in 1917 to the German invasion of 1941, a relentless campaign of secularization and cultural assimilation all but eliminated Jewish social and cultural self-containment. To no small extent, this extended the promotion of Jewish assimilation in tsarist times. Under the empire, Russian official impediments to unregulated Jewish settlement and entry into the professions via a higher education encouraged the assimilationist tendencies, including conversion, of Jews in urban areas and among those afforded the opportunity to make careers in the arts and business.

From a Jewish point of view, much of this Polish ‘positivist' literature about Jews would appear to be stereotypical and condescending, somewhat like the treatment of blacks in older southern American fiction.

The Poles, by comparison, were, in a way--like the Jews--a subject people from the Third Partition to the reacquisition of Polish independence in 1918. In the Russian partition, which held the largest number of Jews in the former Polish lands, the Poles had little direct say in the everyday conduct of the Jewish communities in their midst. As an imperial power, and an enormous multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious state, the Russian authorities had no appreciably greater interest in the Jews than in the non-Russian Slavs including the conquered Poles, the Finns, or the various Turkic and other Muslim peoples within their borders.

As a great state if not an empire from the sixteenth to at least the middle of the eighteenth century, Poland, or more properly the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was also multiethnic, multireligious, and multicultural. But its minority populations were smaller than those of the Russian Empire, and the Jewish community both because of its size and its degree of separateness tended to attract the greatest attention from legislators and writers.

When one reads the major texts of imaginative and political literature of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the conclusion is inevitably reached that the Jews were rarely seen as an autonomous entity. What I mean is that whatever interest in the Jew is reflected in Old Polish literature it must be seen within the context of the longstanding rivalry over political power between the Crown and the masses of the landed gentry, or szlachta, who historically made up eleven to twelve percent of the population. Over the course of the fifeenth and sixteenth centuries, effective political power in Poland passed largely into the hands of the nobility of whom the largest number were the szlachta. This power was achieved at the cost of centralized monarchic authority and a strong bourgeoisie. The szlachta left its stamp on almost every aspect of Polish life and the Jew was no exception.

The attitude of the szlachta historically toward the Jews was one by and large of benign neglect. The limitations on Jewish ownership of land and access to commerce were somewhat more stringent than those applied to town populations once the Polish Diet became an instrument of szlachta political ambition. It was not a matter of religious bias as such against the Jews on the part of the szlachta--unlike in Russia where religious intolerance existed for hundreds of years--but practicality and expediency. Hand in hand with their acquisition of political power, the Polish gentry also acquired considerable economic power by gradually taking control of trade and keeping landed properties in their hands as much as possible. Once the Jew was put in his place within the economic system of the country, he was left alone to practice his religion freely, to run his own community, to have his own school and even judicial system, to cultivate the use of Yiddish as an everyday language (unlike Hebrew which was reserved for religious purposes), and to observe traditional patterns of dress.

What this meant was that thanks to the indifference of the gentry and at the same time a certain type of tolerance common to the class, the Jews were allowed to evolve into the "state within a state" they were often later accused of by Poles (and Russians as well). As the nineteenth-century Polish writer Klemens Janosza (real name Szaniawski) acknowledged in his treatise "Nasi Zydzi w miasteczkach i na wsiach" (Our Jews in Towns and Villages, 1889):

Thus we do not have the slightest possibility of parting with the Jews. The tempests of history drove them here, and the lack of foresight of our legislators created of them a nation in a nation and safeguarded their separateness until the present day. We must reckon, therefore, with accomplished facts. And since we cannot part with them, we must live alongside themand exert every effort to make that life as bearable as possible for both parties.

From a Jewish perspective, this state of affairs can be looked at in different ways. A secular, assimilationist Jew would argue that the Jews had this separateness imposed on them by a Polish gentry intent on ghettoizing the Jewish community in order to stifle economic competition and cultural penetration. The observant, traditionalist Jew, on the other hand, might argue--if indeed he even looked at it in such a light--that the policy or policies of Polish legislators made it possible for the Jews to pursue their own way of life in largely autonomous circumstances.

Once the Poles lost their independence in the partitions and like the Jews developed their own diaspora, the otherness of the Jews began to be seen in a less simplistic light. On one hand, the lack of integration of the Jews into everyday Polish life was regarded by some as a wrong badly in need of rectification if Poland was ever to emerge whole again from the partitions. A similar attitude prevailed toward the peasantry and the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, there were those especially in the first half of the nineteenth century in the time of the so-called Great Emigration who viewed the Jews as a people of diaspora capable of providing the Poles an example, if not precisely a model, of how a traditional way of life could be preserved and nurtured in the adverse conditions of emigration. This was especially true of the Polish Romantics, the most prominent of whom--the poet Adam Mickiewicz--became émigrés and who felt a profound responsibility to keep the spirit of Polishness alive wherever diaspora communities of Poles existed from France to Turkey and as far away as South America.

In order to better illustrate my point about the different perspectives regarding the Jew on the part of the Russian imperial authorities and the Poles of the diaspora, let's take a look at two acknowledged masterpieces of Slavic and European Romantic literature--Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1831) and Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz (1834). The setting of the Russian text is the world of fashionable society which functions as a foil for the development of the principal character of the novel in verse, a bored and restless young man who carries the seeds of his own destruction in his malaise. Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz recalls the high hopes in Poland's deliverance at the hands of Napoleon on the eve of the great campaign against Russia. Written for his fellow émigrés in the diaspora as well as for the Poles in the partitioned lands, Mickiewicz's work is a nostalgic evocation of a time of great hope and promise, the sad outcome of which is barely hinted at toward the end of the work. The emphasis instead is on the commonality of a shared culture, of shared aspirations, and of a shared belief in the eventual righting of historical wrongs. If Pushkin's world is that of the glittering salons of the capital, Mickiewicz's is that of the provincial Polish gentry in the Lithuanian region where he himself grew up. The familiar landscape of the gentry in Pan Tadeusz includes the traditional figure of the Jewish innkeeper. At first glance it may appear that this Jew, Jankiel by name, is nothing more or less than a stock character. But Jankiel is special, the pious Jew who harbors love for and loyalty to Poland and is assigned a unique role at the banquet with which the poem ends. A master of the zither, he performs a spirited and moving musical review of the momentous events of Polish history from the partitions to the Napoleonic campaigns. There are those who dismiss Jankiel as unrealistic and a projection of Mickiewicz's own sympathies for Jews. To others, he emblematizes an ideal of the Polish-Jewish relationship--to repeat, the observant Jew who remains faithful to his own traditions while at the same time loving Poland as his homeland. But there is a dimension of Jankiel that may easily be overlooked. He is in fact the only positive hero in the work apart of course from the French and Polish military officers who are minor or relatively minor figures. So great is Jankiel's love for Poland that he volunteers to act as a spy for the Franco-Polish forces. Unlike Jacek Soplica alias Father Robak who yields to the moral imperative to expiate the crime of betrayal, Jankiel has no reason other than his love of Poland to risk his life gathering information that he can bring back to the Polish side. I do indeed concede the paternalistic dimension of Jankiel's character--the pious, traditionally garbed Jew Poles knew so well. But there is no getting away from the centrality of the figure and the importance with which Mickiewicz obviously invested him. However paternalistically portrayed, however idealized the figure of Jankiel may be, the fact remains that the acknowledged masterpiece of Polish poetry prominently features a traditional Jew who is an object of neither scorn nor ridicule. Not only is there no Jew in Eugene Onegin--indeed why should there be since one would hardly have expected to find Jews in the milieu Pushkin evokes in his splendid poem--there are hardly any Jews to be found at all in Russian Romantic literature, or to broaden the scope somewhat, in Russian literature of the first half of the nineteenth century. And when they do appear, they are marginal at best and usually grotesque stereotypes.

However paternalistically portrayed, however idealized the figure of Jankiel may be, the fact remains that the acknowledged masterpiece of Polish poetry prominently features a traditional Jew who is an object of neither scorn nor ridicule.

To be sure, Jankiel is not the sum and substance of the image of the Jew in the literature of Polish Romanticism. For Count Zygmunt Krasinski, a conservative aristocrat and the son of a general who remained loyal to the Russians during the Napoleonic campaigns, the greatest danger to Europe in his time was the upheaval of social revolution and the coming to power of godless materialism. He dramatizes his fears in his play Nieboska komedia (1834, tr. The Undivine Comedy, 1924; new tr., 1999), which has to be regarded as one of the outstanding theatrical texts of European Romanticism. In it, the revolution Krasinski feared so profoundly is fomented by converted Jews who outwardly profess Christianity but covertly practice Judaism and whose goal is no less than the toppling of the existing order and their own assumption of power. But Krasinski, who chose to publish his works anonymously to conceal the fact that he was the son of General Wincenty Krasinski, was rather much the odd man out among the Polish Romantics in his attitude toward the Jews. Closer in spirit to Mickiewicz was the curious figure of Andrzej Towianski, a mystagogue and defrocked priest, who played a disproportionately large role in the spiritual life of the Polish Great Emigration in Paris in the 1840s. Towianski had his own ideas about the Jews and Polish-Jewish relations, and like Mickiewicz also thought in idealized terms. In Towianski's view, the long history of coexistence of Poles and Jews meant that the fate of the two peoples was intertwined. Each could nurture and fulfill the other for the greater future glory of Poland. But unlike Mickiewicz, Towianski posited the symbiosis of Poles and Jews on the Jew's acceptance of Christianity. This desideratum, however, is advanced by Towiasnki in the idiom of mystical enlightenment. It is sincere, fervent, and never strident or contemptuous.

In the whole huge body of Polish writing about the Jew, the necessity of Jewish conversion to Christianity is not routinely proposed as a precondition of Jewish social acceptance. It does crop up in a few nineteenth-century texts and in some early twentieth-century anti-Semitic publications, although the more extreme anti-Semitic texts view even conversion with suspicion in a replay of sorts of Krasinski's Undivine Comedy.

Let me return now, however briefly, to my earlier remark that "A Christian writing about Jews may have a very similar approach to a Jew writing about Jews, but will invariably be perceived differently." When in the second half of the nineteenth century in Poland, in the period of literary ‘positivism', it became a kind of social and moral imperative for Polish Christian writers to address the "Jewish Question," by which we understand the exclusion of the Jewish community from mainstream Polish social and cultural life, a kind of philanthropic approach to the Jew became the order of the day. Well-known writers of the time such as Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, Eliza Orzeszkowa, Aleksander Swietochowski, Boleslaw Prus, Klemens Junosza, Wiktor Gomulicki, and Maria Konopnicka wrote extensively about Jews, fictionally and otherwise. In some cases, as with Orzeszkowa, Swietochowski, and Junosza, their Jewish characters are primarily shtetl Jews, poor, pious, colorful, and by and large compassionately conceived. With Kraszewski, Prus, Gomulicki, and Konopnicka, Jews appear more often than not in an urban environment. From a Jewish point of view, much of this Polish positivist literature about Jews would appear to be stereotypical and condescending, somewhat like the treatment of blacks in older southern American fiction. If examined more closely, however, the situation is less simple than it may seem.

The so-called ‘positivist' writers of the second half of the nineteenth century were committed to a program of social integration intended to embrace groups they regarded as too long marginalized or disenfranchised. Peasants, Jews, and women were high on the agenda. The literature of Polish positivism had an understandable didactic character, and so in the case of the Jews writers such as Orzeszkowa and others felt an obligation to make this very large community of people--long regarded as a kind of alien species--as familiar as possible so as to create a preliminary basis of understanding regarded as essential to the fulfillment of the positivist agenda. Jewish rites and rituals, aspects of Jewish belief, the daily life of the shtetl were laid before Polish readers as never before. If this carried with it a certain type of paternalism and even condescension, it was not so remarkably different than the picture of Jewish provincial life that emerges from the pages of such classic East European Yiddish-language writers as Mendele Mocher Sforim, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, Zalman Schneour, and others. The approach of much of this late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Yiddish writing is typified by the titles of such novels as Mendele's Dos kleine menshele (The Little Man), Sholem Asch's Dos shtetl (The Town), and Zalman Schneour's Shklover yidden (Jews of Shklov). The typical "hero" of this earlier Yiddish literature is indeed the "little man," the ordinary shtetl dweller, and the venue of much of this literature is the shtetl. The literature is also myopic much of the time, as the title of Schneour's novel may suggest, in that it rarely looks or sees beyond the shtettl or ghetto.

There is, to be sure, an undeniable bias in the manner in which Jewish provincial and sometimes city life is portrayed in Polish positivist writing. Although some writers are bolder than others in suggesting that the Christian community bears some responsibility for the marginalization of the Jews and their transformation into an alien species, most tend rather to emphasize the obstacles the Jews themselves have erected to meaningful social interaction with the greater world of Polish Christendom surrounding them. Foremost among these obstacles, as the Poles saw it at the time, was the stubborn resistance to secularization on the part of the rabbinical leadership of the Jewish communities. Their stranglehold on the education of the young and their near fanatic fear of assimilation all but ruled out secularization and thus kept Poles and Jews as far apart as they had been for centuries.

[Orzeszkowa's paternalism] was not so remarkably different than the picture of Jewish provincial life that emerges from the pages of such classic East European Yiddish-language writers as Mendele Mocher Sforim, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, Zalman Schneour, and others.

That this was a common Polish perception goes without saying. That it was rooted in a deep-seated prejudice against the Jews is debatable. In light of the philosophy and social ideals of the positivists, the position was not unreasonable. Assimilationist Yiddish-language writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in both Poland and Russia painted similar pictures. Although it may appear that the Polish literary embrace of Jewish secularization and assimilation implied eventual if not immediate conversion to Roman Catholicism, the evidence is scant that a serious campaign to convert the Jews was ever entertained.

The situation in imperial Russia, of course, was quite different. Anti-Jewish legislation was extensive and repressive and various means of achieving Jewish conversion to the Russian Orthodox faith were employed from severe limitations on the acquisition of a higher education and training for the professions by Jews to the forced conscription into the army of very young boys for tours of duty lasting as many as twenty-five years with humiliation and physical abuse normal everyday occurrences for those resisting conversion. If the practice of the Jewish faith was more than merely discouraged in imperial Russia, it was all but forbidden through much of the earlier history of post-revolutionary Russia where career opportunities for Jews were far greater than at any previous time with the understanding, of course, that the Jews would be non-observant with their primary loyalty to the new communist state and that any and all manifestations of Jewish nationalism were to be strictly avoided. The self-hating Jewish cosmopolite, Boris Pasternak, expresses his own distaste for and ambivalence toward Jewish separatism and nationalism in Doctor Zhivago through his character Gordon, a Jew:

[The Jews'] national idea has forced them, century after century, to be a nation and nothing but a nation--and they have been chained to this deadening task all through the centuries when all the rest of the world was being delivered from it by a new force which had come out of their own midst. Isn't that extraordinary? How can you account for it? Just think! This glorious holiday [he is speaking about Christmas] this liberation from the curse of mediocrity, this soaring flight above the dullness of a humdrum existence, was first achieved in their land, proclaimed in their language, and belonged to their race! How could they allow a spirit of such overwhelming power and beauty to leave them, how could they think that after it triumphed and established its reign, they would remain as the empty husk of that miracle they had repudiated? What use is it to anyone, this voluntary martyrdom? Whom does it profit? For what purpose are these innocent old men and women and children, all these subtle, kind, humane people, mocked and beaten up throughout the centuries? . . . Why didn't the intellectual leaders of the Jewish people ever go beyond facile Weltschmerz and ironical wisdom? Why have they not . . . disbanded this army which keeps on fighting and being massacred nobody knows for what? Why don't they say to them: ‘Come to your senses, stop. Don't hold on to your identity. Don't stick together, disperse. Be with all the rest. You are the first and best Christians in the world. You are the very thing against which you have been turned by the worst and weakest among you.'

The infrequency of outright calls by Polish writers for the conversion of the Jews does not mean that Judaism as understood by Christian writers was not viewed critically in certain respects. The more determined the Polish writer was to contribute to an enlightenment of the Jewish masses, the more pains he or she took to learn about Jewish beliefs and practices in order to condemn those regarded as detrimental to Jewish secular advancement. The most impressive from this point of view was Eliza Orzeszkowa but she was not the only one. Reading Orzeszkowa's novels and stories with Jewish settings, the novel Meir Ezofowicz (1878, tr. Meir Ezofovitch, 1898; tr. The Forsaken, 1980), for example, one carries away the impression that it was Jewish mysticism, and the Cabbala in particular, that was primarily responsible for masses of Jews being mired for so long in darkness, ignorance, and superstition. Thus enlightenment in the novel is represented by Meir Ezofowicz Senior and the forces of doctrinal darkness by the Sephardic rebbe Nehemiah Todros. This is how they are presented by Orzeszkowa:

A sizeable faction among them [the Jews] clamored for secular learning and a brotherly relationship with the rest of mankind in intellectual efforts and aspirations. One of the people standing at the head of this faction was the Lithuanian Senior, Meir Ezofowicz. Mainly through his influence, the Jewish Synod issued the following proclamation to all Jews:

"The Israelite must not rest satisfied with one kind of knowledge [the religious]. The first should be holy learning, but that is no reason to neglect others. The apple of Paradise is the best of all fruit, but does that mean we must not eat the less tasty? Learn; be useful to the king and his lords, and they will respect you."

The man under whose influence this proclamation was written summoning the Polish Jews to turn their faces toward the light of the future, met face to face with another man whose eyes were fixed on the past and darkness. This was Nehemiah Todros, newly arrived from Spain, and a descendant of Todros Abulaffi Halevi who had been famous for his knowledge of the Talmud and his orthodoxy until he later let himself be carried away by the dark mysteries of the Cabbala. Backing it with the dignity of his own person, he contributed significantly to the emergence among Jews of one of the worst errors to which the spirit of a nation can succumb. It is rumored that this same Nehemiah Todros, who bore the princely title of "nassi," introduced into Poland the Book of Zohar, the quintessence of the pernicious doctrine, and that it was from that time on that studies of the Talmud and Cabbala became mixed. This began to have an increasingly harmful effect on the minds and lives of the Polish Jews.

The picture is even darker in Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz's epistolary novel Lejbe i Sióra (Lejbe and Sara, 1821). The young Jewish lovers Lejbe and Sara want to be free to pursue secular learning without abandoning their faith. They yearn to be part of the greater world around them, but are oppressed by their ultraconservative elders and rabbis who bitterly oppose cultural emancipation and do their utmost to keep the Jewish community in a stultifying traditionalism. As Sara laments in one of her letters to Lejbe from whom she has been taken away to another town to prepare her for marriage to the grotesque and fanatic hunchback Yankel, the son of Hirsch, of Berdyczew:

Why am I being persecuted and oppressed on all sides? Must one wretched girl become the object not only of the fear but even the closest attention of the rabbi of the kahal, the brotherhoods, indeed of the whole of the Hebrew elders? . . . All I hear are scoldings and dire threats. The books you gave me have been taken away from me and have been replaced by the Talmud, the Mishnah, the Gemara, and the Cabbala. They compel me to wander in this dark wilderness in which a ray of light never shines, and where all I encounter are poisonous weeds and terrible monsters.

And then in a display of familiarity with prominent representatives of the Jewish enlightenment, the haskalah, Niemcewicz puts these words into Sara's mouth:

I keep my distance from them as best I can. I long for the original books of Moses, the works of Mendelssohn, Friedländer, Ben David, and Kalmansohn; a rational Hebrew never disavows these enlightened men.

The wise and enlightened Abraham, the father of Sara's friend Rachel, is Niemcewicz's true spokesman in the novel. His repudiation of orthodox Judaism at one point in the novel is withering:

I was brought up, like many others, in all the incomprehensible nonsense of the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Gemara. However, God deigned to enlighten me with sound judgment. I perceived that the impediment to the advancement of the Israelites in Poland and in the former Polish provinces comes most of all from the sect of the Hasidim, who entice our youth by their fanatic representations as well as by their debauched lives, and plunge them into an ever deeper abyss.

That Polish literature is by no means monolithic with respect to hasidism and Hasidim, I refer you to the splendid stories collected in the series Na wysokiej poloninie which Stanislaw Vincenz published between 1936 and 1952 (tr. On the High Uplands, 1955). A Pole of no Jewish background, a writer with the passion of an ethnographer, and no agenda to promote except that of authenticity, Vincenz brilliantly captured for all time the everyday l'fe of the once thriving Hasidic communities of the Hucul region of the Carpathian Mountains--the region where the Bal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, once roamed. A Jewish reader delighting in Vincenz's stories and not knowing that they were from the pen of a Polish Christian, would regard On the High Uplands as a masterpiece of Yiddish literature in Poland.

Where the Jew is presented in negative terms. . . in almost all cases the target of the criticism is not the Jew as such but the gentry whose disdain for mercantile activity was legendary and who used the Jew for their own ends. . . as purveyors of spirits to poor peasants in provincial inns and taverns.

It would be fairly easy to dismiss such writing as Niemcewicz's Lejbe and Sara as simplistic and uncharitable. But a benign reading seems more in order. To begin with, the Talmud, which comprises the huge compilations of the Mishna and the Gemara, is an extraordinary work that addresses virtually every facet of Jewish life no matter how mundane or trivial. The scope and detail are mind boggling. A lifetime can be spent studying it and there are many who have so devoted their lives. It is not a book for the layman. But one can easily appreciate, I think, how a Niemcewicz in the first half of the nineteenth century or an Orzeszkowa in the second half of the century might have viewed the exhaustive study of the Talmud by Jewish youth huddled in cramped and often unheated yeshivas day in and day out for long hours on end. One has to understand the context in which such works as Lejbe and Sara and Meir Ezofowicz arose. Writing not long after the partitions that erased Poland from the map of Europe and just a few years after the defeat of Napoleon in whom the Poles had placed so much hope, Niemcewicz was looking ahead to a future Poland which would draw strength from the integration of the very large Jewish community which was and yet was not a part of Poland. It was I think more with a sense of frustration than with anger that Niemcewicz had his character Abraham in Lejbe and Sara articulate this common complaint about Jewish separateness:

We complain that the Polish government oppresses us, that it extends none of the rights of citizens to us, and that it bars the path of industry and self-improvement to us. But what does the government reply to our complaints and demands? If you want to enjoy equal rights of citizenship with us, must we not first recognize you as citizens, as Poles? What language do you speak? A foreign tongue, not that of this country. You write and pray in it. What of your dress? It is unlike that of any other nation on earth. Do you not yourselves declare that Poland is not your country, and that you are merely wayfarers in it? Can we recognize you as our fellow citizens by your obedience to the laws of the land? Do you not in fact excommunicate those of you who seek justice in our courts? You indeed have your own laws and your own courts.

We have extended our rights and privileges to people of all faiths (except for those dogmas which God alone must judge) so long as they adhere to all the laws and decrees of the land. But even as you cling obstinately to your own contrary, separate precepts, which are harmful to society, and you wish to remain eternal strangers, yet you wish to partake of all the benefits, freedoms, and advantages of those who dwell in Poland. And even though you do not regard us as people, yet you still want us to recognize you as our fellow citizens. Preserve the purity of your faith, but repudiate, renounce for ever your Talmuds, Cabbalas, and all the fables and absurdities with which your elders, for their own benefit and your misfortune, continue to mislead you.

A product of the European Enlightenment, Niemcewicz could not have thought otherwise with respect to a people whose lives were dominated by religious beliefs and practices. The Cabbala, and in particular the Book of Zohar, the prime text of Jewish mysticism, would understandably have been as abhorrent to him as the mystic texts of any faith, Christian, Islamic, or Jewish.

A Jewish reader delighting in Vincenz's stories and not knowing that they were from the pen of a Polish Christian, would regard On the High Uplands as a masterpiece of Yiddish literature in Poland.

The positivist outlook which she and other Polish writers espoused in the second half of the nineteenth century inclined Orzeszkowa to similar views. Positivism developed in response to the need for practical solutions to social, economic, and educational problems. One of those problems was the situation of the Jews who in the eyes of a typical positivist writer such as Orzeszkowa had to be integrated into the fabric of Polish society for the future well-being of a nation that would one day again know independence. That necessary integration of the Jews could not come but at the expense of mysticism and an arcane tradition of learning that raised impossible barriers between the Jews and the vast world of Christians surrounding them. Had not many Jews themselves thought along similar lines the Jewish enlightenment known as the haskalah would never have developed, and the maskilim, the Jewish promoters of enlightenment, were harder on their fellow Jews and on Judaism than the Polish writers I have discussed. Yiddish-language writers from Mendele Mocher Sforim and I. L. Peretz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Grade have painted vivid pictures of oppressive Talmudic and Cabbalistic studies and have raised the issue in their works of Jewish traditionalism versus Jewish assimilationism.

What I have said so far should not suggest that when nineteenth- and early twentieth- century Polish writers wrote on Jewish subjects they all mounted the podium to exhort the Jews, in order to become good Polish citizens, to abandon the Talmud and Cabbala, give up Yiddish and Hebrew in preference for Polish, and change their centuries' old way of dress. Such writers as Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, Klemens Junosza, Aleksander Swietochowski, Adam Szymanski, and Maria Konopnicka seemed content to portray Jewish life as they perceived it without bias and without the reformist missionary zeal of a Niemcewicz or Orzeszkowa. In his novel Zyd (The Jew, 1866), which is set during the January Uprising of 1863, Kraszewski, a master of historical fiction, drew the portrait of a secular but faithful Jew who is at the same time an ardent Polish patriot. Of particular interest in the novel is Kraszewski's more sophisticated understanding of the crosscurrents within Jewish society of the time with respect to secularism and traditionalism and the moral and spiritual pitfalls awaiting the individual who abandons his faith. As he has his central character Jakub, clearly the spokesman for Kraszewski's own views, declare:

The Jew today is no longer what he used to be when exclusion forced him to be only himself, to live, think, learn, and move in a narrow circle defined for him by the laws and customs of hostile Christians. . . . On occasion, a Maimonides or Spinoza emerged from this cramped little circle, but it was composed for the most part of a uniform mass of faithful and strict confessors of the Old Testament. We clustered around the Ark of the Covenant. . . . Today the Jews are freer, and, less restrained, walk different paths. . . . Many of them reject their traditional law and faith and seemingly accept another, while in reality they have none. . . . There is nothing sadder, I repeat, than those people who have broken with tradition, with all faith in the past, with all remembrance of it, and who make their way by reason along the path of material gain. . . . Such people are no rarity in our society or yours; in both they represent an equally sad phenomenon. The Christian who has rejected Christ, the Jew who has rejected Moses, give off the same stench of putrefaction.

And then, as if renouncing the superficiality of the treatment of Judaic beliefs and practices in Niemcewicz and Orzeszkowa, Kraszewski has Jakub go on to say:

The Christian world took so much from Mosaic law that it cannot deny its superiority without denying itself. Nevertheless, attributing them to the Talmud and rabbis, it has judged only superficially oddities that have accrued through the centuries; everything not understood in Judaism has been ridiculed, and trifles have been seized upon to mock it and make it abominable. All the literature on the subject pretends to illuminate our learning and elucidate our customs, yet proves in reality that neither has been understood.

As I hope I have demonstrated to this point, the way Jews have been portrayed in Polish literature has had much to do with the time and circumstances. Until the partitions of the late eighteenth century patterns of Jewish life in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and patterns of Polish-Jewish interaction were shaped by the specifics and dynamics of the Polish gentry-dominated political system. Jews were aware of the possibilities or lack of them that were available to them, they were protected by law, and they were allowed by and large to live their own lives. Their presence in older Polish literature appears within the framework mostly of political and legal or juridical texts. Where the Jew is presented in negative terms--as an unproductive element in society, as an exploiter of the peasantry in the countryside, as disproportionately dominant in the world of small trade, as a leech feeding off Christian blood, and so on--in almost all cases the target of the criticism is not the Jew as such but the gentry whose disdain for mercantile activity was legendary and who used the Jew for their own ends, as tax collectors, as money lenders, and as purveyors of spirits to poor peasants in provincial inns and taverns. In his vast novel of contemporary Warsaw, Lalka (1890, tr. The Doll, 1996), Boleslaw Prus not only contrasts different types of urban Jews but vividly portrays the attitude of the Polish nobility toward commerce that had been excoriated in Polish reformist political literature as far back at least as the eighteenth century.

With the formation of the Great Emigration after the loss of Polish independence and the collapse of the Napoleonic house of cards, literary Romanticism saw the Jew in a different light than that of the Enlightenment or, later, positivism. The Jews were the people of the Diaspora; so now were the Poles, and as we have seen, commonalities were discovered. If Niemcewicz and Orzeszkowa and others in the positivist period railed against Jewish mysticism as embodied in the Cabbala for its obscurantism, the Romantic enthusiasm for the occult and supernatural found it enthralling.

With the advent of post-Romantic positivism after the failed uprising of 1863, the greatest period for a Polish literature on Jewish subjects unfolded. The social reformist zeal of the positivists and the recognition that the Jew represented an urgent social problem long in need of solution opened the floodgates for an outpouring of writing about Jews. Yes, much of this writing can be faulted for didacticism and paternalism, but whatever its weaknesses this substantial body of literature from the 1860s to the end of the nineteenth century was well-intentioned, sincere in its desire to work toward an improvement of the lot of the Jews and relations between Jews and Poles, and commendable for the detail with which it sought to portray especially Jewish shtetl life from within. As I suggested earlier, there is nothing like it in Russian literature from at least the time of Pushkin and Gogol through Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Jewish characters are either noticeable by their absence or appear as one-dimensional objects of contempt or derision. Typically, the Jewish band that performs in the second act of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is seen of course and heard, but nothing more as they are mere background, familiar figures in a Russian provincial landscape. Gogol's distaste for Jews is manifest already in Taras Bulba. In Turgenev's early story "Zhid" (The Jew, 1847) the title itself is derogatory in Russian--the narrator, a young officer during the campaign against the French in 1813, describes his relationship with a Jew who is made to appear loathsome and whose death by hanging he causes when he catches the man making suspicious sketches of the Russian base and turns him in to his superior, an ethnic German who metes out punishment strictly according to the book, ignoring all pleas for mercy.

This Jew, whose name was Grishel, was continually hanging about our camp, offering his services as an agent, getting us wine, provisions, and other such trifles. He was a thinnish, red-haired little man, marked with smallpox; he blinked incessantly with his diminutive little eyes, which were reddish too; he had a long crooked nose, and was always coughing.

The Jew's loathsomeness is established by his appearance and servile manner and then by his offer to procure a female companion for the young officer in the form of an attractive young Jewish girl who, as it turns out, is Grishel's own daughter. Although the narrator tries to intercede with his superior to save the Jew's life, he cannot resist commenting on the grotesque behavior of the Jew as he is about to be executed:

I saw then why it is they had been laughing at the Jew when I ran up to the camp with Sara [Grishel's daughter]. He was really ludicrous in spite of all the horror of his position. The intense anguish of parting with life, his daughter, his family, showed itself in the Jew in such strange and grotesque gesticulations, shrieks, and wriggles that we all could not help smiling, though it was horrible--intensely horrible to us too. The poor wretch was half dead with terror.

A Jew, this time a young one, is also hanged--together with a Pole--in Tolstoy's novel Resurrection (1898). They have been charged with illegal possession of Polish political pamphlets. But whereas the Pole goes to his death in a manly fashion, the Jew becomes hysterical, resists in every way possible, and has to be dragged to the gallows. If Dostoevsky's increasingly shrill anti-Semitism from the House of the Dead through The Possessed expressed itself without such primitive and grotesque images, he did not shrink nevertheless from injecting the issue of Jewish ritual murder in The Brothers Karamazov. And when the otherwise saintly Alyosha is asked about it he responds in such a way as to suggest that perhaps he too believes that the Jews could be guilty of such heinous crimes. It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that the situation changed somewhat, when writers such as Vladimir Korolenko, Aleksandr Kuprin, and the truly philo-Semitic Maksim Gorky, took up the cause of the Jew in Russia and sought through their writing to achieve some turnabout in the pathological anti-Semitism so long endemic to Orthdox Russia. I have in mind such texts as Korolenko's stories "Yasha," "Bratya Mendel" (The Mendel Brothers) and "Sudnyi den" (The Day of Atonement) and his novel Bez yazyka (Without Language) about Ukrainian and Jewish immigrants in America. Kuprin's fine story of human resilience, "Gambrinus" (1907), is about a Jewish fiddler in Odessa who delights sailors with his playing but has his hands crippled in a vicious pogrom. Undaunted, however, he learns to play the same tunes on a penny whistle. Gorky, among other things, encouraged Jews to write about Jewish subjects, especially dramatists such as Evgenii Chirikov and Semen Yushkevich.

[In contrast, in nineteenth-century Russian literature] Jewish characters are either noticeable by their absence or appear as one-dimensional objects of contempt or derision.

Although Kuprin does not flinch from showing the effects of a pogrom in "Gambrinus," the willingness of some Polish writers to confront anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence as Konopnicka does in her story "Mendel gdanski" (Mendel of Gdansk, 1897) and Gabriela Zapolska in her novella Antysemitnik (The Anti-Semite, 1897-98) had no parallel in Russia in roughly the same period when incidents against Jews and state-sponsored pogroms were on the rise. Zapolska's novella is an interesting example of how a well-intentioned Polish writer sought to expose the banality of expedient anti-Semitism, in this case on the part of a young journalist, and yet in the same work--apart from the journalist's attractive girlfriend Irma --offers up some of the most offensively stereotypical portraits of Jews in Polish literature. In light of her plays written sympathetically about young Jewish women trying to adapt to the changing modern world about them--plays such as Malka Szwarcenkopf (1897) and Jojne Firulkes (1898)--as well as her putdown of anti-Semitism in Antysemitnik, it would perhaps be unfair to dismiss Zapolska as a kind of closet anti-Semite. But it is certainly conceivable that Zapolska tried in part to balance her exposure of one type of anti-Semitism in Poland as she saw it with negative pictures of Jews, as if to some degree to rationalize the very anti-Semitism she obviously decries in her novella. Otherwise what does one do with descriptions such as these:

Szatkiewicz [the anti-Semitic journalist] was at once struck by the red color of the boy's hair. The hair was cropped close, almost down to the scalp, which showed through the nearly scarlet stubble with a luminous whiteness. Looking at the boy from above, all that one could see was the reddish-gold ball of his small head and large ears that stuck out terribly. Little legs bent into the shape of a spider, deformed by rickets, protruded from beneath his shift. The child was dirty and greasy although his clothing was whole and warm. Covered with a long, gray, woolen kerchief, he stood glued to the crate, tiny, poor, quiet, contorted, and sleepy.

What Szatkiewicz beholds here unbeknownst to him at the time is the child of his girlfriend whom he does not yet suspect of being Jewish. Red hair, a sickly, misshapen appearance, protruding ears, and a long and/ or hooked nose are, as we are well aware, common elements in the negative image of the Jew going back centuries. In his 1901 painting "Judas"--which hangs in the National Museum in Warsaw--the Polish artist Edward Okun depicted his subject from a side overlooking the city of Jerusalem in the warm light of a setting sun. Judas's hair and beard are red and scraggly and the nose is grotesquely crooked if mercifully not unduly long. Szatkiewicz is badly in need of money, and his girlfriend Irma arranges for a moneylender to come to his shabby quarters. When she arrives and Szatkiewicz opens the door for her,

A fairly fat but obviously asthmatic Jewess bowed to him sideways, stepping on her skirt, which was somewhat too long in front. She was attired in a long, unfashionable jacket and wore a wig of walnut-colored ribbons, which must have been satin when new. Her wig was topped by a hat that was a masterful combination of patches of different material, velvet ribbons, feathers, and two astonishing amaranth roses, fastened on both sides of the head like two flaming splintered horns. The woman's face was also a poem of composition, of a kind of contortion so painful as to drain her lips of blood, a covetous flickering of huge black magnificent eyes, and constant fright revealed in a certain twisting of one side of the face.

Not long afterward the woman's peddler husband makes his appearance:

Like a shadow, a phantom, an apparition, an old Jew appeared, stooped and contrite. He had a huge bundle on his shoulder, an even larger one over his chest, and smaller ones in his hands from which chintz and calico stuck out. . . . He was a very old Jew, maybe sixty years old, perhaps even seventy or more. He seemed to be as old as Kraków itself, this Ahasuerus in a gray, shiny gabardine so threadbare it looked completely green. And he was so pale that there didn't seem to be a drop of blood beneath his skin. His long beard and sparse hair on his temples also lacked color and resembled sun-faded straw. When he deposited his bundles on the floor, he retreated to the door and stood out against the white background like the silhouette of an anemic old man trembling from the blows of an invisible whip with which some mysterious and merciless hand was lashing his body.

A similar balancing act, or what I regard as such, occurs in our own time in Andrzej Szczypiorski's World War II novel Poczatek (1986, tr. The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, 1997). Like Jerzy Andrzejewski in his fine novella Wielki Tydzien (Holy Week), which deals with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, Szczypiorski has no qualms about showing the contemptuous behavior toward Jews of some Poles during the occupation. When, for example, the nun Sister Weronika expresses her intention to raise as Catholics Jewish children brought to her convent for safekeeping she is sternly lectured as to the ultimate futility of such a goal by the aristocrat Judge Romnicki. When the war is at last over Szczypiorski follows the subsequent resettlement in the new state of Israel of one Jewish girl, Joasia, who was in fact reared as a Catholic by Sister Weronika. Now known as Miriam, Joasia's Jewishness reasserts itself with pride and vigor, but Szczypiorski undercuts this new sense of Jewish self-esteem by showing Israeli soldiers lording it over cowering Palestinian fedayeen obviously recalling the terrorizing of helpless Jews by German troops during World War II. It is in this respect that Szczypiorski's novel recalls, to me anyway, Zapolska's novella Antysemitnik, although Szczypiorski's lacks the grotesqueness of Zapolska's. And with respect to Zapolska's novella, it may be instructive to point out that within just a couple of years of its publication Kraków audiences were spellbound by the greatest dramatic work of Polish modernism, Stanislaw Wyspianski's Wesele (1901, tr. The Wedding, 1990). Here, alongside a familiar but warmly drawn portrait of a provincial Polish Jewish innkeeper, there appears the stunning figure of his worldly and poetically inclined daughter Rachela whose vivid imagination sets in motion the eerie developments that transform a country wedding into a night of magic.

When all is said and done, and whatever its limitations, Polish imaginative writing about the Jew is rich, varied, and without equal in Europe except for Yiddish literature itself. Much changed in the period between the two world wars and for many Jews the promised rewards of assimilation were thwarted by the struggle of the newly independent Polish state to stay on its feet. Territorial wars, economic hardship, and political instability put serious strains on relations between Poles and Jews, resulted in humiliations, exclusionary policies, in some instances even physical abuse, and made prospects of emigration especially to Palestine as encouraged by the Zionists attractive to both communities. Even so, the number of Jews who left Poland for Palestine or elsewhere in the bleaker days after Marshal Pilsudski's death in 1935 and prior to the German invasion in September 1939 was a fraction of the total Jewish population of the country. And when a final solution to the problem of the Jew in Poland came it was a solution imposed not by the Poles but by Germans for whom Polish as well as Jewish lives were always cheap.

The intriguing phenomenon in post-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe is not the efforts to promote a Jewish life in Poland on the basis of perhaps no more than 5,000 individuals actually professing Jewishness, but the reestablishment of Jewish life in Germany. . . The extraordinary German interest in the topic of the Jews far exceeds that of the Poles and is noteworthy above all for its depth.

There is little left of a Jewish community or a Jewish presence in Poland today except memories and the well-intentioned if essentially hollow efforts aimed at creating a sense of Jewish revival. Monuments to the history of the Jews of Poland are being raised, publications of all sorts about the Polish Jews abound, tours are led through former Jewish districts where rebuilt synagogues with hardly any congregants are visited, conferences and symposia on Polish-Jewish issues are held by Polish academic institutions which for decades under the communists never even offered courses in Judaism as a religion, and the Jewish theme enjoys a certain popularity in contemporary Polish literature although the writers are mostly Christians and too young to have any firsthand knowledge of the prewar Jewish community. In the absence of such knowledge, contemporary Polish imaginative writing about the Polish Jews is just that, imaginative, inventing Jewish characters with little or no resemblance to reality as in Pawel Huelle's Waiser Dawidek (1987, tr. Who Was David Weisel, 1995) or archeologically reassembling an obliterated Jewish past along the lines of Piotr Szewc's first novel, Zaglada (1987, tr. Annihilation, 1993), a too convincingly imagined day in the life of a Polish-Jewish town modeled on the author's own Zamosc shortly before World War II and the Holocaust.

Ironically, the more intriguing phenomenon in post-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe is not the efforts to promote a revitalized Jewish life in Poland on the basis of perhaps no more than 5,000 individuals actually professing Jewishness, but the reestablishment of Jewish life in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the gradual reintegration of Jews into contemporary German culture. The extraordinary German interest in the topic of the Jews I believe far exceeds that of the Poles and is noteworthy above all for its depth. Moreover, the Jewish population of present day Germany is estimated at around 100,000 people and has developed an infrastructure of active synagogues, community centers, and cultural organizations. There is indeed in Germany today a whole new generation of young Jews living in the country and writing in German. Indeed, more than 1,000 books written by Jewish authors in postwar Germany have been published, 400 of them autobiographical in nature. Nothing comparable exists in Poland nor do developments in Poland rise even to the level of contemporary Jewish culture in such other East European countries as the Czech Republic and Hungary.

In trying to understand this phenomenon, I have asked myself why Jews would prefer to live in the land of the murderer rather than in the land of the murdered. A few plausible answers come to mind. The reminders of the Holocaust are ubiquitous in Poland--the death camps, the sites of the destroyed ghettoes and smashed synagogues and other once thriving institutions of Jewish life in Poland. Whatever monuments to the Holocaust and the history of German Jewry are erected in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, they cannot evoke, I believe, the same kind of emotional responses as the killing fields of Poland. Jews were killed in Germany, but far fewer than in Poland where they were shipped from every corner of Europe for the express purpose of being exterminated. So assimilated were the Jews in Germany in the prewar years, one cannot fairly speak of the destruction of a specific German Jewish culture in the way that one can speak of the eradication of one of the great Jewish communities in world history, that of the Jews of Poland. Hence the reestablishment of Jewish life in a democratic and at least outwardly repentant Germany--despite occasional neo-Nazi acts--seems easier than rebuilding a Jewish community in Poland.

There are other considerations as well. The lost opportunities for more harmonious Polish-Jewish relations in the interwar years seem, in many Jewish minds, to have been compounded in the postwar era by the outrageous assaults on Jews in the early years after the war--all the more irrational after the horrors both Poles and Jews experienced under the Germans during the occupation--the politically motivated anti-Semitic campaign of 1968 that resulted in another 15,000 or more Jews leaving the country, and the newer evidence of Polish anti-Jewish atrocities during the war such as befell the entire Jewish population of the town of Jedwabne. The legacy of these experiences inhibits, I believe, any serious revitalization of Jewish life in Poland. And so what we are left with are good intentions, good acts--most of them symbolic--and a rich Polish literary tradition, unlike the Russian, which did envision and tried to bring about better understanding between Pole and Jew and the eventual entry of the masses of Polish Jews into the mainstream of Polish society.

Andrzej Szczypiorski, whom I had occasion to refer to earlier, once wrote about attitudes toward and perceptions of Jews in Poland today that the Poles "are unaware that they have been crippled, and that without the Jews they are no longer the Poles they once were and should have remained forever." In light of the differences between the two peoples in the Polish historical context and the hammer blows to integration in the twentieth century, Szczypiorski's words represent no more than wishful thinking about something never ordained by destiny.

This lecture was delivered at Rice University on October 5, 2000. It was sponsored by the Central Europe Workshop.

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