'The Two Saddest Nations on Earth:' Poles, Jews and Memory

Abraham J. Peck

Our Jewish tradition asks us to remember. We are a people of memory. But what happens when that memory remains fixed on the most awful moment in our collective experience? What happens when we are so traumatized by the events of that memoryof the Holocaust that we cannot look backward to a more ambiguous past or to an unknown and unknowable future?

In the United States, any form of dialogue between the Polish Christian community and the former Polish Jewish community has, in the words of Eva Hoffman, 'taken on the form of a moral war and has proceeded in escalating rounds of accusation and counter-accusation, exaggeration and denial.'

Is this how multicultural debate takes place in this most multicultural nation and city, in a nation whose Christian-Jewish dialogue is advanced beyond our greatest expectations?

The Polish Jewish poet Antoni Sonimski wrote in his epic poem, "Elegy for the Jewish Villages" the following:

Gone now are those little towns where the shoemaker was a poet,
The watchmaker a philosopher, the barber a troubadour.
Gone now are those little towns where the wind
joined Biblical songs with Polish tunes and Slavic rue
Where old Jews in orchards in the shade of cherry trees
Lamented for the holy walls of Jerusalem.
Gone now are those little towns, though the poetic mists,
The moons, winds, ponds, and stars above them
Have recorded in the blood of centuries above the tragic tales,
The histories of the two saddest nations on earth.

And we meet here today aware that the paths of the two saddest nations on this earth have parted forever.

All we have left is a memory. All we have left is the knowledge that we cannot understand who we were and who we have become without understanding each other.

You, Polonia, gave us the opportunity to be the largest and greatest Jewry the world had ever seen. We came to you a thousand years ago and we continued to come because your nobility saw in us something worth having. And we saw in you a tolerance that we saw nowhere else in Europe. We created a legend about you, we called you Polin because in our sacred language Hebrew the two words po and lin mean 'Here shalt thou lodge,' in the exile from the Land of Israel. Poland was a place, as the great Polish Jewish novelist, Sholem Asch, described it, where 'Satan has no power over the Jews and the Torah [the most sacred of Jewish texts] is spread over the whole country. There are synagogues and schools and rabbinical academies. God be thanked.'

Not that everything was peaceful. When we Jews fled the countries of Western Europe during the epidemics of the Black Death seeking shelter in Poland, we came in great numbers. Soon we settled in Lwów [Lviv], Sandomierz, Kazimierz near Kraków, as well as in many cities in Great Poland, Little Poland, Kuyavia, and Red Ruthenia.

In 1454 anti-Jewish riots flared up in Wrocaw and other Silesian cities. A papal envoy, the Franciscan friar called John of Capistrano accused us of profaning the Christian religion. In Silesia, his words cut deeply and we were banned from Lower Silesia. But when John of Capistrano sought to incite the Catholics of Kraków and other cities, anti-Jewish unrest was much less.

We meet here today aware that the paths of the two saddest nations on this earth have parted forever.

By the end of the sixteenth century there were 500,000 Jews living in Poland. Not only the Ashkenazim from the German persecutions, but Sephardic Jews who were driven away from Spain and Portugual during the Inquisition.

We could not believe our good fortune. When we looked around at the rest of Europe and we looked at our lot in Poland, we knew the words Polin meant something. In many Polish towns Jews were given complete freedom in carrying out trade and crafts while in a few towns Jews still could not settle permanently. And even though our economic activities were appreciated by the szlachta, the Polish nobility, because we served as an alternative to a viable middle class which could rival them, we also joined in the first of many joint struggles with Polish burghers against an often oppressive Polish gentry. In a 1589 agreement with the municipal authorities of Kamionka Strumiowa, the councilors of the town 'accepted the Jews into their own laws and freedoms while the Jews undertook to carry the same burdens as the burghers.' The latter promised that they would 'defend those Jews as our real neighbors from intrusions and violence of both the gentry and soldiers. We will prevent all harm done to them... since they are our neighbors.' There was no parallel anywhere else on the face of the earth.

And you allowed us to govern ourselves. In the sixteenth century the structure of Jewish self-government had no equal in all of Europe. The Va'ad Arba Arazot, the Diet of the Four Lands, was called into existence by Stephan Bathory in 1579. It was headed by a Marshal General and included a Rabbi General, Scribe General and Treasurers General. This was a diet that represented all the Jews. It carried out negotiations with central and local Polish authorities through its liaison officers called shtadlanim who sought to influence the decisions concerning Jews taken by the Sejm, the Polish parliament, and the diets of the gentry.

There were times of common suffering as well. In 1648, the Cossack uprising led by the Ukrainian hetman, Bohdan Khmelnitzky, was directed at both Poles and Jews. It was a time of great suffering and death for us but also for you.

And we were not strong enough to withstand the forces of partition. We lost what we knew as Poland to Russians, Austrians and Prussians.

Europe knows that there is none braver than the Polish soldier. In 1794, under the hero of the American revolution, General Tadeusz KoÊciuszko, you honored us by creating a separate military unit composed of Jewish volunteers in the uprising against Tsarist Russia. 'Nothing can convince more the far away nations about the holiness of our cause and the justness of the present revolution,' he wrote in a Statement on the Formation of a Regiment of Jews, 'than that, though separated from us by their religion and customs, they sacrifice their own lives of their own free will in order to support the uprising.' The Jewish regiment under Colonel Berek Josielewicz took part in the battle to save Warsaw. Josielewicz lost his life in a later battle.

If in the eighteenth century you called us comrade in arms, in the nineteenth you called us brother. Your great poet, Adam Mickiewicz, created Jankiel the Jewish tavern keeper in his epic poem Pan Tadeusz. It was written in exile in 1834 after the failure of the November 1830 Rising against Russia.

Jankiel is a dignified traditional Jew who acts as a spy for the Polish landed gentry who seek to exploit Napoleon's conflict with Russia to restore Poland's independence. Your great national poet has Jankiel the Jew play the Dàbrowski March ("Poland has not yet perished"), the tune that would later become the Polish national anthem.

And it is with Mickiewicz that the Jew in Poland was seen as the older brother of the Poles. It was a belief that only in alliance with its older brother could Poland, the new chosen nation, fulfill its divine mission to free European nations from the yoke of authoritarianism. 'For your freedom and ours' became the cry of the Polish insurrectionists.

'I believe that a union of Poland and Israel, ' Mickiewicz wrote, 'would be a source of spiritual and material strength to us. We would most efficiently prepare Poland's rebirth by removing the causes of its eclipse and reviving the union and brotherhood of all races and religions that regard our motherland as their home.'

Romanticism gone mad, perhaps. But there were Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Belarusians, Armenians and even Scots who were a part of the motherland and a part of a multicultural possibility.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, much of this thinking had changed. Other, more inward looking, forces sought to find different ways to create a free Poland, one that was Polish in a geographic but also in a linguistic and cultural sense. Poland for the Polish Christian, said Roman Dmowski, the founder of the National Democratic Party, the Endecja. His Endeks did not see us as an older brother but as an economic, religious and cultural Other. We no longer were the Îydki, the little Jews of Polish literature, crafty to be sure, but wise and often extraordinarily useful. We were the epitome of the suspicious Other, who stood in the way of a true nationalist revival.

When a free Poland emerged from the shadow of the First World War, we were not seen as a partner in the creation. Indeed, in the interwar years, more than three-quarters of us listed our nationality as Jewish not Polish, and Yiddish as our mother tongue.

What had happened to the Polin of our dreams, a dream you helped us to nurture by saying to us through poem and edict you are different but you are our neighbor and we will defend you? Now you murdered the multicultural dream and you did not defend us from the gun of the Nazi murderers. You said we were the Other but you knew us well. You played with us, traded with us, shared the growing impoverishment of the Polish nation with us. You outlawed our ability to work on Sunday, your holy day of rest, but not ours. You took away from us the right to prepare our food in a religious manner through ritual slaughter. You barred us from the university and certain professions while claiming we controlled Polish society and wanted to create a Jewish nation within the Polish nation. You accused us of favoring the Communist Russian enemy, of siding with him against you.

But we admit that many of you did do what you could to save a Jewish family. We could not have survived the Nazi war against us, the few of us who did, without you. We could not stand in your shoes when the Nazi murderers threatened to kill you and your families for hiding us. But you did and hundreds of you were murdered. We could not stand in your shoes when the Soviets murdered you although they in many instances deported and impoverished us as well.

You, Polonia, gave us the opportunity to be the largest and greatest Jewry the world had ever seen.

Let me tell you this in the consciousness of the Jews who left Poland and settled in various parts of the world, there is a deeply embedded feeling of wrong suffered during the pre-war years, during the Nazi occupation and during the post-war period. We know you feel the same about us.

You gave us decades, no centuries, of a freedom and a sense of belonging we found nowhere else. Even when things got bad, for us there was good. As late as 1939, our newspapers and journals were published in the hundreds, our culture and religious life continued nearly unimpeded.

Some of your radicals attacked us in word and in deadly physical violence. Your church leaders and your politicians did not speak out. We expected more from you.

Not all of us were Jews living within halacha, the world of Jewish law and observance. Some of us became 'Poles of the Mosaic persuasion,' and we loved the Polish language and its literature.

It is these Polish Jews who suffer the trauma of unrequited love. Many Jews of this last generation, nearing its close, cannot erase from their hearts this country where 'they were born and grew up;' where, as our greatest poet and perhaps yours, Julian Tuwim, wrote of them, 'In Polish they confessed the disquiet of their first love and in Polish they stammered of its rapture and tempests, where they loved the landscape, the language, the poetry, where they were ready to shed their blood for Poland and be her true sons.' That this was evidently not enough leaves them broken-hearted.

We Jews are gone from Poland's heart. Do you miss us? You gave us the opportunity to be the greatest concentration of Jewish creativity the world had ever known. Did you take pride in this? You saw us murdered in the millions, more than three million to be exact. What and how did you feel?

But if we are to engage in a true dialogue you must ask similar questions of us. We must, both Poles and Jews, look at our own relationship, one to the other. We must speak fully and openly about our own histories, one to the other.

What will we say to our children when they ask us about their Polish heritage? Will you mention in passing our part in that heritage? Will we mention what the privilege of living in your nation gave to us, but what a terrible price we paid for it when that privilege was no longer ours to keep? Must we remain the two saddest nations on earth?

This paper was read at a Polish-Jewish dialogue held in the Holocaust Museum Houston, 29 March 1998.

Back to the January 1999 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 3/19/99