Poles and Jews

Introductory Remarks

Abraham J. Peck

On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Museum and the Steering Committee of "Auschwitz Eyewitness: the Artwork of Jan Komski," our current exhibit in the Mincberg Gallery, I welcome you to this book discussion.

For the past several months a group of Polish Americans and American Jews have been meeting under the guidance and direction of the Most Rev. Joseph Fiorenza, the Bishop of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. These have been extraordinary meetings, first to create the exhibit of the artwork of Jan Komski, a world premiere, and second, to begin to create a meaningful dialogue on the history of Polish-Jewish relations during the thousand year old history of that relationship.

The Komski exhibit has been an overwhelming success, due to the extraordinary efforts of the Polish and Jewish members of the Steering Committee. The dialogue on Polish-Jewish relations has been less successful, and one may even term it painful.

You will experience an evolution of that dialogue on March 29, 1998, at 2:00 PM in the Museum's Mincberg Gallery, in the form of a panel discussion entitled "A Conversation for Our Time: A Polish-Jewish Dialogue." The panel will be moderated by Bishop Fiorenza and of course you are all invited to attend.

But this afternoon we would like to take the first steps toward that eventual dialogue program by discussing two books most germane to that dialogue: The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1945 by Richard C. Lukas and Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews by Eva Hoffman. Both titles are available in our Museum book shop if you have not yet had the opportunity to read either or both volumes.

My parents were both Jews born and reared in Poland. First, in the kind of small towns or shtetlach described by Eva Hoffman and then in Poland's second largest city, Lodz. Both spent nearly five years in the Lodz ghetto (called Litzmannstadt by the Nazis) in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the remainder of World War II in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Stuffhof, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt.

About their relationship to Germans, there was never any doubt. It was one of pure hatred, unforgiving and without the chance for forgiveness or reconciliation.

The relationship to the non-Jewish Poles of their past was more ambiguous. I do not think I ever heard my father speak in the same glowing terms as he did of Pan Solinski, the confectionaire under whom he apprenticed during his youth or of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, who, until his death in 1935, was the 'benign dictator' of Poland and the great friend of Polish Jewry. In 1903 Pisudski wrote: "the less antisemitism will exist among Christians, the easier it will be to unite the social forces...and the sooner a workers' solidarity will emerge: a solidarity of all who are exploited and wronged. Jew, Pole, Lithuanian, we are equally wronged by Moscow....Let us encourage Jewish comrades wherever we meet them."

By the time of his death in 1935, Pilsudski's notion of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Polish republic had been replaced by the extreme nationalist orientation of Roman Dmowski's National Democratic Party, the Endecja or the Endeks as its members were called. I remember my father's bitterness at this turn of events and the disappointment he felt as the position of Poland's Jewish community rapidly deteriorated in the years prior to World War II, both politically and economically.

But when we arrived in the United States in 1949, from a displaced persons' camp in Germany, his first friends were Franciszek Perdol and Pan Grabowski, two Polish Catholics who had been in America since the 1920s.

There was a story of how Germans and Jews interacted in the thousand-year history of that relationship. It was called the German-Jewish symbiosis. It has come under severe attack, especially in the writings of Gershom Scholem.

There was a story of how Poles and Jews interacted in the thousand-year history of that relationship. It was called the Polish-Jewish marriage and for the first 900 years of that relationship no one attacked it. Poland was Polin, as the Jews called the place in Yiddish, a place which meant in Hebrew 'Here shalt thou lodge' in the exile from the Land of Israel. The great Polish Jewish novelist, Sholem Asch, described it as a place where 'Satan has no power over the Jews... and the Torah is spread over the whole country. There are synagogues and schools and Yeshivahs. God be thanked...' The legend of Saul Wahl had it that a Jew became king of Poland for a day. In 1579, Polish King Stephen Bathory convened the Council of the Four Lands, or the Jewish Parliament which gave Poland's Jews almost complete autonomy in legislation and laws affecting Jewish life.

But that changed in the twentieth century, and especially in the half-decade before the outbreak of World War II. It changed in the perception of Jews about their relationship with Poles during the Nazis occupation and the immediate years after the end of the Holocaust.

We are not here to reconcile Poles and Jews. There is a painful past that separates both communities and if we are to move forward we cannot pretend away that painful past. But we need to understand the context of the pain, both on the Polish side and on the Jewish side. We need to maintain the vision of this Museum and its efforts to break down the wall of hatred and mistrust, if not for ourselves, at least for our children and their children's children.

March 1, 1998

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 04/29/98