Reflections on Eva Hoffman's Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and The World of Polish Jews.

Michael Wyschogrod

It is a privilege to be here to discuss a very important, delicate and complicated subject. My remarks will be only very partially a review of Eva Hoffman's Shtetl. It is a very interesting book but, from my perspective, the main shortcoming of that book is that it is focused on the events in one small town in Poland, Brask. This of course has its advantages because the focus on one place makes the story self-contained and not too complicated. Our interest however is broader than one little shtetl. Let me start by referring to a short passage from that book.

In the town of Brask there lives a young Pole named Zbigniew Romaniuk (Zbyszek) who devoted much of his life in recent years to researching the history of the Jews in that town. He collected an immense amount of information, and that itself is an extremely reassuring sign. He says, speaking about the period of World War II, that the Brask bandits, or Polish individuals who handed Jews over to the Nazis, are responsible, by his count, for the death of 32 Jews. If the surrounding villages are included, the number rises to 70. 'Zbyszek is quick to add,' writes Hoffman, 'that nine Bransk families, which would have included about forty persons, have been honored as righteous gentiles by the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel. He is proud of such people and he believes that they represent the Polish norm, and also the normal human instincts. In his view, the murderers and informers were the aberration, the inevitable marginal fringe of people all too easily prodded into crime in the climate of Nazi lawlessness. The survivors believe just the opposite. They hold that anti-Semitic hatred was the Polish norm, and that during the war, the anti-Semitism lurking in every Pole came out and showed its true virulence. On this issue, as on many others, Polish memories and Jewish memories remain stubbornly, even unyieldingly, divided.' (Hoffman 246) So one way of looking at this is the age-old proverbial question, is the glass half-full or is it half-empty. In the situation where you have half a glass, you can focus on the part that is full, or you can focus on the part that is empty. And of course each interpretation to a certain extent is true.

From my perspective, there are two approaches to Polish-Jewish relations, two theses that are clearly false. Once that is established, things become more difficult.

The first thesis which is profoundly false can be summarized by saying, 'Poles were the same as Nazis, or worse.' This is an untruth. It is perhaps held by some uninformed people, but it is simply not true. The crimes of the Nazis in Poland were committed by the Nazis. There are crimes committed by the Nazis against the Jews, and crimes of the Nazis committed against Poles. As you have heard from Professor Thompson, the crimes of the Nazis against the Poles were horrendous and world-shaking if not for the fact that one other crime was even greater, namely, that against the Jews, because approximately three million Polish Jews were killed by the Nazis. A similar number of Poles were also killed. The proportion of Poles killed by the Nazis was of course much smaller, percentage-wise, than the proportion of Jews killed by the Nazis. In the case of Jews, it was almost one hundred percent. In the case of Poles, it was a much smaller percentage. So during the Nazi occupation, if you had a choice to be a Jew or a Pole, it is perfectly obviously that your health would have been much better served by being a Pole than by being a Jew, though being a Pole was also quite dangerous. So that is one untruth, that Poles were the same as Nazis.

The second untruth is that there was no significant anti-Semitism in Poland, that Jews lived happily in Poland, that they were welcomed in Poland. And when I speak of Poland, I am not speaking of nine hundred years ago, I am speaking of Poland of the 1920s and '30s, the period before World War II. This thesis that there was no significant anti-Semitism in Poland is simply not true. I use as my source a book by Ronald Modras, The Catholic Church and Anti-Semitism in Poland, 1933-1939 (Harwood Academic Publishers 1994). Modras is a Professor at St. Louis University and a Catholic of Polish descent. This book is a goldmine of information.

In order to help us understand the situation, I am going to read to you from this book an excerpt from a pastoral letter by the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Augustus Hlond. We heard about the attitudes of simple and semi-literate peasants; those are unfortunately hard to document, because in the 1920s and '30s social science research and public opinion polling were not as developed as they are today. But we do have documents, and one of these documents is Cardinal Hlond's pastoral letter. Obviously, the Cardinal was not a peasant, and he can clearly articulate his views.

The letter was issued February 29, 1936. This was the period when Hitler in Germany had already been in power more than three years. German anti-Semitism was virulent, and everyone in Poland knew about Nazi anti-Semitism. In this context, Cardinal Hlond writes the following:

So long as Jews remain Jews, a Jewish problem exists and will continue to exist. This question varies in intensity and degree from country to country. It is especially difficult in our country, and ought to be the object of serious consideration. I shall touch briefly here on its moral aspects in connection with the situation today.

It is a fact that Jews are waging war against the Catholic Church, that they are steeped in free-thinking and constitute the vanguard of atheism, the Bolshevik movement, and revolutionary activity. It is a fact that Jews have a corruptive influence on morals, and that their publishing houses are spreading pornography. It is true that Jews are perpetrating fraud, practicing usury, and dealing in prostitution. It is true that, from a religious and ethical point of view, Jewish youth are having a negative influence on the Catholic youth in our schools. But let us be fair. Not all Jews are this way. There are very many Jews who are believers, honest, just, kind, and philantropic. There is a healthy, edifying sense of family in very many Jewish homes. We know Jews who are ethically outstanding, noble, and upright.

I warn against that moral stance, imported from abroad [he is clearly thinking of Germany, M.W.] that is basically and ruthlessly anti-Jewish. It is contrary to Catholic ethics. One may love one's own nation more, but one may not hate anyone. Not even Jews. It is good to prefer your own kind when shopping, to avoid Jewish stores and Jewish stalls in the marketplace, but it is forbidden to demolish a Jewish store, damage their merchandise, break windows, or throw things at their homes. One should stay away from the harmful moral influence of Jews, keep away from their anti-Christian culture, and especially boycott the Jewish press and demoralizing Jewish publications. But it is forbidden to assault, beat up, maim, or slander Jews. One should honor Jews as human beings and neighbors, even though we do not honor the indescribable tragedy of that nation, which was the guardian of the idea of the Messiah and from which was born the Savior. When divine mercy enlightens a Jew to sincerely accept his and our Messiah, let us greet him into our Christian ranks with joy.

Beware of those who are inciting anti-Jewish violence. They are serving a bad cause. Do you know who is giving the orders? Do you know who is intent on these riots? No good comes from these rash actions. And it is Polish blood that is sometimes being shed at them. (Modras 346-7)

Now what do you make of a pastoral letter like that?

My first reaction as a person who served on committees that have drawn up documents like this is that this is a document drawn up by a committee. Some members of the committee were rabid anti-Semites, some members of the committee were decent people, and the committee decided that each side gets a paragraph or two.

The entire document is strange. The first paragraph is full of statements such as, Jews are this, that and the other thing, the standard anti-Semitic stereotypes of what Jews are, they are pornographers, they are the vanguard of atheism and Bolshevism.

Let us look at that for a moment. The Polish Communist Party had approximately 20,000 members (Modras 403), of which an estimated quarter were Jews. That makes about 5,000 Jewish communists out of 3.1 million Jews. Does that make Jews communists? There was a small number of Jews who were communists. There was a small number of Poles who were communists. But this typical Nazi-inspired idea of hyphenating the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy is reflected in this pastoral letter by the Primate of Poland.

On the other hand, is this a Nazi letter? No. I cannot believe that a Nazi would have written that violence is to be avoided. The essence of Nazi philosophy was violence. So I cannot imagine that any Nazi would have written it. So you have here, in Cardinal Hlond's letter, an anti-Semitism mitigated, in a somewhat confused way, by Christian categories. He cannot hate and when he says it is forbidden to hate anybody, he has to add, 'not even Jews.' When he writes at the end of the letter against shedding blood, he says, no good comes from these rash actions, and it is Polish blood that is sometimes being shed at them. That is the real reason you should not do it.

This is a problematic pastoral letter. It is not a Nazi letter, it is therefore false to put it in the category of Nazi anti-Semitism; but the idea that there was no anti-Semitism in 1936 in Poland, based on that letter of the Primate of Poland, can no longer remain an acceptable thesis.

Let us look at the facts. Richard C. Lukas quotes a figure that he attributes to a Jewish source but does not contest: from 1935-37, or in a two-year period, 118 Jews were killed in pogroms in Poland (Lukas 125). This is not Nazi level of violence, but neither is it exactly a situation of no problems.

The period of the twenty years between World War I and World War II, particularly the 1930s, is in a way more important than the events during the Nazi occupation. During the Nazi occupation, terror was immense, criminalization of society and the danger to people had reached such proportions that the situation can no longer be treated as a normal series of events. World War II in Poland was a world gone crazy. And I do not know that we can draw any conclusions under those circumstances. The fact remains that before World War II, the Right in Poland and the Right in Poland usually meant the circles that were very close to the Catholic Church was not friendly to Jews. And the socialists, the Left, who were not particularly friendly to the Catholic Church, were not anti-Semitic.

The crimes perpetrated against the Poles by the Nazis are second only to crimes perpetrated against the Jews. And here I would include crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the Poles and against the Russians. Poles and Russians were considered by the Nazis subhumans, most of whom were probably better dead than alive, but none of which reached the demonic proportions of Jews who were the personification of evil and have to be totally eliminated.

One more concluding word about Soviet crimes. I fully agree with Professor Thompson that the magnitude and weight of Soviet crimes against defenseless human beings, not only Poles but Russians, the whole world of the Gulag, has never received the kind of attention it should have. This is unfortunate. Russia has not been liberated by a foreign army, and the camps were not liberated. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did his job, and it is the obligation of every decent human being to mourn not only the crimes of the Nazis but also the crimes of the communists. If there were Jews who participated in these crimes and there were then I as a Jew am deeply ashamed of them. Jakub Berman was a renegade Jew. Jews suffered under Soviet communism at least as much as others. In one night, the leading poets of the Soviet Union, the Jewish-Yiddish poets, were murdered by Stalin. Stalin was a vicious and rabid anti-Semite, and those few Jews who cooperated with the communists, are to me a source of great shame.

On the other hand, it must also be said that if there were a few such misguided Jews, it is to a certain degree the result of the atmosphere of anti-Jewish feelings emanating from the political Right.

March 1, 1998

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