Jews and Other Poles

Poland offered Jews some of the best conditions they ever experienced in exile—until it didn’t. How are Poles dealing with that history today?

December 21, 2015 | Ruth R. Wisse
About the author: Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

The 1934 identity card of a Polish Jewish student. Wikipedia.

Poland! It’s one of those words capable of causing a rift between otherwise perfectly compatible Jewish minds. When I mention an upcoming trip to Warsaw, a friend says: “How can you be going there?! I would never set foot in that place!” On my return, reporting on the country’s warming attitudes toward Jews to another friend who was born and spent her childhood there, she stops me: “I don’t want to hear any more.” I had forgotten for a moment that Polish neighbors had killed her father.

There is no way of simplifying or ironing out the relation of Jews to Poland, Poland to Jews, each to their common history. It is a fact that Poland offered Jews some of the best conditions they ever experienced in exile. Even if one discounts the saying, “Poland was heaven for the nobles, hell for the peasants, and paradise for the Jews,” it is plain that the last-named did enjoy unusual opportunities in the country—until they didn’t. A Failed Brotherhood is how the scholars Magdalena Opalski and Israel Bartal titled their book on Poles’and Jews’ perceptions of each other, leaving open the question of which of the two words deserves greater emphasis.

The immediate occasion behind my most recent visit to Poland—my fifth, but the first in over two decades—was the centenary of the death in April 1915 of Yizḥak Leybush Peretz, the Polish-Yiddish writer and national figurehead whose career reflected the vitality of modern Jewish culture at the turn of the 20th century. Peretz is a logical subject for Polish-Jewish commemoration since no one was more devoted than he to strengthening the creative interaction between what the historian Gershon Hundert mischievously calls “Jews and other Poles.” And sure enough, to mark the occasion, Polish scholars of Jewish history and culture had organized two full-scale conferences, one in Warsaw, co-sponsored with Israeli universities, and the other, “I.L. Peretz and his Circle,” that opened in Warsaw on September 7 and concluded three days later in Zamość, the city of Peretz’s birth. I attended and spoke at the second gathering, which featured about an equal number of local and visiting presenters and provided simultaneous translations into Polish and English—including at the one session conducted entirely in Yiddish.


The credentials of Zamość as an “ideal Renaissance city” were established at its founding by Jan Zamoyski in 1580 and are still recognized in its designation as a UN World Heritage site. Born in this Italianate city in 1852, I. L. Peretz was raised in its relatively prosperous and open-minded Jewish community within a predominantly liberal, proudly Polish environment. His family lived in one of the buildings circling the large market square, whose shops and workplaces belonged mostly to Jews. Given the presence in Zamość of Armenians, Greeks, Russians, Germans, and Scots as well as Jews, the latter had reason to assume that the political model of minority rights in the neighboring Austro-Hungarian empire would soon extend to Poland as well.

Peretz began writing in Polish and Hebrew before settling on Yiddish as his main literary language, initially choosing it less for its artistic allure than for the fact that there were about three million Polish Jews and over twice that number of Yiddish-speaking readers elsewhere. Living in a historical period of exceptional mobility and cultural ferment, he came to champion self-determination for both individuals and peoples, including the Jewish people. But unlike the Zionists who sought a future for the Jewish people in the land of Israel, Peretz wanted to help the Jewish community thrive in the here and now. He loved his Polish home.

When I first visited Zamość in 1987, I looked in vain for any traces of Jewish life there. Throughout the 19th century, Jews had constituted about half the city’s population; in the following century, they were exceptionally prominent between the two world wars. Yet aside from Ulica Pereca, the street named for Peretz, nothing recalled the absent Jewish inhabitants. Writing about that visit in Commentary, I described asking a resident why the main synagogue building, used as a town library, was closed:

Forgetting the Polish word, I demonstrated the handle of a door that would not open. “Farmakht,” he said cheerfully in Yiddish, proud that the language he once heard all around him still came back to him four decades after he had seen his last Jew.

But while aging Poles like my interlocutor seemed to be living comfortably among their Jewish ghosts, other locals I met on that 1987 trip resented the Jewish past and feared that Jews might yet return. One must recall the circumstances: four decades after the end of World War II, Poland, not yet fully recovered from the German occupation, was still forcibly suppressed by the Soviet Union. Shabby, poor, and generally depressed, it had earned its title as “Europe’s largest graveyard.”

The city I visited now was dramatically different. Although the summer season was over, tourists still thronged the main square surrounded by its shops and cafes. The synagogue just off the square, now reclaimed and almost completely refurbished by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage, figures as one of the chief attractions of the city and region. When occasion warrants, it also functions as a Jewish meeting place: there the mayor of Zamość came to greet us. Our walking tours included references to such prominent native Jewish sons and daughters as Alexander Zederbaum (1816-1893), publisher of the Hebrew-language newspaper Hamelitz and its Yiddish supplement Kol Mevaser, the Yiddish poet and playwright Shloyme Ettinger (1800-1856), and the Communist firebrand Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)—who would not have liked being included as a “Jew” but whose name might otherwise not be mentioned at all in a place where her revolutionary Marxist affiliations remain loathed.

Historical ironies do not end there. The long-gone Jews of Zamość would be startled to learn that their city now anchors “The Ḥasidic Route”—a regional itinerary that highlights towns and cities where ḥasidic rabbis once held court. In the late 18th century, Poland was the scene of a fierce intramural Jewish competition among the Ḥasidim, their rabbinic opponents the Misnagdim, and the assimilationists. Zamość was a stronghold of the second group and later on, as a center of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), a breeding ground of the third; only two small ḥasidic prayer-houses were tolerated on the community’s outskirts. Today, however, it is the ḥasidic communities in Israel and the Diaspora that constitute the driving force of Jewish tourism to Eastern Europe, and who dictate its main routes and landmarks.

Thus, Zamość is now the starting point of a tourist trail that includes once-thriving ḥasidic centers in Dębica, Lesko, Leżajsk, Łańcut, Przemyśl, and Rymanów. Local authorities join Jewish preservationists and Polish scholars in identifying and clearing up cemeteries and synagogues. Although many Jews come to Poland in search of former family dwelling-places, only the Ḥasidim, who continue to draw inspiration from their founders and ascribe sanctity to their burial places, take upon themselves the religious obligation to visit and pray at their graves. At the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, where our group visited the Peretz monument before departing for Zamość , the only freshly painted signs along the gloomy aisles pointed to the gravesites of ḥasidic masters, ignoring those of major Jewish political leaders, rabbinic scholars, and cultural figures.


Some would see a bitter irony in the fact that Jewish attachment to what was forcibly destroyed now helps Poland to prosper. I admit it was easier to feel the spirit of the departed Jews in impoverished postwar Poland under Soviet rule than in the prosperous reality of a modern-day nation. But I do not begrudge Poles their hard-won freedom, so long as it does not come at the expense of others. The same liberal strain in Polish politics that once made the country hospitable to Jews now inspires many Poles to want to preserve the Jewish past. If the Poles I had met during my earlier visits seemed haunted by their Jewish ghosts, those of today are exhuming the buried apparitions.

The magnet for any Jewish visitor to Poland—and by no means for Jews alone—is Polin, the recently opened museum that tells the thousand-year history of Polish Jews. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, a North American ethnographer specializing in Jewish studies who was invited to help plan the museum and is currently the chief curator of its core exhibition, has explained how the project evolved out of a carefully nurtured intention to present the entire history of the Jews of Poland as one integral progression. Rather than minimizing the points of tension, the museum’s exhibits include, along with demonstrations of fruitful coexistence, much contrary evidence of periodic anti-Jewish assaults by rulers, churchmen, and citizens.

My two-and-a-half hour tour through the museum got me through only six of its eight sections—covering some nine and a half centuries. I liked the way the exhibition becomes increasingly congested as it moves through history so that when one reaches “The Jewish Street” of the early 20th century one is walking through spaces as jam-packed with information as Polish cities then were with Jews. From earlier centuries, the most stunning moment occurs just before midpoint in the historical progression when one enters a replica of the 17th-century wooden synagogue of Gwoździec, whose laboriously reconstructed painted ceiling arches so gorgeously overhead that the woman beside me exclaimed, “Oh, this is too much!” I understood her to mean that intimations of the lost splendor of Polish Jewish civilization were harder to bear than information on the Khmelnitsky pogroms in the same century and the same region.

By the end of the tour, perhaps because I didn’t reach (or consciously bypassed) the spaces on the Holocaust and postwar Poland, I felt that the museum’s excellence left an impression of Polish-Jewish symbiosis that was more positive than not. That impression is readily enhanced by the visible thriving of nearby hotels and restaurants and (not to be cynical about it) the equally thriving industry of scholarship, ethnology, tourism, teaching, publishing, and performance that now lives off the Polish Jewish past.


But digging up that past can also leave an entirely different impression. Upon first learning of the new book by the Polish journalist Anna Bikont, The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne, I could not imagine why anyone would want to revisit a horror already disclosed by the historian Jan Gross in his 2001 Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Gross reveals that on July 10, 1941, Poles sequestered all 1,600 Jews of their town—men, women, and children—in a barn, burned them, and then took over their property. Once told, why tell it again?

In his review of Gross’s book, the columnist George Will asked the ultimate question—“Why did half of a Polish town murder the other half?”—and gave the ultimate answer: “Because it was permitted. Because they could.” Bikont persuades me that this insight is insufficient. A Pole who discovered late in life that she was also a Jew, Bikont, like Peretz, is committed to her future in Poland and therefore determined to know it in every detail. Traveling repeatedly to the northeastern region, she interviewed every informant she could locate among the killers and bystanders as well as the few intended victims who had astonishingly escaped. This, together with her study of depositions in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, convinced her that there was indeed much more to the story.

In brief, Jedwabne was not alone; similar mass burnings had taken place in neighboring towns. The anti-Semitic National Democratic party was particularly strong in the area, and greatly fortified by the local Catholic clergy; the latter protected anti-Jewish marauders from the central Polish government, which for most of the 1930s had tried to maintain legal order. Long before the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939, Nazi propaganda had spread eastward, encouraging locals to add their own grievances to the amalgam of blame against Jewish so-called usurpers, aliens, conspirators, and the rest. There were plenty of sadists and anti-Semites elsewhere in Poland as well, but Jews faced incineration by their neighbors only where toxicity had reached a trigger point.

Bikont’s aggregate picture shows a semi-rural population, still largely illiterate, exposed over the decade of the 1930s to murderous incitement against the Jews: incitement that made a virtue of violence and explicitly called for their elimination. Even after the war had ended, the impulse to self-justification discouraged feelings of guilt in the killers; some, knowing they were guilty in the eyes of others, killed or frightened into silence anyone who might testify against them.

Just as the glorious synagogue canopy is the heart-stopping exhibit of the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, so the story in Bikont’s book of a Polish young man who rescued his Jewish neighbor magnifies and makes unbearable the crimes of the others. The Jewish woman he married, having been baptized and terrorized, would never have spoken to Bikont, but her Polish husband wants everything known at last. Silence, he believes, only perpetuated the crime.

Very much like this Polish rescuer, the Polish family with whom I am closest feels that they benefit from knowing and making known the truth about the Jewish presence in Poland. They explore local Jewish sites and also visit Jewish museums and landmarks when they travel abroad. When we met this time, the husband remarked how unpleasantly surprised they were by the extreme security measures in place at Jewish institutions in Oslo and Copenhagen. Then he added: “We in Poland are being asked to take in thousands of Muslim refugees. I ask myself whether, if and when we do, we will then also have to provide similar protection from them at our Jewish sites.” At that point in our conversation I realized that our largely Jewish group had been wandering around Poland with no security, and feeling very safe.

Sobriety requires acknowledging that this may or may not last. The recent election of a new Polish government with an anti-refugee platform has been regarded by some Poles and others as a sign of re-emerging xenophobia. Should such an impulse become dominant in Polish nationalism, much may change, including the felt need of today’s Poles to come to terms with their past. One can only hope that, having so recently freed themselves from foreign rule, realizing how fragile a newly sovereign democracy may still be, and knowing their susceptibility to ideologies of grievance, this generation of Poles will weigh with care its decisions about its future. In part, the shape of that future will be measurable according to how Poland continues to treat its Jewish past and present. Relations between sovereign Poland and sovereign Israel will inevitably figure in the calculus.

This latest trip reinforced my longstanding conviction that Jews don’t have the luxury of nostalgia, not even for the “Holocaust,” which by submerging them in mourning prevents them from facing their new responsibilities as a people in the era of Jewish national sovereignty in Israel. Anna Bikont’s book shows how the nationalist fervor of interwar Poland, combined with religious incitement and imported anti-Semitism, transformed a sector of a relatively tolerant people into a murderous mob. Identical forces are much more radically at work in the populations surrounding the Jews of Israel. My Polish friends see it, too, and they are worried for us. If Poles who coexisted with Jews for a thousand years could become capable of burning their fellow townspeople to death, what can one expect from neighbors in the contemporary Middle East?