Two Books Describe the Search for Family History in Poland

In Family History of Fear (recently published in English translation), the Polish poet and writer Agata Tuszyńska recounts her search for her family’s recent past. The prompting came in the early 1970s when the nineteen-year-old Agata was informed by her mother that she had been born a Jew and had survived World War II in hiding. A similar search was also undertaken by the historian Ivan Jablonka, whose Polish-Jewish grandparents emigrated to France in 1937 but were nonetheless swept up by the Holocaust. While they both died at Auschwitz, their son, Ivan’s father, survived by hiding first with a Polish Catholic neighbor and then with a French family in the countryside. Reviewing both books, Adam Kirsch writes of the former:

[O]ne of the themes of Family History of Fear is that fear of anti-Semitism is a rational emotion in Poland even today. In one of the book’s most staggering moments, Tuszyńska tracks down the Polish family that sheltered her mother as a young girl during the Holocaust. The son of that family, now an old man, remembers the little Jewish girl who came to live with them: “She used to take the cows to pasture, and she slept there in the next room.” Then he bursts out: “What was the use of doing all that? Why did my mother put her whole family at risk? Why all that? What are they doing to us now? It’s a shame and a disgrace how the Jews have dominated the whole world. I don’t know why we had to save them.”

To be a “righteous gentile,” Jews today might naively assume, must be a badge of honor, a cause for pride. For this Pole, however, it was a stupid mistake, a case of being duped by Jewish guile. And he’s not the only person we meet in Family History of Fear who feels that way. . . .

But, of course, this is far from the whole story. For it is a Pole, a history teacher named Mirek, who guards the records of the Jews of [of the town of] Łęczyca and who helped Tuszyńska find traces of her ancestors there. “Freeing himself from this widespread prejudice that had gone on for years required the courage of an independent thinker,” she observes. And during the war, it was a Pole who rescued many of Tuszyńska’s relatives, including her mother, from the Warsaw Ghetto. . . .

Another kind of ambiguity haunts the marriage of Tuszyńska’s parents. Her mother, Halina, met her father, Bogdan, when the two were journalism students at the University of Warsaw in the early 1950s. . . . Clearly, Bogdan was no Jew-hater. Yet Tuszyńska recalls that, throughout her childhood, her father was given to making anti-Semitic remarks: “To him, Jews were the reason, vague but ubiquitous, for everything that didn’t go as it was supposed to. . . . He held them responsible for every unpopular law, for whatever problems he currently had at work, for the scarcity of new tires for his automobile.”

“I did not understand what any of that meant,” Tuszyńska writes. “I had never met a Jew.”

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More about: Anti-Semitism, France, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Polish Jewry, Righteous Among the Nations

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem