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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Read more at Tablet

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

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy