It was a beautiful sunny day in Alabama. As I walked across the quad enjoying the promise of spring, I bumped into a colleague, Joanna Biermann, who is going to Warsaw next month to participate in a conference associated with the annual Beethoven Festival. She has been an invited guest several times already, and has made some good friends in Warsaw as a result. We took a half hour to catch up, sipping tea on a bench under the large oaks behind the library. In response to my current research, she quoted a friend of hers who describes Polish Jews as the nation’s phantom limb; the pain remains even after the Jews are gone.
The beauty of ethnographic fieldwork is you record everything, even what seems at the times peripheral to your area of focus. That means I have over twenty years of fieldnotes I continue to mine for information about other aspects of Polish culture. Recently, I returned to the notes from my earliest fieldwork in 1991-1993 looking for references to Jews and Jewish culture. I coded them using ethnographic software, and now I’m trying to pull out patterns in the way Poles talked about and acted toward Jewish subjects. The first thing that strikes me is how often Jews were mentioned in interviews and informal conversations, despite the fact that most of the people I spoke with had limited or no contact with actual Jews. Most of the participants in my study were still in high school in the early 1990s. That means that by the time they were born in the 1970s, most of the Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust had left, pushed out by organized political campaigns and by everyday prejudice.
Lesko Synagogue in 1992
The comments I recorded are mostly superficial, and usually fall back on stock phrases, sentiments, and stereotypes. Since I mostly did group interviews in the early 1990s, I was able to witness young peoples’ debates about the role of Jews in Polish life. Their views were so varied that no unified perspective emerged. One person would claim that Jews are still prevalent in government, or in journalism, and others would disagree. One criticized Poles for intolerance, while others interjected that tolerance was a fundamental value that has made Poland a hospitable environment for minorities (including Jews) for most of the nation’s history. Some addressed a lingering distaste, or even hatred of Jews; others countered that these are dying artifacts of an older generation that young people do not share.
Most commonly, Jews were linked to property and wealth. I was told that Jews used to say, “You own the streets but we own the buildings.” Even today, this phrase is repeated. Usually, it’s a way of highlighting the discrepancy between the political domination of Poles and the economic power of Jews. Some imply that because Jews expressed disdain for the impoverished Poles, it justifies Poles’ resentment and dislike of Jews. But also, because I’ve heard this phrase so many times in so many ways, I know it’s often repeated without much thought at all, as one of the few things anyone ever told them about Jews.
Some participants in my study expressed continued concern about Jews reclaiming property or Jewish capital flooding into Poland and buying up the country, yet again leaving Poles with nothing. Others defended everyone’s right to invest in Poland, emphasizing the importance of being open to other groups, or countered that Poles are envious of anyone who gets ahead. One person suggested that Jews should be admired for their ability to create and organize; Poles should learn from them, not assume that they are schemers.
On the ten-day walking pilgrimage to Częstochowa (I really did this—all 300 km—to the monastery housing Poland’s most important icon, the Black Madonna), a priest entertained the pilgrims on the journey with stories that used humor as a vehicle for discussing the differences between Catholics and Jews. Although he tried to show that the two faiths have shared origins and fundamental similarities, he sometimes crossed the line toward mockery. For instance, when explaining why Catholics don’t abide by Sabbath restrictions, he told a story about an Orthodox Jew who hadn’t locked his business before sunset on the Sabbath, so he used his cat to turn the key.
On another occasion, I spoke with a priest who felt the Polish people and the Catholic Church are under attack by accusations of intolerance and antisemitism. He talked about slander in the press, and referred to an article that linked antisemitism in Germany to the irrational antisemitism that persists in Poland despite the virtual absence of Jews. He complained that this view is biased and has no place in an article about Germany. He further complained that when Poles tell the truth, for instance that most communists in Poland during and after WWII were Jews, Jews accuse them of antisemitism. These are the same Jews, he went on, who told Poles, “You own the streets but we own the buildings.” The priest also argued that press reports are overwhelmingly negative and misrepresent the Church, giving it a bad name. But then he went on to label as Jews two prominent journalists—Adam Michnik, the editor of the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and Jerzy Urban, editor of the satirical news weekly Nie. On another occasion, he got into a heated defense of Poles, saying he doesn’t understand why they have a reputation in the West for antisemitism.
Both of the priests reinforced the distance between Poles and Jews, though in different ways and with different degrees of vitriol. They offered little possibility for Jews to be regarded as Poles.
The person who expressed the most nuanced view of Poles’ relations with other ethnic and religious groups was the director of one of the high schools in Lesko, a small town in the southeastern mountain region of Bieszczady. Even before I started the taped interview with him, he told me that the biggest ethnic problem in Poland was going to be with Lithuanians and Jews who want their former properties back. For example, the dormitory of the high school is claimed by prewar owners who were Jews. At the time, it wasn’t yet clear if the building would be returned, and if the money spent on its renovation would be reimbursed. During the interview, he had this to say:
“There are minorities [in Poland], everyone knows that. It’s an interesting situation. The typical American may not understand because in the US there are many nationalities that cultivate their own traditions, but nevertheless remain primarily American. But because of the unjust politics toward minorities during the Interwar period, hatred was awakened between Poles and Jews and Poles and Ukrainians. This was easy to do because Poles were in their own country but poor, while Jews owned the buildings and businesses. Jews are condemned for being rich, while Ukrainians are pushing for higher positions. But there are no attacks. Everyone lived together, went to school together, met and got to know each other’s culture. They were all free to study their religion. Also, in Lesko, there was a Greek Catholic church, a Catholic church, and a Jewish place of worship, and nothing happened. Everyone could believe what they wanted, and no one was persecuted for what they think. Jews were destroyed by Germans[…] After the war, state politics was also in error. It acted as if minorities didn’t exist at all.”
Although he reiterated stereotypes, he also sought to balance positive and negative views of Jews and their history in Poland.
Others hinted at an ethos of tolerance. They talked about historically mixed communities that functioned peacefully, and about the need for acceptance of all people. One student in Krakow said, “If we are really are democratic now, there has to be a place for Jews [in Poland]. We can’t say ‘Polska dla Polakow’ [‘Poland for Poles’].” Others, like the student who showed me the Jewish cemetery in Lesko shortly after I moved there in 1992, expressed sadness that Jews are no longer present. He said it’s too bad the cemetery is neglected, but Poles have no money and there are no more Jews to insure its upkeep. He said he likes to come to the cemetery; it’s a peaceful place.
Much of the talk I recorded in the early 1990s seems predicated on the assumption that there were more Jews present than actually were at the time, and they were hiding in plain sight. Some felt threatened by the potential wealth and power of these covert Jews. But others asserted that there are no more Jews in Poland. If any remained, they assimilated— it was Jews who felt threatened by Poles after the war and during communism, so they stopped admitting their ethnicity, changed their last names, and forgot their culture and traditions. These are two sides of the same coin because in fact, public Jewish life and religion disappeared from nearly every Polish village, town, and city. But the past 25 years have shown that a notable proportion of contemporary Poles have some Jewish heritage and an increasing number of them (though still a tiny fraction of the contemporary Polish population, and a tiny fraction of the prewar Polish-Jewish population) is becoming more curious about their origins. Already in 1992-3, the sense was growing among the teenagers I spoke with that it isn’t necessary to hide one’s ethnic/religious roots anymore. After the fall of communism in 1989, something significant had shifted and institutional barriers against ethnic and religious minorities had weakened.
Still, so much about Jewish lives and deaths were left out of the comments I collected, as if the pain of their amputation from Polish communities was too much to bear.