Jewish Poland: A Lost Connection, a Forgotten Identity

By | Mar 07, 2018
Latest, World

Mania, 84, spent her childhood in Poland and may remember some Polish, but refuses to use the language in our conversation. We speak in Hebrew in her apartment overlooking Haifa Bay where her ship landed from Europe in 1948. “What did I have of a childhood? Nothing!” she exclaims, because from her childhood she remembers mostly the lack of food, missed years of education and years spent in Siberia to escape the Nazi occupation. It is hard to say she really grew up in Poland, hard to find something for which she is grateful.

I pay more attention to Mania’s place. Floral designs on the pots in the kitchen and on the curtains as well as the smell of plum cookies are reminiscent of many Polish homes. Yet Mania does not see anything especially Polish in her family’s traditions after they made aliyah to Israel. The ethnic Poles, many of whom would intuitively feel some connection to her just upon seeing and smelling her apartment, are for her the “others” from her childhood. She is ambivalent toward the nation, but judges its members individually: She remembers her Polish childhood friends and Poles who saved her friend in a monastery during the Holocaust, but also others who killed her grandfather.

In Mania’s experience, immigrants from Poland felt no special connection to the ethnic Poles and no need to cultivate shared memories of pre-war lives in Europe. “Everyone went their own way here,” she tells me, stressing the new lives which opened for all her family members and friends in Israel. The cake recipes and pot designs, which may seem markers of Polishness, are for Mania little more than elements of everyday life, which she transplanted from one place and identity to another.

A postcard from Tarnów, Poland, a city with a significant Jewish population before World War II, where Shula Lavyel lived until 1934, dated during World War I. Image courtesy of Shula Lavyel.


Up until the age of 16 my relationship with the Jewish people and Jewish culture resembled that of many Catholic Poles who grew up in one of the country’s largest cities. I saw the city’s synagogue renovated, occasionally attended a klezmer concert and learned about the Holocaust from my parents. From the day, when my elementary school visited a small Jewish school in the city to celebrate Rosh Hashanah together, I mainly remembered being the only non-Jewish kid able to blow the shofar, because I was learning to play the trumpet.

When I turned 16, I visited Israel for the first time, and two years later a few good friends I met there visited me in Poland, to see the land where their ancestors lived and the sites where they suffered.

While visiting Majdanek concentration camp we joined a Hebrew-speaking group of Israeli visitors. It took little time for people to realize there was a Pole among them. A middle-aged man came to me, shook my hand and said he had some difficult questions for me. “Of course, there were some good Poles, but how could the many others let this happen?” he asked, pointing to the death camp around us, connecting Polish anti-Semitism to Jewish suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany.

Answering such a question forces one to delve into the essence of one’s own national identity. I start with the things I hold dear, the symbols which remain meaningful and evoke pride today: the Polish Righteous Among the Nations, but also the Polish government in exile, which had little direct influence in the occupied country, yet still organized help for Polish Jews and told the world about the Holocaust.

But then I must confront even more basic facts: Polish is my mother tongue. As a child, I heard the centuries-old Polish traditional legends and stories, and I imagine myself belonging to the same “imagined community” as the scholar Benedict Anderson described a nation, with generations of people whom I do not know.

Many of them I would not be proud of. There were many individual acts of anti-Semitism in the Polish past and there was the prejudicial image of the Jew-communist, an antithesis of Polishness, conceived in prewar Poland and spread by the nationalist right wing, which capitalized on Jews’ numerical overrepresentation in the communist parties. I do not want to identify with these parts of Poland’s history. That makes me feel helpless with regards to the Israeli man’s question. I realize a gap between his and my ideas of what it means to be Polish. He cannot fully appreciate the positive symbols in recent Polish history. I cannot say enough to satisfy his grief over the Holocaust and his anger at all those at whose hands Jews suffered during the World War II, and as he genuinely thanked me for my answer, he said he was not satisfied.

Two years later, this realization turned into a decision to go back to Israel to explore the roots of this gap, not in the history itself, but in the way Israelis were telling the history to their children to create their new identity.

Shula Lavyel with Janka Filozofowa, whose Polish family in Tarnów, Shula’s Polish hometown, saved a Jewish girl during the Holocaust. Poland, 1987. Image courtesy of Shula Lavyel.


When Holocaust survivors like Mania, and perhaps the relatives of the man I met in Majdanek, arrived in Palestine, or after 1948 in Israel, they were entering a community where they would have to redefine themselves. Among the strongest proponents of breaking with the diaspora past was David Ben-Gurion, a Polish Jew, a prominent Zionist leader and Israel’s first Prime Minister, who believed that remembering Jewish life in Europe would obstruct the creation of a new, Zionist identity.

Ben Gurion’s ideas find reflection in the stories I hear from sons and daughters of those who made aliyah in the 1930s. “My parents said they would never speak Polish, on principle,” Cila, whose parents immigrated in 1935, tells me, stressing that she was not the only one whose curiosity about Poland and the places where her family lived met with a categorical demand to never go there, even a refusal by her dad to give her family home’s address in Poland.

I am intrigued as I learn that outside the home things looked different. Organizations, or hometown societies, where immigrants met other Jews from their town in Poland—called, from Yiddish, “Landsmanshaftn”—were common. My interlocutor talks about her mother’s Shabbat dinners when she and her friends from Poland spoke Polish “to remember.”

Why would they want to remember what they wanted their children to forget? Throughout the different conversations, between the lines there reappears a commitment of immigrants to ensure their children are fully at home in their new country. The parents could never completely free themselves from diaspora identities and foreign, European language cultures.

But as I search the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem I find striking evidence that this Israeli identity emerged largely independently of the personal baggage of at least some individual active Zionists. Among the files, I find a well-preserved collection of letters between members of a family who lived in a middle-size Polish town with a large Jewish community. The father, Chajkel, a vice-mayor of the town, was a well-assimilated member of the local Polish community, but wrote to his children in Hebrew when they still lived in Poland, and even attended the 13th Zionist Congress as a local representative. A confirmation that in the person of the vice-mayor I found a fusion of Zionist ideology and Polish identity comes, when in a pile of his poems in Yiddish and Hebrew I discover a translation to Hebrew of a poem by Poland’s most praised romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz.

Chajkel died in early 1930s, before he could depart for Palestine. However, many others who had felt at home in Poland made Aliyah, and against their personal memories often understood and accepted the society’s unsentimental narrative about diaspora. Shula, 93, an immigrant of 1934, and her daughter Tami tell me of their late husband and father Amos, who came to Palestine in 1943 and who stands out among those whose memories conflicted with young Israel’s dominant story.

“He lost his family in Poland, but he adored Poland,” they remember. Shula and Tami describe Amos as a case of an ironic phenomenon among first-generation Israelis: “Some of the people who came before the war hated Poland. And some who came after the war and really experienced anti-Semitism, they were Poles.” But Amos did not argue with those who had different feelings. “People were antagonistic to Poland. That’s how it was. It was normal,” Shula explains.

Shula Lavyel and her younger sister, Avivit, with their father (right) and his two siblings, in front of their house in Haifa being built. British Mandate of Palestine, 1935. Image courtesy of Shula Lavyel.


“The last memory of a relationship is always the strongest,” Michael Schudrich, a New Yorker and since 2004, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, tells me, alluding to experiences shared by many Jews who made the tough decision to leave Poland: the rise of the “national democratic” parties, advocating for a homogenous Polish nation state and the virtually uncontrolled spread of anti-Semitic rhetoric among their supporters in the 1930s.

When in Israel I asked why Jews were leaving Poland in the 1930s, these last memories were clear and answers were concise. Unlike the stories of those who remember aliyah themselves, especially the survivors who often first tried to rebuild their lives in postwar Poland, those born in Mandate Palestine always invoke Zionism in some way, but usually also a specific point in time which triggered their parents’ individual decision. Sometimes they mention Hitler’s rise to power across Poland’s Western border, but they also most baldly recall incidents in the streets or antisemitic rulings in Polish courts as evidence of Polish anti-Semitism.

As I seek to understand what shapes Israelis’ feelings about Poles, I discuss anti-Semitism in modern Poland with Rabbi Schudrich. “Often the anti-Semitic feeling is not about the Jews living next door to you,” he observes. He suggests that “some of the anti-Semitism is simply about the past,” about old grievances of one community towards the other, and some is a result of looking for a scapegoat to blame for the Poles’ individual misfortunes.

“And it’s sometimes easier to hate, to blame someone who doesn’t exist, because you don’t have to deal with it,” the rabbi believes. We do not have to scrutinize the stereotypes we have if we do not stand face to face with their object.

“In the same way, the second and third generations of Jews find it easy to say that Poles are anti-Semites. Why? Because it doesn’t make a difference in their practical lives since they have no contact with non-Jewish Poles. It is wrong and we need to change this,” he adds.

Today, decades after the end of World War II and the creation of Israel, complex memories of Poland of those who remember, like Mania and Shula, which treat of friendship as well as anti-Semitism, should neither offend Poles nor appear as a threat to Israel’s collective memory and identity. Listening to them carefully, as well as meeting real people among the “others,” helps Jews and Poles to scrutinize the roots of judgments about each other’s nations. Above all, it allows our peoples to truly connect to our pasts, at no unfair expense to anybody’s image.

This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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