How Jewish Was Polish History?
David Stromberg Interviews Magda Teter About I.B. Singer, Jews, and Poland.
David Stromberg [DS]: What position did Isaac Bashevis Singer occupy as a writer, or cultural figure, when you grew up in Poland?
Magda Teter [MT]: Soon after Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Literatura na świecie, a literary monthly predominantly interested in world literature, devoted a portion of its April 1979 issue to Isaac Bashevis Singer. This marked a turning point for a discussion about Polish Jewish history and culture, which had been taboo since the events of March 1968. Soon his other works began to appear, three in 1983: The Magician of Lublin, The Manor, and The Estate. These publications began a renaissance of interest in Polish Jewish literature and culture. Soon the conversation opened up to other topics as well. By the early 1990s, works by other Yiddish writers were translated into Polish. During that period I. B. Singer was one of the most popular writers in Poland, and part of the attraction was precisely the fact that his novels and short stories were about Poland – rooted in the Polish landscape, its sights, smells, and sounds. But for Poles, Singer’s works also confirmed the Jews’ otherness, a society that was no more. A people apart though living within. A stereotype of Polish Jews was shared and perpetuated, if for different reasons, by both Jews and Poles.
DS: What do you think it means that Singer wrote this article in September 1944 – as the extent of the Holocaust was already known and yet still being perpetuated? Do you think this should influence how we read the piece?
Singer received his news, as he reported, from the dispatches of the Polish government in exile. Reports of atrocities concerning Jews had been coming to New York for almost two years. A December 10th, 1942 report issued by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in exile was published in New York, London, and Melbourne under a very explicit title “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland.” By 1944, such information was not new. In fact, on August 1st, 1944, even the New York Times, which famously avoided the topic, reported (on page 17!): “Declaring its fear that by the time the war has been won the largest part of the Jewish populations of Europe will have been extinguished, a mass meeting of 40,000 American Jews gathered in Madison Square Park yesterday afternoon adopted a resolution embodying a program for saving as many Jews in the Nazi-occupied territories as possible.” And on September 7th, on page 11, the same paper noted that “during the five-year war period, Jews in 4,200 communities throughout the nation have contributed $82,000,000 to the United Jewish Appeal for Refugees, Overseas Needs and Palestine to save Jews in Europe.” Though these reports were buried in the paper, for Singer, who was so connected to the Jewish presses, these accounts would not have been unknown. Just a few months earlier, another Polish Jew wrote a powerful essay the question of Polish Jewish identity. Julian Tuwim’s essay, “We, the Polish Jews…” is a powerful response to the reports of extermination. But unlike Singer, whose language of literary creativity was Yiddish, Tuwim wrote in Polish. And he too addressed the question of otherness and belonging of Jews in Polish society. Tuwim did not write with broad historical strokes. He boldly claimed to be “a Pole” and divided “Poles” just like “Jews and other peoples” into “wise and stupid, polite and nasty, intelligent and dull, interesting and boring, injured and injuring, gentlemen and non-gentlemen…and also into fascists and anti-fascists.” Indeed, he claimed his Polishness not just because of the land where he grew up with its soil and landscape, the language he spoke and wrote, or “national vices” he himself adopted, but also “because my hatred for Polish fascists is greater than for fascists of any other nationality. And I consider that a very important feature of my Polishness.” The two essays arise from the pain each writer must have felt thinking about their families in Europe. Both were spurred by the news about the Nazi destruction of European Jews to reflect on Jewishness and Polishness. Each approached it through different cultural prisms. Each did it in different styles. Tuwim’s is a poetic reflection on nationalism, identity, and blood. Singer’s almost pedantic prose offers a short history of Polish-Jewish relations.
DS: Where do you think Singer gets the historical part of his article right? Where do you think he get it wrong?
MT: Singer’s essay on Jews and Poles might not be a shining example of his literary abilities. But it reflects, I believe, a more common perception of Polish Jewish relations, and the history of Jews in Poland. Some of the questions Singer raises in the beginning of his essay reflect nuance, even if the rest of the essay might not be read in that way. Singer wonders “if these two peoples did influence each other in something” and explores what then constituted that influence. “What did we Jews take from the Poles,” Singer asked, “and what did they learn from us?” He did not answer that question, conceding that “it would be necessary to write a thick book.” And Singer was right: to understand the relations between Polish Jews and Polish Christians has taken scholars decades to unpack, and is still a work in progress. And now we increasingly know how entangled and connected Polish Jews and Polish Christians were, and how deeply rooted and embedded Jews were in Polish society. They were, in fact, an integral part of the landscape and culture. Polish culture left an imprint on Jewish culture — even on the Hasidism that was so familiar to Singer. And Jews and their presence left an indelible imprint on Polish history and culture. There is no other way to look at it — and if one does, one subscribes to a partial version of history. Singer saw Polish Jews and Polish Christians, whom he called “the Poles,” as “living together but not together,” and took a sweeping look at hundreds of years of history. Yes, Polish Jews retained their distinct Jewish identity, since before the modern period there was no expectation of anything else. To use Moshe Rosman’s phrase, Polish Jews were “categorically Jewish, distinctly Polish.” Jews in Poland were Jews, in a legal, cultural, and religious sense. To expect otherwise in the premodern era would be to expect their conversion. Modernity challenged these social structures, re-inventing the concept of nations, and with it cultural expectations of “assimilation,” which is perhaps a secular version of conversion. But before the modern period, close and intimate relations between Jews and Christians anywhere, not just in Poland, were not only discouraged by both Jewish and Christian authorities, but in some respects were even illegal. Still, that does not mean that they did not happen. Jews and Christians did in fact live together, sometimes under the same roof, and maintained intimate relations — historical evidence from both the premodern and modern periods demonstrates this unequivocally. As historian Shmuel Ettinger once said, “at no period in their history have Jews barricaded themselves against social and cultural developments of other nations.”
DS: How is the narrative that Singer conveys – which derives from his own personal experience and inherited folklore in Poland – different from historical circumstances or sources that you’ve come across in your work?
MT: Singer’s essay is very much a product of his own experience, the experience of Jews in the 1930s, and of the Yiddish cultural world. The discussion of the gentiles as drunks and ignoramuses, and the view of the nobleman as someone to fear are distinctly shaped by Jewish lore. The questions he raises about what Poland might become after the war are very much influenced by the experience of the 1930s, especially after 1935, a period he would have learned about second-hand. The way Singer framed the essay is also very much a product of modern nationalist discourse, as he speaks of “the Polish people,” “the Italians, the French, the Spanish,” and “the Germans.” Such stark national identities and divisions did not exist until the modern period. In the premodern period, these categories were more fluid, but for Singer they are rather static — here he used them to describe the Middle Ages. In fact, throughout the essay, Singer flattens the centuries. This is particularly striking when he speaks of language, saying that “even in recent years it was still unusual for a Jew to speak good Polish…. There were hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland for whom Polish was as alien as Turkish.” To emphasize his point Singer wrote of himself and his family: “The writer of these very lines has his roots in Poland — going back many generations — yet his father knew no more than two words in Polish, and it never occurred to him that there was anything wrong here.” Singer generalizes his family experience to speak broadly about Polish-Jewish culture with a long historical view, and yet, his father was a product of very specific circumstances. He grew up under tsarist rule, with policies that included decades of intense Russification of historically Polish territories, and the eradication of the Polish language from governmental offices and educational institutions. The question would be whether his father knew any Russian. My own teacher of Yiddish, the translator of Hebrew and Yiddish literature into Polish, Michał Friedman, remembered the cultural changes of his home town, Kowel, after WWI ended and Poland regained independence. Friedman and his friends had to learn Polish, the language of the new state. Though, for complex historical reasons, Jews retained Yiddish as their language in eastern Europe, they generally also spoke the vernaculars of the lands in which they lived. From my sources for the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria between 1772-1795, court records indicate that, with some exceptions, Jews spoke Polish. Was it “good Polish”? There was no good Polish spoken by anyone then. The universalization of grammar and spelling was a modern phenomenon. In the records I have seen, Jews spoke the vernacular no worse than their Christian neighbors. Written language is another story, but the majority of Polish Christians could not write either. The question of language would change with the partitions of Poland — with new states sidelining the Polish language to privilege languages of political power and the state: German and Russian. Another point to remember is that by the 1930s, the Jewish population was quite large. It was now possible to live in an entirely Jewish neighborhood without interacting with non-Jews. The YIVO autobiographies of Jews from the interwar period beautifully describe the cultural struggles young people experienced in the Polish Republic. Here, Singer speaks from a specific cultural milieu. Tuwim would tell a different story. For Tuwim Polish was the language in which he was “called in my parents’ home,” on which he “was nourished”; a language in which his “mother taught [him] Polish poetry and songs”; a language, in which “the first shock of poetry came” to him; a language that was “the most important” in his life because “poetic creation” was “unthinkable in any other language, no matter how fluently I might speak it,” Tuwim wrote. Yiddish was such a language for Singer, though he clearly knew other languages even when he lived in Poland. He was after all a translator of world literature into Yiddish.
DS: The article is written for general audiences and treats Jewish-Polish relations in very broad brushstrokes. But it also seems to play up the different stereotypes with which the two groups saw each other. Where do you see the nuance in Singer’s thinking?
MT: Singer certainly played on the existing, and still persisting, stereotypes. Not surprisingly for the time he was writing, he stressed “hatred.” Strikingly, however, while earlier in his essay Singer noted that “it would be necessary to write a thick book” about the mutual influences, later he repeatedly underscored that there were two peoples “who had nothing in common,” who were “as distant from each other spiritually as heaven and earth.” To support his notion of alienation, he evoked the visually distinct Jews: “men in long gabardines, with big beards and disheveled side locks, and women in wigs, bonnets, and long garments.” That’s an easy target. But there were Jews in Poland who did not look like that. Isaac Bashevis Singer and his brother did not look like the Jews he described. Yet, just as Singer turned to this stereotype, which was reinforced after the war by American Jews memorializing “the lost world,” this was also the stereotype of the Jews that Poles came to inherit and cultivate. Other Jews — secular Jews, acculturated Jews — were simply not visible. In my classes, I often mix photographs from the interwar period showing Poles and Jews, in schools, on tours, and it is often difficult to tell the difference. That is not to say that there was no difference, but rather that we choose to remember the alienated Jew, not the Zionist writing in Polish or the Yiddish speaker saying that “this is our land, our home.” Jews and non-Jews both do it, if for different reasons. But that visible, easily-otherized Jew serves a purpose. In the post-Holocaust era the narrative of mutual alienation has been useful. For Jews to deal with the pain of betrayal and for Poles to deal with an acknowledged or unacknowledged sense of guilt, Jews must be seen as truly a people apart.
DS: Singer emphasizes alienation between Jews and Poles rather than hatred – and openly blames the “Nazi massacres” on Polish anti-Semites and Nazis. How could this formulation influence how we deal with the current state-led initiative to inscribe these kinds of nuances into Polish law? In your understanding of the law, would Singer’s statement make him vulnerable to legal action?
MT: Singer’s narrative overstates the alienation. He flattens centuries of history by stating that “we can compare Jews and Poles to a couple who has lived together for forty years and has remained as alien to each other as they were on the first day.” Certainly, in the 1930s there was a sense of alienation, but when we examine the long history of Polish Jews, which Singer’s essay addresses, we see them embedded in and part of Polish culture and society. To be sure Jews felt connected to other Jews, had a real, or ritualized relationship with “Eretẓ Israel,” the historic Jewish homeland, praying each Passover for “Next Year in Jerusalem,” or contributing alms to Jews in the region, but Poland (or historically the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) was nonetheless their “homeland.” In Poland Jews were intrinsic to, and inseparable from, the country’s social, political, and economic landscape. They perceived themselves as such and they were so perceived by their non-Jewish neighbors, even if each may have harbored prejudice against the other. Jews in Poland were Jews, but they were Polish Jews, and Poland was their homeland. Their distinct identity as Jews did not necessarily imply “alienation,” even as they still connected to Jews and Jewish communities beyond the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and even as some Christian writers produced vitriolic anti-Jewish works. Let me give you an example. Writing in 1667 to the wealthy Sephardic financier Abraham de Pinto of Amsterdam, the Polish rabbi Moses Rivkes, a war refugee in Amsterdam, expressed his longing for his home in Wilno (now Vilnius). He expressed his desire to return there, as the news of peace in the commonwealth reached the Dutch shores: “Letters have come to me from the holy community of Wilno, saying that peace has been declared between the king of Poland and the Muscovites, before whose sharp sword and the weight of war I was exiled from my home [galiti me-makomi]. And now since the time of peace from those wars has come, and I have grown old, my soul longs [ḥashkah nefshi] to go to my home [le-makomi] in the holy community of Wilno.” Rivkes was asking for financial help to get back home. Though some of the words seem formulaic, when considered together, the Hebrew expressions Rivkes uses to describe his displacement [galiti me-makomi] in Amsterdam evoke the biblical Exile from the Land of Israel, the galut. It does not seem accidental that Rivkes chose words of such weight to refer to his displacement from Wilno. For him being in Amsterdam, where he published his commentary on the Shulḥan ‘Arukh, was exile from the “holy community of Wilno.” Jews in Poland began to be identified as distinctly “Polish” in the mid-sixteenth century. The 1568 edition of a maḥzor, or a prayer book, which was published in Venice, contains one of the first examples of an explicit reference to Polish minhag, or custom. This centuries-long history – the perception of Poland (or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) as “home” – is why there has been so much pain and resentment about being rejected after so many centuries as “strangers” by modern Polish Christian society, and why there was a deep-seated feeling of betrayal during the war.
However, Singer incorrectly projects the alienation and desperation of the 1930s and 1940s onto the past. Historians have demonstrated clearly, as the late Jacob Goldberg famously said, that there “is no history of Poland without the history of the Jews, and no history of the Jews without the history of Poland.” And that long history has painful parts, to be sure, with the most painful taking place during the twentieth century. But it is only an honest examination of this long history in its fullness that can help heal some of the raw emotion still present when the topic of Polish Jewish relations is raised. And that’s what was at stake when the Polish parliament passed the now infamous law that threatened to gag — despite assurances otherwise — discussions and research of this most recent past. The Polish law has now been modified, reducing the charges from criminal to civil. But the reason why this law came into place, and why it became such an explosive issue, is that for a host of complex reasons, Polish society has not honestly dealt with the question of antisemitism within the roots and depths of its being, or its persistence, especially after the war. Right after the war, in 1945, 1946, and 1947, many intellectuals, writers, journalists, scholars, and poets were surprised by the persistence of antisemitism even in the wake of the near total destruction of Jews in Poland. Mieczysław Jastruń, a poet and essayist, wrote in June 1945 noting that “antisemitism, deeply rooted in Poland before the last war, did not weaken — even though over three million Jews and those considered to be Jews were murdered by the Hitlerite inquisition.” And the writer Jerzy Andrzejewski concurred in 1946 that “Polish antisemitism did not burn out in the ruins and the conflagration of the ghettos.” Antisemitism was discussed broadly. It was, according to Andrzejewski, “a painful and shameful matter,” one that did not make Poland “friends abroad,” and in Poland “irritates and festers.” One that “disgraced the morality of the Polish nation.” Poles were surprised and taken aback when in those years, western journalists would ask about antisemitism in Poland, implicitly feeling that despite the Nuremberg trials placing the blame for the genocide on Germans, Poles too were blamed for what happened. The communist government tried to address antisemitism but soon realized that this powerful tool could be marshaled against it. So, despite many individual voices sounding alarm after the war, Poland, as a country, and Polish society have not addressed the issue. As Tadeusz Mazowiecki noted in 1960, addressing “the antisemitism of gentle and good people,” Poland and Polish society, while getting rid of what he called “militant antisemitism,” never removed the “soil” and the “deep residue” of antisemitism. And thus, the discussion of the past in light of the new law has become a discussion of the persistence of antisemitism in Poland. The debate over the law has only served to reinforce the stereotypes of Poles as anti-Semites, who could never accept Jews as their neighbors, and Jews as foreigners and strangers, hostile to Poland. The stereotypical representation of Polish Jewish history as a history of alienation helps no one. A nuanced approach to that complex history forces us to confront the fact that there is no purely Polish history. Jews have always been an intrinsic part of it, and so Jewish history is not just a history of Jews. Indeed, examining the fullness of that past may raise what may be an uncomfortable question for some people: “How Jewish Was Polish History?”
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.
Magda Teter is the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies and Professor of History at Fordham University.