Polska Dotty devotes an entire chapter to “The Jewish Question”, essentially the history of the Jews in Poland. A lot of what I say is, predictably enough, what I learnt – and a lot of what I learnt came from Prof Jonathan Webber. Prof Webber was one of, if not the first, Western anthropologist to travel about Poland post-Communism and systematically document sites of Jewish heritage there: largely synagogues and cemeteries.
Last night I had the good fortune to hear him speak on the subject to a small group of British Jews who would visit Poland for the first time later this year. Prof Webber enunciated several themes. The key one, I’d say, was the complexity of the Jewish past in Poland. Jews lived in Poland for fully 1000 years before the Nazis almost entirely exterminated them. For 400 years they comprised the largest Jewish population in the world, right up to the mid-1920s. Polish towns were 20, 30, 40, 80% Jewish. There were Jewish MPs, professors, actors and artists. Also bailiffs and stewards on estates. Jews were members of the Communist Bund and secret service. They dominated commerce, but some of their roles made them unpopular. There were orthodox Jews, Hasidic Jews, Zionists. They lived and had very different experiences in the Russian, Prussian and Austrian partitions of Poland. Throughout the 1000 years they mixed with many peoples – Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Lithuanians, and many others – as well as Poles.
So when, inevitably, the subject of Polish anti-Semitism arose at last night’s talk, we had some perspective. We now knew that the Jews had found relative peace in Poland for a very long time, and that if there were tensions, there were explanations for them that only a study of this long and remarkable history of the Jews in Poland could explain.
One of many fascinating insights from Prof Webber stood out for me. He told us that Jews emigrated to the US from all over Poland. Those from the Russian partition complained of pogroms. Those from the much more liberal Austrian partition felt it politic to agree; but actually, they’d more likely emigrated for economic reasons: to make money (not such a salubrious explanation!).
The result has been a structural amnesia, as Prof Webber calls it, about pre-war Jewish life in Poland: after all, which refugees speak lovingly about the country they fled, or wish to speak about their past at all? And it’s clearly this which causes Prof Webber the most concern. He is so animated and enthusiastic about a subject he has made his own – the rich history of the Jews in Poland – that he considers it a serious omission the subject is not taught in Jewish schools, and beyond.
Of course, the trouble with this whole topic is its almost unparalleled sensitivity. Emotions run high, particularly where those with personal connections to Holocaust victims are concerned. Those trying to create a three dimensional picture of Polish Jewish history can be accused of intellectualising it and going against received wisdom. Despite this, for me, it has to be done, for two reasons. Firstly, it will get us closer to the truth, which is not the simplistic view that Poland was only detrimental to the Jews, but something much more complex and nuanced. Secondly – and this is another key aspect of Prof Webber’s work – it’s surely a way to break down prejudices and thereby expedite the reinvigoration of Jewish life in Poland today.