For Poles I will always be a Jew, while for Orthodox Jews I will always be a Pole or at best a supporter. I came across this term many years ago and it was uttered by a member of the Jewish Orthodoxy who had a serious “religious” problem with people like me.

Almost every organization in Poland specifies different formal standards qualifying its potential members. This results from internal law, but above all from universally binding norms and collective memory, which in many cases determine the origin of a given person. During the war and after it, the Jews irretrievably changed their identity, place of residence, and blurred all traces of themselves and their origins. Very often they did not inform their new families about who they were and where they came from, besides, at that time it was bad to ask questions – people wanted to forget the past and live on. A few years ago I met a gentleman whose father was a borderland Jew. Throughout his entire post-war life, he did not admit this fact to anyone, even in the face of death and unquestionable facts which were presented to him, he stayed silent as a rock.

Choices made by the parent are not always the choice of the child, because everyone has the right to get to know their ancestors.

Not everyone who discovers that they have Jewish origin wants to be associated with it. If, however, they decide to join a Jewish organization, they have to provide documents proving this origin, which in many cases are extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible to obtain. What to do then with such a person? How to handle such an application? Unfortunately, each case should be treated individually, as these are extremely sensitive and delicate problems. Perceiving and discovering one’s own Jewishness in Poland also brings with it another problem. It is a common practice to question the origin of certain people – after all, everyone knows that he is not a Jew! – how many times have I heard such a statement. Archival documents and those brought from home nooks and crannies or parents’ graves in the Jewish cemetery, do not constitute an obstacle to this type of slander, let alone the experiences of people who painstakingly found their ancestors. Such behavior results from the prevailing stereotype that Jewish organizations in Poland have a lot of money. In this situation it is worth asking where this big money is supposedly coming from?

During the German occupation, almost everything that was Jewish was stolen and killed. One in ten Polish Jews survived the Holocaust! In search of a new, better life survivors emigrated from communist Poland. For those who stayed, the reality was not a very favorable one. The communists ideologically opposed all manifestations of religiosity, and contrary to common stereotypes, this also applied to Judaism. Poles confiscated post-Jewish estates and were often very unhappy when the rightful Jewish owners returned. Murders and violence were spreading. The war significantly lowered the threshold of sensitivity to harm and injustice. Years of Nazi propaganda had a strong impact on the moral condition of society, and the old tenuous ties between the two nations were brutally severed. The terms “baptized Jew”, “looks like a Jew,” and the search for Jewish ancestors in human biographies, which are quite common nowadays, are the shameful legacy of the German occupation, which unknowingly came into common use.

For those Jews who remained in Poland after the end of World War II, Poland resembled a lost world. Memories were painful and with time became a stinging wound which never healed. I knew a man who for 70 years, until his death, did not want to go to his hometown, which was less than several dozen kilometers away from Krakow. He was afraid of the burden of the memories he would encounter. For people like him, marked with the stigma of the Holocaust, Poland has become, one huge ruined cemetery of the past, which every now and then reminded them – you are a stranger here, you better leave. The enormous regret directed at people for being indifferent during the Holocaust, pushed them to various parts of the world. Many times they left without looking back, almost blindly, as far away as possible. However, there were those who chose to stay.

Why did many Jews stay in Poland after the war?

I often ask myself this question because after the war it was possible to leave Poland. Many people took advantage of this. However, many Jews chose to continue to live in a country that was no longer theirs. Probably it was difficult for them to part with their memories and they were afraid of new, things, acting on the principle that known evil is better than the unknown? Many were baptized, found Polish wives or husbands and wanted to become Poles at all costs; before the war the change of religion guaranteed this. Many Jews today cherish photos from their church weddings. No one in their right mind, however,  can hold this against them. For believers or those brought up in Jewish families it is almost unthinkable, but orphans, people from mixed families often had it harder. At the time, to declare that: “I am a believer” was the same as saying: “I am an anti-communist and an honest Pole”, it ensured acceptance by society and a peaceful life. Currently, during the carnival of Jewish culture in Poland, young people find this information hard to believe. 30 years ago, a church wedding allowed people to function safely in society. How do you explain this to a Hasid raised in Brooklyn?

Communist Poland can be compared to a non-transparent  incubator, where the information and other stimuli was provided by the Soviet Union and carefully selected. Jews also lived inside of this incubator, creating a unique culture of which the Social and Cultural Society of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ) was and still is the quintessence. This cultural heritage requires commemoration because it has allowed this culture to survive, and was sometimes the only form of contact for people in similar situations. People felt unity, they could cherish their memories.

– Remember when our fathers went to prayer on Fridays?

– Of course I remember.

– Well, yes, but they did not want to take us …

– We wouldn’t understand anything anyway.

They did not take them because they wanted to keep them safe, making them Poles without any Jewish connections. Then they ordered themselves to be buried in the cemetery “under a cross”, and they did so only because they wanted everyone to see – look, I became a Pole, my children are also Poles. They believed that only full assimilation, also in the cultural and religious dimension, would provide their families peace. For two reasons this procedure has not stood the test of time. The first is related to the experience of the Holocaust. The racist ideology created by the Nazis is still present in the world. Despite the declaration of national affiliation and religious conversion, it is still irrelevant for many contemporaries, because people are still racially segregated – we know who he really is – have you ever heard this statement? The second, which scientists have defined quite recently, is the “third generation” phenomena, in this case the discovering of their sad and mysterious Jewish grandparents by the youth, often many years after their death. The basic conclusion is that you can’t escape the memories. 

One of the important arguments in favor of staying in Poland were also issues of a material nature. Are you surprised? Right after the war, no one knew what the situation in Poland would be, and a little later on it was too late. Please put yourself in their position. It is extremely difficult to give up your hard-won education and profession that can only be performed in Polish conditions. Specific skills, knowledge and education in the post-war realities were the only real and certain capital. A practicing lawyer – for example – from Poland, would have crossed out all his previous hard work, by moving abroad. He would have to start from scratch. However, the worst situation was for assimilated Jews, often knowing only the Polish language, strongly identifying with their country of residence and religiously indifferent, they became stateless orphans. Many of them survived this worst post-war period and stayed, unfortunately the price they paid was that of total assimilation.

The Polish Jew is aware of his origins, but still finds himself stranded between the culture and religion of his grandparents and more broadly understood Polishness.

For decades, Poland was an almost completely closed country, ruled in an authoritarian manner by the communist nomenclature dependent on the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, despite the experiences of the Holocaust, the authorities used the anti-Semitic moods prevailing in Polish society to consolidate their power. This was the case in March 1968, when as a result of the so-called March events, about 13.5 thousand people left Poland. Polish Jews. These were mostly people born after the war, very closely related to Poland. There were cases when they learned about their Jewish origins from the reluctant authorities. Most of them were almost forced to leave, although there were cases where more prominent Jewish activists were not released from Poland, some of them were imprisoned without a sentence. In Cracow, for example, Maciej Jakubowicz, the chairman of the Jewish Religious Congregation (now the Jewish Religious Community), spent many months in detention.

It was in the late 1960s that the TSKŻ, the largest Jewish organization licensed by the authorities at the time, was robbed of its property, which it has not recovered until today.

The communist authorities of Poland at the time, appropriating the property of the Society, at the same time deprived the TSKŻ of the possibility to use foreign aid, which was its basic source of income. The members were forced to relinquish a large part of the tangible assets, which were not easily accumulated after the war by TSKŻ. Jewish schools were closed, and the activities of Jewish labor cooperatives were limited until they completely disappeared over time. The periodical Jidisze Szriftn (Jewish Writings), which had been published in Yiddish since 1946, was liquidated. Only the daily Fołks Sztyme (Voice of the People) was left but it was made a weekly. Strong emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that these activities were anti-Jewish.

The years between 1968-1990 were a very depressing period in the history of Polish Jews. Many prominent Jewish activists and a great number of young people left Poland. The March emigration was a great blow to the Jewish community in Poland, from which it was very hard to recover for many years. It wasn’t before the political changes and the fall of the Iron Curtain that profound changes of the situation of the Jewish minority in Poland were initiated, which has today radically improved.

“The publication expresses the views of the author and should not be equated with the official position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.”

Michał Zajda

Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021″