Friday, August 17, 2018

Phantom Presence: How Past Influences Present

I had always thought of conferences as work perks.  They certainly weren’t a part of what I envisioned post-career, yet now I go to two conferences each year related to personal interests.  What I’ve come to realize is that there are two important parts of reinventing oneself, one is our ability to continue to learn and develop new skills and the other is to deepen our communities. Conferences are designed to do both.

One of the conferences I attend is put on by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies(IAJGS) and focuses on Jewish genealogy. This year it was in Warsaw, Poland. I’ve been to Warsaw several times, but each time I was there it was prior to the creation of the Polin museum that addresses the history of Polish Jews. I remember looking longingly at the building as it went up, wishing my timing had been different so I could explore it. This time I wasn’t going to miss my opportunity.

 It was a somewhat controversial time to go to Poland as a new law had been passed criminalizing speech that associated Poland with Nazi acts in the Holocaust. The Polish sensitivity arose from the conflation of descriptors of place with responsibility. Concentration camps that were housed in Poland were created and operated by the Nazis and a reference to "Polish concentration camps" failed to capture that distinction. The difficulty with the law was that it painted with a broad brush and potentially silenced any talk of Poles who were complicit. An outcry soon resulted in an amendment dropping the criminalization but retaining civil penalties. This became a topic in several sessions raising questions as to how it might suppress accurate Holocaust education reflecting the fact that some people were complicit, many were bystanders and a small group risked their lives to save Jews. 

There are stereotypes that historically have created distance between Jews and Poles. Stereotypes may arise from actual events but get extrapolated more broadly to define an entire people. So what colors these perceptions? While Poland was originally a safe haven for Jews, state antisemitism arose in 1935 after the death of the statesman Piłsudski and was often fed and condoned through the Catholic Church of that time. The Polish stereotype of Jews was that they were allied with Communism, although pre-1935 only 2-7% of Jews voted for Communist linked parties. 

And after the war?  One need only say Kielce, one of the best known pogroms post-war, to elicit a knowing nod. Many survivors returned from concentration camps to their former communities only to find Poles occupying their homes filled with their belongings. Wanting your property back could be life threatening. In addition to the Kielce pogram which killed 42 Jews, there were reports of Jews being murdered in other Polish cities. These events contributed to Jews seeking to leave Poland.  After the war, some remaining Jews were initially incorporated into visible positions of power within the Soviet government, furthering the stereotype of the Jewish communist, until of course the Soviets turned on them in 1968 with their own brand of antisemitism.

The echos of this history underlie Polish-Jewish relations with property remaining a sensitive issue. At the same time Jews and Poles share a common history across many centuries, something that the Polin museum seeks to capture. We struggled a bit with terminology. Many of the Polish Jews identified strongly as Poles, but the convention in that part of the world is to use the term Jews as a nation, implying one is either Polish or Jewish. Polish Jew is a phrase more consistent with American terminology. Conversely in a Jewish gathering, we found ourselves using terms like non-Jewish Poles.

Three million Polish Jews were killed during the war, a sizable portion of the Polish population. It is a bit like a phantom limb, still exerting influence and a presence even in it’s absence. If there was any overriding theme to the sessions,  it is the idea of phantom presence that takes several forms.

For example, several conference talks were on Polish partitions and explored the various divisions of Poland between Austria, Prussia and Russia. The boundaries kept moving as Poland was gobbled up by its neighbors.Those divisions affect the language and format of documents and the culture. Apparently they even affect the voting patterns today. The division is no longer active and yet it has left its influence. 

A similar phenomenon is found in the former existence of Jews within the country. The Jews represented a significant part of the country in terms of population and in some towns Jews could be as much as 80%. The Jews were often the merchants and entrepreneurs. What happens to the remaining community when you eliminate a significant part of it, and a vital part? 

The past continues to influence the future even in its absence. As new generations come of age without the clouded history of earlier generations, there is a curiosity about this aspect of their history and the opportunity to explore it through fresh eyes. My take away is that there are non-Jewish Poles who feel a deep commitment to the work of re-connection and a growing curiosity about the the former Jewish community. That manifests itself in a sometimes selective interpretation of Jewish culture by non-Jewish Poles. 

While in Poland, I visited a number of museums which added some perspective. The Polin museum does an exceptional job in telling the story of Poland and of the Jews and the Poles in connection. It doesn’t have the story of the Jews in isolation, nor does it focus on the Holocaust to the exclusion of all other Jewish history. That’s a story that interests multiple audiences and is presented in a way that draws the viewer in.

The other museum which I found particularly noteworthy was the Warsaw Rising museum which tells the story of the Warsaw uprising without neglecting contemporaneous events that affected the Jewish population. And it underscores that discussion of this event was suppressed by the Soviets. This museum gave me a greater appreciation of the Polish experience. It is a country that was sliced and diced by its neighbors and despite its efforts fighting in the war against the Nazis, it was handed over to the Soviets. The Soviets then proceeded to persecute those who fought in the Polish army and were active in the Warsaw uprising and ultimately the Jews who stayed to rebuild their country. While I knew pieces of that history, I had never truly knit it together nor fully appreciated the role of the Soviets in suppressing aspects of Polish history. 

And the final takeaway, we need to appreciate the experience of each other if we are to find the common ground that we all share. Museums offer us a gateway through which to do that.

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