Tag Archives: Poland

Auschwitz, in 2011

by Kayla Green

Today marks Yom HaShoah, the day we commemorate those killed during the Holocaust. Across the world, people share stories of those who survived and those who didn’t, of yellow stars and barbed wire, of a terrifying life lived in ghettos and camps. Among the camps, Auschwitz is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the Nazis’ brutal science. The horror that occurred at the three death camps that comprise Auschwitz should be memorialized as, in the words of a plaque at the camp, “a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.” However, to some people, Auschwitz, or rather, Oświęcim (the Polish pronunciation of the word, which was used before Nazi occupation) is more than the site of the world’s most terrible genocide: To this day, Oświęcim still exists as a town.

More specifically, Oświęcim, (the place which once housed death camps Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz,) is now a small town, with a population of about 43,000 inhabitants and an area of 30.3 square kilometers. Every day, these 43,000 people go on living their lives, moving forward in a place so deeply tied to the past. To many, it must seem backwards to go on living this way, establishing a life in a graveyard. Even Oświęcim’s town square, filled with stores and businesses, is built on a bunker. The once-proud castle is now a coffee shop. The street that comprised the “Jewish quarter” is desolate.

Surprisingly, considering that Oświęcim does not have a single Jewish resident, the town does still have a synagogue, which serves as a Jewish museum, synagogue and education center.

The museum is built from the home of the Kornreich family, former residents of Oswiecim. The main exhibition is dedicated to displaying the nearly 500 years of Jewish history, tradition, and culture that once existed in Oswiecim, giving visitors a sense of what Jewish life once was in a place where such a thing seems incomprehensible. The museum is filled with photographs of individuals and families, documents and artifacts from local Jewish organizations and businesses, and Judaica excavated in 2004 from beneath the site of the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim. Personal stories of the Holocaust survivors from Oswiecim, who live in Israel today, are featured in a special exhibition.

The Temple component, known as the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, is the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim. Built in 1913, it survived a transformation into a munitions warehouse during the war and then a carpet warehouse during communism. In 1998, the synagogue became the first Jewish communal property to be returned to a Jewish community in Poland and the recipients of the property, the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community, donated the synagogue to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. The building was completely restored to the pre-war condition described in testimonies and the recollections of survivors, and was re-opened in September 2000. Despite being the only Jewish house of worship within 3 kilometers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the synagogue currently has neither Rabbi nor congregation.

Finally, the Auschwitz Jewish Center has an Education Center, dedicated to public education about the richness of pre-war life, the Holocaust, and the dangers of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. A wide range of programs, including workshops, lectures, seminars, meetings, tours, and cultural events, are available for visitors. The Center also organizes tours of the synagogue, cemetery, and town for family, school, and adult groups.

More than anything, it is the Education Center that gives the town of Oświęcim a sense of progress. Right in the center of a town that will forever be associated with genocide and hatred, there is movement toward a peaceful future.

The Holocaust Today

By Symi Rom-Rymer

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by Soviet troops.  In 2005, 60 years after the liberation, the United Nations General Assembly designated that date International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  As many have said before, the Holocaust is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone recreate in such a way so that others might understand.  Nevertheless, every year a new crop of novelists, memoirists, and academics pour their emotions, research and analysis into works that aim to shed new light on the well-worn subject.

In commemoration of this day, I have compiled a short list of recent books about the Holocaust that I have found particularly compelling.  These works, both fiction and nonfiction, successfully face the daunting task of retelling or challenging our views on the history that seems so familiar and yet, for most of us, so alien.  This is not meant to be a comprehensive catalog, but rather the spark for a longer list and deeper discussion.  I encourage each of you to add your own thoughts and suggestions of additional books in the comments section.

Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945, by Gunnar S. Paulsson
In Secret City, Gunnar Paulsson, former Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, takes his readers into a subject beset by myths and often left unexplored by most historians: The underground life of Jewish Poles in Warsaw during the war.  Using diaries, memoirs, records of Jewish and Polish organizations that helped fugitives, and testimonies, he demonstrates how 28,000 Polish Jews, out of roughly 380,000, were able to escape the ghetto and hide in Warsaw itself with the help of converted Jewish and Polish families.   In contrast to traditional assumptions, he argues that many more Poles helped rather than hindered Jews to escape and how many Jews with even just one Polish friend had an avenue for escape.  According to his calculations, more than 11,000 Jews survived the war in Warsaw.  Written academically, Secret City is not a quick read.  But its careful use of sources, statistics, and strong narrative voice makes a compelling argument for this new understanding of the Jewish experience in wartime Warsaw.

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer
Named one of the New York Times’ best 100 books of 2010, Julie Orringer’s epic novel sweeps readers into her world and refuses to let go.  Andras Lévi, a brilliant architectural student whose departure for architecture school in Paris in the late 1930s unleashes the plot.  Unlike most Holocaust novel protagonists, Lévi is neither from Western Europe nor from an East European shtetl.  He is an educated, cosmopolitan Hungarian Jew who, like many of his era, sought a better life for himself elsewhere in Europe.  Orringer refreshingly breaks with convention further by choosing Hungary as Lévi’s point of origin.  The story of Hungary’s Jews is a less familiar one to the American and Western European  public (see our post Jewish Ghosts of Budapest) and by placing the novel in Hungary, she avoids the traditional Holocaust progression: home, ghetto, concentration camp.  While no less cataclysmic, readers are offered an opportunity to revisit the era through Lévi, through a more unusual lens.  The Invisible Bridge may be 600 pages long and ultimately tragic but Orringer populates her story with such vivid personalities and so evocatively recreates the atmosphere of interwar and wartime Paris and Budapest that the characters haunt you long after the book is closed.

The Pages In Between, by Erin Einhorn
“I was always loved,” was Erin Einhorn’s mother’s standard response about her experience during the Holocaust.  Left in the care of a Polish couple as a baby, she grew up never knowing stability and peace.  Whisked away to the United States after the war by a father she barely knew, she clung to her rose-tinted vision of her childhood through most of her life.  Einhorn’s narrative tries to break through that vision and discover what really happened to her mother, and to her mother’s protectors, during the war.  In an attempt to reconnect with the family who saved her mother from the Holocaust, Einhorn travels to Poland only to find the situation much more complicated than she anticipated.  She gets sucked into to a protracted legal battle over the ownership of the apartment building where the elderly son of the family who saved her mother still lives.  But this is not only a memoir about retracing the steps of a Holocaust survivor.  This is also about how each generation tries to make sense of its family’s Holocaust legacy on their own terms. While Einhorn confronts the anti-Semitic attitudes she was brought up to expect, she also discovers, and becomes friends with, young Poles who are deeply interested in Judaism and Jewish culture.  One of them even ends up converting to Judaism.  Einhorn is respectful of her mother’s experiences, but at the same time she insists on confronting the country, and its personally difficult legacy, from her own perspective.  For many American Jews, Poland and Polish attitudes towards Jews remain frozen in time.  This engaging and thought-provoking memoir brings us up to date and shows just how multi-layered the story truly is.

People of the Book: Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora

By Symi Rom-Rymer

The story of Jewish Eastern European immigration is a familiar one.  Even if one never had the chance to know their relatives from that generation, all one has to do is watch Fiddler on the Roof to see what they must have experienced: the shtetl, the Cossacks and, of course, the eventual expulsion.  But for Rebecca Kobrin, assistant professor of Jewish History at Columbia University and author of the new book Jewish Bialystok and its Diaspora , even if we might know all the words to Anatevka, we really don’t know very much.  Kobrin challenges the traditional American Jewish view of that life much like Alana Newhouse’s did with her article about Roman Vishniac’s photos in pre-war Poland within the context of pre-war East European Jewish life.

Using Bialystok—a center of industry and a predominantly Jewish town—as her lens, she charts the complex process of Eastern European immigration in the 20th century beginning with internal Jewish migration from smaller to larger towns within the Russian empire and ending with the establishment of communities in places as far-flung as Australia and Argentina, not to mention the United States and Israel.  Through a wide-range of primary sources, Kobrin demonstrates how many Bialystokers saw their migration west not always as a positive move forward, as it so commonly portrayed today, but also as a form as exile or galut.  Although for them, this feeling of exile was not from the biblical Israel but rather from Eastern Europe; and in this case, more specifically from Poland—a country that they thought of as the promised land.

Furthermore, Kobrin uses the book as a rare opportunity to explore the Jewish immigrant experience outside the United States.  Through that international framework she demonstrates how despite their feelings of vulnerability in their new homes, Bialystokers also maintained a powerful network through which they sought to create an empire of Bialystok communities throughout the world.  She also uses this framework to compare and contrast how each community dealt with hardship from finding jobs to creating a strong community to what it means to be from Bialystok when, decimated by the Holocaust, it no longer existed as a Jewish home.   I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rebecca Kobrin and talk with her about her new book and the role she hopes it will play in future discussions about Eastern Europe Jewish migration.

Why a book about Eastern European migration?
Ninety percent of American Jews come from Eastern Europe and if you ever talk to people about their families, they always talk about their relatives going around the world: to Buenos Aries, New York.  But typically, it’s seen as one journey from Eastern Europe to America.  It was really many lines going from one place.

You challenge several traditional American Jewish narratives in your book.  Was this the intent from the beginning or did it evolve as you were writing?
No.  It was really the sources.  The opening of my book talks about the first issue of the Der Bialystoker Stimme (The Voice of Bialystok) [a Yiddish journal written for and by Bialystokers] and how the writers were toying and imagining what migration means for and themselves and trying to understand their place in the world.  In the Yiddish materials, they say things differently from what we expect.  [For instance], I never thought in a million years that I would find the word galut (the biblical word for exile) in their writings.  That’s when I started to rethink that my project wouldn’t only be about migration.

Your book seems to address similar issues to those brought up in the recent article about Roman Vishniac and his photographs.  Why do you think the narrative is changing?
Since the fall of Communism and the opening up of Eastern Europe, I think there is more of an openness to revisiting and rethinking the narratives Eastern Europe.  Immigrants who came there would undeniably admit that the US had more material things but they were ambivalent about the immigrant experience.  That ambivalence has been erased and what I’m doing is reinserting it. If you talk to American Jews, ask if they’ve been to Eastern Europe.  They haven’t, but they have been to Israel.  American Jews have become attached to a homeland where none of their ancestors had ever lived.  Israel has taken on an importance greater than Eastern Europe only in the post-war years.  That is in essence what my book is about.  It’s about where Eastern European Jews are really from and how it reshapes their relationship with America.  I think that some people will never accept that Eastern Europe was a great place to be Jew because you have the long and deep shadow of Auschwitz that people can’t see past.  Urban Polish culture was Jewish culture, Jews felt comfortable there and no one can accept that people felt comfortable there.  I think that’s changing but it depends in what circles you travel in.

I was interested to learn that Bialystokers returned home during the 1920s, because in my mind immigrants didn’t return once they moved to the US.  How pervasive do you think is this idea among American Jews now?
That’s part of the narrative, that leaving Eastern Europe was the best choice they ever made.  But tons of people went back and took pictures.  That’s how you showed you made it; by going back.  That was the actually lived migration: not this idea that they went to the US and completely cut off ties and never went back.

It seems like the reaction to the Holocaust–both during and afterwards–was very different in the US as opposed to that in other countries.  Why do you think that was?
America was still involved in the war effort and because of that, people in the US were more fixated on that because they had sons, brothers, and fathers in the army.  Survivors arrived in Argentina, for instance, much earlier than in the US so Argentinean Jews had more live witnesses to what had happened.  A lot of people in the US thought that perhaps the devastation wasn’t as bad as it was, that people would come back.  I found that coming to terms of what it means to a Jew from Bialystok, when there was no Bialystok, was a much slower process for American Jews.  In the US, the press had been playing down what had happened to the Jews of Eastern Europe and they bought it. But in Buenos Aries, they just lived in a totally different culture and could absorb more readily the reality of what happened in the Holocaust.

Have the descendants of Bialystok families’ relationship to the city changed after the collapse of Communism?
In Israel, there are some people who have been back several times, although a lot of it is generational.  I think people in Israel are more open to visiting Poland.  In Australia, there is so much nostalgia–I’m still trying to work out why.  In the US, there are a few original immigrants still alive but it’s mainly children and grandchildren. None of the original immigrants are interested in the graveyard; only the children and grandchildren are interested in maintaining the Jewish sites of the city—or what is left of them.

How aware are contemporary Bialystokers about the Jewish history of their town?
There is one woman who lives there who just discovered she’s Jewish at the age of 40.  This will be happening more.  Not hundreds of thousands, but still.  The university is trying to do this project where they have conferences where they bring together Jews who lived in Bialystok and scholars who write about it.  Bialystok knows that as a city it would be nothing without the influx of the Jews and the industry that they built.  Because of them, it became the main transit point of the Warsaw-Moscow train line that was built by the Tsars; a train line that still exists to this day. Without its Jews, Bialystok wouldn’t have been important.

What would you like people to take away from reading the book?
Two things.  First, that the whole narrative of why Eastern European Jews left and come to the US is more complicated and filled with ambivalence than we expect.  And secondly, that Eastern Europeans and their relationship to Eastern Europe really shaped the way Jews throughout the course of the 20th century viewed the key issues of homeland, longing, and exile.

Rebecca Kobrin’s Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora raises critical questions and observations not only about our ancestors’ relationship to their places of origin, in this case the town of Bialystok, and to their new homes, but also about how we, their descendants, have shaped that story for each subsequent generation.  As the original immigrants become ever fewer in number, we are left with few tangible links to their history as they experienced it.  Books such as this challenge us to reexamine our closely held-beliefs and encourages us to see that history as it was, rather than as we might want it to be.

Neo-Nazi Karma

By Niv Elis

In what must be a neo-Nazi’s worst nightmare, two Polish skinheads (a married couple) discovered that they are, in fact, Jewish.

Joining the ranks of unwitting self-haters like Ted Haggard,  Ken Mehlman, and the fictional Danny Balint, Pawel and Olga (whose last names were not given) are now the subject of a new CNN documentary.  The documentary details how the couple, who have become active members of an orthodox synagogue, are dealing with the contradiction.

Despite some serious soul searching, Pawel seems to have taken friendly advice against beating himself up over his past.

“It’s not something that I walk around and lash myself over… I feel sorry for those that I beat up.”

Setting aside the glory of karmic justice, the compelling story offers a fascinating peak into how people deal with challenges to their identity and worldview.  You can watch a clip from the documentary below:

When Good Intentions Meet Reality

By Symi Rom-Rymer

In a recent posting on the Washington Post’s OnFaith blog, a Rabbi and law professor recount their experience on a joint US Jewish-Muslim trip to the concentration camps of Germany and Poland.  According to the authors’ account, “the Muslim leaders were visibly shaken by what they saw” and even those who had previously expressed skepticism about the Holocaust were moved and encouraged those with similar doubts to visit the camps for themselves.

Upon their return, the participating imams issued as statement saying in part, “We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics…We have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth. Together, we pledge to make real the commitment of ‘never again’ and to stand united against injustice wherever it may be found in the world today.” Continue reading

A Polish Education

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Across Poland, a new form of Jewish remembrance is taking place.  Inmates from 10 different prisons are contributing their manpower to a country-wide effort to clean and maintain abandoned Jewish cemeteries.  Participation in the project—which is sponsored by the prison service and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland—is, however, about more than coming up with creative ways to keep prisoners occupied.  Beyond the actual labor, the men are also introduced to Jewish culture and religious traditions.

For many of prisoners who came of age under communism, talking about anything Jewish was taboo.  But through this program, and with the aid of Poland’s chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, that is beginning to change. Before the prisoners set foot in the cemeteries Rabbi Schudrich visits each of the prisons and talks to inmates about everything from Jewish marriage laws to how to put on tefillin.  By educating the men, the project leaders hope to break through the anti-Semitic outlook that remains present in Polish society and change the way the inmates were taught to view Jews.

So far, the response has been positive.   One of the men involved in the project, Artur Blinski, says “the scheme has broadened his outlook towards his country’s past. ‘Until now I wasn’t that interested.  This program has changed my attitude towards Jewish culture and I’ve started to get interested in it. I had no idea about this culture and the more I learn the more interesting it becomes.

That it has taken so many decades for Poles to be able to confront not only their own attitudes towards Jews as well as the importance and influence of pre-war Jewish life in Poland is distressing.  However, this effort–as well as others aimed at opening up the discussion and breaking societal taboos–is heartening.  It takes strength and courage to challenge the status quo.  In a recent blog post, I pointed out important steps taken within Poland to confront its past.  I hope this latest project represents not the end of such forward movement, but rather just the beginning.

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.

Germany and Poland Revisited

By Symi Rom-Rymer

When Helen Thomas declared recently that Jews have no place in Israel and should go home to Germany and Poland, she unleashed a current of outrage within the American Jewish community.  How dare she suggest, they wondered, that Jews should return to the countries of ‘the Final Solution.’

From her comments, it was unclear if she meant that Jews should have been killed in the Holocaust or that they should simply go back to what she viewed as their ancestral homelands–never mind that Israeli Jews are from all over the world, including Israel itself.  However, the reaction within the community to the suggestion of Germany and Poland demonstrates that for many American Jews, it amounts to the same thing.  But, in fact, it is not.  While her proposition is at best preposterous and at worst despicable, let us examine for a moment what exactly today’s Israeli Jews would discover waiting for them in Germany and Poland if they left Israel. Continue reading