Saturday, December 13, 2014

Reflections of a Polish historian

Jared Warren, 2013 AJC Fellow

As a language student at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, I traveled to Poland to study Polish language and culture, but I encountered much more: the remnants of the diverse ethnic, linguistic, and religious heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian lands.

One summer evening, in 2012, I sat on the ruins of a cathedral in the center of Lublin chatting with Polish acquaintances. They were delighted to introduce to me to a regional delicacy: an onion-covered flatbread, a culinary marker of the city’s Jewish heritage. Just to the west, while an Israeli band began to play, the setting sun illuminated several flags draped on the eastern edge of the square: the national colors of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Norway advertised the course-offerings of one of the city’s many language schools. On other days, after my language classes, long city strolls brought constant reminders of Poland's diverse ethnic and religious heritage: historical markers in Polish, Hebrew, and English marked a Jewish heritage “trail”; and a monument in the Plac Litewski commemorated the 1569 Union of Lublin which joined the Kingdom of Poland to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Piqued by these encounters with Poland’s Jewish heritage, I returned to Poland as an AJC Fellow hoping to understand better the interactions and interrelations between Polish culture and Jewish culture in the historic Polish lands. I hoped to learn how I—as an historian primarily of linguistic and ethnic Poles—could integrate Jewish narratives into my understanding of Polish history. I sought to discover the relationship between Polish and Jewish experiences in pre- (and post-) war Poland, the differences between Polish and Jewish narratives, and what we can learn from those differences.

On the one hand, it seemed it ought to be an easy task, since Jewish history is already so present—it seemed—in Polish history and culture. After all, the Jews are prominent in much of the history of Poland: interwar Poland was one of most ethnically diverse states in Europe: Poles comprised 69% of the general population; Ukrainians were 14%, Jews 9%, Byelorussians 3%, and Germans 2%, according to historian Tomasz Pudłocki. Furthermore, Jewish life mirrored Poland's diversity: some Jews were religiously observant, others secular and assimilated into the majority culture. During the interwar period, one third of the Jewish population lived in big cities, and much of the rest in shtetls. 

However, I found relating Jewish narratives to my studies of Polish culture to be a difficult challenge. During our travels, we often discovered that (even prior to the creation of the WWII ghettoes) Jewish society was often segregated from Polish society. Although Jews were permitted to live in Poland, had been invited to settle in Poland by Polish kings, and although they often portrayed Poland as a refuge, in some cases they still were forced to settle in isolated communities. In Krakow, for instance, Jews were required to settle outside the main city limits in Kazimierz, a district specifically designated for the Jewish community. Referring to these spatial distinctions between Polish and Jewish life around 1900, Samuel Kassow called Poland's seven million Jews “familiar strangers”. 

This segregation was evident even today, even in our academic discussions: I was struck by how poorly I, as a Polish historian, understood Jewish studies and Jewish cultural and religious traditions. Conversely, I was surprised that my colleagues—who have collectively spent decades in Holocaust studies—often had not been assigned much Polish history—the backdrop to so much of Polish Jewish life. Although the stories of Jews and Poles in Poland are interrelated, it seems we often do a poor job of integrating these two narratives. In a place with such a long tradition of diversity, why is the historiography often segregated? How does one write and tell coherent histories, which embrace Polish experience in full ethnic and religious diversity?

In his book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, Jan Gross tackles this problem of Jewish and Polish relations, and identifies the relationship between Polish and Jewish inhabitants of Poland as fundamentally unhealthy. He concludes that members of Polish society did not have the proper means to grieve the murder of its Jewish population during WWII. He suggests that Poles reacted to this loss by pushing the Jews further away, avoiding confronting their lack of effort to save Jews. Instead, Gross points out that many Poles profited from the Holocaust, by taking over property previously owned by Jews.

Despite the importance of WWII and the Holocaust in Polish history, we cannot appreciate the richness of Jewish life in Poland without a broader historical context. If we restrict our view of Polish Jewish life to the years around the War, we understand Jewish history primarily in the context of a graveyard. Even more importantly, we may often be guilty of simplifying the Holocaust by making it overly Jewish—guilty of understanding and perceiving the Auschwitz survivor, for example, only as a Jewish survivor. And we must avoid seeing the Holocaust as the summation, or even the end of Jewish history in Poland. It is only part of the story—albeit a significant part. In order to relate the narratives of Polish and Jewish life in Poland, we much reach chronologically much further back than the twentieth century.

The problem of relating Jewish and Polish history becomes yet more complex: the boundary between the two groups is not always clear. After all, not all individuals who were identified and killed as Jews during WWII self-identified as Jewish. The issue of identity is crucial here. The study of identity holds an important role in East and Central European historiography, and some historians have recently emphasized the difference between frequently ambiguous personal identities, and the more clear-cut identities foisted upon these characters from outside actors, such as proponents of nationalist programs. Perhaps even the act of writing these stories as “Jewish history” or “Polish history” is, in and of itself, part of the problem rather than part of the solution; as we attempt to relate the two, we must first realize we do not know what distinguishes the two fields.

While Jews were often scapegoated and negatively stereotyped by Poles, the difference between “Polish Poland” and “Jewish Poland” is confusing or even non-existent. By the turn-of-the-century, there were synagogues where sermons were preached in Polish—not Yiddish or Hebrew. Many of Marci Shore's characters, in Caviar and Ashes, were neither stereotypically Jewish nor quintessentially Polish: a notable example is that of Alexander Wat, a Polish-Jewish poet from an ethnically Jewish family. He was a declared atheist, who became Catholic while in exile in Kazakhstan, during WWII. The issue of nationalism, another issue which plagues East European historiography, relates to this question of identity; to make headway on the relationship between “Polish” and “Jewish” histories, we need to go beyond (late) nineteenth century conceptions of nation and ethnicity. According to Brian Porter in When Nationalism Began to Hate, early nineteenth century Polish nationalism was comparatively universal; it only became more xenophobic and exclusive later in the century. “The ideal of multiculturalism is not an American invention of the late twentieth century,” Porter writes, “but a quintessentially East European dream of the early nineteenth.” Perhaps stressing multiculturalism provides a gateway for beginning to apprehend and represent pre-twentieth century Poland’s ethnic and religious diversity.

In The Reconstruction of Nations, Timothy Snyder makes an important point regarding national identity. He asks “how...four modern national ideas arise from a single early modern one?” He answers by pointing to changing conceptions of state and citizenship. The Early Modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth counted its citizens as gentry populations, while modern states more often reflect the geographical territory inhabited by a specific ethnic group. Snyder demonstrates, in a sense, the arbitrariness of modern “Poland.” Thus, in discussing the nation of Poland, we need to be mindful of historically contingent definitions of national geographies and citizenship.

Chad Bryant’s work on conceptualizing East European urban history is particularly valuable here. He notes that preferencing different geographic units (other than nation-states) can aid the historian to create new narratives. Thus urban history’s “shared interest in a type of geographical space, rather than a particular methodology or research question...invites comparisons of events, peoples, and cultures among cities in a way that can transcend regional specializations ... it has the potential... to examine large forces and big structures within a context that provides for detail and complexity. Urban history, in other words, can reduce the scope of our inquiries—whether they be about nationalism, modernization, or something else—to a manageable size”.

He concludes his article noting that “as we look for ways to become more European and global, the study of the local, ironically, might prove to be one of our most promising alternatives”. Thus perhaps to understand Jewish and Polish (and other ethnic) experiences in Poland, we need to pay special attention to the geographic spaces and limits of our historical inquiries; perhaps we should begin with small stories, small narratives, and small geographic areas. We need to acknowledge the ambiguity, the many layers of identity in even one small place. As we learned during the fellowship, the town that Americans know as Auschwitz was also referred as Oświęcim and Oshpitzin depending on the language of the town's inhabitant. Thus, although no Yiddish-speaking national state was established on the Polish-Lithuanian lands, the story of Yiddish-speakers is still integral to the story of Oświęcim, to the story of Poland.

Rather than speak only of ethnic groups, of national movements which succeeded, we need to discuss nationalisms that did not succeed, or perhaps which never were. We need to recognize the diversity of Poland's inhabitants, and that each is important in the story of Poland. For a balanced perspective of Polish history, we cannot talk only of “Polish” history, or even of Jewish and Polish history in Poland. To do so ignores the Belorussians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, and many other groups who lived in Polish lands.

We have perhaps succeeded in integrating the Jewish narrative into Polish history when we cease to define each and every inhabitant of the Polish lands as Jewish or Polish—as belonging to an ethnic group—or even several. We have perhaps succeeded when the issue at stake is not a question of how to identify our characters, but when we as historians have let our subjects speak them themselves, as themselves.

Perhaps the question, to begin with, ought not be a question of how I as a “Polish” historian can relate two narratives (or two fields of study); but rather, perhaps the better endeavor is to attempt to avoid defining and identifying as either a scholar of “Jewish history” or of “Polish history”—but rather of the inhabitants of a region, or of a community. That will necessitate rigorous research and demanding language regimens, but hopefully we end with richer, deeper, and more human scholarship. In Polish and Jewish history, we cannot have one without the other: Jewish history is Polish history, and vice versa.

Jared Warren is a PhD student in Modern European history at New York University, where he specializes in Central and Eastern European cultural and intellectual history. He holds a M.A. from the Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of Kansas; and a B.A. in French and history from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.