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War | History | World

Polish Jewry was once the beating heart of European Jewry. With a population of 3.3 million on the eve of the Second World War, Poland’s Jews were renowned for their varied and multi-layered religious, cultural and political life. These Polonised Jews played a major role in fashioning the country’s modern commercial, intellectual and creative industries. Indeed Polish history is difficult to grasp without acknowledging the Jewish contribution.

     By the end of the war 3 million Polish Jews had perished in the Holocaust. For the survivors, their former world disappeared beneath a landscape of apocalyptic devastation. Ongoing and often murderous anti-semitic incidents, combined with an increasingly repressive Communist regime, convinced many survivors that their future lay outside Poland. Waves of post-war emigration throughout the 1940s and 1950s to Israel and western countries significantly reduced the Jewish population.  

In 1968, the Communist government unleashed an anti-semitic campaign which stripped most of those who were left of their jobs and prominent positions, forcing many thousands (often Communist Party members) into exile. 

     By the 1970s Poland appeared, to the outside world, a country empty of Jews. Polish behaviour gave the impression the country was relentlessly anti-semitic. Jews in the Diaspora concluded that Jewish life in Poland would never recover; their main interest was therefore confined to the history of the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. 

     I was one of them. On the road to north-eastern Poland, to my mother’s shtetl, I couldn’t escape the realisation that the region had once been thickly populated with bustling shtetls, but began to sense that Poland was not as empty of Jews as I had thought. Over the course of my visit I heard many anecdotes about growing numbers of Poles discovering and exploring their Jewish ancestry. Soon the idea gripped me that this story needed to be told, in the words of the individuals themselves. 

From the outset it was clear my book would be designed for a general audience. The specialised field of Polish-Jewish studies was flourishing and I had no intention of competing. Instead I wanted the profiles to be accessible: to involve members of three generations who were prepared to recount their experiences, the impact of the discovery on their relationships and lives. 

     Each generation grew up in a specific period of Polish history. Holocaust survivors usually emerged from the war as orphans, lacking the structure and psychological support of a family. The creation of the Association of Children of the Holocaust in 1993 proved seminal. Many members of the association were traumatised by the wartime experience of being separated from their parents, and hidden by Catholic families or religious institutions. 

     The organisation provided a crucial sense of belonging and, in many ways, served as a therapeutic forum. At the same time, some members continue to maintain their Catholicism as a key component of their identity, leading the Polish writer, Konstanty Gebert, to wryly observe: ‘The Association of Children of the Holocaust is unique. It’s the only Jewish organisation in which most members are Catholics.’ 

A good deal of the credit for the revival of Jewish life can be attributed to members of the second generation. Many are the offspring of Communist Party or leftist parents deeply committed, in the post-war period, to building a socialist society. They were also militantly internationalist, which tended to exclude any form of Jewish consciousness. This was reinforced by pressure within the Communist regime for Jewish party members to polonise their names and outward identities. ‘My father decided to pass as a Pole because it would be easier to persuade people about the merits of Communism if he promoted the ideology as a Pole and not as a Jew’, recalls Jarosław Górnicki. 

     Many second-generation Jews also experienced a traumatic period during the anti-semitic campaign of 1968. As the purge spread, individuals were suddenly informed of their Jewish origins for the first time in their lives. This resulted in the loss of jobs, government positions and university places, even leading up to the revocation of citizenship and, ultimately, exile. Those who managed to remain in Poland felt compelled to adopt an underground identity. 

     After the horrors of the Holocaust and the oppression of the Communist regime, the third generation can be regarded as comparatively fortunate. Emerging into a civil society that is also a member of the European Union, this generation discovered their Jewish origins in a far more conducive environment. Emil Jezowski, an activist in the Jewish community, says: ‘In terms of the challenge of seeking out family roots, it’s often the third generation that pursues the story.’ 

Yet it has not always been plain sailing for the younger Polish Jews. Often the discovery of their Jewish identity initially triggers a negative reaction. Growing up in a society where anti-semitism is still prevalent, they sometimes need to confront the negative stereotypes of Jews they internalised as Polish children. Most Jews, including those from a secular background, were routinely baptised as an insurance policy against potential threats, as well as expressing a desire to belong to Polish society. Those who lived as Catholics are often confused by new knowledge of their Jewish background. Unsurprisingly, when hidden Jews embrace their new identity, the majority don’t choose the religious option, possibly due to a secular upbringing, but also because adopting Judaism appears too demanding and complicated ... 

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