Our last program on April 24, 2013
Below are complete texts of the presentations.
Marek Edelman, one of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commanders, used to say:
Life is the most important thing; and once you have life, freedom is the most important thing; and you have to be ready to give life for freedom.
Edelman, who died 4 years ago, had been the central figure of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemorations for years.
This year, the last surviving commander Simcha Rotem, known as Kazik, came from Israel to represent the dwindling number of insurgents.
Sadly, his fight in 1943 was not for freedom to live but for freedom to die with dignity. Some 300 thousand inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto had already been deported to the gas chambers of Treblinka, while the ghetto with its remaining 60 thousand Jews was to be liquidated in days.
But he survived and even helped to save lives of a dozen others. He, like Edelman, later joined the Polish underground to fight for the freedom of Poland in the Warsaw rising of 1944. They fought for freedom - ours and yours (za nasz± i wasz± wolno¶ć, as the famous Polish saying goes).
The battle of the Muranów Square during the ghetto uprising, where two flags, the Polish white and red and the Jewish blue and white were mounted on the roof and the participation of Jewish fighters like Edelman, Rotem and others, including my father, in the Warsaw Rising, were literally brought to light 70 years later.
The two beams of light, one coming from a searchlight mounted at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and the other at the Museum of Warsaw Rising 44 crossed in the dark Warsaw skies on April 19 as a symbol of the common struggle of the Jewish Poles and the Christian Poles against the Nazi tyranny.
For his effort Simcha Rotem, the Jewish Uprising commander, received the Grand Cross of Polonia Restituta from Poland's president Bronisław Komorowski, the highest distinction bestowed on those who fought for restoration of the Polish state.
Marek Edelman used to place daffodils (żonkile in Polish) at the monument of the ghetto heroes every year. The flowers represent hope, respect and remembrance. Now, under the slogan "Remembering Together" hundreds of volunteers across Warsaw distributed paper daffodils (like this one) to tens of thousands of people. Please take one if you haven't already and wear it. I brought them from Warsaw for you.
Before I conclude I will show you a few images of the Warsaw's events:
Grand Theatre - National Opera House: Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta, with cantor Yaakov Lemmer and violinist Julian Rachlin.
President Bronisław Komorowski's honorary patronage; representatives of all faiths and of all armed forces; church bells rang, sirens sounded, call of a roll of honour, firing of an honorary salute, Simcha Rotem speaks and gets decorated, cantor Joseph Malovany's sings.
Auditorium at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews: Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by maestro Krzysztof Penderecki with Israel Philharmonic Orchestra String Quartet, Polish singer Kayah and cantor Yaakov Lemmer.
Beams from searchlights mounted at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. (photo Franek Mazur)
The night of Lantherns in Warsaw and across Poland.
Masa 1943: bicycle ride of over 1000 participants along places of memory in the former Warsaw Ghetto.
The Chain of Memory: people lining up along the perimeter of the Warsaw Ghetto and lighting candles.
Premiere of the film "Rotem" by Agnieszka Arnold, with Simcha Rotem in attendance.
Holocaust-related art by Polish artists: an exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute opened by the President of Poland.
"The Maps of Memory": a dramatic performance in the Museum's grand hall combining film, theatre and compelling live music.
Flowers at all places of memory (here at the site of tragic death of the leaders of the uprising; a mural commemorating Marek Edelman.
Soft opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews with rich educational and cultural program. Full opening with the core exhibition scheduled next year.
Museum's architecture stuns the visitors.
Completed areas include large auditorium for concerts, films and performances.
Completed replica of the roof of the synagogue of Gwoździec hovering over the "shtetl gallery" - made with help of 400 volunteers around the world - is the jewel of the future core exhibition.
More than 7000 visitors lined up for hours to see the museum on the first day.
This Museum will become the best possible illustration to the story captured in the monumental work by Professor Antony Polonsky, the story he is about to tell us tonight.
Before I ask Professor Piotr Wróbel, Konstanty Reinert Chair in Polish Studies at UofT to introduce Professor Polonsky, I wish to acknowledge the presence of Consul Grzegorz Jopkiewicz and ask him to report to the Polish government that we, Canadians, including the Jewish and Christian Poles, who live here, appreciate the incredible and respectful commemoration in Warsaw.
I also welcome the president of the Polish Canadian Congress Teresa Berezowski and ask her to convey the message of our respect and gratitude to the numerous Polish combatants in Canada, who fought the German Nazis.
Finally I welcome those who remember, among them the former inhabitant of the Warsaw ghetto, Joseph Meshorer and the Righteous Pole Mr. Franciszek Pasławski, who risked his life to save Jews.
And now, please rise for a minute of silence in memory of the heroic fighters and victims of the German Nazi tyranny.
Most photos are by Peter Jassem however some were copied from generally accessible Internet sites.
Additional credits will be added upon request.
This report by Peter Jassem was followed by:
(poster design by Elizabeth Jassem)
Writing the History of the Jews of Poland and Russia
by Professor Antony Polonsky
as presented to the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada
and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Canada in Toronto, on April 24, 2013
The Jews are not a historical nation
They are not even an archeological nation
The Jews are a geological nation
With fissures and breaks
And layers of burning lava
One has to measure their history with another measure.
And I went back to my childhood years, to the days that had perished under the waters of forgetfulness. With a tremendous effort of memory, I raised the Atlantis that seemed to have been lost and drowned forever.
Ralph Waldo Emerson has said that all history is autobiography. Let me start by explaining how I came to write a three volume history of the Jews in Poland and Russia. I first went to Poland in 1965, as a British Council exchange student to undertake research for my doctorate at the University of Oxford on the conflict between Józef Piłsudski and the Polish parliament between 1926 and 1930 in the Historical Institute of this university. What brought me there? I did not come from a Polish-speaking background. My mother's family were russified Jews from Lithuania and my father's Yiddish-speakers from Grodno. They both emigrated to South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. I grew up in very comfortable conditions in post-war South Africa. I soon became aware of the deep racial divisions in that society and came to feel considerable guilt at my parents' lifestyle, dependent as it was on African servants, whom they, as representatives of the liberal section of the English-speaking minority, treated with, as they thought, great benevolence and in my eyes with extreme paternalism. In the late 1950s, when I attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the main political division was between the liberals and the marxist-leninists. Those, like myself, who adhered to the latter group did so in rejection of the paternalism which we identified with our parents. Liberalism was merely a form of sympathy for Africans in their difficult plight, whereas we had aligned ourselves with the iron laws of history identified by Marx and Engels. These clearly demonstrated, we believed, that the conflict in South Africa was not racial (as was obvious to most people) but one of class in which we, mostly young Jews and Indians could find our natural place in the struggle of the local proletariat, along with that of the whole world, for the socialist millenium.
These were still my views when I went to study at Oxford in the early 1960s. Coming from what we saw as a fascist country, when I began to look for a subject for my doctoral dissertation I wished to study the phenomenon of right-radicalism and fascism. I believed (wrongly) that all the interesting topics in the history of German National Socialism had already been investigated and was drawn to analyze what I thought were similar manifestations in Poland. As one who, in spite of my marxist beliefs, rejected the rigid discipline and bureaucratic character of the Communist Party of South Africa, I was attracted to what I thought was Gomułka's independent 'Polish Road to Socialism' and was also greatly impressed by the films of Andrzej Wajda, above all 'A Generation' and 'Ashes and Diamonds'. I accepted that in a socialist country like Poland there was an inevitable price to be paid in the form of a loss of freedom. But I believed that this only affected the intelligentsia which was any case hostile to socialism and that this loss of freedom was compensated for by the higher rate of economic growth compared to the capitalist west, and the greater degree of social justice and equality.
I was quickly disillusioned. It became apparent to me that the loss of freedom affected the whole of society that it was more far-reaching than in my native country and that it made almost impossible serious and open discussion of the problems that Poland needed to confront in the period of the 'little stabilization'. The economic system, with its shortages and distortions, was clearly much less efficient than that of the West, while Milovan Djilas had clearly been correct when he identified the emergence of new privileged class under socialism.
Under these circumstances, I was greatly impressed by the socialist critique of the regime for allegedly betraying the interests of the workers circulated in 1965 by two young party members, lecturers at Warsaw university, Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, for which they were imprisoned in July 1965 at the end of our first stay in Warsaw. I now began to write critically of Stalin's policies towards Poland during the Second World War and of the establishment and character of the communist system established in Poland after July 1944. I still believed that the communist system could be reformed from within. The years 1967-1968 marked my final disillusionment. I was alarmed that the Soviet Union and its allies could pursue policies which seemed aimed at the destruction of the state of Israel, was disgusted that a faction of the Polish United Workers' Party could use crude antisemitic slogans in a bid for power and to discredit the student calls for democratization and strongly identified with these calls and for Alexander Dubček's attempt to establish communism 'with a human face' in Czechoslovakia. It was particularly painful to me that the African National Congress and the Communist Party of South Africa issued a statement in early September 1968 welcoming the 'fraternal intervention' of the countries of the Warsaw pact in Czechoslovakia.
I now identified strongly with the developing opposition movement in Poland with the Committee for the Defence of the Workers' and with the Solidarity movement. Like most Poles, I was shocked and surprised by the relative ease with which martial law was established (I shouldn't have been--the other side had an army, which we did not). A number of my friends believed that one of the reasons for the defeat of the first Solidarity had been its failure to make a proper reckoning with chauvinistic and antisemitic currents in Polish life. They encouraged me to seek contacts within the Jewish world to alleviate the obvious gap between Poles and Jews insofar as these are separate and discrete groups, which is clearly not always the case.
They were right to point to the bitter feeling harboured on both sides of this divide. I participated in the series of academic conferences in the 1980s which attempted to bridge this divide and also became chief editor of the yearbook Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, which attempted to encourage this research on an inter-disciplinary basis and from a wide variety of viewpoints. In the last 25 years particularly since the end of communism in 1989-1991 an enormous amount of research has been undertaken on all aspects of the Polish past. Historical study seems to oscillate between detailed investigation and attempts at providing a synthesis of existing knowledge. I became convinced that what was necessary was a synthesis of the new research undertaken by a single author. Rashly, I decided to undertake this task myself.
It was clear to me that the history of the Jews of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is an important topic of study because it is from these lands that the majority of world Jewry, whether in the state of Israel or in the diaspora trace their roots. The Jewish past in these lands is well-established in Jewish collective memory. With the opening of the archives in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the vast amount of research which has taken place in the last two decades in Israel, North America and Europe, I felt that there was a need to produce a new synthetic account which will correct the overly sentimental and also the excessively negative view of this past both of which are prevalent. My hope was that this will enable us better to appreciate from where the Jews have come and how much been achieved by them on the path to the modern world.
I explained what I was attempting to do in the introduction of the first of the three volumes of the book I decided to call, in homage to the great Russian-Jewish historian Shimon Dubnov, The Jews in Poland and Russia. Haim Nahman Bialik, the Hebrew poet, in a letter written in early January 1906 to the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem observed, 'No country is better for [the Jews] than Russia....'[i] He was entitled to think so. In the 130 years prior to his letter, hasidism had developed within the Tsarist Empire as a major religious revival, its misnagdic opponents had created the great Lithuanian yeshivot, Hebrew and Yiddish literature had flourished and new political movements, above all Zionism and Jewish socialism had emerged and transformed the Jewish political landscape.[ii] However within a decade, the Bolshevik revolution took place and Stalin's subsequent seizure of power destroyed the basis of organized Jewish life in Russia and its empire until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In his introduction to the collective history 'The Jews in Reborn Poland' (Żydzi w Polsce Odrodzonej) published in 1932, Ozjasz Thon, rabbi of the Tempel in Kraków and Chairman of the Jewish parliamentary club in the Polish parliament, asked 'What is the role of Polish Jewry today, what is its mission?' He continued: 'Both quantitatively and qualitatively its mission, which it will soon take up, is to assume the leadership of world Jewry.' This was a task which he believed it alone was capable of undertaking, given the spiritual and material devastation of Soviet Jewry and the lack of freedom in which it lived, and the loss by American Jewry, under the pressure of assimilation, of its specific Jewish character. Polish Jewry possessed the 'genuine' character of Russian Jewry, but also, according to Thon, lived in the freedom enjoyed by American Jews. He foresaw a splendid future for the Jews of Poland:
Polish Jews in the past have on occasion determined the character of world Jewry. There were moments when the genius of the Jewish people reached its full flowering in Poland. I am convinced that the events are again creating a situation in which in Poland there will emerge one of the great centres of the Jewish spirit.[iii]
Yet within seven years Poland ceased to exist, partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the destruction of Poland's huge Jewish community was about to commence.
These passages illustrate the basic themes I have examined in my book: in the first place, the enormous importance of the history of the Jews of Poland and Russia in the history of the Jewish people and the development of Jewish religious traditions. That the Jews of this area would come to assume such significance within world Jewry was by no means self-evident. During the nineteenth century, Germany was seen as the pattern for successful Jewish modernization and many German Jews, like Heinrich Graetz, who himself came from the lands of former Poland-Lithuania, frequently referred to 'the demoralized and barbarous state' of the Jews here. Even in the twentieth century, the area was often seen as the repository of unchanging and eternal Jewish authenticity in spite of the multi-faceted Jewish civilization which had developed here.
Secondly, the danger of reading history backwards. It is difficult to write the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe without being aware of the devastating impact on their lives of twentieth century integral nationalism, Nazism and Communism. Yet Bialik, writing at the time of pogroms which accompanied the 1905 revolution and on the eve of the cataclysms of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution, could still envisage a future of enormous promise for his community. So too did Thon in the face of rising Polish nationalism and the threat of Hitler's coming to power in Germany.
Bialik and Thon thought of Polish and Russian Jews as separate entities and certainly this was one of the consequences of the developments of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet in the middle of the eighteenth century there was a strong sense of the common character of all Jews who lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. What I have tried to do in this book is both to describe this common character, along with the regional differences which existed in Poland-Lithuania, and then to outline how the impact of the partitions of the Commonwealth led to very different developments under Prussian, Austrian and Russian rule. Similarly, I have tried to analyse the impact on Jewish life after the First World War of the emergence of the national states of Poland and Lithuania and the establishment of Bolshevik power in most of the former Tsarist Empire.
This book is divided into seven sections and three volumes. The first deals with Jewish life in pre-modern Poland-Lithuania and the second with the attempts of the governments of the region from the middle of the eighteenth century to transform the Jews from members of a trans-national community united by faith and culture into subjects or citizens of the countries in which they lived, and the Jewish response. The third section examines the rejection by the Tsarist government after 1881 of the politics of Jewish integration and the emergence of new forms of Jewish politics in response to the crisis this created. The fourth section examines the period from the outbreak of war in 1914 to the renewed conflict in 1939 and the last section analyses the tragic impact on the area of Nazism and the Second World War. The sixth section investigates the slow and incomplete recovery of Jewish life after 1944 and the volume concludes with a discussion of the more promising revival after 1989-1991.
Simon Dubnow, in his Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism, has described the history of the Jews since the beginning of the diaspora as that of a succession of autonomous centres. By then, the centre that developed in Poland-Lithuania from the middle of the thirteenth century had become one of the most remarkable and creative. Its history in the short twentieth century, between the outbreak of the First World War and the collapse of communism in Europe, has been tragic. In 1914 two-thirds of the world's Jews lived in this area; today 80 per cent live either in the United States or in Israel, and the communities in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus are small and declining. That decline is traced in this book. It was the result of local integral nationalism, the devastating impact of the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany, and the longer-term destructive effects of communist rule, particularly in its Stalinist incarnation.
A number of contradictory processes may be observed in the evolution of Jewish life in eastern Europe since 1914. In these years a group of major Polish Jewish and Russian Jewish writers emerged, writing both in the Jewish languages and in those of the larger society. Polish literature in the twentieth century cannot be understood without taking into account the works of writers such as Bolesław Leśmian, Julian Tuwim, Antoni Słonimski, and Bruno Schulz. Of the four Russian-language writers who have received the Nobel Prize for literature, two, Boris Pasternak and Iosif Brodsky, were of Jewish origin. Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel, though their lives were cut short, are also writers of world stature.
The Polish Jewish and Russian Jewish symbiosis, comparable to similar phenomena in the German-speaking lands and the United States, was, however, limited by the failure of Jewish integration. The hope that the newly independent states of Poland and Lithuania would prove democratic and pluralistic and would find an appropriate place for their Jewish minorities was dashed. By the 1930s both states had become increasingly authoritarian, while the attraction of fascist ideas and of radical solutions to the 'Jewish problem' grew, particularly among young zealots. By the outbreak of war in 1939 the situation of the Jews in both of these countries had become desperate.
In the Soviet Union the optimism created by the revolution had by the late 1930s largely evaporated. Little was left of the system of Jewish autonomy created after 1921 by the Jewish sections of the party. Stalin's growing emphasis on the importance of the 'Russian people' and of Russian nationalism to his regime made increasingly perilous the situation of Jews in the Soviet political apparatus and of the much larger group who had become Russified since 1917. This was made manifest after the Second World War by the execution of the leading Jewish writers and the larger purge of Jews as part of the 'anti-cosmopolitan' campaign.
The bulk of those who survived the war in north-eastern Europe, whether in Poland, Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus, have emigrated, mainly to Israel, North America, and Germany. Yet the lands that made up the Polishâ??Lithuanian Commonwealth still have significant Jewish communities and are the areas from which the majority of Jews both in Israel and in the United States originate. An appreciation of the role of Jews in the life of the countries in the area is now developing, though slowly and in the absence of a large Jewish population.
It has often proved difficult for Jews whose grandparents and great-grandparents left eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to find a common language with the more recent emigrants, or with the Jews still living there. One major difference between them is the importance they attach to the religious aspect of their Jewish identity. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, 47 per cent of American Jews believe that the Jews are a religious group. Similarly, the Guttman Institute Report of 1996 on the religious beliefs of Jews in Israel found that only 21 per cent were totally non-observant. This figure had fallen to 17 per cent when the Gutman Institute again examined this issue this year. By contrast, surveys carried out in Russia in 1992-3 and in Ukraine in 1997-8 show that only 3 per cent of those polled defined 'being a Jew' as practising Judaism. The basis for their Jewish identity is ethnic. Two-thirds of the Russian respondents say that 'to feel oneself part of the Jewish people' is the essence of Jewishness, a view shared by most of the Ukrainian Jews surveyed.
The Jews remaining in eastern Europe have feelings for their countries of birth that are more nuanced and complex than their American and Israeli fellow Jews can easily comprehend. Polish Jewish and Russian Jewish writing since the end of Soviet communism often expresses frustration that Israelis and American Jews fail to understand or empathize with their experiences and with their particular understanding of their Jewish identity. In her story 'Tylko krociutko' (Briefly Now, 1994), Hanna Krall describes a group of Polish Jewish women survivors visiting New York in the 1980s. The American Jews they encounter ask them persistently why they are returning to a country of graves. Their interlocutors mean Jewish graves, since for them Poland today is solely a Jewish cemetery. In fact these women are also returning to Polish graves, since they survived the war as children adopted by Christian families, or have assimilated through mixed marriages. Some have two mothers in both a literal and a symbolic sense. The only person who understands their feelings is an American rabbi who has been escorting them during their trip:
The rabbi drove them to the airport.
Unlike the others, he didn't ask any questions.
He still didn't smell of cheap tobacco, home-baked pastry, and tefillin [like the rabbis of their childhood] but he no longer asked any questions.
This is not a new problem in Jewish life, and is not insuperable. In his diary entry of 21 May 1942, Abraham Lewin describes the resettlement in the Warsaw ghetto of Jews from German-speaking Europe:
For the time being no contact has established itself between us and them. Between us and them there still stands a wall of many hundreds of years of prejudice and linguistic division . . . [Yet] we are like two brothers, one of whom fate has dispatched to some far-off place, to America, while the second remains in his Polish or Lithuanian town. When the two meet after fifteen or twenty years there is a feeling of estrangement . . . In the course of time, the sense of brotherhood conquers all feelings of alienation . . .
The complex story of the Jews of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, and of their contribution to Jewish life and to the culture of the larger world around them, needs to be better known and better understood in the diaspora, in Israel, and in the countries of eastern Europe. The Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews and Stalin's efforts to eradicate their culture ultimately failed. There are still Jews in eastern Europe, and the rich culture the Jews created there remains a source of admiration and inspiration to both Jews and non-Jews. It is my hope that this book will contribute to the preservation and informed appreciation of the history and accomplishments of the Jews of this region.
Leszek Kolakowski has written, 'We study history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.' I should like to conclude with the two quotations which I used as the epigraphs for volume 3. The first is from the poem Uri Zvi Grinberg, 'Under duress' by Uri Zvi Grinberg.
We were forced to hate what we loved:
We loved forest and brook, well and mill,
falling leaves, fish, well-bucket, h[.]allah,
secretly we even loved the sound of their church-bells,
even the bleach-haired little shkotzim.
We loved the harmonica and flute,
Ukrainian songs, village girls dancing in colorful rings,
thatched cottages painted white with red rafters,
winter's end dripping from their roofs…
We were forced to leave great cities where we loved
to smoke in cafes. Opera, evening dress, perfumed hair, dance halls.
Opium. Ballet, boulevards, whorehouses…
Wrenched from the shtetls, we saw our houses
in fire-filled tears, knowing
they would burn in the end…
The second is from Boris Pasternak's novel Dr Zhivago
Reshaping life! This is the idea of people who--whatever they have seen--have never known the essence of life or felt its spirit and its soul. For them life is a lump of crude material in need of shaping and reshaping and untouched by their noble hands. But life is never simply material, a substance. If you would like to know, it is constantly renewing, transforming, remaking and transfiguring itself. Life is beyond your and my obtuse theories about it.
[i] Iggrot C.N. Bialik, ed. F. Lachower (5 vols., Tel Aviv, 1937-39), vol. 2 (1938), 9, letter of 3 January 1906 to Sholom Aleichem.
[ii] On this see E. Lederhendler, 'The Jews in Imperial Russia', in J. Wertheimer (ed.), The Modern Jewish Experience: A Reader's Guide (New York, 1993), 18.
[iii] O. Thon, 'Wstęp', I. Schiper, A. Tartakower, Aleksander Hafftke (eds.), Żydzi w Polsce Odrodzonej (Warsaw, 1932), 2 volumes, volume 1, 17-18.
Pictures from the event:
Photo: Margaret P. Bonikowska, Gazeta Gazeta
Photo: Margaret P. Bonikowska, Gazeta Gazeta
Photo: Margaret P. Bonikowska, Gazeta Gazeta
Click on the attached link to read the Polish-language interview with Peter Jassem for the Canadian-Polish paper "Gazeta"
For facsimile of the article click on the following link: