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“I have drawn…on my own and my family’s history, which began with World War Two and the Holocaust; but I have also tried to move beyond it, to considerations of what unites us in multicultural democracies, as well as what divides us.”
I was born in Poland in 1945, and spent my formative years there, before my family emigrated in 1959 and settled in Canada. A greatly reduced family: before the war, my parents lived in a tiny shtetl in what was then the Polish part of the Ukraine. All their relatives – parents, siblings, cousins – were murdered in Nazi massacres in that violent vicinity; but their own lives were saved by their Polish and Ukrainian neighbours, who hid them at the risk of losing their own lives. In Nazi-governed Poland, the penalty for helping Jewish people was death.

This personal story was my entry point – as it is for so many ‘second-generation’ descendants of Holocaust survivors – into the broader history of Polish Jews, and of Polish-Jewish relations. It turns out to be a richly interesting, centuries’ long story of Jewish presence within the Polish polity, and of coexistence which often amounted to multiculturalism avant la lettre, long before such ideas arrived in the Western world.

In that long and fascinating narrative, the interwar period was exceptional for several reasons. For the first time in its long history, Poland became a nation state, in the modern sense of the word; and this changed the relationship of its substantial minorities – among which Jewish people were the largest – to the governing powers. After being, in effect, a caste, with its separate customs, religion and language, Jews were now citizens, with all the demands for loyalty to the state and its basic principles. The degree of that loyalty varied, and so did the nature of the government. In the 1920s, Poland was in effect led by Józef Piłsudski – a relatively liberal politician who was in favour of minority rights, and who was seen by the Jews themselves as being especially friendly to them (he was affectionately nicknamed ‘The Jewish grandpa’). But after his death in 1935, the leadership of the state moved to the right-wing National Party (formerly the National-Democratic Party), which wanted to keep Poland ethnically and religiously homogeneous.

At the same time, the new status of the Jewish minority meant that the 1920s and 30s saw a tremendous flourishing of Jewish politics and culture. One characteristic of the period was an almost baffling proliferation of Jewish political parties – representing all stripes of opinion, aspects of Jewish society and visions for the future. There were several Zionist parties which shared the wish to emigrate to the ‘Promised Land’ – but whose allegiances varied from a leftward to a more centrist and even right-wing orientation. There was the socialist Bund party, whose ideology was to stay in Poland and improve conditions for Jewish working people right there. The large and powerful ultra-Orthodox Aguda party sponsored religious education for young Jewish people, at a time of increasing secularisation.

All of these parties had representatives in the Polish parliament – enough of them to form a separate Jewish parliamentary circle, within which debates were often animated and represented a wide spectrum of opinion. And all of them gave rise to youth groups, whose members held lively discussions, went to summer camps together, and engaged in physical activities previously rare in religious Jewish communities. It is notable that the youth groups hewed to the notion of equality between men and women – and discussed literature ranging from the anarchist writer and activist Emma Goldman to Marx and Heinrich Heine. The spirit of solidarity nurtured in the groups became important during the worst of times, when women played an unusually large role in resisting the Nazi occupation, when belonging to a group was crucial to devising strategies and methods of resistance as well as providing a crucial sense of belonging. In addition to the turmoil of politics, the range of opinion within the Jewish population was reflected in the baffling number of newspapers published in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish – no fewer than 130! – read avidly for their coverage not only of Jewish issues, but of world affairs.

Beyond the turmoil of politics and its various expressions, the vitality and variety of Jewish life was wonderfully evident in the sphere of culture and the arts. The hub of cultural activity was, not surprisingly, Warsaw – the capital city, one-third of whose population was Jewish. This included Orthodox Jews, engaged in trade and small crafts, some of whom lived in impoverished conditions. But Warsaw (and to a lesser extent, other big cities) was also where the newly acculturated, often secular Jews tended to live – and they included writers, poets, filmmakers, cabaret actors and others. There were literary groups for writers who chose Hebrew, Yiddish or Polish as their language of expression, which included novelists and poets whose names became famous throughout Poland, and sometimes, in the wider world as well – Bruno Schulz and Isaac Bashevis Singer among them.

It was a rather astounding fact that five of the most famous Polish poets in that period were Jewish – including Aleksander Wat, a modernist poet who had my favourite answer to whether he was Polish or Jewish: ‘I am Polish-Polish and Jewish-Jewish,’ he said; a formulation which expresses a deeply internalised bi-cultural identity. There was Jan Brzechwa, author of charming children’s poems, and the most famous of them all – Julian Tuwim, whose poems we memorised when I was growing up. Before the war, Tuwim was not only known for his poetry, but as the founder of several cabarets where Polish and Jewish audiences congregated with equal pleasure – a very Polish form of entertainment which survived World War Two and functioned underground in post-war Poland. And there were also cafes where writers were known to congregate, sometimes to read their work to each other before it was published. The recently rediscovered poet known as Zuzanna Ginczanka met with a terrible fate during the Holocaust, but in the 1930s, she was part of the Skamander group of poets, most of them Jewish, who considered themselves modernists and held lively discussions – as well as publishing a satirical magazine named Szpilki (a word with untranslatable connotations, meaning ‘pins’ or ‘needles’). Book publishing (of books by Polish as well as Jewish authors) was led by Jewish figures, and both non-Jewish as well as the newly acculturated Jewish readers flocked to their bookstores in large numbers.

In addition to these forms of cultural expression, Jews predominated in what might be called artistic technologies. The recording firm ‘Syrena’ (Siren), under Jewish ownership, recorded everything from the patriotic Polish anthem to jazz and popular hits. Just as crucially, Poland was one of the European centres of Jewish filmmaking in the interwar period, attracting world-renowned stars and making imaginative films both in the silent and the sound era – with the result, as Natan Gross, a film director and scholar of Jewish cinema put it, that ‘there were no anti-Semitic films made in Poland’ before World War Two.

More elusively, but just as crucially, there was what might be called a multiculturalism of everyday life – evident especially in the small shtetls of the kind in which my parents grew up. In these semi-rural towns, Poles and Jews lived in close proximity, often for centuries, even as they remained culturally and religiously separate. They met on market days, and often addressed each other by name, when Polish peasants drank in Jewish-owned inns, and Jewish bands played at Polish weddings. The Jewish love of the Polish landscapes in which they had lived through generations was often expressed in the songs they composed and sang.

In Warsaw and other big cities, a generation gap was appearing between Orthodox parents and, especially, their more assimilated (or at least, acculturated) daughters, who received a secular education, spoke Polish well, and began to enter various professions and dress fashionably. In other words, it was a time of ferment and rapid change; but there is no doubt that through the 1930s, Poland, side by side with a vital Jewish culture, witnessed increasing strains of antisemitism. This was unhappily true at major universities where Jewish students – especially in the fields of law and medicine – constituted a disproportionate majority, and where non-Jewish students demanded a so-called ‘ghetto bench’, which required Jewish students to sit separately from others. Many decided to remain standing instead, and there were professors in some of the universities who protested against this ugly form of prejudice. Nevertheless, many Jewish students decided to leave the country and study elsewhere.

The chief reason for such developments was the increasing power of the National Party and its encouragement of ethnic nationalism; but there were other factors as well. In a period of worldwide depression, and in an endemically poor country, economic competition between Poles and Jews became increasingly bitter. And while the Jewish population included deeply impoverished communities, it has to be admitted that in the upper echelons of wealth, Jewish and German entrepreneurs and industrialists predominated. In the city of Łódź, which was the centre of the textile industry – a kind of Manchester of Eastern Europe – industrialists who owned the great enterprises employed both Polish and Jewish workers; and their treatment of those workers was far from humane. At times, this led to the rise of inter-ethnic solidarity, as Polish and Jewish workers united in strikes and protests. But once the National Party sanctioned economic boycotts (even while notionally discouraging violence), there were boycotts of Jewish businesses, which sometimes led to explosions of thuggish violence. At the same time, in the shtetls especially, Poles often continued to favour Jewish shops and market stalls to which they were accustomed, managed by Jewish neighbours whom they knew, and often offering better and less expensive merchandise.

A very mixed picture, then; but for all the unhappy symptoms of the time, it cannot be said that discrimination and competition were what led to or caused what happened soon after: the Shoah. That event was propelled by Nazi ideology, together with the invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union from the east and Germany from the west. The ending of the long history of Polish Jews was of the most tragic kind; but history is not like story, in which the unfolding narrative leads to a predetermined end. Before that last chapter, there were centuries of life, which deserve to be studied and remembered, not only for the sake of historical knowledge, not just for the sheer illumination and interest, but also as a rich source for thinking about forms and problems of multicultural co-existence – even as we continue to struggle with such issues in democratic societies today.

Eva Hoffman

Eva Hoffman grew up in Kraków, Poland, before emigrating in her teens to Canada and then the United States. After receiving her PhD in literature from Harvard University, she worked as senior editor and literary critic at The New York Times, and has taught at various British and American universities. Her books, which have been translated widely, include Lost in Translation, Shtetl, Exit Into History, After Such Knowledge and Time, as well as two novels, The Secret and Illuminations. She has written and presented programmes for BBC Radio and has lectured internationally on subjects of exile, historical memory, human rights and other contemporary issues. Her awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, Whiting Award for Writing, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Prix Italia for Radio for work combining text and music. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was awarded an honorary DLitt from Warwick University. She is currently a Visiting Professor at the European Institute at UCL and lives in London.

© Eva Hoffman