[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 18 – Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish Museums – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education in collaboration with the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. An introduction to this volume can be found here.]
By Samuel D. Kassow
When Jews think of Poland, when Jews intersect with Poland, they tend to do so through the prism of the Holocaust and through visits to the Nazi death camps. But it’s rather inaccurate to look at Polish Jewish history only through the prism of the Holocaust because Polish Jewish history goes back hundreds of years and not just the four years in which the Nazis murdered six million Jews. And what do we have to show for those many centuries when Jews lived in Poland? If one is Jewish today and if one is an Ashkenazi Jew, chances are 95 percent that you are descended from people who used to live in what used to be Poland. In this Poland, it’s the first Polish Republic, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 16th to 18th centuries, the borders stretched from just east of Berlin all the way to the Dnieper River. In this early modern era, Poland was the largest country in Europe. And until the eve of World War II, Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in the world.
Here are some amazing statistics about Jewish population growth in the vast territory that used to be Poland. In 1500, perhaps 30,000 Jews lived there, as many Jews as there are around Hartford, Connecticut. By 1800, by the time Poland no longer formally existed due to the Partitions, there were a million Jews. And by 1900, on those same territories, there were 9 million Jews (counting those who migrated to Hungary and other lands). So, the 30,000 in 1500 became 9 million in 1900. This is a record of demographic expansion that we’ve never seen before or since in the history of the Jewish people.
Po–Lin, “Here you will rest” (Hebrew)
One way of understanding how Polish Jews used to look at Poland, not with horror and revulsion but with great nostalgia, is to look at the many Jewish stories and legends of origin. In one story, the first Jews who came to Poland entered the forest and saw Hebrew letters on the bark of the birch trees. The Hebrew letters said Po-Lin, the Hebrew word for Poland. It also means “Here you will rest.” “Here will be your resting place.” The exterior walls of the POLIN Museum are made of glass panels etched with this word, Po-Lin, in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish. And the first gallery of the museum’s core exhibition begins with visitors entering this mythical forest where the word Po-Lin is etched in the trees and its legend is recounted.
Di Yidishe Gas, The Jewish Street
As the lead scholar of the Interwar Gallery in the POLIN Museum, I faced some real challenges, one symbolized by the way the gallery ends. The gallery is entitled “The Jewish Street,” and at the very end of that street, suddenly, with no warning, surprised people look up to the sky and to the first German bombers. The exhibition ends abruptly, on September 1, 1939. Did those Jews have any inkling what was in store? The answer is no. The exhibition depicts interwar Polish Jewry on its own terms, without referring to the looming disaster. While Jews had certainly suffered a mounting wave of discrimination and antisemitism in Poland, we wanted to stress the agency and the peoplehood of Polish Jewry and not to regard them through the prism of the Holocaust or to see them as trapped, helpless victims.
Not so long ago people who looked for books on pre-war Polish Jews could choose from such titles as On the Edge of Destruction by Celia Stopnicka Heller, No Way Out (English Title) by Emanuel Meltzer, or Oyfn Rand fun Opgrunt (On the Edge of the Abyss) by Jacob Leshchinsky. There was also the 1966 film entitled The Last Chapter. It is not my intention to denigrate these valuable projects but there’s no denying the message that these titles convey.
At a conference on the museum held at Princeton University in April 2015, some first-rate scholars criticized the exhibition for not adding the prism of the Holocaust. The catastrophe, they emphasized, was too important to be put “into brackets.” As a child born to Holocaust survivors in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1946, just one month after my parents left Poland, I understand this view quite well. I remember their story about how, in 1946, they felt much safer in Germany than in Poland. I am also quite aware that the escalating antisemitism of the late 1930s, as well as the largely hostile attitude of the Catholic Church, played no small role in what was, at best, the indifference of large parts of the Polish population during the war, as well as in the widespread violence and murder of Jews by Poles (as analyzed by Jan Tomasz Gross, Jan Grabowski, Barbara Engelking, and others). Reasonable people can disagree about how to show this antisemitism in the museum space and, frankly, there is some room for improvement on our part – both in the transition space and in the Interwar Gallery.
As a historian, I completely support a basic principle outlined by Barbara Kirshenblatt-imblett: this is a museum about Polish Jewish life, not a museum about Polish antisemitism or about Polish Jewish relations. Another key principle was that there would be no back shadowing, that we would use no texts written after 1939. Therefore the exhibition is entitled “The Jewish Street,” not “On the Edge of Destruction.” There were indeed many Jews who felt trapped in Poland and frantically tried to leave. But there were others, like Senator Ozjasz Thon, who reminded his brothers and sisters in 1932 that for all its serious problems, it was only Polish Jewry – not US Jewry, not Soviet Jewry – that had the intellectual resources and national vitality to lead the Jewish people. The Yiddish poet Melekh Ravich recalled that in 1934 he ran into the young historian Emanuel Ringelblum on a Warsaw street. Ravich was about to migrate to Australia and he told Ringelblum to get out of Poland as fast as he could. But Ringelblum replied that he believed that Polish Jewry had a future. By the same token Lucy Dawidowicz recalled how in the summer of 1939 YIVO Director Max Weinreich was preparing for the third world conference of the YIVO scheduled to take place in 1940. Weinreich wanted Dawidowicz to remain in Vilna as a graduate student. He too was optimistic about the future. Foolishness? False optimism? Whistling past the graveyard? Perhaps. We can even safely assume that most Polish Jews were not as sanguine as Max Weinreich. But we have to tell their story based on what they knew then, not what we know now.
One major theme in the gallery is the sheer diversity of interwar Polish Jewry. It included Jews in big cities and small towns, Polish speakers and Yiddish speakers, yeshiva students and Bundists. Interwar Polish Jewry was also a work in progress as Jews from the different partitions slowly overcame their cultural differences to find a common identity as “Polish Jews.” Just as Warsaw brought together long-divided Poles, so too did it bring together Jews, thanks to its growing role as the center of political parties, the mass press, and welfare organizations. On the eve of the war, one in four Jews lived in one of the five biggest cities, but half still lived in small towns. But at the same time the most remote Jewish shtetl was linked to and influenced by the big city: Yiddish newspapers, lectures by visiting writers, hard-fought political campaigns, and even dance competitions and beauty contests. There was a powerful tide of secularization but the exhibition does not forget the many Polish Jews who journeyed to their rebbe, or studied a page of mishna or Eyn Yankev after work.
Although Polish Jewry constituted an enormous reservoir of Jewish national energy, we tell the story not just of a collective people, but also of individuals who hiked, danced, loved jazz, who lived their own lives, worried about their personal problems, and, like everybody else, played their childhood games, skipped school, struggled through adolescence, fell in love, married, and raised children. One of Jewish Poland’s most beloved songwriters, Mordkhe Gebirtig, penned a song about a Jewish girl who insisted that her religious boyfriend, Leibke, learn how to dance:
You can be what you want, a Zionist, a Bundist – who cares? But Leibke, the time will come when even the most religious Jews will have to learn the Tango and the Charleston!
The literal translation of the Yiddish expression di yidishe gas is “the Jewish street,” but the wider meaning is “the Jewish world” – referring to the creation of a modern Jewish world that was at once diverse and nationally conscious, rooted in Poland and yet distinctively Jewish. During the interwar years, Poland became a living laboratory for experiments in modern Jewish life. These adventures produced new models of politics, self-help, and culture. Polish Jews saw themselves – and were often seen by others – as the most culturally vibrant Jewish community in the world. Because the war cut these developments short, a stroll down the “The Jewish Street” of the Interwar Gallery highlights beginnings rather than final results, journeys rather than final destinations.
Samuel D. Kassow is the Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College, author of the award-winning Who Will Write Our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, and a member of the core exhibition Academic Team of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. He was the 2016 Jacob Kronhill Visiting Scholar at YIVO.