Paradox or Contradiction
By Miriam Gonchareska | 03/12/2009
Miriam Gonchareska, a journalist with the Polish magazine Europa, discovered that being a Polish Jew in Israel is not easy. “Are you really Polish? Are you sure you're not from Russia? Are you really Jewish? Why did you wait so long to come here? Did you know that the Poles hate the Jews?”
It's clear that I'm looking for trouble. Actually, I am nothing like the typical new immigrant, the “Olah Hadasha”. I didn't come here to unite with millions of Israelis. I actually came here to reinforce my relationship with my Diaspora heritage. I am building my own Jewish identity with my own two hands. I am trying to find a place in my soul to accommodate parts of the history, culture and music of the Diaspora. Martin Buber, the Rambam [Moses Maimonedes], Ba'al HaTanya [a leading Habad rabbi] and Bruno Schulz all wrote passages that are equally important to my Jewish soul. I'm still looking for the forgotten stories that the old folk would tell to the small children. In a society like Israel, this type of experience will not get you an easy life. “A Polania, a Polish Jewish woman?” They tell me “There's no such creature!”
The problem starts immediately, from the very first moment. Most coversations start with “Where are you from?” That's the moment when everything starts to go wrong…Are you sure you're not from Russia? Maybe Germany? Are you Czech? Hungarian? or Dutch? Most people find it hard to believe: Are you really from Poland? Are you actually Jewish? Why did it take you so long to come here? Some people get so confused that they ask me where I was during the Holocaust; that question is a little strange if you take into account that I'm in my mid-twenties! Some people try to convince me that it's unlikely that there are any Jews left in Poland. Others ask: Were you in Auschwitz? Do you know what happened there? As if it's likely that someone had simply dozed off, slept through that whole period and was now waking up. “Do you know that the Poles hate the Jews!?” Each person that asks me this question thinks they are being original. It doesn't matter where I am – in a shop, on the bus, at the doctor's, in school or on a blind date – and it doesn't matter if the person I am talking to is religious or not. Some people are really aggressive, but I have also met others who were excited to meet a person from Poland. “You are my [living] roots”, one good-looking guy told to me, and actually I would have preferred to have been his girlfriend ….
The way I'm building my Jewish identity is not easy. It's like working in a factory, each citizen has a job that they must do. If the part is not suitable, it can be put on display as a special item for the public to view, or it can be thrown in the garbage.
This year was the first time I had ever been invited to a Halloween party. Jews from all over the world, especially Americans, crowded into someone's rented apartment in Jerusalem. Not long after the party began, someone asked me that fatal question. I could hardly hear the words over the music. “I'm from Poland”, I shouted as loudly as I could. And then I realized that everyone was staring at me with a startled look. A second before I opened my mouth to answer someone turned the volume down and I was screaming my answer into an almost silent room. The loud music immediately came back on flooding the room and covering up my embarassment. The party-goers in their fancy dress costumes went back to their dancing. One of the boys turned to me: “Is that your fancy dress costume? You know my family is actually from Poland.” Let's not talk about the Holocaust at a Halloween party, I said to myself. But when I heard that his family cam from a small town near Lodz, I could not help myself. I took a deep breath. It wasn't easy for me to pronounce the name of the place where my father's family came from. I can still hear the villager's voice telling me about the terrible fate of that same community. PejirovI said. The guy turned really pale. Great, I thought to myself mockingly, my first Halloween party and I waste it on a discussion about our village in my old homeland…
My conversation with that same Israeli guy made me feel for the first time that my past could bring me closer to people, and not just be a barrier. During that same conversation, I suddenly understood that in the same way that it was hard for me to say “Pejirov”, for many other people it was difficult to say or hear the word “Poland”. But for me, Poland has many many different associations and meanings, and only a few of them are connected in any way to the Holocaust.
Before coming to Israel, I worked for the magazine Europa. The magazine's offices were located a few streets away from the Polish Communist Party building which now houses the stock exchange. Durign the last 10 years, Poland has managed to get out of an economic depression. Poland has gone from a country hit by galloping inflation with the zloty to a country that has one of the most thriving economies in formerly Communist Europe. At the magazine, we frequently wrote about dilemmas, especially economic ones, that affected Poland's integration into Europe. Half of the staff at the magazine had previously worked for Radio “Free Europe”, and some of them were my childhood heroes. One of them was Roma Fischer, who hosted the program “Europe without Borders”, one of my favorite radio programs. In the early 1980s, when ‘Solidarity' was becoming more well-known, I would listen to her program with my ear almost glued to the radio because the authorities would disrupt the broadcasts, making it difficult to hear. In the past, this illegal radio station brought hope to Socialist Poland. To my surprise, they reported about friend relations between sworn enemies: Germany, Austria, France, Italy, England. Radio “Free Europe” helped me understand that the time had come for a new history. Roma Fischer was very knowledgable and had a special journalistic style. She could explain complex questions in a few short minutes. My mother, who saw how much I enjoyed the program, once said to me: “Did you know that Roma Fischer is Jewish?” I was very proud of her. That was the sort of Jew that I wanted to be. Meeting Roma Fischer at the Europa magazine brought back more childhood memories: the only Jews that I had ever known, those few family friends that I had met by chance when I was young, were intellectuals, open-minded and educated. And the Jews had played a huge part in developing European intellecutalism, and this is evident even after the destruction. There is no European history without Jews, and large parts of Jewish history cannot be understood without Europe.
I had one more dream: I wanted to the learn the Hebrew alphabet that I saw for the first time on gravestones in the Jewish cemetery, when my father died. I was almost nine at the time, and that was my first real exposure to the Jewish religion. In this place, lost among the gravestones and the symbols, I dreamed that I am part of the traditional spiritual heritage of the Jewish People. The acacia trees, that turned the cemetery into a wild forest, in my mind became the palm trees of the Middle East. It was only when I arrived in Israel that I realized that these dreams – to be an intellectual and a traditional Jew – are so far apart from each other.
To me, there was no real difference between the Hassidim from Gura Kalvaria (the Gur Hassidim), father's forebears, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The way I see it, the Holocaust put all these people in one special, very dear place. In the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, famous writers, righteous men and women and even Communist leaders all rest peacefully. To me, the question of whether or not they understood each other is unimportant. My goal is to preserve their memories about Jewish life in Europe before the war. It is my existence that provides the common denominator which connects the different experiences, that connects between a way of thinking and art, even if they contradict each other, or did so in the past.
I did not know that seeing the world in this way would create a barrier between me and my Jewish and Israeli friends. One of the outstanding habits of the human race is to try to change a person's way of thinking. In Israel, this hobby is so widespread that this ideological way of thinking dominates day-to-day life. It affects not only our attitude to religion, culture and history but also, and this is the problem, our attitude to others.
The Scent of Cinammon
For me, much as it was for many Jews and non-Jews in Europe, the Holocaust was a lesson in tolerance, and lesson about the importance of protecting human rights and skepticism about all ideologies. I feel a need to fight against totalitarianism of any sort. At a Jewish winter camp that I attended, in a small village about one hour's drive from Auschwitz, we sat around singing non-stop, over and over again, the words “Am Yisrael Hai” [the Jewish People Lives]. For us, these words had another meaning: our very existence as Jews in Poland is irrefutable proof that no-one can destroy the “good” that exists in the world, the good the way the Jewish People express it. This was a unique understanding of Jewish identity: this was the scent of cinammon that we know from Yiddish literature and a few bittersweet joke that survived despite the destruction. To be a Jew – for us Jews and for our friends the non-Jewish Poles – was an experience somewhere between poetry, mystics and philosophy, an experience typical of the questions asked by young people. A few years later, in Warsaw, Polish and Jewish student organizations opened up a club called “Havdallah” that looked at questions of separation and intimacy, and areas of similarity and differences. During those early autumn Friday nights multi-cultural exchanges took place between Jews, Poles, Moslems of Tatar origin or from Moslem countries, different Christian groups, other national groups and atheists.
Not an Easy Love
And while we young Jewish Poles and our non-Jewish friends were discovering what we had in common, a group of about 1000 Israelis arrived to visit the Death Camps. Their attitude was very different from our. The majority of them showed no interest in meeting with Jews living in Poland. I have joined a number of these groups on different occasions and I remember clearly the questions that were asked there. The questions were very similar to the responses that I encountered again and again some time later in Israel. In my opinion, one of the most controversial groups to came to Poland was the “March for the Living”. In the eyes of the participants in the march, Poland was a symbol of death, Jewish degradation and anti-Semitism, and nothing else. In the beginning, I could not understand why people were treating their heritage with such little respect. Why were they trying to cause 1000 years of religion, education and folklore to be forgotten?
I was amazed to hear one of the Israeli teachers say that “The Jews will never be safe without a country of their own”, while in Israel we are afraid of war and bombs all the time. It took me some time to understand that Jewish history in Poland had become a tool to be used in an ideological argument about the problems currently facing the State of Israel. It is only in this context that it is possible to understand why questions about my past and my family's past are asked out of anger. Here and there I feel that my very existence threatens the beliefs and world views of the Israelis. I ask myself if we need those mysterious goyim [non-Jews] to build our Jewish identity.
While the developed world is gradually losing its national stereotypes, in Israel this is an acceptable way of thinking. While the world is gradually shrinking, in Israel the gaps between different groups are actually growing. This can be seen not only in the rift that has developed between large parts of the Israeli society and other peoples, but also in the negative effect on relations with Jews in the Diaspora, in the present and in the past. The attitude of many Jews to the heritage from the Diaspora reminds me of the saying “to throw out the baby with the bathwater”. It seems that the difficult experiences of the past are stopping us from looking back so we choose to be cut off from our roots. The Diaspora gave the Jews some amazing achievemetns. After all most of the Jewish people's spiritual and cultural development occurred while they were in the Diaspora and as the result of mutual influence, both Christian and Moslem. For me, being a Jew in the Diaspora means learning from 4000 years of history, not from 50.
In the April 2000 issue of the Polish-Christian periodical Wish [Communication], the Catholic priest, Father Gregor Aiganovski, writes in his article “The Mission of the Sons of Abraham”: “Modern Christians should not forget that in the middle of the 20th century a terrible movement was established to erase the Jewish people from the face of the earth. Their living descendents are a symbol and proof that the faithful God has not abandoned his people. The belief that the suffering of the Jews is a terrible sign that in the eyes of God they are guilty has been around for time immemorial. This opinion has been rejected. We do not know why the Jews have suffered so much. The only thing we do know is that, with great sorrow, we must admit that many Christians, from our religious forefathers onwards, frequently stood together with the oppressors rather than with the oppressed”. I have included this passage not only to illustrate the changes that have occurred, such as we see in the Vatican over the last 30 years, but also as an example of the way that many non-Jews today see Jewish existence as a sign of humanity's ability to be true to self. It is indeed paradoxical that those who are not Jewish want to learn from our history. So many of them saw us, the Polish Jews, as rare proof of the victory of the Jewish People over its persecutors.
As difficult as it is, I feel that I am a Jew, a Jewish Pole. It is more than that, the more I fall in love with Israel – not an easy love – the more I become a decent human being, and also a citizen of Europe and of Poland. I share my past and my future with all these people. Am I living a paradox or a contradiction?