“Mir Lebn-Geblibene” – The (ruptured) possibility of Polish-Jewish co-existence

For the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising the annual Berlin film festival, Polska Film (a celebration of Polish cinema), has dedicated a number of its screenings to filmic representations of, dedications to, and confrontations with this monument event in Holocaust and Jewish history. Last night I went to see a showing of the film “Mir Lebn-Geblibne  [געבליבענע  מיר לעבן ]”  (for some reason this program will not let me publish the Yiddish words in the order they should be read) (English: “We the survivors” or “We are still alive”). It is a documentation of postwar Jewish life in Poland. It is comprised of a series of scenes, shot during the immediate postwar period (1946-48). It opens with the unearthing of the Ringelblum archives, buried in the ruins of Warsaw, and moves through images of a repatriation house in Lodz, a children’s home in Otvoczezk, Jewish-communist youth groups, Jewish factories, Yiddish theaters, the artist Nathan Rapoport at work on his sculpture to the Ghetto uprising, and more. The scenes are silent with accompanying Yiddish narration and musical score. It was directed by Natan Gross, a Polish-Jew, who not long after the making of the film emigrated with the film’s producers, Saul and Isak Goskind, and cameramen, Adolf and Władysław Forbert to Israel. Together the men had formed the reestablished Warsaw-based Kinor Film Cooperative, which made a few more Yiddish-language films with the financial aid of the American Joint Distribution Committee for Aid of Jews (known as the “Joint”). [1] [2]

The film offers an upbeat, optimistic perspective on Jewish life in postwar Poland. Despite occasional reminders of death and destruction, such as sweeping shots of the rubble mounds of Warsaw, or staggering piles of shoes, the majority of the film expresses a tone of hope. It seems to claim that it is possible to reestablish Jewish life in Poland. Poland had been a center of Jewish cultural and religious life in Europe. Jews had lived there for centuries, establishing that stretch of Eastern Europe as a homeland of sorts. [3] During the Holocaust around 3 Million Polish Jews were murdered – the majority of the community. At the end of the war there were at most approximately 240,000 Jews living in Poland. After the screening, the friend who accompanied me could hardly find the words to express her disbelief that such a film could exist. Who financed it? Who was responsible? The fact that the film came from the Jewish community itself did not seem plausible. Anyone who has read about Jewish life in postwar Poland knows that the country was an incredibly inhospitable place.

Therefore I was initially shocked and confused by the film’s clear message of hope; it is no secret that, for Jews in Poland, violence and terrorism did not end with the Holocaust. The strong survival and robust expression of anti-Semitism in post-Holocaust Poland is highly disturbing. The scene depicting life in the repatriation house for Holocaust survivors in Lodz was a chilling reminder of the postwar pogrom in Kielce – a violent attack against a Jewish community center where many Holocaust survivors were housed, which resulted in around 40 deaths just one year after the Holocaust. [4] In addition, there are numerous reports that describe the experience of Jews returning from the camps, hiding, or exile only to find that their homes and property had been taken over by non-Jewish Poles who were not pleased that the original owners had survived. No court would accept cases of Jews wanting to reclaim stolen property. Homecoming Jews were subject to threats and intimidation. Terrorist underground groups, such as the NSZ [Narodowe siły Zbrojne] – Nationalist Armed Forces – were active in murdering Jewish residents and spreading lies and slanderous propaganda about Jews. [5] Thus many Polish Jews left Poland shortly after the war, recognizing that there could be no peaceful future there for them.

I could not agree more with Robert L. Cohn, when he writes, “given their ultimate failure […] it is difficult to appreciate today how deep was the hope then that, despite the devastation, a Jewish community could be reborn on Polish soil.” [6] There were, however, signs that such a rebirth could be possible. The Polish government initially enfranchised Jewish citizens, offered financial and material aid to the Central Committee of Polish Jews, and many Jews were appointed to staff government positions. Polish president, Bołesław Bierut even openly repudiated anti-Semitism. Some were so convinced by the possibility of Jewish life in Poland, that “the Central Committee, in fact, at least until the Kielce pogrom, discouraged emigration as a part of its argument that Jews were Polish citizens and so had the right to live in Poland.” [7]

The film is a testament to the small window of possibility; it “acknowledges the horrors of the near past but focuses on the present situation.” [8] It is a utopian vision of Polish-Jewish coexistence and the collective effort towards realizing a better (communist) future. “Mir Lebn Geblibene,” according to Ira Konigsberg, “buys into the utopianism of Poland’s movement towards a communist state… Jewish workers feel wanted in the new Poland, we are told, and are working with Poland to a build a civilization acceptable to both.” [9] Viewers witness scenes of Jewish-communist youth group marching in neat rows – a sight reminiscent of the Jewish Labor Bund, a Jewish socialist party. However, the idea of Jewish participation in Polish communism was seen as too utopian. The consolidation of the communist government in Poland meant that anything remotely pro-Jewish would soon be restricted if not outright banned. The film was not approved for screening by the Polish government. Soon both the Kinor Cooperative and the Joint were no longer accepted. In 1949 Stalinist restrictions on cinema were adopted, meaning there could be no future for Kinor in communist Poland. [10] In 1950 Joint actions were terminated following accusations of spying. [11] Those Jews that did not emigrate in those initial years after the war would have to conceal their “Jewishness” if they wanted to live undisturbed in Poland. Yet even relative anonymity did not completely shield citizens of Jewish descent from later discrimination. In 1968 an “anti-Zionist” campaign was launched – any Pole with even the slightest ties to Judaism were accused of being Zionists and expelled from the Communist Party. This increase of institutional anti-Semitism resulted in another wave of immigration. Poles of Jewish descent were again forced and/or eager to leave the country.

In light of later historical developments in postwar Poland, “Mir Lebn-Geblibene” is a tragic reminder of the lost potential for cultural and religious plurality. As the film purports, Jewish life was prepared to flourish again. It must be emphasized that Yiddish theater had found a European audience once more – the famous Yiddish-speaking Polish-Jewish actress, Ida Kaminska, could be seen on the stage again, if only for a very brief moment. Considering the damage that was done to the Yiddish-speaking community in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it is upsetting to confront the implication that there had been an opportunity for its rebirth. The celebration of Jewish theater, music, painting and sculpture as be seen in the film, are painful to watch, despite the joy and artistry they represent, with the advantaged knowledge of what is to come.

The legacy of Polish anti-Semitism with its postwar reverberations appears all the more complicated, if not a touch disturbing, with the resurgence of philo-Semitism in post-communist Poland. In her book, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Ruth Ellen Gruber describes the problematic embrace of all things “Jewish” by cities and communities where Jews no longer live. [12] This phenomenon is evidenced by the popularity of Klezmer music concerts, kosher-style restaurants with Yiddish sounding names, as well as “Jewish” souvenirs on display in the former Jewish sections of select cities. The explosion of “Judaica without the Jews” is a startling and not entirely comforting development, particularly when considered alongside such films as “Mir Lebn Geblibene,” which would suggest that the absence of Jewish culture in parts of Europe is not exclusively the result of the Holocaust.  Jewish guidebooks have becoming increasingly popular over the past 25 years or so, with places like the Polish city of Krakow now catering to Jewish-interest tourism: “in Krakow’s Kazimierz [the old Jewish quarter], a huge illuminated iron menorah flanked by rearing lions towers over the entrance to one of several Jewish-style restaurants, luring in the tour bus trade.” [13] Many visitors, myself included, find the gratuitous display of Jewish kitsch more disturbing and cryptic than pleasant.

Recently my email has been flooded with email alerts testifying to the “resurgence” of Jewish life in Poland. Last week, The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was opened in Warsaw, located in the former Warsaw Ghetto and adjacent to the site of Nathan Rapoport’s famous memorial to the Ghetto uprising. An article from The Guardian on the subject speaks to the interesting phenomenon in Poland, in which younger Poles are discovering that they have Jewish origins. The article writes “that experts claim that there are as many as 20,000 people with Jewish roots [in Poland].” [14] The article does highlight persistent Polish anti-Semitism, but claims that young Poles with Jewish roots are now reclaiming their Jewish roots, opening up “Jewish” cafés or tending to neglected Jewish cemeteries. Another recent article, entitled “Jewish life slowly returns to Poland,” chronicles some of the postwar anti-Semitic history as I mentioned above, and tells the popular story of Pawel Bramson, a skinhead turned shochet (kosher butcher). [15]

While I do consider important and necessary the opening of Jewish history museums and similar establishments dedicated to informing the public about Jewish life, culture, and history. I am not convinced by the notion of “resurgence” or “revival.” This would suggest that some pre-Holocaust state of Jewish life can even be approached and does not take into account the very particular ways that Jewish life had been developing. The individuals and communities in “Mir Lebn-Geblibene” were living descendants of that now irretrievable, unapproachable life. History museums do not approximate the rich and diverse ways that Jewish communities lived together in Europe – particularly in Poland. The emergence of Jewish-style restaurants, the reopening of synagogues and theaters, and the preservation of cemeteries are a sign of emerging respect not the revitalization of a lost culture. I, for one, highly doubt that deeply Catholic Poland will ever come to be seen as a center of Jewish life again. If so, it will be because of strange, kitschy appropriations of Jewish culture, rather than a reality of millions of Jews living both religious and secular lives. It must also be added that what constitutes “Jewish” has been irrevocably altered after the Holocaust. How “Jewishness” is defined and discussed today has been profoundly influenced by the reality of mass-murder. Jewish life now cannot be what it was. Perhaps the language we should be using should refer to “redefinition” rather than “rebirth.” “Mir Lebn-Geblibene” shows us that the moment for that rebirth passed a long time ago.

Notes:

[1] “Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive: Jews in Poland; unearthing the Ringelblum Archive.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://resources.ushmm.org/film/display/detail.php?file_num=5279. (22 April 2013).

[2] Stewart Tryster. “Introduction to the screening of ‘Mir Lebn Geblibene.’” (Film screening, Zeughaus Kino, Berlin, Germany, April 23, 2013).

[3] See: Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Schama writes of a symbolic Jewish connection to the lands of Poland and Lithuania. He alludes to Jewish villages scattering the countryside, and Jews who worked the land and soil with their hands. Schama’s own family contained woodsmen, Jewish men who cut timber they sent floating down Polish rivers to Polish cities beyond. Stories and memories of landscape remain embedded in his family’s mythology: the Yiddish lumberjacks cannot be disentangled from the land. The forests of Eastern Europe are figured as a symbolic Jewish home. 27-29.

[4] See: Gross, Jan T. Fear: Antisemitism in Poland after Auschwitz. New York: Random House, 2006.

[5] Cohn, Robert L. “Early Postwar Travelers on the Future of Jewish Life in Poland. The Polish Review 53, no. 3, 2008. 317-340. 319.

[6] Ibid., 318.

[7] Ibid., 329.

[8] Haltof, Marek. “Kinor.” Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012. 20-22. 21.

[9] Konigsberg, Ira qtd in Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 22.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] See: Gruber, Ruth Ellen. Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

[13] Ibid., 133.

[14] Connolly, Kate. “Poland’s generation ‘unexpected’ leads resurgence of Jewish culture.” The Guardian, April 20, 2013. Accessed April 22, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/20/generation-unexpected-poland-jews.

[15] Easton, Adam. “Jewish life slowly returns to Poland.” BBC, April 20, 2013. Accessed April 23, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-radio-and-tv-17741185.

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