Platform for Jewish-Polish Dialogue  

January 24, 2008

Conference tackles thorny Jewish-Polish relationship

By Jane Ulman

David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies; Paulina Kapuschinska, consul general of the Republic of Poland; and Severyn Ashkenazy,  co-founder of Beit Warszawa, Warsaw's Reform congregation. Photo by Huong Wu

David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies; Paulina Kapuschinska, consul general of the Republic of Poland; and Severyn Ashkenazy, co-founder of Beit Warszawa, Warsaw's Reform congregation. Photo by Huong Wu

In a groundbreaking collegial but hard-hitting conference sponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, a slate of top scholars, public officials, diplomats and Polish Jewish community leaders met to discuss the controversial and complicated relationship of Poles and Jews.

Titled "From Past to Present: The State of Research in Polish-Jewish Relations," the international conference held Jan. 13 and 14 was originally envisioned as a closed, scholarly gathering around a conference table. But the topic generated such intense interest that it was moved to larger rooms on the UCLA campus to accommodate the approximately 20 conference participants and overflow crowds of up to 150 people.

"Few historical relationships are as complex as that between Poles and Jews. The Poles see themselves as prime victims of the Nazi onslaught. The Jews see themselves as the prime victims, adding the belief that the Poles were often willing collaborators," said David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

The impetus for the conference came more than two years ago from Holocaust survivor Severyn Ashkenazy, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Warsaw and who has been at the forefront of Jewish renewal in Poland.

"I think the time has come to stop bashing one another," Ashkenazy said, stressing that it is impossible to rebuild Jewish life in an atmosphere of mutual accusation.

Ashkenazy brought his idea to the Polish consulate in Los Angeles, currently headed by Consul General Paulina Kapuschinska, and to Myers, who received funding from the "1939" Club Holocaust Memorial Fund at UCLA. Both co-sponsored the event, with assistance from the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel and the American Jewish Committee.

The conference consisted of three academic panels, a reception and photographic exhibit at UCLA Hillel and a concluding roundtable. What made it unique, however, in addition to the invitation to the public, was the format of the panels -- a senior historian moderating and two junior historians presenting papers based on cutting-edge research.

These younger scholars have access to troves of new archival sources that only began opening up after the communist regime collapsed in Poland in 1989, according to Myers, and are self-critical, rather than bogged down in old stereotypes and interpretations. Additionally, they feel almost a sense of obligation, in Myers' words, "to repopulate the landscape of Poland with a Jewish cultural presence."

The historians presented papers on particularly thorny issues in Polish-Jewish dialogue. Marci Shore of Yale University, for example, spoke on "Zydokomuna: The Family Romance of 'Judeo-Bolshevism.'"

Zydokomuna, essentially an untranslatable word meaning Jewish communist, is fraught with the anti-Semitic accusation that the Jews were responsible for the introduction and operation of communism in Poland. Shore asserted that this was not necessarily a stereotype, since even though the total number of Jews in the Communist Party was small, they were overrepresented as a group, especially among the party elite.

Joshua Zimmerman of Yeshiva University presented a paper on "The Attitude of the Home Army to the Jewish Question During the Holocaust: The Case of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising."

Zimmerman, who referred to the Polish home army's relationship to the Jews as "highly emotional and not uncontroversial," showed that it also changed during the war years. As he and the other presenters consistently demonstrated, the situation between the Poles and Jews was not black and white but many shades of gray.

Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa offered a more somber note in his presentation titled, "Re-writing the History of Polish-Jewish Relations From a Nationalist Perspective: The Recent Publications of the Institute of the National Remembrance." He described the Institute of National Remembrance, a clearinghouse of information established by the Polish Parliament, as an organization with a decidedly nationalistic view of the past.

What was clear in all the presentations is that there is a need for Jews to be reinserted into the Polish historical picture. During the half-century of communist rule, Jewish history was deleted from textbooks and either erased or manipulated in peoples' memories. Even the word "Jew" was removed from Poland's vocabulary.

"If Poles write Jews out of their history, they deprive themselves of the basic knowledge of who they are," historian Samuel Kassow of Trinity College said.

The sentiment was echoed by Jolanta Zyndul, a scholar at Warsaw University who grew up in communist Poland and who never heard the word Jew throughout her childhood, except in church. "I felt cheated when I learned Poland had a Jewish presence," she said.

Conference presenters emphasized that the mostly opposing Polish and Jewish historical narratives have to be accurately confronted, and many old stereotypes were debunked during the two days.

Natalia Aleksium of Touro College, for example, in her presentation "Re-thinking Polish Jewish Intelligentsia in Interwar Poland," addressed the fact that Jews did not all live in hermetically sealed Orthodox communities, and a large percentage were fully integrated into Polish society.

Adam Daniel Rotfeld, the former Polish foreign minister, who was born in 1938, survived the war in a monastery, where he had no idea of the serious risks undertaken by his rescuers.

Rotfeld remained in Poland after the war, and he said that the punishment for aiding Jews in Poland, unlike that in any other country occupied by Nazis, was death to the person and to his or her entire family.

"Poles, as a society, are proud that Yad Vashem has over 6,000 trees planted for the Poles," said Rotfeld, pointing out that Poland has more people recognized as Righteous Among the Nations than any other country.

Rotfeld stressed that stereotypes against Poles continue to prevail because of the enormous number of Jews who trace their ancestry to Poland and because the Nazi crimes were perpetrated on Polish soil.

While the conference was primarily academic, its hot-button topic attracted observers who came for personal reasons. These included Jewish survivors and those of Polish ancestry who wanted to learn about their parents' or grandparents' country. The conference also attracted non-Jewish Poles, such as Chris Justin, who left Poland in 1980 and who now lives in Huntington Beach. "I have lots of Polish friends and lots of Jewish friends," he said.

Another non-Jewish emigrant from Poland was Beverly Hills resident Wanda Presburger, who is raising money to build the new Museum of the History of the Jewish People in Warsaw. "I want the museum to exist, and I want to be proud of it," she said.

A few people voiced their opinions when questions were opened up to the general audience. "All we are talking about is the past. What about the future?" one woman exclaimed. A man shouted out, "Poland killed over three and a half million Jews."

A main theme running through the conference was the need to talk honestly about the past in order to move into the future. Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, Poland's undersecretary of the state, said, "We represent the new, free Poland, but we are talking about the past, openly."

The current relationship between Poland and Israel was also emphasized.

"The two countries hated each other, [but] we now call Israel our strategic partner and Israel calls us their best friend in Europe," said Maciej Kozlowski, deputy director of the Department of Africa and Middle East in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

David Peleg, Israel's ambassador to Poland, mentioned the defense cooperation of the two countries. "Poland is very much present in the Middle East, and Israel has done whatever it could to share its experience on the battlefield with the Polish army."

Post-conference, the American Jewish Committee sponsored a lunch featuring highlights of the two days. The speakers emphasized the uniqueness and collegiality of the event, and UCLA's Myers announced that conference papers would be published and that a future conference would be planned.

"This was not a conference about guilt. There was no blaming. There was no competition for pain," said Poland's official Junczyk-Ziomecka. "We will meet next time not in Jerusalem, but in Warsaw."