One day, when I was very young, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon Mahler’s knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me, “Varn” (he always called me “Varn” through his distinctive Polish accent), you are named after my father, Wolf Mahler. I lived in Krosno, Poland with my father, Wolf, and my mother, Bascha, and 13 brothers and sisters, and aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
Simon talked about our family with pride, but as he told me this, he seemed rather sad. I asked him if our relatives still lived in Poland, and he responded that his mother had died of a heart attack in 1934, and his father and most of the remainder of his family were no longer alive. When I asked him how they had died, he told me that they had all been killed by people called “Nazis.” I questioned him why the Nazis killed our family, and he responded, “Because they were Jews.”
Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.
We eventually learned from a brother who had eventually escaped into the woods with his wife and young son that Nazi soldiers murdered many members of our family either on the streets of Krosno or up a small hill near the Jewish cemetery. The Nazis murdered my great-grandfather, Wolf, in the Krosno ghetto. Other friends and relatives the Nazis eventually loaded onto cattle cars and transported them to Auschwitz and Balzec concentration camps.
Virtually no Jews have resided in Krosno or in the surrounding Subcarpathian region of southeastern Poland since the early 1940s. Since then, a dynamic inter-generational tension has developed. There are those, especially of the older generations, who bask in the monoculturalism (cultural homogeneity) evidenced by the longstanding Polish Catholic cultural heritage. Then there are others, many in the younger generations born during the past few decades, who yearn for an earlier time in Polish history, one in which many traditions enriched the overall national cultural landscape.
Jews have for centuries contributed much to Polish culture and society. Jews were an integral part of what it meant to be Polish. Unfortunately, from a height of over 3 million before the Holocaust, only an estimated 10-20 thousand Jews still live in Poland today.
So when I watched and read accounts of Polish residents marching on their 99th annual Independence Day throughout the streets of Warsaw on November 11 with upwards of 60,000 people shouting chants and carrying Nazi and white supremacist paraphernalia, where some marchers called for a “white Europe” and an “Islamic Holocaust,” of course I was deeply concerned, but not particularly surprised.
The Foreign Minister from Poland’s rightwing so-called “Law and Justice Party” said following the march that the day had been “a great celebration of Poles, differing in their views, but united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland.”
A woman on a Facebook group serving Jewish descendants of the Nazi Holocaust asked participants the following question: “Do you think most Poles are anti-Semites?”
I personally hate questions that imply a binary response of “yes” or “no” because the world doesn’t work that way, and because in most instances, the truth falls along a vast continuum. Therefore, I pose a more nuanced answer.
First, to be perfectly clear, the rising tide of fascism demonstrated in Poland represents a larger movement gaining hold throughout Europe and the United States. We have long since passed the point where it is merely hyperbole to compare the rise and control of the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s to the rise and possible take-over of fascism throughout Western democracies and in some other countries around the world.
In both Nazi Germany and today, strong leaders whipped up dehumanizing stereotypes of groups they “othered,” resulting in the scapegoating of already-marginalized groups of people to blame for causing past problems and posing clear and present dangers to the state.
Having traveled throughout Poland six times, most recently this past June, to conduct genealogy and Holocaust research, I have met several individuals, and have made some deep personal friendships. Each time I visit Poland and other countries throughout Eastern, Central, and Western Europe, I am again reminded of two key issues of which I became consciousness several years ago.
This socially constructed notion we call “race” with its inextricably linked privileges and restrictions based on individuals’ assigned “race” must be seen, first, in the contexts of place and time, and secondly, it needs to be charted along a wide continuum, and not viewed as polar opposites.
In this regard, though I can never truly know on a personal level the “racialized” experiences of those currently constructed in the United States as “people of color,” having studied about and traveling within Eastern Europe, including Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, I can now at least begin to understand the “racialized” (yes, “racialized”) experiences of being a Jew in Eastern Europe, from the feeling that I am seen as an “odd curiosity” and as “exotic” at best, to the occasional offensive and stereotypical iconography, to the rude comments, to the hesitation of some to shake my hand believing I and all Jews were fathered by the Devil, and more.
As historically constructed, “whiteness” and “Christian” are inextricably linked in Poland, for to be considered “white,” one must be born Christian of European descent, and in Poland, Roman Catholic. To be considered “non-white” in Poland is to be “non-Christian” of any national heritage. As historian Karen Brodkin explains, Jews were constructed as “non-white” in the United States as well until after World War II by the dominant white Protestant majority over a series of factors.
In Europe, by the late 19th century CE, Judaism had come to be defined by the scientific community as a distinct “racial” type, with essential immutable biological characteristics — a trend that increased markedly into the early 20th century CE. Once seen as largely a religious, ethnic, or political group, Jews were increasingly socially constructed as members of a “mixed race” (a so-called “mongrel” or “bastard race”), a people who had crossed racial barriers by interbreeding with black Africans during the Jewish Diaspora.
If Jews were evil as thought by many, this evilness was genetic and could not be purged or cured. Jews converting to Christianity as once believed by some Christian leaders, therefore, could no longer be a solution to “the Jewish question.”
In European society, according to social theorist and author Sander Gilman (in Thandeka), Jews were thought of as the “white Negroes”: “In the eyes of the non-Jew who defined them in Western [European] society the Jews became the blacks.” Thandeka adds that “the male Jew and the male African were conceived of as equivalent threats to the white race.”
I truly value and honor the good Polish Christians who have taken on the important task of resurrecting, maintaining, and promoting Jewish culture in present-day Poland. I know many of these good people personally: those who are working at the historical museums throughout Poland and are researching and teaching about the rich Jewish-Polish culture to new generations.
The Rzeszow Klezmer Band, composed totally of Polish Christian performers, travel throughout Poland reintroducing Jewish Klezmer music to the people. Several inspiring and empathetic Polish educators now incorporate the contributions of Jews in school, museum, and community programming and in their curriculum.
The Catholic Church has since admitted regret for many of its past actions and words of former Popes. The Rev. Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, was honored by Jewish leaders around the world for his work in saving large numbers of Jews during the German Holocaust. As Pope, he convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which authorized the declaration Nostra Aetate and approved in 1965 under Pope Paul VI.
An article in the document, while certainly not going far enough, stated: “True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today.” Moreover, the Church “deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.”
Frankly, however, while I see some real and positive changes occurring in Poland in terms of Polish people’s relationships with Jewish people, and I have hope for an even brighter future, at times I do not feel safe emotionally and physically in Poland and in other countries of Eastern Europe.
Poland now finds itself at a crossroads of sorts, where long-standing official policies, church teachings, and personal belief systems conspire in the exclusion of Jews, while a still relatively small but growing segment of the population genuinely desires to welcome Jews back into the cultural, political, and social life of the country.
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