The thousand-year-old story of the Jewish presence in Poland was all but ended by the Nazis. But now a new Poland is experiencing an unexpected return of history and memory.
Writer Eva Hoffman examines the traumatic contradictions and perplexity of the Jewish Polish experience of the 20th Century and the unexpected return of history and memory in the 21st. The 20th Century offered hard challenges for Jewish Poles. Which language to speak? Yiddish or Polish? Which faith to follow? The new politics of Zionism and perhaps emigration? The defiant Yiddish voice of the Socialist Bund? The creed of Communism or the continual values of the Shtetl, the devotion of Hasidism, the perpetual study of the Torah?
Yiddish writing peaked with the work of I.L.Peretz, I.J. Singer and Sholem Asch. Warsaw sounded to the hot jazz licks of Addy Rosner and the dance tunes of Henryk Gold. Julian Tuwim, writing in Polish, stunned all with his poetry and yet was always aware of the contradictions of Jewish identity in the new century.
Despite the rise of Fascism on its borders and the increasingly shrill nationalism at home, this land was still the least worst place to be in Central Europe. Until September 1st 1939. By 1945 the Nazis had done their best to destroy the idea of Poland, as had the Soviets. Both had killed its intelligentsia. The Germans had enslaved, starved and slaughtered millions and gathered the Jews of Europe, the majority of whom resided in Poland, to be murdered on its soil. By 1947, after sporadic pogroms, what had been Europe's largest Jewish community was now just 100,000. What could its future be? The cruelties of the Cold War largely decided its fate. Emigration to Israel and elsewhere increased under the assault of official anti-semitic persecution, culminating in mass expulsions in 1968. Jewish identity was buried, whispered among families. A thousand years of Polish Jewish presence seemed finally at an end.
The decades since 1989 have been bewildering and unexpected. The vast new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw opened this spring. It is the boldest statement yet that the history and memory of its Signifcant Others has returned for many in Poland. Elsewhere, Cracow's Jewish Festival is in its 23rd year. Although there are more Polish migrants in London than there are Jews in the whole of Poland, fledgling Jewish communities in cities like Warsaw and Cracow now seem at least viable. Perhaps Poland's most Significant Others have truly returned to history and to a land that has helped shape the world.
Reader: Henry Goodman
Producer: Mark Burman
First broadcast July 2013.
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