Despite a centuries-old history marked by misunderstanding, acrimony and often deadly conflict, Poles and Jews — against all logic — manage somehow to continue speaking to one another. The dialogue may, in fact, have entered one of its most interesting phases.
This was the combined judgment of the three participants in a recent panel discussion devoted to this troubled but ongoing relationship.
The speakers, all experts in the field, even ended their presentations with pronouncements of guarded optimism about what the future holds.
"Rethinking Polish Jewish Relations: Past and Present," held last week at the Rittenhouse Hotel, was sponsored by the Phil-adelphia/Southern New Jersey Chapter of American Jewish Committee and featured Dr. Michael Steinlauf, professor of history at Gratz College; Michael Steiman, president of Friends of the Cracow Jewish Culture Festival; and Guy Billauer, associate director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
As might be imagined, there was some overlap among the presentations, and Steinlauf, who began the evening, may have provided the best summation of what the three lecturers had to say.
The Gratz professor insisted that Polish-Jewish relations cannot be viewed from the post-World War II period on, but must begin farther back in time, since this nearly 1,000-year-long history (that is, until the Holocaust altered it irrevocably) was marked by extended periods of cooperation and understanding.
"Did the Poles and Jews love each other?" asked Steinlauf. "De-finitely not. Did they co-exist? Without question."
Anti-Semitism, as it's understood today, explained Steinlauf, came only with the modern age, in tandem with nationalism. The push to create the Polish nation state took two forms: inclusionist and exclusionist.
Adherents of the former philosophy felt that anyone who wished to help create an independent Polish land were more than welcome to join the effort. This group was led generally by Jozef Pilsudski, the eventual head of the Polish Socialist Party.
The exclusionists, on the other hand, held that only those who were ethnically Polish and Catholic were permitted to assist in nation-building. These exclusionary types dominated the National Democratic Party.
The 1930s, according to Steinlauf, marked the lowest point in the relationship.
The National Democrats — although they never held office — had great influence during this decade, he explained, when the party's anti-Semitic pronouncements began to make sense to the average Pole.
On the eve of World War II, the typical Polish Christian "thought there were far too many Jews in the country," said Steinlauf. "They didn't want to murder them — they would never go that far — but they would have liked them to just go away."
And during the Holocaust, the professor said, the average Pole generally "just watched" what was occurring.
"This passivity," he noted, "was connected to the sense that the Jews were 'not us.' Of course, there were Poles who turned Jews in and who blackmailed them, but there were also many Poles who hid Jews."
The postwar period only made the relationship more complex, he continued.
With the Jews gone during the war, many Poles moved into Jewish property, and thus were not happy to see survivors return. There are some historians who say that 1,000 Jews were killed during the immediate postwar years in the infamous pogroms that occurred in places like Kielce and Krakow, though Steinlauf said that accurate numbers are difficult to determine.
With the imposition of communism in Poland, the attitude toward Jews hardened even more, since many Poles thought that all Jews were Communists, the new oppressors of the Polish state.
According to Steinlauf, things only began to change with the advent of the Solidarity movement and young leaders such as Adam Michnik.
"The Solidarity people wanted to repossess all of Polish history and, in doing so, they began to think that perhaps this romantic image of the Jew, dressed all in black and with peyos, who was there throughout all of history, was indeed 'part of us,' " he said.
This effort at "regaining memory," stated the professor, "was also considered a blow against communism."
At present, said Steinlauf, "there is, in Poland, a small Jewish community that continues to grow. Lots of young people are discovering that they had a Jewish relative in their past and so return to Judaism. They are doing this 'memory work,' " much like what the Solidarity people had begun in the 1980s.
There are even larger examples of memory work going on right now in Poland, he said.
He made reference to the annual Cracow Jewish Culture Festival, which fellow speaker Michael Steiman's group supports and nurtures.
There is also "the large-scale museum in Warsaw, which will be devoted to Jewish history — and not just to the destruction of the Jewish people but to how the Jews lived."
Relationship Is 'Better'
Does this mean that hatred is gone?
Of course not, replied Steinlauf. "There are older, economically marginal people who are angry about what Poland is becoming and blame the Jews. And there is Radio Maryja, which is known for its anti-Semitic broadcasts."
But, as all three speakers did make clear, many young Polish people also wish to understand the past and engage with Jews.
According to Billauer, the relationship is "better now than it has been at any time since 1989." Meetings between Poles and Jews "are more practical and far less emotional these days than they were in the past."