Ruth Franklin: Anti-Semitism in Poland after World War II was even worse than you thought

Roundup: Talking About History

In spring 1945, not long after his liberation from Auschwitz, Primo Levi, traveling across southern Poland by train, got off in a small town to stretch his legs and immediately found himself at the center of a group of curious people, all speaking excitedly, and incomprehensibly, in Polish. "Perhaps I was among the first dressed in 'zebra' clothes to appear in that place," he surmised, referring to the striped uniform of the death camp, in The Reawakening, his memoir of the journey home through the wreckage of Europe. Fortunately for Levi, "in the middle of the group of workers and peasants a bourgeois appeared, with a felt hat, glasses and a leather briefcase in his hand--a lawyer. He was Polish, he spoke French and German well, he was an extremely courteous and benevolent person; in short, he possessed all the requisites enabling me finally, after the long year of slavery and silence, to recognize in him the messenger, the spokesman of the civilized world, the first that I had met." Levi spoke "at dizzy speed of those so recent experiences of mine, of Auschwitz nearby, yet, it seemed, unknown to all, of the hecatomb from which I alone had escaped, of everything," and the man translated.

But it did not take Levi long to figure out that something was amiss. "I do not know Polish, but I know how one says 'Jew' and how one says 'political'; and I soon realized that the translation of my account, although sympathetic, was not faithful to it. The lawyer described me to the public not as an Italian Jew, but as an Italian political prisoner. I asked him why, amazed and almost offended. He replied, embarrassed: 'C'est mieux pour vous. La guerre n'est pas finie.'" It's better for you. The war isn't over.

This was literally true. Russian troops had liberated areas of eastern Poland as early as November 1944, but they did not reach Auschwitz until the end of January 1945, and other concentration camps remained operative as late as May. But it was in a larger sense that the war was not over for any Jew in Poland, and it would not be for some time. As Jan T. Gross recounts in his harrowing new book, Polish Jews who had the amazing fortune to survive the camps were "unwelcomed" upon their return home with brutal violence. In June 1945, several Jews traveling by train in eastern Poland were murdered by their fellow passengers. In August, a mob attacked the synagogue in Kraków and then pursued Jews throughout the city, killing several and wounding dozens. The writer Zofia Nalkowska, visiting a Jewish orphanage that fall, noted that the children were unable to enroll in public school because of "beatings and persecution." The following spring, the French Catholic intellectual Emmanuel Mounier reported that more than a thousand Jews had been killed in the Polish countryside over the past nine months. And on July 4, 1946, scores of Jews were killed and hundreds injured in a day-long city-wide bloodbath in Kielce that has become notorious as the deadliest peacetime pogrom in modern Europe....

comments powered by Disqus