The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Article excerpt

Memory, tradition, the history of peoples, of Europe, of Poland--from my earliest years at secondary school, I was absorbed by these themes. As a young man, before the Second World War, I had some appreciation of the historical process. Everything that occurred between 1939-1945, however, the experiences of people among whom I lived, the way the war affected their lives, made for a new awareness in me, and threw up new questions: How could these events have transpired and why? Did they have to happen, and what indeed would ultimately happen as a consequence of them?

The history of Polish Jews is linked inseparably to the history of Poland. Any attempt to eliminate this wonderful strand in the history of the multinational Polish Commonwealth, which lasted up to the end of the 18th century, would be like recounting the history of France without mention of Paris or Marseilles, German history without Berlin, Polish history without Warsaw. A surreal exercise!

Through the ages, the Jewish community of Poland typically made up some seven to ten percent of the total population. At the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and during the time of the Partitions--as indeed at the birth of the new Polish state in 1918--the figure remained consistently at about ten percent. Thus, every tenth Polish citizen had Jewish roots, whether expressed through religion, culture, language, or a feeling of ethnic identity. Generally speaking, this community lived in villages, towns, and cities. Polish Jewry in the life of the country--in academia, the arts and sciences, trade, industry, and the professions--was, however, very substantial indeed. It has been calculated that between a quarter to half of the total population engaged in these fields of activity were drawn from Polish Jewry. The contribution of Polish Jewry toward the building of modem Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries--in Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz, Wilno, and Lwow, but also in lesser urban centers such as Radom, Kielce, Lublin, and Bialystok--was immense and forms an integral part of Polish social history.

All my life, I have subscribed to the view that you cannot even begin to think of a future for a country without a firm appreciation of its social past and present. I belong to a generation that saw the introduction of the first wireless and telephone exchange. My experience of technical innovation and the material progress of civilization, which occurred later in my part of the world than in Western Europe, enables me to see my life as bridging two epochs. So to my mind, this is a good moment in history to reflect upon issues concerning the fate of Poland. Such reflection should necessarily encompass a past in which the Polish lands were inhabited by many nationalities: Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Byelorussians, some of whom came ultimately to define their national identities in the interwar independent Polish Republic. Yet first and foremost, such reflection should dwell upon the Jews of Poland, the most important minority and the only national prewar minority, that by and large had a real interest in the existence of the Polish state. Other minorities could look to powerful neighboring forces, such as the Russian or German states, as possible countries of choice. The Jews of Poland could not. The Zionist idea came to Poland toward the end of the 19th century, and for very many years was to remain just a vision.

No understanding of Polish history is possible without an understanding of the everyday life of its people. We call this social history, and a vital part of Polish social history is its Jewish component. The attempted genocide of the Jews of Poland, the annihilation of an entire community, was mercifully not completed. Polish Jews, the survivors of the Holocaust, have dispersed around the globe, and on the whole have fared well. This should not, however, obscure the facts of that long, arduous, and complicated journey undertaken by their forefathers on Polish soil. …