Stranger in Our Midst: Images of the Jew in Polish Literature, Edited by Harold B. Segel

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Stranger in Our Midst: Images of the Jew in Polish Literature, edited by Harlod B. Segel

This is a curious book. Aiming to present a balanced picture of Polish attitudes towards the Jews, to draw on the "greatest European literature of Jewish experience" in order to retrieve historical complexities and vibrance of the everyday life, Stranger in Our Midst effectively introduces the reader to the wide range of antisemitic expression. Few exceptions aside, the texts included here -- poems, prose, polemic -- exemplify just how varied in form and intensity the dislike of the Jew can be. Unintentionally, no doubt, the editor thus provides us with an excellent primer on the intellectual, moral, and emotional dimensions of what even scholars often too quickly subsume under the general label of "antisemitism." Some of the shadings here are specific to the Polish context, but a great deal is not, thus increasing the overall pedagogical value of the exercise. This is not an easy read, but if one wishes students to gain a good grasp of the multiple obstacles Jews have faced from friend and foe alike, the lessons are worth it.

As a contribution, specifically, to scholarship in the field of Polish-Jewish relations, Segel's collection ought to receive decidedly mixed marks. On the one hand, it does offer those not versed in Polish a rich repository of source material; the inclusion of older texts, in particular, allows for much deeper understanding of the claims found in history books. Literary voices are a valid and valuable guide through the nuances of experience. Yet it is precisely because literature has so much to offer that Stranger in Our Midst fails in its approach to the more recent history. Segel not only excludes the works by Jewish artists writing in Polish, he insists that they have nothing to say about the vicissitudes of Polish-Jewish relations. While distributing identification tags to Poles "of Jewish origin" presents major problems throughout this century, problems that are worth a study in themselves, generous reading of their writing should not. And it is in the writings of Aleksander Wat or Kazimierz Brandys, explicitly dismissed here, that one finds some of the most poignant reflections and ways to understand what the life of Polish Jews was about. More troubling still is another exclusion, especially in a book published in 1996, and that is contemporary works by Jews writing in Polish. Claiming that "for all practical considerations, Poland has no Jews," Segel is no longer making an interpretive error, he is now falsifying history. For in one of the most remarkable stories of Jewish continuity in post-Holocaust Europe, Poland's Jews have seen both their numbers swell and their cultural presence grow beyond anyone's wildest expectations. …