Jedwabne and Bruno Schulz: Jews and Poles Apart. (the Shoah)

By Ticktin, Harold | Midstream, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Jedwabne and Bruno Schulz: Jews and Poles Apart. (the Shoah)


Ticktin, Harold, Midstream


Arthur Koestler, in his parapsychology phase, wrote a book called The Roots of Coincidence, in which he argued that what we think of as coincidence may really occur because of an underlying cause that determines seemingly unrelated events. I was reminded of Koestler because of the "coincidence" of two Jewish events that took place recently.

In the summer of 2001, Yad Vashem came to the Ukrainian village of Drogobych for the purpose of removing, by agreement with the local authorities, some sketches of Grimm's fairy tales from the walls of a dwelling used by an SS officer during the occupation by the Nazis of that once-Polish town. The sketches had been made by the multi-talented Jewish artist and writer Bruno Schulz. Shortly thereafter Schulz was shot and killed in the Jewish ghetto, clearly as a Jew, though he had written extensively in Polish. Despite the permission granted to Yad Vashem, the dismantling was regarded in some Polish circles (including Jewish ones) as a cultural hijacking of a "Polish" artifact.

The second event was the revelation by Jan Gross in his book Neighbors, which ferociously exploded the myth that the Holocaust in Poland was a function of German fanaticism viewed helplessly by persecuted Poles. As Gross relentlessly shows, the massacre on July 10, 1941 of Jews in the town of Jedwabne was the handiwork of Poles with a license to kill by passive German onlookers, a total upturning of a history which is forever finding more devils in the details. The clear implication of Neighbors is that the Poles, like other antisemitic East Europeans, conducted pogroms on their own during the war.

There is a note in the Nuremberg records quoting a Pole as saying, "The Germans are solving the Jewish problem in a way we never could." Neighbors documents the fact that, even if true, such a declaration was not for want of trying. The current Polish government and, to a lesser extent, the Polish Church hierarchy have admitted this extraordinary fact; the government has even demolished the plaque memorializing the Jedwabne massacre as the fault of the "fascist beast," a term dear to the heart of defunct Communist authorities as a way of glossing over beastly activity by supposedly innocent Poles.

In Koestler's terms, the confluence of these two events is not merely coincidence, but rather they are intertwined causally. Obviously the common issue is the nature of the Polish-Jewish millennial relationship. Both incidents testify to the long Jewish sojourn in Poland and to the 20th-century attempt to make Jews "Polish citizens of Mosaic extraction." Like Napoleon's Sanhedrin effort with French Jewry in the early 19th century, the two incidents raise the agonizing question for Poland and Europe--whether Jews can be both themselves and Europeans. Poland is a leading example, because Poland once had 3,000,000 Jews who, like Blacks in America today, then constituted 10 percent of the population, living primarily in urban centers.

A good place to begin the inquiry intertwining Schulz and Jedwabne is with the arch player in the destruction of European Jewry, Adolf Eichmann. A little-known play by Don Howard, Wallenberg, features a long, partly imagined dialogue between the ill-fated Swedish guardian-angel of Hungarian Jews and his nemesis, Adolf Eichmann, intent on deporting every Hungarian Jew to Auschwitz. In fact, there was an actual conversation between Wallenberg and Eichmann. Some of what is known to have passed between them is included in Howard's critical scene.

With excellent creative instinct the playwright adds to the macabre dialogue, always enriching it with the essence of the "Jewish Question," as it was known in 1944, though by then two-thirds of that "Question" no longer existed. Howard has Wallenberg make his distaste for Eichmann and his policies clear. Eichmann holds nothing back, including his irritation with Wallenberg's work. Against a background of intimidation and fear, Wallenberg underlines his desire to save as many Jews as possible.

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