LUBLIN – Poland’s premier makes claims about “Jewish perpetrators” in the Holocaust; my government loses its honour by enforcing a law which bans free speech on Polish involvement in the Shoah; misogyny, homophobia, anti-abortion and anti-refugee sentiment are rampant here.
March 2018 marks the commemoration of the cruel expulsion of the Jewish citizens of Poland in 1968. Today’s anti-Semitic discourse and policies are similar. The Polish government is deliberately offending the Jewish people, and enacting the first explicitly discriminatory policies against them in the history of the European Union, which we must remember, was created in response to World War II.
At the same time, the Polish government is colonising both the public and the private sphere. The distinctions between the state, civil society and the body are rapidly disappearing.
To wit, “The government continued its efforts to exert political control over the judiciary, NGOs and the media. Hundreds of protesters faced criminal sanctions for participating in peaceful assemblies. Women and girls continued to face systemic barriers in accessing safe and legal abortion,” reports Amnesty International.
Poland is my suffering. I am referring here to a painful, poignant, and truly Montaignian essai by Julia Kristeva, Bulgarie, ma souffrance in Philippe Sollers’s journal L’Infini. It was published as “Bulgaria, My Suffering” in the prestigious Nobel Prize-related magazine Artes and later in Kristeva’s 2000 book, Crisis of the European Subject.
Julia Kristeva mentions but denies links to Thomas Mann’s text Germany, My Suffering. However, the informed reader, it undeniably harkens back to this masterpiece. Yes, the current Polish government constitutes our mal, that is our unease, disease, and evil, in no way unrelated to Mann’s fascist example.
In her work, Poland’s top literary scholar Maria Janion has frequently returned to Thomas Mann. Unsurprisingly, Janion has pioneered Jewish, feminist, and queer studies in our part of Europe. In response to the present crisis, she penned a letter to the country’s 2016 Congress of Culture, protesting Polish martyrology.
The sin of the previous power was underestimating the role of creators and employees of culture. Today, we are observing the obvious centrally planned turn towards the culture of fallen, epigone romanticism – the canon of the god-like stereotypes and Smolensk as a new messianic myth are to merge and soothe the wronged and humiliated by the previous power. How inefficient and harmful is the martyrdom pattern dominant in Poland! Let me put it plainly – messianism, especially the state-clerical version of it, is a curse, a ruin for Poland. I honestly hate our messianism…our [Polish] inability to modernise has (its) source in the phantasmatic sphere, in the culture of collective attachment of the unconscious to pain, whose sources we touch with the greatest difficulty, groping. A nation that cannot exist without suffering must itself deal with it. Hence the shocking sadistic fantasies about forcing women to give birth to half-children, hence the burial in the graves of the victims of the plane crash, the attack on natural monuments, and even, do not be surprised – the stubborn cultivation of coal energy…threatening the upcoming civilization collapse.
Her Jewish colleague, Michal Glowiński, who is a Holocaust survivor and an openly gay literary critic and writer, analyses the authorities’ newspeak. Glowiński told the Polish edition of Newsweek that the country is evolving a new totalitarian language, reminiscent of the Communist era:
“In the PiS novum – I called it a pioneer years ago – I see a great analogy to the manner of speaking to the PZPR authorities in People’s Poland: everything that power does is good and not criticized is a “good change”. “A good change” actually means nothing. If criticism was required in the Polish People’s Republic, it was said in the official language that it needed further improvement. I am waiting now, when this formula appears in the PiS language, and that it will appear in one form or another, I am sure.”
The most frequent target of the PiS government’s ire and one which the international news media has latched on to is the figure of Princeton historian Jan T. Gross, unsurprisingly also a Jewish intellectual, for the “shame” he brought on the country by his breakthrough 2001 book Neighbors, about the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom. According to Gross, before the war, 1,600 Jews lived in Jedwabne, but only seven survived. In his book, Gross collects first-hand accounts of the massacre by those who witnessed it.
According to Gross, the local community was a willing accomplice to the Nazi genocide. Initially taking their June 1941 arrival in the town as license to initiate a pogrom, the Germans eventually issued orders to the villagers to liquidate the Jedawabne’s remaining Jewish community. Gross’ portrait is a direct contradiction to a post-Cold War takes of resistance to fascism that is integral to the ideology of the PiS government, in particular, its typically nationalist insistence that Poles were victims, like Jews of the Nazis.
On the morning of July 10, 1941, eight gestapo men came to town and had a meeting with representatives of the town authorities. When the gestapo asked what their plans were with respect to the Jews, they said, unanimously, that all Jews must be killed. When the Germans proposed to leave one Jewish family from each profession, local carpenter Bronislaw Szlezinski, who was present, answered: We have enough of our own craftsmen, we have to destroy all the Jews, none should stay alive. Mayor Karolak and everybody else agreed with his words. For this purpose Szlezinski gave his own barn, which stood nearby. After this meeting the bloodbath began.
So much for the purity of resistance. If only politics were that simple. If only we did not identify with our oppressors, and have things in common with them, like anti-Semitism. Perhaps its time we invented a new political vocabulary for nationalism, one which relied less on narratives of victimisation and more about being forward-looking, as a means of atoning for redeeming the sins of the past. That’s why historians like Gross irritate so.
On a personal level, the controversy over events like what took place in Jedwabne scream out for supporting examples, which, make it clear that what happened there was by no means an isolated incident. One such example is what happened in my hometown, the city of Lublin.
Lublin was once a highly diverse city, one in which both Nazis and Poles abetted the removal of its Jewish community. As recounted by Louise Steinman in her Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation:
Most of the Lublin ghetto’s inhabitants – about twenty-six thousand people – were murdered at the Belzec camp, in nearby forests, or at Majdanek, the death camp the Nazis constructed on the outskirts of Lublin.
The Communist authorities completed the Nazis’ destructions of Jewish Lublin. In 1953 they paved over the entire area and turned it into a car park. “Their aim,” said Witek, “was to create a new world without any connection to the past.”
This is why Poland’s present government is so eager to outlaw talk of Polish anti-Semitism. What happened is undeniable and testimony to a savage streak in the national soul, one which persists to this day in our growing rejection of homosexuality, women’s rights, Muslims and immigrants.
Only by building an alternative historical consciousness can we overcome the murderous prejudices of our country. Only then shall we leave the slavery* of Eastern Europe and build a truly inclusive and tolerant post-fascist future. Memory, in short, is everything.
Photograph courtesy of Piotr Drabik. Published under a Creative Commons license.
*See my definition of slavery, co-authored with Joe Lockard. Masahiko Nishi, a Japanese specialist on Polish culture, is also worth reading, in terms of what he sees as the sadomasochism embedded within Polish society.