In Poland, students reconcile a horrific past and a puzzling ­present

Students visit Birkenau, part of the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp. From left, professor Jan Gross, Eric Silberman ’13, and Lydia Demissachew ’15 examine the barracks where Jewish prisoners were housed.
Students visit Birkenau, part of the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp. From left, professor Jan Gross, Eric Silberman ’13, and Lydia Demissachew ’15 examine the barracks where Jewish prisoners were housed.
PHOTO: JENNIFER ALTMANN

A few miles outside of Krakow, Poland, in a wide field covered by wild grass and overgrown weeds, a part of World War II history lies buried. The 200-acre expanse housed the Nazi labor camp Plaszow, where, starting in 1942, some 150,000 people, mainly Jews, were slave laborers. Thousands died of disease and at the hands of the camp’s sadistic SS commander, Amon Goeth, who is depicted in the movie Schindler’s List shooting prisoners from the balcony of his house.

Students visit Birkenau, part of the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp. From left, professor Jan Gross, Eric Silberman ’13, and Lydia Demissachew ’15 examine the barracks where Jewish prisoners were housed.
Students visit Birkenau, part of the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp. From left, professor Jan Gross, Eric Silberman ’13, and Lydia Demissachew ’15 examine the barracks where Jewish prisoners were housed.
PHOTO: JENNIFER ALTMANN

Amid Plaszow’s bushes and weeds, people walk their dogs and go jogging; children play. One sign reads: “Please respect the grievous history of the site,” but those in the park seem not to notice. When a group of Princeton undergraduates studying the history of Polish Jews visits the site of the camp in June, the students are stunned by the way it is treated.

“It shocked me, how it’s been forgotten,” says Lydia Demissachew ’15. “Unless somebody points it out, you don’t know what it is.”

For Iwa Nawrocki, a Princeton graduate student who accompanies the students and who lived in Poland as a young child, Plaszow opens a window into questions haunting the Polish people about the scars of the Holocaust etched into their land. “Some people don’t realize or don’t care about the history,” she says. “They can let the grass grow over Plaszow and walk right over it.” 

But even while they mourn over the horrible history of the field, the students are witnessing an astonishing revival of Jewish culture. Before the Holocaust, in which 90 percent of Poland’s Jews were murdered, this country was home to a diverse, vibrant Jewish community, Europe’s largest. Living for six weeks in a hotel in Krakow — with study trips to Warsaw and the Galicia region to visit former Jewish shtetls — the 15 undergraduates immerse themselves in that rich and painful history, exploring how Jewish life in Poland once thrived, how it was annihilated, and how that history has been preserved — yet at the same time, forgotten.

The students are guided through this maze of contradictions by Princeton history professor Jan Gross — a native Pole who is reviled by many in his homeland, and admired by others, for his searing work on the relationship between Jews and Poles. The complex history of what happened to the Jews in Poland “has not been worked through in many ways,” says Gross, though it lurks in the fields of Plaszow and in so many other places the students visited. “It’s everywhere, or it’s very actively avoided.”

Only a few of the students on the trip are Jewish. Rachel Neil ’13, a mechanical engineering major from Minnesota who is earning a certificate in African-American studies, explains she came to Poland because she is interested in relationships between minority groups and dominant societies. Bradley Yenter ’13 grew up in rural Stevens Point, Wis., eating his grandmother’s Polish cabbage rolls in a community where “almost everyone is Catholic and has a name ending in ‘ski.’ ” “I had an idealized picture of Poland from my childhood,” he says. “I’m very proud of my Polish heritage, but it’s hard to reconcile that with what happened here.” The course makes him think about relatives who lived in Poland during the Holocaust. “Obviously I still had extended family around during the war,” he says. “Would I be proud of how they acted? There’s no way to know.” 

The trip also is personal for Eric Silberman ’13, who is Jewish: All four of his grandparents were Polish. A grandmother was hidden in a barn by a Catholic woman; a grandfather, a tailor, survived five concentration camps. Silberman has studied the Polish language at Princeton, and in 2011 he traveled to Poland and other Eastern European countries to research his family’s roots, as a recipient of the University’s Martin Dale Summer Award.

“People back home say, ‘Why are you going to Poland? You know what happened there,’” Silberman says. “But I think the connection to Poland still needs to be kept, even if it’s a hard thing.”

For the first four weeks, the students study Jewish life before the events of World War II. The idea, Gross says, is to provide context for what comes next. “When American students learn about the Holocaust, it’s often taken out of the experience that precedes and follows it,” the professor says. “It overshadows almost 1,000 years of a very rich Jewish life that went on here.”

Indeed, Jews settled in the area known as Poland as early as the 11th century. By the 17th century, there were hundreds of small towns — known as shtetls — where the Jewish, Yiddish-speaking population made up a majority of the ­residents. Jews also congregated in cities such as Warsaw, which had 400 synagogues and prayer houses before World War II. By the 1930s, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland, making up more than 10 percent of the population. Then came Hitler, and as the people perished, Poland also lost a colorful part of its culture: music, art, literature, food. Today, about 10,000 Jews live in Poland, out of a population of 38 million.

The students spend hours walking the length of the Birkenau camp. “The efficiency, the disregard for human life — I feel a lot of anger,” says Aleks Taranov ’15.
The students spend hours walking the length of the Birkenau camp. “The efficiency, the disregard for human life — I feel a lot of anger,” says Aleks Taranov ’15.
PHOTO: JENNIFER ALTMANN

In the United States, World War II may seem like ancient history for those who didn’t live through it; in Poland, it feels present in people’s lives. Perhaps that’s because it is terrain that has not been fully discussed and understood. With some exceptions, studies relating to the Jewish community and wartime and postwar anti-Semitism were taboo during the decades of Communist rule after World War II, and anti-Semitic outbursts accompanied Polish political crises. During one, in 1968, 20,000 Jews — the majority of those who had remained — fled the country, and Jewish historians were fired and some imprisoned. “Communism was 40 years of amnesia about Polish Jewry,” says Nawrocki, whose parents grew up under the regime.

That began to change with the easing of censorship and the fall of the Communist government in 1989. And a major catalyst to that reconsideration was the publication in 2000 of a book called Neighbors by Jan Gross.

Ben Goldman ’15 and Stacey Menjivar ’14 snap photos in the Old Town of Warsaw.
Ben Goldman ’15 and Stacey Menjivar ’14 snap photos in the Old Town of Warsaw.
PHOTO: JENNIFER ALTMANN
A guardhouse at Auschwitz.
A guardhouse at Auschwitz.
PHOTO: JENNIFER ALTMANN

Neighbors ignited a firestorm in Poland and beyond with its account of the mass murder of 1,600 Jews on July 10, 1941, in a small Polish town named Jedwabne (yed-VAHB-nay). Gross’ research revealed that the perpetrators were not German Nazis, but the Polish citizens of the town, who forced their Jewish neighbors into a barn and set it on fire.

“The image Poles had of themselves was as victims of the Nazis,” says Princeton history professor Stephen Kotkin. “Jan wrote about them as perpetrators, too, and it’s been very difficult for a lot of people in Poland to hear that story.”

Poles have felt great pride in how they behaved during World War II. Poland was the only Nazi-occupied nation in Europe without a collaborator government, and it had Europe’s strongest resistance movement. At Israel’s Yad Vashem, that nation’s memorial museum to victims of the Holocaust, Poles make up the largest group of non-Jews recognized for saving Jews during the Holocaust. Gross’ narrative complicated that picture.

Controversy over the book raged for more than a year. The government launched an investigation into the book’s assertions, and in 2001 Poland’s president apologized to the world for the murders at Jedwabne. The storm of debate made Gross a household name in Poland and “a deeply polarizing figure,” Kotkin says.

Looking back on that period now, Gross says that Neighbors laid the groundwork for Polish historians “to write with complete honesty about the most fraught aspects of wartime history in Poland. That’s a fundamental change.”

Gross’ work continues to ignite tempests. Six years after Neighbors came the publication of Fear, about the pogrom in the central Polish town of Kielce, in which about 40 Jews and two Poles were killed — a year after the war’s end. Italian Holocaust scholar Carla Tonini wrote in the journal Issues in Contemporary Jewish History that while Gross’ book did not offer new insights, it was striking for its “outright denouncement of the perpetrators and their accomplices: the Catholic Church and the police,” changing — again — the debate in Poland. Gross’ latest book, Golden Harvest, ­centers on a photograph of peasants near the Nazi camp Treblinka who appear to have dug up the remains of ­murdered Jews and are searching for valuables. Gross’ ­opponents jammed his email account and sprayed graffiti on his publisher’s bookstore, but this time, in his interactions with Poles during a book tour, the professor saw a greater willingness to accept tough truths about their countrymen. “I’m no longer the one crazy guy saying absurd things,” he says.

Still, traveling through Poland with Gross can be provocative. Michal Zajac, who booked local guides for the students’ trip, says, “In many cases, we just said it was a group from Princeton. We didn’t tell everyone it was Jan Gross.” When a museum guide in Warsaw learns Gross is leading the group, she admonishes Nawrocki that when the students visit Auschwitz, “make sure they understand that Poles died there also, not just Jews.”

At Warsaw’s Vistula River are, from left, Ben Goldman ’15, Bianca Spataru ’15, Rachel Neil ’13, Quintin Sally ’14, Eric Silberman ’13, Elizabeth LaMontagne ’14, Bradley Yenter ’13, Michelle Scharfstein ’15, Catherine Ku ’14, Iwa Nawroc
At Warsaw’s Vistula River are, from left, Ben Goldman ’15, Bianca Spataru ’15, Rachel Neil ’13, Quintin Sally ’14, Eric Silberman ’13, Elizabeth LaMontagne ’14, Bradley Yenter ’13, Michelle Scharfstein ’15, Catherine Ku ’14, Iwa Nawrocki GS, Alexandra Lieberman ’15, Christy Fung ’15, Aleks Taranov ’15, Stacey Menjivar ’14, Erika Rios ’14, and Lydia Demissachew ’15.
PHOTO: JENNIFER ALTMANN

That sensitivity over who suffered more under the Nazis is an underpinning of the Polish-Jewish relationship. About 2 million non-Jewish Poles were killed during World War II, as were 3 million Polish Jews. Some Poles have been “resentful of what they perceive as Jews’ monopolization of the legacy of suffering during World War II,” writes ­scholar Marci Shore in “Conversing with Ghosts,” published in the journal Kritika. “A somewhat perverse competition over martyrdom has long been a trope of Polish–Jewish dialogue.”

This uneasy relationship also is haunted by another legacy of the war: the appropriation by some Poles of Jews’ possessions. In his book Fear, Gross writes about Poles plundering Jewish houses after their owners were rounded up by the Nazis. As with many vestiges of the war, the issue still haunts some Poles. When a Warsaw guide learns the Princeton students are studying Jewish life in Poland, she is fearful that they are coming back to reclaim property. “I live in a Jewish house,” she tells Zajac. 

There are places throughout Poland that serve as touchstones of the history of the Jews — some exist as erasures, some have been seamlessly incorporated into daily life, and some stand as awkward reminders of the war’s brutality. Gross wants the students to see “what remains, how it remains, and in what fashion it is preserved.”

On a sunny, humid afternoon in July, the students embark on a walking tour of Warsaw to learn about the Jewish ghetto created there by the Nazis in 1939. At the start of the war, Warsaw was home to about 350,000 Jews, the largest Jewish population in the world after New York City. As in other cities, the Nazis forced Jews into one area and built a wall surrounding it. Eventually 400,000 Polish Jews were forced to live in the ghetto, often with several families in one ­apartment.

Agnieszka Haska, a Polish graduate student who serves as the group’s guide this afternoon, stands in front of a 28-story skyscraper built on the site of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, once one of the largest synagogues in the world, with seating for 2,400. It was blown up in 1943 by the Nazis, “an unforgettable allegory of the triumph over Jewry,” an SS officer said at the time. Plans for the skyscraper began in the 1950s, with construction stalling repeatedly. The work was not completed until 1991. “The Polish legend is that they tried to build for 20 years and couldn’t, because it was cursed by the rabbis,” Haska says.

Several blocks away, she brings the group to the lobby of a movie theater. It’s on a busy street with lots of people rushing by; the McDonald’s next door is doing a brisk lunch business. During the war, the theater was inside the ghetto walls, and Jews clandestinely put on plays here, including one titled “Love Is Looking for a Flat,” about a young couple who long for a room of their own, a hopeless daydream in the overcrowded ghetto. A plaque in the lobby that honors the memory of “the murdered actors and musicians” from the ghetto hangs next to a poster for Ice Age 4. Mothers and their children push past the Princeton students huddling by the plaque as they make their way to the show. 

“There is no right way to commemorate something like the Holocaust,” says Rachel Neil, the student from Minnesota. “It’s important to put physical things to remind you. More important is to understand why it happened.”

Stacey Menjivar ’14 read several books about the Holocaust before participating in the seminar in Poland. “You feel if you go there you’ll understand, but I still don’t understand,” she says.

In Krakow, the students visit areas of the city’s former ghetto with a guide named Gosia Fus, who became interested in studying Poland’s Jewish history as a child growing up in a small town near the Tatra Mountains. “In my town there is a Jewish cemetery, and the former synagogue is a cinema,” she says. “In school, there was nothing about the town’s Jewish past. You grow up and you start to ask questions. My grandmother would tell me where the Jewish families lived.”

More than 20,000 Jews were taken to the ghetto in Krakow before being deported to Nazi death camps. In a few places the ghetto walls still stand, and they have an arresting shape — alternating grooves at the top look like headstones. One section of the wall stands outside a school; on the other side is a playground where parents push their children on swings on this overcast day. The neighborhood is populated by rundown four- and five-story apartment buildings built before the war, all once part of the ghetto. In one building, some windows remain cemented over, a security measure instituted by the Nazis. Some of Fus’ friends, most of them students, live here. Do they know their apartments were once part of the Jewish ghetto?

“Some people are aware of where they live; some don’t care,” she says. “Life goes on.”

An hour’s drive from the former ghetto, crowds pay witness to the destruction of Poland’s Jewish community at Auschwitz, which receives 1.4 million visitors a year, more than 40 percent of them Polish. There are so many people lining up to get inside each barracks “you have to keep moving, you can’t reflect,” laments Ben Goldman ’15, who had come to better understand the life story of his grandmother, who grew up in Yugoslavia and survived a series of Nazi work camps. When the bus pulls away after a three-hour visit, the students are silent. The next day, they spend hours at the Birkenau death camp — which was part of the Auschwitz complex — walking the length of the camp in the rain.

“It’s overwhelming,” says Aleks Taranov ’15, reflecting on both sites. She is especially stunned by the piles of hair collected when prisoners’ heads were shaved and sold by the Nazis to make rugs. “The efficiency, the disregard for human life — I feel a lot of anger,” she says.

At Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, students join in a Jewish dance.
At Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, students join in a Jewish dance.
PHOTO: JENNIFER ALTMANN

Besides the anger, however, the students appreciate that so many people are at Auschwitz to learn of the Nazis’ crimes. Despite the fact that so few Jews remain in Poland today, interest in the country’s Jewish past — particularly among young people — is on the rise, manifested in major cultural events and new institutions, publications, and scholarship. In recent years, Poles have been working to reclaim the nation’s rich Jewish history, even though so few Polish Jews remain to participate.

The 22nd Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow — where the Jewish population shrank from about 70,000 on the eve of the war to several hundred today — attracts about 25,000 people, most of them Polish Catholics; the Princeton students perform Jewish dances and sing Yiddish songs with the crowd. The festival rivals any cultural celebration in the world: 10 days of exhibitions, concerts, parties, tours, films, and lectures, 213 in all. There is a performance by ­visiting cantors; workshops for klezmer musicians, cooks, and artists; meetings with the descendants of well-known Polish Jews; and lectures on topics ranging from Polish-Jewish history to the requirements of religious observance to Mideast politics and international Jewry. Participants tour synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, and take day trips to ­nearby shtetls.

In Warsaw, the Princeton students see the building site for a planned $60 million, 130,000-square-foot museum devoted to 1,000 years of history of Jewish life in Poland. They meet students at Jagiellonian University, the country’s most prestigious place of learning, who take classes in the Department of Jewish Studies, studying Hebrew and Yiddish, a language taught in few universities around the world. A Polish magazine about Jewish life claims 10,000 subscribers, and five years ago launched a publishing house to publish books of Jewish interest in the Polish ­language.

Many festival events take place at Krakow’s 400-member Jewish Community Center, which opened in 2008 in the heart of Kazimierz, once the hub of Krakow’s Jewish community. Its executive director, Jonathan Ornstein, is a transplanted New Yorker who says “people are completely blown away” when they see the new four-story building and learn of the JCC’s Hebrew classes, Shabbat dinners, and baby nursery, which are funded mostly by donations from overseas.

“They come here expecting to see only sadness and destruction, and they see one of the most vibrant Jewish communities, down the road from Auschwitz,” Ornstein says. “They see that these days, it’s not scary to be Jewish here.”

On the final day of the Jewish Culture Festival, Jagiellonian professor Annamaria Orla-Bukowska stands ­outside the Tempel Synagogue passing out a four-page survey. A social anthropologist who studies Polish-Jewish relations, Orla-Bukowska was born in Chicago to Polish parents who were war refugees. She came to Krakow in 1985 and never left.

A question on the survey asks for reactions to statements such as “Jews stick together,” “Jews covertly aim to control the world,” and “Jews have too much influence.” With so few Jews left in Poland, could there still be anti-Semitism? Yes, according to Orla-Bukowska. Not knowing Jews personally “doesn’t have anything to do with people’s stereotypes,” she says.

Though the Jewish population in Krakow is small — including about 150 who survived the war — that number is growing with the addition of Poles who are just learning that their families have Jewish roots. The Princeton students hear stories about this phenomenon from guest lecturers and guides throughout the trip.

“People find a letter written in Hebrew,” says Zuzanna Radzik, an activist who works on Polish-Jewish dialogue, during a lecture on Warsaw’s Jewish community. “A young man said, ‘I think my grandmother is Jewish. She has two sets of dishes.’ Another said, ‘When we were doing ­something wrong as a kid, my grandmother would say, ‘Meshugenah!’ ” (The Yiddish word means “crazy fool.”) 

“Jewish life went underground, and now it’s re-emerging,” Ornstein says. 

Most of the community center’s 40 volunteers are not Jewish. Likewise, a number of non-Jewish Polish ­students are drawn to study Jewish life. Robert Siudak, who just ­completed an undergraduate degree in European studies at Jagiellonian, spent a semester at Tel Aviv Uni­versity in a ­program that pairs 10 Poles and 10 Israelis. Siudak is one of two Polish students who participate in the Princeton class, attending lectures and sharing meals with the ­students. He sees an increasing fascination with Judaism among  his friends.

“It’s getting cool to be interested in Jewish culture,” he says. A friend who discovered her family has Jewish roots changed her name to Esthera (Esther in English) to highlight her new identity. Siudak is drawn to Jewish history, he explains, because “this is our history. We didn’t ask for this kind of history, but we have to deal with it, even if it’s tough history.”

So much of what Eric Silberman experiences during the trip — from talking with Polish students to watching filmed testimonies of Holocaust survivors at a museum near Auschwitz — makes him feel “Jews have not been forgotten here, and things are being preserved well. It’s a small Jewish community, but it’s growing and becoming more visible. That’s something I know my grandparents would have appreciated.”

He is especially intrigued by a presentation on the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, set to open in Warsaw in 2013. Organizers expect several hundred thousand visitors a year, most of them Polish, and will offer tours in English and Polish. Silberman plans to study the Polish language at Princeton again this academic year, and is certain he will be back in Poland soon — perhaps even playing a role at the new museum.

“Wouldn’t it be cool,” Silberman says, “if a grandchild of survivors could lead a tour in Polish?” 

Jennifer Altmann is an associate edtior at PAW.