We land in Warsaw at night and immediately connect to Wi-Fi. Snapchats go out to friends. Texts flood in; GroupMe messages follow. Marni, our group leader, makes sure that everyone has made it to baggage claim. An irony hangs in the jubilance one normally has when landing: “We’re heeeere! We made it to Pooooland!”
At a surface level, we know why we’re here: to study Jewish life in Poland, its history and its future. Naturally, that necessitates a study of the Holocaust; a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most murderous concentration camp used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, is on the latter half of our itinerary. Auschwitz is closer to Krakow in the south of Poland, so we’ll be traveling there after four days in Warsaw.
Until then, however, our studies will be centered in the Polish capital. We have trips planned to visit the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Warsaw, and the massive Jewish cemetery. By design, our trip frontloads a celebration of Jewish life in Poland before a trip to Auschwitz. At an emotional level, this makes sense. Fitting the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland into perspective after seeing the site at which it was utterly destroyed would be nearly impossible.
At the gates of the airport, we are met by a tall, blonde Polish woman, Agnieszka Rudzinska. She wears thick frames, gloves with the fingertips dyed a vibrant light blue. In perfect English intoned by a thick Polish accent, she introduces herself, escorts us to a minibus, and rides with us to our hotel. She brings us to a restaurant in the restored old town center of Poland, Freta 33, a restaurant that boasts an organic menu and fresh ingredients. Cast against the stereotypical potato dumplings and borsht that Poland is known for, this restaurant feels like a halcyon.
At the meal, she hands us envelopes with some spending money. We’ve been sponsored by the Polish government; the vagueness of her mention of this fact makes it slip quickly past our ears. Or maybe it is just a passing question: The Polish government? Sponsoring this trip?
We eat our meal and listen to Agnieszka’s story. She reflects on her upbringing under communism, her education as a veterinarian, and her eventual road to studying Jewish life in Poland. When the Jewish Heritage Society in Poland wanted to make a museum commemorating the history of Polish Jewry, she was approached to manage the project. Without trepidation, she signed on and has been working for the cause ever since.
On our walk back after the meal, we each have short conversations with Agnieszka. At one point, it’s my turn. I ask her about the Jewish ghetto after seeing a placard commemorating it on the street. She says I’ll learn more about it on our walking tour, not before pointing to a run-down building on the side. She makes an observation about a strange quality of the area that used to be the makeshift home of the Jews in Warsaw, which was created by the Nazis before they were deported to concentration camps: amidst the regrowing city of Warsaw, particularly in the ghetto, on a few streets, there are run-down, unoccupied buildings that exist to this day. Perhaps it’s the history that they symbolize, perhaps it’s due to a lack of funding from the Polish government, but these abandoned buildings never get renovated. They just sit there, disjointed castles of destruction, exposed bricks facing streets bustling with the new life of a young Polish democracy that rose out of the ashes of the second World War and communism.
The city grows up around these buildings. Because Warsaw was demolished after the war, they’re the only reminders of the city that stood before it. And yet they are simply decaying monuments: there are no placards, no marks on a map. They remain nameless, ineffable—much like the history they’ve become associated with.
Before going to sleep, I dwell on the buildings, the ghetto, why we’re here in the first place. Tomorrow will be our first real organized activity: visiting POLIN. The jetlag keeps me up late into the night, but eventually I fall asleep.
* * *
“This is not a victim’s history.”
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of performance studies at NYU, stands in front of us in a classroom above the main exhibition at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw. The museum is dedicated to telling the history of the Jewish people in Poland, from when they first settled in the region in the late 900s until modern times. POLIN resides in a large, square building, ridges of glass refracting light across the otherwise cleared square. Across the streets that surround the building are Soviet-style apartment buildings and milk bars that serve pierogi to tourists, mostly.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett invites us to ask questions about the museum, baiting us with a smile. She wants us to challenge her; in our questions and concerns she sees opportunities for unwinding the richness of the exhibit beneath her feet.
I mull her refrain over my tongue, reflect on the winding halls of subterranean museum. Not a victim’s history. I think of why we’re here, in Poland. Think of how many times I’ve repeated some version of the same line: “Yeah, I’m going on a trip with the CJL to Poland. Definitely going to Auschwitz, which will be hard. I heard that Warsaw is cool now, though, so I’m excited to check that out.” The order is subconscious, but it conveys a mission statement of mine here, even if I don’t feel like it’s mine alone: to come face-to-face with the history of my people. No, it’s not a victim’s history, necessarily, but I don’t even know the name of the village in Poland where my great-grandparents are from. All I know is that they perished here.
How to regard Jewish history in its entirety is a dilemma for modern Jewish historians. Particularly after World War II and the Holocaust, vast swathes of the Jewish community came to understand their past through the lens of lachrymose history, a tendency to typify and characterize a history based on external movements of oppression that have shaped it. Surely, lachrymose history was a form of studying historical Judaism prior to the Holocaust; a series of diasporas and pogroms plagued the Jewish people long before. But the tendency to regard Jewish history almost exclusively in what Kirshenblatt-Gimblett terms a “victim’s history” was certainly strengthened by the Holocaust, the greatest assault of Jewish livelihood of all time.
Often, lachrymose history is taken up by Zionist supporters of the concept of Israel as a state for the Jewish people: everywhere else we’ve lived, we’ve been discriminated against, expelled, or murdered in mass numbers; thus a Jewish state must exist if Judaism is to continue to exist. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett doesn’t reveal to us her political leanings regarding Israel (or, really, any contemporary Jewish political issues), but combating problematic narratives regarding Israel doesn’t appear to be on her radar in deliberately moving away from a victim’s history with POLIN. Instead, she is seeking to reconfigure how Jewish history is understood at a basic level; not for politics, not with any hidden agendas.
Our discussion with Kirshenblatt-Gimblett continues for a while before she bids us farewell. After spending three hours in the massive POLIN exhibit and then another two eating and discussing its design choices with Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, some of us figure it might be a good idea to take a walk and take in some of the old town of Warsaw. We walk toward the city center and almost immediately, conversation springs up.
We reflect on the museum’s goals, its oversights, its successes and its failures. POLIN is unique in its insistence upon delivering no real thesis; rather, it presents all of its material in found quotes, which tessellate across the lushly colored walls of the exhibit. We are meant to make our own conclusions from the evidence presented.
But there’s something eerie, something I’m only able to put my finger on days after leaving the gates of the gigantic monument of Jewish history. If we are to regard history purely as a measurement of scales, then POLIN can be seen as a perfectly egalitarian history: the severity of an event doesn’t earn it more floor space. The room that meditates on the Third Partition of Poland and the room commemorating the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto appear to take up about the same amount of physical space.
Of course, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett informed us, this choice is deliberate. In a way, this challenges a tendency of Jews (particularly Jews visiting Poland) to place immense emphasis on the Holocaust in Jewish history. But a question lingers for me: does amplifying and focusing on fledgling moments in medieval history of the Jewish people come at the cost of other periods? Or, true to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s mission, does it force us to see the undeniable beauty in Jewish culture that existed here before the war?
As we cross into the city center, we notice a marble plaque underneath our feet snaking across the street. It marks the border of the Warsaw Ghetto before it was completely destroyed. Other than the massive cemetery on the west side of town, this is all that remains.
* * *
On a bus ride to the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw, I finally begin to write. It starts with jotting down some notes and eventually evolves into long narratives that fill pages and pages of my Rhodia notebook. Much like my classmates, I’m starting to make sense of this place.
A tour guide enters into the cemetery with us. Many of us remark that it’s a bit strange that a Polish tour guide has accompanied us to every destination so far—especially here, where much of the landscape speaks for itself. We follow her as she walks through the dreary fog that drapes over the gravestones and the paths that wind almost endlessly.
The cemetery, which has existed in Warsaw for about as long as a Jewish community has existed, is all that remains of the Jewish Ghetto. About a month after the first liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, in which nearly 90 percent of the inhabitants (all or nearly all Jewish citizens) were sent to Auschwitz or Treblinka, the remaining Jews and some Poles rose up in the Warsaw Uprising. Much of the Ghetto was torn apart in this uprising; when Warsaw was bombed by the Nazis in 1945 toward the end of the war, the Ghetto (and nearly all of Warsaw itself) was completely demolished. Photos in museums catalogue postwar Warsaw. In many of them, only one or two buildings remain standing amongst a sea of rubble.
“The cemetery itself covers 33 hectares, or precisely 8 acres of land.” The enormity doesn’t really sink in when I first hear this; I try to make sense of it by thinking about plots of land on which suburban houses rest: usually about half an acre, on average. Dead trees extend far back, gathering in a thicket on the horizon. They act as the backdrop for several thousand headstones that bear a mixture of Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew engravings.
I begin to wander around the cemetery, breaking off from the planned tour around the obvious memorials that flank the path closest to the entry. I think of the many souls buried here: the scholars, the poets, the artists, the thinkers, the mothers and the fathers. Buried here is a rich fabric of Jewish life in Poland, one that POLIN tries to resurrect with its lavish interior and brilliant historiography. This cemetery is truly all that remains of Jewish life of prewar Poland. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), it is a destination for the dead.
I’m overtaken by a thought that won’t seem to quiet down as I push wet leaves on the ground over with my shoes. Three million Jews in Poland didn’t have the chance to be buried here. It’s a strange thought; it labels death and burial as something desirable. But as I consider the beauty of the Jewish life we were introduced to not just one day earlier, I can’t help but feel cheated on behalf of the souls that perished in the death camps. That rich fabric that exists in the ether here that had been growing and stretching for almost a thousand years had its ends tied up in 1945. It got no say in the matter.
After the Holocaust, the few remaining Jews in Warsaw and greater Poland mostly fled. Four hundred thousand Jews lived in Warsaw before the war. Today, only 600 Jews live there. In total, 3 million Polish Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. In all of Poland, only about 300,000 Jews remained when the war ended. Today, estimates range from about 15,000 to 20,000. After a certain point, the numbers become incomprehensible. How does one visualize 3 million Jews? Or even 400,000? Or even 600?
I look back at the leaves on the ground. Behind me, three of the more religiously observant students on the trip begin to hum tunes. After a while, they break out in full song. I’m far enough away that I can’t make out the Hebrew words, but the tune sounds familiar. I want to hum, but I feel choked up. Our tour guide beckons us towards the gate, telling us that we must leave if we’re to stay on schedule for the day. As we walk towards the exit, the thick, gray clouds that have hung overhead for most of the morning finally part. For the first time today, I squint. Marble gravestones glimmer quietly in the sunlight.
On the walk to the exit, I see red caution tape laced around orange cones. Ten of them surround a plot of empty land, about 10 square feet. I ask the tour guide what this is. She responds matter-of-factly: “This is the mass grave that was used during the time of the Nazi ghetto.” I’m at a loss for words at first. I imagine piles of bodies in this tight, unforgiving space. Supposedly, almost 5,000 Jews are buried here. A girl who looks to be only five years old rings around the plot, fingering the red caution tape in her tiny hands.
I ask the guide why this area isn’t memorialized. “Well,” she says slowly, “you can’t make commemorative stones if you don’t know all the names.”
The girl tugs at the caution tape. The clouds find their way back around the sun. I tighten my scarf around my neck. Almost suddenly, it’s gotten colder.
* * *
“When you think about the world in black and white, there’s no place in Poland for the Jews,” Agata Rakowiecka, the executive director of the JCC in Warsaw, opens her spiel to us in stark terms. We’ve been bussed here directly from the cemetery, and we’re now sitting down to lunch in the JCC’s in-house brunch venue: Boker Tov, a trendy spot where locals—Jewish or not—typically fight for tables on Sunday mornings.
Agata sits next to Agnieszka, who sits next to Magda, a self-described leftist donning thick-rimmed black glasses. These three Polish women sit shoulder-to-shoulder, fielding questions from our group about the modern Jewish community in Poland, specifically in Warsaw, as well as about the recent ascent of the radically conservative right-wing government in Poland.
When these women regard the role of the JCC in Warsaw, they sometimes wax poetic, even heroic. Up against the tyranny of a newly rightist government, they are persistent in their vision to re-establish Jewish life in Poland. Agata and Magda are spearheading the movement; Agnieszka is a Lutheran who’s found her way into considering Jewish life in Poland through a rather winding path that includes veterinary school and entering the newly emerging art scene in Warsaw.
The women reflect on the long and confused path of Judaism in Warsaw. After the war, the Soviet Union absorbed Poland as a satellite state. Under communist rule, most of the remaining Jews went underground. Movements to resurrect Jewish life in Poland were regarded with hostility by the Soviet government. While many countries had time to recuperate after the war, Poland was thrust into a new leg of turbulent history and complications of identity. To make matters worse, a disproportionate number of Jews who died in the Holocaust came from Poland—in the place that perhaps needed it most, there was no time to reflect.
In a sense, these women are making up for lost time. What more can they do when two generations of Polish people have lived without even an ounce of Judaism in their midst? Agata claims emphatically, “[The JCC] is Polish Jews reclaiming our right to be here.” And, sitting here, in this remarkably low-security venue smack in the center of Warsaw, I’m inclined to believe her.
But Agata is working up against pernicious forces, and they take various forms. The Jewish community in Warsaw is extremely small, and it’s not growing as fast as anyone would hope. The newly right-wing government isn’t openly hostile towards Jewish people, but it is certainly a present force of conservatism that regards Catholicism as more quintessentially Polish than Judaism. On top of that, religious Judaism is nearly extinct in Poland—in a community severed from its roots by about seventy years, customs have deteriorated. The JCC has to devise ways of programming that are perhaps culturally Jewish even if they aren’t religiously Jewish. Toeing the line so as to make people feel welcome isn’t easy.
And yet, despite the doubts that hang over her, Agata has a clear mission: “We’re here in Poland despite what happened seventy years ago, and we’ll stay here,” she looks up and around, then back down at her plate, “There’s all this pressure… That we have to have a mission for the future and know what the future looks like. Let’s secure a future first.”
We leave the JCC on a positive note. There’s a giddiness in the air. Our impending visit to Auschwitz still hangs over us in an imminent haze, but at least right now it feels remarkably distant. Where POLIN looks into the past to scrounge out the gems of Jewish history before the Holocaust, the JCC looks bravely forward into the uncertain future of Polish Jewry. Together, they paint an undeniably positive vision of Jewish life in Poland.
We transition to the next portion of our day: a walking tour of the Jewish Ghetto, or at least its historic boundaries. We visit the monument of the Umschlagplatz, the area in the ghetto where the Jews were herded before being forced to board trains to Treblinka when the ghetto was liquidated. Our tour guide notes that at the height of liquidation, nearly 10,000 Jews would be deported to Treblinka daily. None of them returned.
Eventually, we make our way to the monument commemorating the bridge that connected to the disjoint segments of the ghetto. Four pillars, two on each side of a road, spring upward and are connected at their tops by hanging wire. “It looks like a fucking telephone pole,” one of us notes. “You wouldn’t even notice it if you were just walking by it. If you didn’t know it was here.”
We reach the end of the tour: a car dealership. One of the walls is from the ghetto, and it still stands. Across the street, a run-down building looms. It has the year 1944 graffitied on the wall. Our tour guide notes that the building is from before the bombing of Warsaw. The government just doesn’t have enough money to knock it down and build something in its place.
After the tour, we have a few moments to walk around. We’re in the southern section of the ghetto, the first sector to be liquidated in the summer of 1942. I think back to the cemetery, think about this symbol of death that remains of Jewish life in Poland. It stands, at least in my mind, in stark contrast to Agata’s pioneering vision of the future of Judaism in Poland. I think back to when I asked her about the meaning of this massive cemetery, what the implications are of this plot of land being all that has survived of prewar Polish Jewry. She responds passionately: “The cemetery is not a symbol of death to me at all. It’s a happy place. I went there as a child.”
She goes on to reminisce about her time playing in the cemetery, nostalgia gripping her in a fervor. Her face reads like someone who’s fought a daily battle for just a day too long—not exasperation, but something like it. Exceptional hope in the face of immense adversity. It doesn’t help when people are skeptical. I want to fall wholeheartedly in love with her mission, with all she’s built up with the JCC in Warsaw. I want to share her hope for the future of Judaism in Poland.
And yet, as I walk around the remnants of the ghetto, greeted only with modern life that has sprung up in place of a completely demolished culture, I can’t help but be wary of her unrelenting idealism. I see her, and many of the other makeshift leaders of this new movement sifting through piles of ash on streets that have long forgotten about their source. I see them holding up the ashes to their eyes, claiming, as truly as they believe, this is a statue! And then the ash falls between their fingers. The city goes on without noticing. With each passing gust of wind, the ashes stir and get swept away. It’s only a matter of time before they’re gone completely.
* * *
Our final agenda item for the night is a mixer at the Polish Palace of Culture and Science. When we inquire about the purpose of this mixer with our trip guide, Marni, she responds that she played no role in it. With each hour, it’s becoming clearer to us what the innards of this trip are. The trip itself was organized by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and funded almost entirely by an affiliate organization of the Ministry. This mixer is a way for them to bring together students from the various groups they’re organizing: aside from us, there is a group of design students from the New School and another from the Yale School of Management. The presence of Polish tour guides at each stop begins to make more sense.
At the mixer, we schmooze with students of business and design, finance and architecture. We muse on the strange qualities of Warsaw: its bizarre conglomeration of waring schools of architecture, the artificiality of the old town square, built to resemble what stood there before the Nazis destroyed the city almost entirely. One student reflects on the Palace of Culture and Science itself, regarded as one of Stalin’s “gifts” to Poland.
The Palace has an immense stature, towering above almost every building in Warsaw. I talk to a student who relays the history of this building: “The Palace is actually built on the former Jewish Ghetto, and then Jewish families or organizations try to get the land back, the Polish government offers them a ton of money, and they buy it back.”
Supposedly, the building is quite contentious. A reminder of poorly regarded days under communism, the building is mostly detested by the younger residents of Warsaw. And yet, the Palace is one of the most used and rented buildings in all of Poland; its enormous ball rooms and lounging spaces propose an undeniable usability.
After a sufficient amount of mixing, we leave the Palace. We decide to hit up a bar an old friend of mine who is a Warsaw native suggested: Plan B. It’s close enough to the Palace that we can walk. We set out; I periodically glance back at the gargantuan tower. It watches us as we cross the borders of the ghetto and re-enter Aryan Poland. With our cross the building doesn’t flinch. Its stoicism is eerie, in a way. I can’t put my finger on it, but we’re heading to the bar now; there will always be more time for reflection if we look for it.
* * *
Our currency in this Polish bohemian loft bar is our American tenor; it manifests itself in many ways: ordering shots of Polish liquor while locals lounge around us sipping quietly on beers, asking the bartender for the Wi-Fi password and repeating it back to her over the ensemble of voices around us.
We remark on the fact that the IPA we’re drinking is imported, and hey, isn’t it crazy that even Warsaw has its own little Brooklyn? Let’s go outside for a smoke. I need some air. Fuck, I can’t stop thinking about the cemetery today. Just feels a bit weird that this city sits on the biggest graveyard in the world, but it just keeps going. Like bars still open up on Tuesdays even though the Holocaust happened.
It rains, and three men huddle nearby clutching drinks in one hand and cigarettes in the other. They chat with intention, waving their hands emphatically as they laugh along with their waning stupor. After another cigarette, they hug each other briskly; presumably they choose to leave to get some sleep before work tomorrow.
The street stirs, and we gather together on the curb outside the bar on the banks of the massive roundabout that stretches out in five ways, deep into the fledgling bits of Warsaw. North of us is the newly gentrified hip area that’s grown up around the University of Warsaw. South of us, milk bars, relics of communism in Poland, tile the street sides amongst laundromats and office buildings. Plan B is closing soon, so we’ll have to figure out where we’re going next. Without service, all we have is the remote signals we can gather from inside the bar. Maybe we’ll go to a dance club if it’s open late enough.
Discussion about plans for the next hour fade slowly; they get taken up by what we’ve been talking about all day. It’s a refrain I can’t stop myself from thinking about even now:
“What the hell is this city?”
We mean no hostility to this historic place. As visitors, we’re only entitled to our own meager dose of doubt. And yet we wonder. What is this place? What is Warsaw? The alcohol makes the thoughts flow more freely.
“I mean, there are these Soviet buildings everywhere, and these uncanny reconstructions of shit that was blown up by the Nazis of old Warsaw. And then there are the monuments in the ghetto. I mean, you could walk right on by those your whole life and not even know. You wouldn’t even know!”
Why do we feel like we’re drifting? I remember a moment from earlier in the day: Ben leans in close to me as we pass ancient gravestones that have been overtaken by the same moss that sprawls across the trees such that they blend into the background when you look up too far; “Why would anyone want to be buried here?”
At this bar, we’ve gotten closer to it than in any cemetery or any ghetto. All it took was some vodka and that bizarre stench of normalcy. Underneath a city pining for its own resurrection lies a history that has already been crystallized, its calamity reason enough for it to haunt Warsaw years past when it happened. No distance is enough for this city to feel like any urban setting, or at least it certainly feels that way here, at this bar, where Polish twenty-somethings carry on with their lives much like any of us on the trip would back home.
That night, we find a place to dance. The floor changes color, and a mirror hangs overhead, plated into the ceiling. Coat check is four zloty, seems reasonable. Here, we don’t talk. We don’t think. We dance, we drink some more. When we say cheers we scream “CHEERS TO AUSCHWITZ” and throw back shots of liquor that could fuel a car. When we finally walk home at 3 a.m., it’s to the sound of Drake playing on an iPhone until it dies. On the way back, we come across a statue on the side of the road of an old Soviet leader. We all pose with it individually, consider making it our profile pictures, remember we don’t have any service. When we get back to the hotel, I stumble back to my room and find my roommate asleep, remember I need to get up early tomorrow to pack for Krakow. I sit in the bathroom and pull out my phone, going back to conversations I’d left previously when I last had Wi-Fi.
“How was today, what did you do?”
* * *
Our plan for the day is to take an afternoon train to Krakow. In the morning, however, we have an opportunity to meet with the organization that has sponsored our trip, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, an organization funded by the Polish Ministry of Culture National Heritage. We pile into chartered minibuses, weighed down by our American-sized luggage, and arrive at a quaint building with two guards and a gate. We hop out and are quickly escorted to a seminar room. On the table, there are bunches of water bottles next to stacks of books. The cover lies face up, entitled The Righteous: How Poles Saved the Jews from the Holocaust.
None of us reach for the novels. The title strikes a silent chord in the group. Particularly after the uneasiness of the celebration within the walls of the Palace of Culture erected on the forgotten traces of the Warsaw Ghetto, something about this book, this meeting, feels unsettling. Why does it happen that our time in Warsaw culminates in this very room, face to face with a novel that seems, much like the Palace of Culture and like the current incarnation of the city of Warsaw, to plant itself resolutely on top of a history that has no monuments, no voice to speak for itself?
“We’re responsible for promoting Polish culture in the world,” a primly dressed woman with only a trace of a Polish accent sits at the head of our table, gesturing to a slide deck with the Mickiewicz logo on the screen. Agnieszka sits in on the talk. The slide deck presents the names of some of the universities that have worked with the institute, examples of programming they’ve done in the past. We’re walked through a slew of projects that seem to have a unified vision of making Polish culture internationally relevant.
Outside, the cloud cover hangs tightly. It’s been like this for just about our entire visit. As she starts answering questions, my mind wanders. I try to understand the institute in which we find ourselves today, try to get a sense of the immediacy in their mission. With only twenty years of modern democracy under its belt, Poland is a relatively young nation. What was decimated by World War II was then stunted by the weight of Soviet rule. Poland is one of the few surviving nations that, for fifty years after the most catastrophic event in human history, was forced to stand still as the world grew up around it.
In a silence between questions, I ask the director about our trip specifically. At the surface, it doesn’t seem to fit into the Mickiewicz’s mission statements. Promoting Polish culture abroad through music and dance is one thing, but sponsoring a group of Princeton students on a trip designed to learn about Polish Jewry is something, at its core, quite different. Where the Mickiewicz Institute seems to set its gaze outside the Polish borders, the focus of our trip was strictly within them.
After remaining silent for most of the meeting, Agnieszka chimes in. “[We] are just building relationships and introducing Polish culture into the national dialogue. I think building Polish-Jewish relationships with students from American universities fits perfectly.”
The director speaks up. “Culture has a wide definition. And Jewish culture is a part of Polish culture, so that’s how it fits into promoting Polish culture abroad.”
The institute has done similarly oriented trips with Yale, Penn and Brandeis. It’s not clear if the structure is exactly replicated for each trip. What we do know is that, starting only a few years ago, Agnieszka flew to the US and visited several universities, including Princeton, with just an idea: to bring Jewish students to Poland and cut through the seventy-year-old legacy of Poland as simply a graveyard for the Jews. To let Poland have a chance to tell its side of the story, one it hasn’t had a chance to comment on for as long as the story has been told.
A classmate poses the next question: how does the new, right-wing and reportedly extremely Catholic and conservative government regard this project? The Mickiewicz Institute finds common ground with the new regime in the realm of spreading culture and strengthening political ties with foreign nations. When it comes to pushing along projects that the new government may not fully support, the heads of the project rely on experience.
“And we are very used to finding niches in the political situation, so we know how to push things forward,” Agnieszka says. “We have lived so many years under communism. You know if you cannot push it in this direction, then you find some other way. It’s just like water. And we are so well-exercised in this.”
I look back to the book on the table. Just like water. Maybe Agnieszka sees it as being nimble, as being shrewd. When a ruling power sees your project as potentially hazardous to its revised version of history, throw them a bone. Craft a project in which American Jews are brought to Poland to come face-to-face with the Holocaust, but also leave them with a book whose introduction claims that Jews, with respect to Poles, “owe [them] a debt of gratitude.” Almost like a tit for tat, an ebb and flow.
Agnieszka knows more about diplomacy and concession than any of us: as Americans at one of the wealthiest and most influential educational institutions on the planet, we aren’t as practiced as she is in bartering for a net positive. We demand purity, both ideological and moral, in our experience—maybe for that reason, something about this experience, rife with traces of influence by a government that has an unusually pristine version of its own history, feels off.
“We have to prove to [the government] that this project that we’re doing is worth it,” the director claims. Perhaps they see themselves as renegades, working under an oppressive regime to put forth a message that they deem worthwhile: Jewish life in Poland did not end with the Holocaust. Jewish culture isn’t just a part of Polish culture, it’s an essential part of Polish culture. As renegades, they must compromise. That means that, when put under duress, they can’t hide behind idealism. They need to adapt.
We leave the institute, feeling compelled to bring the books with us. On the ride to the train station, we discuss the meeting, mull over the words that the director has presented us with: deliberately vague, now that we think about it. When it comes down to it, these women are government employees, idealistic in their free time, perhaps, but diplomatic when real decisions need to be made.
As we run to make our train to Krakow, I begin to think about what’s at stake with our trip, with the version of history that’s being presented to us. At each turn, a Polish tour guide has accompanied us, even to sites of Jewish culture and history that the CJL demanded be included in the itinerary in addition to the schedule that the Mickiewicz Institute first proposed with the project.
What’s at stake is a slow rewriting of history: one that starts with Poles publishing work that labels them, almost uniformly, as the righteous. (In fact, many Polish people turned Jews in to the Nazi SS during the war. In some cases, Poles even locked Jews in barns and set them on fire, without the request of the Nazi government.) Where it ends is a mystery; conjecture is all that we have. On the train to Krakow, we fret about what it means that the Polish people have an opportunity to sell whatever version of history they deem appropriate: with virtually no Jewish presence in Poland, who’s making sure that the facts are rigorous?
The sun sets on the Polish countryside between Warsaw and Krakow. Radiant orange spills into the train cars. Around me, students on the trip doze off. I retrieve a copy of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz from my bag, flip through the pages that elaborate on his experience in the camp. I reread passages I’ve marked with flags, come to notice I have a tendency to mark sentences that are the most harrowing, the most gruesome. Moments of light and hope in Levi’s narrative get unequal attention.
We have memoirs like these to preserve the facts, and there’s reassurance there. But survivors of the Holocaust are in their final years. After that, all we have are memoirs and written histories. How do we preserve this horrible chapter of human history from the forces of reinterpretation? How do we keep alive the realities of the brutality faced by those in the concentration camps? When we don’t even know all the names, how do we sit by idly as a federal force releases novels and sponsors trips that promote a version of history tinged with the influences of internalized victimhood, of undeserved redemption, that evade, certainly out of national pride, the reality of Poland’s participation in the Holocaust?
By the time we get to Krakow, the sun has set completely. We make it to our hotel and plan to watch Schindler’s List. We gather in the dining room of the hotel, rearrange chairs to form our own little nook in the corner. About halfway through the movie, an Irish couple stumbles in, obviously drunk. They see the movie playing on the MacBook in front of us. They ask if we’re going to Auschwitz soon, and we answer yes. They fall silent.
“There’s a room… of all the shoes…” The man trails off. “It’s just…”
He never finishes his sentence. After a while of quiet, he bids us goodnight and makes his way back to his room. We don’t finish the movie, reassure ourselves that we have more time to watch tomorrow. We part ways, give each other hugs because for some reason that feels like the right thing to do.
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