An excerpt from the introduction
Copyright (c) 1997 by Eva Hoffman.
[Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.]
Gone now are those little towns where the shoemaker was a poet,
The watchmaker a philosopher, the barber a troubadour.
Gone now are those little towns where the wind joined
Biblical songs with Polish tunes and Slavic rue,
Where old Jews in orchards in the shade of cherry trees
Lamented for the holy walls of Jerusalem.
Gone now are those little towns, though the poetic mists,
The moons, winds, ponds, and stars above them
Have recorded in the blood of centuries the tragic tales,
The histories of the two saddest nations on earth.

--Antoni Sionimski, "Elegy for the Jewish Villages"

What remains of the Jews of Poland? Mostly traces, echoes, and a few monuments; and also sorrow, rage, guilt, and denial. There are a few thousand Jews left in Poland today, but the communities they inhabited, their characteristic culture and society, were all destroyed during World War II. Because the extent of the loss was so great--so total--the act of remembering the vanished world has become fraught with painful and still acute emotions.

The destruction was nowhere more complete than in the numberless Polish shtetls, those villages and small towns that dotted the Polish landscape and that were sometimes partly, sometimes preponderantly, Jewish. The villages are still there, many of them lovely enough to justify geographic longing; the towns can be found, often transformed into bleakness by postwar poverty and socialist architecture. A few synagogues still stand, some of them crumbling from neglect and disuse, others preserved and restored to their former dignity. Occasionally, outside the borders of a village, there is a small Jewish cemetery, with weeds and vegetation climbing up the crooked headstones. A Polish farmer will point out a copse where the Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and shot; in a few places, modest monuments have been erected to those who perished. Relics, scattered and enigmatic, as of a lost ancient civilization. But the pulsing Jewish world that was here, the small shops and stalls, the bustle of people, carts, horses, the sounds of Yiddish and Hebrew--these are no more. The Jews, a Polish poet wrote, "were captured in the hot act of life." That life can almost be intuited beyond the curtain of abrupt absence. We think we can almost cross the curtain; but we cannot.

In post-Holocaust memory, Poland holds an exceptional place: that was where most of the world's Jewish population lived before the war, and that was where the extermination of European Jewry took place. At the beginning of the war, there were three million Jews in Poland; at the end, between 240,000 and 300,000 remained. Most of the Nazi concentration camps were built in Poland, and it is often said that the Nazis counted on the collusion of the Poles in their project of extermination. Such an explanation has been repeatedly and convincingly refuted. It is much more likely that the camps were placed in Poland for logistical reasons: Poland was where most of the people targeted for extermination were located.

Fifty years after the cataclysmic events, there is perhaps no past as powerfully contested as that of the Polish Jews. The Holocaust in Poland, and all of Polish-Jewish history, continues to be the embattled terrain of three different and sometimes bitterly competing sets of collective memory: Jewish memory, Polish memory, and the memory of the West.

In postwar Jewish memory, in the minds of many Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Poland has come to figure as the very heart of darkness, the central symbol of the inferno. Our psyches are associative: because the Holocaust happened there, because so many people were tortured and murdered on its soil, Poland became scorched earth, contaminated ground. What is remembered most vividly is the suffering; what remains lodged most sharply in the heart are the shards of rejection and betrayal. On the individual level, the accounts of Polish indifference or criminality are rarely an exaggeration in a realm where, in a sense, no exaggeration is possible. But taken collectively, the linking of Poland with the genocide involves a form of partial memory, which has enormously increased Polish defensiveness and rancor.

Unfortunately, the Polish response to the Holocaust in the aftermath of the war only added to the Jewish survivors' anger and hurt. There were horrible episodes of violence and murder. But there was also--after a brief initial period of commemoration and documentation--the wider pathology of silence. During the postwar decades, the specific history of the Holocaust, the Jewish aspects of prewar Polish culture, even the Jews themselves, became untouchable, and gradually forgotten, subjects. The amnesia was undoubtedly caused in part by the extremely disturbing nature of what needed to be remembered, by incomprehension, psychological numbing, and guilt. But the repression of memory was greatly aided and abetted by the falsifications of Communist history and by the fact that under its aegis, discussion of many politically charged issues was stifled. The fate of the Jews during the war, as well as the Polish role in witnessing and sometimes participating in their destruction, were among those issues. So, incidentally, was the role of the non-Communist Polish resistance in opposing the Nazis. The reasons for such distortions varied but were always part of a larger Communist agenda, and it suited that agenda to subsume Jewish victims of the Holocaust under the national categories of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and so on. It is no accident that these repressed themes began to be examined publicly again once the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1989. In Poland, painful and still halting discussions of anti-Semitism have begun. But the previous deletions and denials immensely augmented Jewish frustration at what was in effect an erasure of their tragedy from their former countrymen's consciousness.

The Western perspective added more layers of grievance and misunderstanding. In the West, knowledge of what happened in Poland during World War II was simplified to begin with, and clouded by Communist propaganda to boot. Moreover, instead of being modified by time and change, the bleak images of Poland were calcified by the Cold War. The Iron Curtain was a force of and for reductiveness. The countries behind that divide became relegated, even more strongly than before, to a category of Otherness, a realm of leaden, monolithic oppression. While the Western public was aware of the revisions of mood and opinion in West Germany, for example, Poland as a real entity was supplanted by static abstractions. West Germany, with its new democracy and economic prosperity, came to be seen as one of "us," while Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe grew more alien, and therefore susceptible to Western projections. And so, while it became increasingly unfashionable to talk about "German anti-Semitism" as if it were a national trait, or to confuse the German nation with the Nazi phenomenon, it remained quite possible to speak about Polish anti-Semitism, as if that attitude were an essential and unchangeable feature of Polish character. This in turn increased Polish resentment of the exaggerated charges and at the world's forgetfulness of Poland's own struggle for survival during the war, and its immense losses. The incompatible interpretations have deepened the ruts of prejudice and hostility.

It might be said that my argument in the following pages stands in a kind of counterpoint to Daniel Goldhagen's thesis in his hotly debated work, Hitler's Willing Executioners, although my book is in no way intended as a riposte to his. In trying to demonstrate that Nazi anti-Semitism had deep roots in a history of German anti-Semitism, Mr. Goldhagen was, in effect, revising what had become the received liberal opinion: that Nazism had nothing to do with the German mentality and that ordinary Germans should in no way be held accountable for the Holocaust, which had arisen from specifically political policies. This book is an effort to counter what I see as the reverse distortion: the notion that ordinary Poles were naturally inclined, by virtue of their congenital anti-Semitism, to participate in the genocide, and that Poles even today must be viewed with extreme suspicion or condemned as guilty for the fate of the Jews in their country. My aim is not to absolve any more than it is to condemn, but it is, at the very least, to complicate and historicize this picture.

Family knowledge can be useful in making abstract history concrete, and from the stories of my own family, I know just how terribly tangled things could become in the untenable conditions created by the war. My parents lived through that period in a region of the Ukraine that belonged to Poland before the war and became Soviet immediately thereafter. On several occasions they had to escape hostile local peasants who might have given them away to the Nazi authorities. But my parents were also repeatedly helped by people who gave them food and temporary shelter, and by a peasant who hid them for nearly two years, with the full knowledge that he was thereby risking death for himself and his sons. The other awful aspect of my family story was that two relatives died because of an act of betrayal committed by a fellow Jew--a man who, in the hope of ensuring his own survival, led the Germans to a hiding place.

The only reason to record such wrenching facts is because I believe that if we are to understand what happened in Poland during the war, we must begin by acknowledging, from within each memory, the terrible complexity of everyone's circumstances and behavior. The instances of Polish complicity in Nazi murderousness cannot be excused or explained away, and yet it would be an unjust distortion not to see even these most distressing phenomena as part of a more complete picture.

In the maelstrom of war, Poland was probably the zone of highest pressure and of almost unbearable tensions. At the outset, the country found itself invaded by two powers, Germany and the Soviet Union. For six years, Poles were engaged in massive resistance against both invaders. The Soviet conquest created new enmities between Poles and Jews, as the latter often welcomed, for their own entirely comprehensible reasons, the armies of Poland's traditional enemy. The Nazi occupation of the country was, even by the brutal standards of the time, exceptionally ruthless. The Poles, in the Nazi hierarchy, were next only to Jews and Gypsies in the order of inferior races-- slated for complete subjugation and, in the more visionary Nazi plans, for eventual extermination. The Poles, then, were fighting against just about hopeless odds, while the Jews in their midst were being exterminated with no odds on their side at all.

It is undeniable that during that time a portion of the Polish population were willing to turn a blind eye to the horrors perpetrated on their far more vulnerable countrymen. There were Poles who watched the roundups of their Jewish neighbors with indifference or even gratification; there were those who informed or gave Jews away to the Nazi authorities. But every Polish Jew who survived in occupied Poland (rather than in the Soviet Union) did so with the help of individual Poles and of organizations set up for the purpose of aiding Jews. This was help offered at enormous risk, since sheltering Jews carried with it the penalty of death. Under the immense. fearful stresses of the time, both cowardice and courage were magnified; both meanness and mercy reached new proportions.

The shadow of the Holocaust is long, and it extends backward as well as forward. Our readings of the prewar Polish Jewish past have been burdened retroactively by our knowledge of what came at the end. For some descendants of Eastern European Jews, the lost world of their parents and grandparents has become idealized, sequestered in the imagination as a quaint realm of "before." For others, the whole Polish past is seen in darkened hues, as nothing but a prelude and a prefiguring of the catastrophe.

The retroactive revisions are understandable: the meaning of every story is crucially affected by its conclusion, and the story of Polish Jews has become shaped in our minds by what was, for so many, the final act. And yet history isn't exactly like story; it isn't shaped by an author who is leading up to a preconceived finale from the outset, or who can at least invent an appropriate ending to fit the narrative's shape. History doesn't unfold that logically or purposefully, and the history of Polish Jews wasn't a tale that led inevitably to its tragic denouement. Before the destruction, there was multifarious, vibrant life. There had been several centuries of collective existence and coexistence, periods of greater and lesser prosperity, episodes of violent hostility and inspiring cooperation, intervals of turmoil and peace.

If we denude this past of its variety, we deprive ourselves of a wonderfully interesting heritage and a rich lode of knowledge and self-knowledge. After all, for about six hundred years Poland was one of the most important centers of Jewish life in the world. The Jews first started settling there as early as the eleventh century, and they started arriving in larger numbers in the fourteenth. By the late seventeenth century, nearly three quarters of the world's Jewry lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the eighteenth century, before the partitions, Jews constituted about 10 percent of Poland's population, which made them that country's largest minority. Before World War II, they may have grown to as much as 13 percent. Polish Jews created impressive religious institutions, political movements, a secular literature, and a distinctive way of life. In modern times, Polish Jewry gave rise to Yiddish and Hebrew culture, which crucially influenced Diaspora cultures in Europe and the United States.

All of this meant that throughout much of Poland's history, Jews were a highly visible and socially significant presence-- a constituency that had to be reckoned with and one that could even pose challenges to the Poles themselves. In this respect, the nature of the Polish-Jewish relationship is exceptional. In contrast with Western European countries, where Jews were usually a tiny minority (below 2 percent of the population in modern Germany) and where, therefore, they were a mostly imaginary Other, in Poland, the Jewish community comprised a genuine ethnic minority, with its own rights, problems, and powers. We have become skilled nowadays in analyzing the imagery of Otherness, that unconscious stratum of preconceptions, fantasies, and projections we bring to our perceptions of strangers. Such subliminal assumptions and archetypes can and do have a very real impact on how we see and treat each other. But in inter group relations that were as extended in time and as complex as those between Poles and Jews, the material realities of economic competition and practical loyalties, of policy and political alignments, also played a vital role.

Indeed, it might be possible to see the story of Polish-Jewish coexistence as a long experiment in multiculturalism avant la lettre. In the imagination of the West, it has been consistently assumed that Western Europe has been the norm and standard in the light of which Eastern Europe has often been judged as backward, or at least less advanced. And it is true that Eastern Europe has often lagged behind the West in economic development and in sheer political power. But criteria of historical judgment can change sharply as values change in the present. Progress is usually seen as that which precedes us, and from the perspective of today, aspects of Eastern European history are beginning to look presciently relevant, and to foreshadow some of the dilemmas with which advanced contemporary societies are struggling. This is particularly true of the problems of pluralism and ethnic coexistence. Poland especially has interesting precedents to offer in this respect, since during several periods of its history, it was a truly multicultural society. At the height of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth in the sixteenth century, Poland had substantial German, Italian, Scots, Armenian, and other minorities; at some intervals, less than half the population was ethnically Polish.

However, the Jewish minority was usually the largest, and the most important. Over several centuries, the Polish-Jewish experiment went through different phases of trial and error. In the premodern period, Polish attitudes toward religious minorities were surprisingly liberal, even by our own postmodern standards. While the young Jewish communities in Poland suffered their share of religious and folk prejudice, they were also to a large extent protected by laws and special privileges. There were times, particularly during the Renaissance, when Jews saw Poland as a refuge from other, more hostile places, and when they believed that the word "Poland" was the same as the Hebrew "polin," which means "here thou shalt lodge" in exile--that Poland, in other words, was a kind of promised land. This happy state wasn't always sustained. As Poland's economic and political fortunes declined, from the middle of the seventeenth century onward, relations between Poles and Jews deteriorated into suspiciousness and economic competition. In the twentieth century, the period between the two world wars saw both an amazing efflorescence of Jewish political and literary culture and eruptions of ideological, and sometimes virulent, anti-Semitism.

The question of the proper relationship between the two peoples was a matter of ongoing debate throughout Polish history, and the proposed answers varied on both sides of the ethnic divide. There were Polish and Jewish thinkers who felt that the two groups were ineradicably different in spirit and outlook, and that the best they could achieve was respectful separateness. There were assimilationists, again on both sides, who proposed cultural blending, or even conversion, as the only solution to the tensions between the two groups. But there were also Enlightenment thinkers who wanted to combine a degree of Jewish integration into Polish society with spiritual autonomy for everyone. There were Jewish patriots who fought for Poland and Polish romantics who thought that the Jewish legacy was an integral and enriching part of the national identity.

A mixed story, then. The multicultural experiment was rarely completely "correct" or completely successful, but it can hardly be judged a complete failure, especially when we have more recent experience to show us how difficult such experiments remain today. And in light of that experience, it might be possible to understand some of the conflicts that arose between Poles and Jews in terms of majority-minority relations rather than exclusively under the category of anti-Semitism.