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Breaking the Frame

New School of Polish-Jewish Studies. Introduced by Jan T. Gross

by Irena Grudzińska-Gross (Volume editor) Konrad Matyjaszek (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 470 Pages

Summary

The volume contains some of the most incisive texts of the New School of Polish Jewish studies. The chapters present new ways of thinking about modern Polish-Jewish history and the Holocaust. The authors are reformulating the terms of current discourses in various fields of research. Introduced by Jan T. Gross, the book includes chapters by several important scholars and an extraordinary poem by Jacek Podsiad³o, translated and commented upon by Alissa Valles.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Editors’ Note
  • Word Column (Jacek Podsiadło)
  • Word Column, Word-Golem: Rebuilding Jacek Podsiadło’s “Słup ze słów” in English (Alissa Valles)
  • Introduction (Jan T. Gross)
  • History and Historiography of the Holocaust Encounter a Hostile Polish State (Jan Grabowski)
  • I. Literature
  • Czesław Miłosz and His Three Holocaust Poems (Irena Grudzińska Gross)
  • A Polish Witness of (His Own) Jewish Death, or On the Holocaust Poetry and Prose by Tadeusz Różewicz (Bożena Keff)
  • The Experience of Exclusion Seen from the Inside. Ida Fink’s A Scrap of Time and Its Reception in Poland (Aránzazu Calderón Puerta)
  • Kolumbowie by Roman Bratny (1957): A Tale at a Crossroads (Tomasz Żukowski)
  • II. Culture
  • Immediately after the War the Picture Was Complete: Szymon Datner’s Narrations on the Holocaust (Helena Datner)
  • The Recent History of a Certain Paralysis: A Case Study of the “Jewish Bolshevism” Stereotype in Poland (Anna Zawadzka)
  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Poles: Beginnings of the non-critical Polish-Jewish Studies (1978–80) (Konrad Matyjaszek)
  • German Historiography Facing the Shoah in Eastern Europe: Probing Topographical, Mental, and Discursive Blind Spots (Katrin Stoll)
  • March 1968 as a Pogrom. The Missing Category of Description (Piotr Forecki)
  • Dialogue of Memories and the Class Perspective (Katarzyna Chmielewska)
  • Traces of the Holocaust in the Imaginarium of Polish Culture: Hunger (Jan Borowicz)
  • The Girl and the Painter. Ostrowiec, March 19, 1945 (Joanna Tokarska-Bakir)
  • An Innocence Recovered: The Gross Affair as the Result of the Polish State’s Historical Politics Since 2004 (Elżbieta Janicka)
  • Name Index
  • Series Index

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Editors’ Note

The New School of Polish-Jewish Studies is a way of historical thinking that integrates the history of the Holocaust with the history of Poland. Founded on a thought that past violence can be overcome and prevented in the future if it is documented, intellectually and emotionally addressed, and perceived in its cultural context, the New School provides tools to understand the origins of anti-Jewish violence perpetrated through the recent Polish history.

In facing the Holocaust, the New School opposes two intellectual frames that kept this task unaddressed. One of them is the framework of Polish nationalism, built around the myth of Polish innocence that conceals and justifies centuries-old antisemitism. The other is the post-Cold War conviction that the history of Polish Christians’ anti-Jewish violence is an obstacle along Poland’s path towards its Western future and that this history should be told as the country’s harmonious and tolerant past.

The work of the New School consists in a shift that is exactly the opposite: it looks at the testimonies, narratives and histories of Jewish witnesses, victims and survivors of the Holocaust, at their thoughts and feelings that resulted from suffering, resistance or survival, that were articulated, but more often silenced and repressed. The New School analyzes too the cultural mechanisms that caused this silencing and repression.

In performing this shift, the New School follows the groundbreaking Neighbors (2000) by Jan T. Gross. There he proposed to change the approach to testimonies of survivors “from a priori critical to in principle affirmative,” in order to gain the capability of “listening to lonely voices reaching us from the abyss.”1 It relies on knowledge established by the work of contemporary historians, particularly from the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research. It also follows the principles set by survivor historians, who in the immediately post-war years collected Holocaust testimonies and described the post-war landscapes. Particularly important is the survivor historians’ requirement to include into the collective historical knowledge the emotional, ethical and moral reactions to the violence, both of survivors, and of those who read, listen, and understand their thoughts and voices. This principle was perhaps most directly expressed by the Warsaw Jewish Historical Institute’s director Nachman Blumental, who wrote in 1948: “too close ←7 | 8→we are to this era and too heavily it weighed on us to perceive it only objectively.”2 This inclusion gives space and legitimacy within Polish culture to the survivors’ voices, and allows such space for the thoughts and feelings of those who today make efforts to break the frame of violence and repression.

The present volume is a selection of some of the most incisive texts produced by scholars who contribute to this direction of historical thinking, representing various fields of research. It also includes an extraordinary poem by Jacek Podsiadło, translated and commented upon by Alissa Valles. The poem is based on documents related to the death in a post-war pogrom of Bela Gertner, Auschwitz survivor. The editors’ intention is to make all these texts available for English-language readers, adding them to the significant volumes previously published in the Peter Lang series of Eastern European Culture, Politics and Societies, notably Limit Experiences: A Study of Twentieth-Century Forms of Representation by Jacek Leociak (2019), Polish Literature and the Holocaust (1939–1968) edited by Sławomir Buryła, Dorota Krawczyńska and Jacek Leociak (2020), Pogrom Cries – Essays on Polish-Jewish History, 1939–1946 (2017) by Joanna Tokarska-Bakir and her Jewish Fugitives in the Polish Countryside, 1939–1945 (2021), and others.

The publication of this volume was made possible by the support from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. We would like to thank Andrzej Tymowski from ACLS and Shana Penn from the Taube Foundation. We also wish to acknowledge the work of the translators of the Polish language texts into English and especially that of the wonderful English language editor William Zeisel. We are very grateful to Wojciech Wołyński for the cover illustration. And we thank Jacek Podsiadło and Alissa Valles for giving us permission to publish their work. It too forms part of our effort to listen to the voices of the victims.

Irena Grudzińska Gross, Konrad Matyjaszek

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Jacek Podsiadło

Word Column

Her photo’s faded.

A shade’s shade shaded.

A girl’s radiance

seeking a focus.

Serious Bela

finds just the right rhyme

both for Israel

and for Palestine.

Won’t show her poems

to a living soul.

But they do enhance

my self-confidence,

because having lost

parents (in Auschwitz),

brother (in Warsaw),

she wanted to live

for them and invest

her poems with fire:

where it dies down, or

where it flames higher.

Where life’s exchange rate

plummets to zero,

life itself will set

its own worth at naught:

a seat left empty,

a vain sacrifice.

There, too, poetry

would fetch a good price –

ghetto currency,

almost insurance:

poor, no doubt, and blind,

but the only kind.

A poem some boy

would give to a girl.

Leociak writes in

Street Biographies

that even if, There,

←9 | 10→

people were hungry,

unrelentingly

tortured by hunger,

that it had in it

a hunger for print.

Cervantes. Tolstoy

and “Resurrection.”

And Tuwim’s “Flowers”

smuggled in somehow

from the Aryan side.

Hunger for all things,

bottomless cravings,

gave them sleepless nights;

if it was hopeless,

maybe it hurt less

when you knew a piece

of Bialik by heart?

Kirman, Szajewicz,

and Katzenelson

even There and Then

trusted in poems.

Sutzkever. Szlengel.

Like the game “Jenga”

where I’m bereaving

words of its weight.

Throughout nights of hell

all Grey Owl’s beavers

flocked to Czerniaków.

Grey Owl? Rings a bell.

Brightness has sounded.

What kind of transport?

Desolate, crowded,

all over the globe

not just the ghetto.

Kielce dialect

known from my childhood:

double-dealing, dark,

a speech made of tar:

whatever y’all do,

you’re for the slaughter!

In swollen heads, thoughts

spin; words rattle in

living skeletons:

←10 | 11→

send the kids somewhere,

hide your wedding ring,

the honey’s paid for,

I cut out the stamps.

“Three are on my side,”

“Lejbuś, remember,

stay out of the camps!”

The boys from the ŻOB

torn from their workshops,

Lejb, Cwi and Abuś,

look for a safe way

to take to their graves

a full brace of Krauts

and nasty Fritzes

who’re snarling nearby.

The Black Maccabees.

Die, sons of bitches.

The wine of battle

goes straight to addled

brains; at Bałka’s home

someone’s trying on

her little dresses

and her only shawl.

The heart of a girl

measures a desert

by even portions,

day-to-day measures.

She’s at the station.

Farewell, Kamienna.

When the world crumbles

the mast starts to sway.

A Kielce kibbutz

teaches the young folks

to live and preserve

a splinter of hope.

This Jewish misrule

asks for the cudgel.

These days Kielce is

only for Christians.

And even Hitler

failed to fix the Yids.

At Planty Seven

a crowd assembles

←11 | 12→

to cure Jews of wounds

and of misfortune

with fist and bludgeon.

By fire and by sword.

In the Polish crowd

on the cobblestones

my hundred Mothers,

Polish to the bones.

Work by Joanna

Tokarska-Bakir

presents this type too,

no one knows better

than I think I do

how blind and het up

the pride of Poles gets,

the heights they fall from

to the Holy Cross;

those Holy-Cross folk

get very pissed off

when the Jews can eat

fancy-ass dinners

and they’ve got tinned meat,

what Kielce housewives

can get like when riled

by their priest’s advice,

by small-minded faith,

by stale verities,

by their own dire straits,

how one practices

her role, trying on

a shawl that belonged

to a Jewish girl

as if she’s fitting

a halo; a vein

in her forehead swells.

How she can convince

herself just by yells

that she wore the shawl

in a state of grace.

Mommy dear. Mama.

These holy icons

contradict their frames.

And so many times

←12 | 13→

I’ve heard the question

about the world’s scorn,

where it all came from.

So years have worn on,

meager and ugly.

Now more than thirty.

In Bela Gertner’s

native town, after

the abject circus

of school, we’d often

go to the Jewish

graveyard, feeling free

to “fuck it all up”

as much as we pleased

and round a bonfire

we’d grind sparks from flame

before it all charred,

we’d curse like stevedores

to the N-th degree,

play fly to the moon,

drink booze, eat and smoke,

we’d belt out “Long live…,”

take it on the cheek

and get a skinful,

spit, not give a shit

about work or school.

We went for a leak

by crooked gravestones.

I’ll start from the end.

I’ll survive Father,

survive my brother.

Again years will pass.

Again thirty years.

Ostrowiec now has

a memorial.

Rubin Katz recalls

he had a passion

for little Bela

and this confession

boosts my confidence.

I’ll try to begin.

All over again.

Words have a meaning.

←13 | 14→

I take it on faith.

That she was short

I know from the lab’s

forensic report.

Sometimes from ashes

something pale glitters.

A piece of jewelry?

Maybe some Meissen?

Threading and letters.

Finished sentences

sewed into volumes

like dreams in quickly

thrown-together Homes.

Poem, word-Golem,

now all but over.

The teeth knocked clean out.

The skull all bashed in.

Entire death squadrons

taken straight from life.

The stamps all cut out.

The honey paid for.

“In the crowded and sorrowful ghetto

the little Jews lived their drab lives…”

Rachela Ofenberg

“Displacement” (a poem by an eleven-year-old girl preserved in the Ringelblum Archive)

“Her brother Abek Gertner was one of the fearless fighters who fell in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Bela … loves to write and rhyme, but is too shy to show her work. … I have etched in my memory a few lines she was trying to rhyme … in Polish, about memory books and the paper gravestones erected more and more in memory of those murdered in the Holocaust. They went like this: ‘Mountains of words are too slight a thing to testify to a murdered child, killed in all its innocence, and writing memory books won’t immortalize the Jews who burned in the ovens … Only words and letters remain, blossoming in the ashes in the shape of volumes of poetry.’

That beautiful girl was very talented.”

Rafael Blumenfeld, Kibbutz Ikhud ha-Naor-ha-Tsiyoni-Akiva in Kielce before and after the Pogrom.

“…camp number A-16910, crushed skull, No. 1 and No. 2 teeth knocked out on the upper right side.”

Postmortem examination file for Bajla Gertner, July 5, 1946.

←14 | 15→

“…a Jewish girl of about sixteen ran out of the cell, and one Polish Army officer began to beat her. When the said Jewish girl passed out, civilians lifted the soldier up on their shoulders, raising cries of ‘Long live.’”

Interrogation file of witness Józef Białkowski in the WUBP [Voivodship Public Security Office] in Kielce, July 5, 1946.

“There a young woman, perhaps seventeen, was lying on the ground flat on her back, blood flowing from her nose. … some man from that group went up to the supine young woman and began stepping on her head with the heel of his boot in the area of the temple, which made blood flow from her ear.”

Interrogation file of witness Stanisław Adamczyk by the prosecutor of the Branch Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish People in Kielce, August 13, 2001.

“Give me that scarf off your head, Miss, an acquaintance of Salomonowiczowa shouts, when she is being led from a cage to the transport, whatever y’all do, you’re going to die. The poor woman went bareheaded into the icy weather, into the death car.”

Testimony of Celina Grünszpan about the liquidation of the Sandomierz Ghetto in January 1943.

“My former landlady on Zamkowa Street refused to let me spend a night, she only told me that she’d made out very well, because when the Jews were led to the cars, she asked a Ukrainian guard to get her the shawl off one of the Jewish women, and he had torn the shawl off for her.”

Diary of Hinda Malachi of Ostrowiec nad Kamienną, fragment related to her stay in Ćmielów at the end of 1942.

“A big pot on the gas ring. Mother lights the flame … We have no vegetables, noodles or potatoes. Not a grain of porridge. In spite of this, it seems to mother that she is making dinner.”

Sonia Landau (Krystyna Żywulska), “Pusta Woda” (“Empty Water”).

“Doctor Szwajger rescued children before she perished in Treblinka: she gave them morphine and the children died in hospital beds. (Once, toward the end of July, Inka came back from the hospital and didn’t find her mother at home. Only a hastily written note: the stamps all cut out, the honey paid for).”

Anka Grupińska, “Reading a List.”

Translated by A. Valles (2021)

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Alissa Valles

Word Column, Word-Golem: Rebuilding Jacek Podsiadło’s “Słup ze słów” in English

When Jacek Podsiadło’s poem “Słup ze słów” appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza in 2019, it reached me almost simultaneously through the Gazeta digital newsletter and in three separate messages from friends in Poland; this little burst of multiplication preceded my reading of it and as these things do, shaped my first response. It was a public poem before I’d read it, both by virtue of appearing in a national daily and being shared in a certain community; I suspect the poem spread in this way to many readers. A parallel that occurred to me at the time was Adam Zagajewski’s very different poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which was shared avidly after September 11, 2001, although it was written before the attacks, not in response to them. Zagajewski’s poem calls tentatively for some kind of affirmation in the face of tragedy, and seeks to make this praise possible by pulling away from particular individuals to an all-embracing view. Podsiadło’s poem has a purpose that is almost the opposite: it demands and performs an opening to grief, made ineluctable by close attention to a singular tragedy, that of a young Jewish girl, Bela Gertner, against a background of mass death.

My next involuntary association, based purely on the shape of the text on the page, was with a poem by the American poet Yusef Komunyakaa published in the collection War Horses (2008). That poem, “The Towers” visually reproduces the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the left tower crowned with the word “Yes” and the parallel right column with the word “No.” The left column rehearses the ordinary things that the people who died were doing on the September morning when the catastrophe hit them; the right column rolls out on its scroll scenes of first responders searching the rubble and crowds retreating across the Hudson. It is no accident that moving one’s eyes down the columns while reading the poem, one feels an eery sense of reenacting the collapse of the towers themselves: first one, then the other. When I started to work on an English version of Podsiadło’s poem it struck me that although it’s written as one long column of words, it also contains a dual impulse, in itself not unusual for a poem of mourning or commemoration: the wish to resurrect the dead (subjectively, internally) and the wish to mark the place (objectively, externally).

To bring back the dead and to fix them in one spot: this is what photographs do. Yes and no, present yet absent: this is the endless, nauseating oscillation of ←17 | 18→grief, relived like footage of a tower falling repeated over and over in the weeks and months after the disaster. This repetition is sometimes equated with the repetitive dreams and flashbacks of PTSD, though that does not square with the currently prevailing theories of trauma.1 In any case, photographs decay, and often the more we try to anchor our emotion in an image, the more the image becomes elusive, even vacant. Our longing can overwhelm it. One way to refresh the real presence to which the photograph refers is to approach it through a juxtaposition of angles, as Podsiadło does here: through fragments of direct testimony by survivor Rubin Katz who knew the girl, but also through the wider frame of Holocaust scholarship – represented here by the historian Jacek Leociak and his 2018 book Biografie ulic (Street Biographies), and by the anthropologist Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, who has written extensively on Polish folklore and antisemitism. Finally, Bela’s memory is also filtered through an intensely personal lens, a memory of the poet’s own Polish youth and its obliviousness to the Jewish dead – an attitude condemned and redeemed through the poem’s act of compassionate memory.

There are numerous Polish poems that take photographs as their point of departure, and two in particular, both connected to World War II, came to me involuntarily when I read this poem. First, “Hitler’s First Photograph,” in which Wisława Szymborska capitalizes on the virtually automatic impulse to coo over a photo of a child – any child.

And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!
Will he grow up to be an LL.D.?
Or a tenor in Vienna’s Opera House?
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know:
printer’s, doctor’s, merchant’s, priest’s?
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
To garden, to school, to an office, to a bride,
maybe to the Burgermeister’s daughter?
Precious little angel, mommy’s sunshine, honey bun,
while he was being born a year ago,
there was no dearth of signs on the earth and in the sky: ←18 | 19→
spring sun, geraniums in windows,
the organ-grinder’s music in the yard,
a lucky fortune wrapped in rosy paper,
then just before the labor his mother’s fateful dream:
a dove seen in dream means joyful news,
if it is caught, a long-awaited guest will come.
Knock knock, who’s there, it’s Adolf’s heartchen knocking.
A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks,
like a kitten in a basket, like the tots in every other family album.
Shush, let’s not start crying, sugar,
the camera will click from under that black hood.
The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunen,
and Braunen is a small but worthy town,
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate’s footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.

(Tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak)

The commonplace thought that history is not inevitable, that things “could have happened differently” is made genuinely spooky by the appearance of a history teacher yawning at his correction work, a tableau that rhymes with the bored kids in People’s Poland goofing off in the Jewish cemetery after school in Podsiadło. The history that we really need to know we always seem to learn too late, and outside of the schoolroom.

“Photograph” by Zbigniew Herbert is also an exercise in autobiography, a reflection on the mystery we become to ourselves when we see childhood photographs, but also on the War as an absolute abyss between past and present, between innocence and experience.

Casting his child self as Isaac, and himself as Abraham, Herbert seems to suggest that the innocent boy can be preserved “like an insect caught in amber” in a photo or poem only because he has been given up, sacrificed to the flow of history. Podsiadło’s Bela was not innocent of the war’s horrors, which makes her a more ambiguous figure; but like Herbert’s childhood self caught on film, she reminds the poet and the reader of their own guilt – surviving, we have betrayed her, sacrificed her to history, and we can redeem ourselves only by preserving her, “forever safe,” in memory.

Biographical notes

Irena Grudzińska-Gross (Volume editor) Konrad Matyjaszek (Volume editor)

Irena Grudzińska Gross is Professor in the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Science in Warsaw. Previously she taught at Emory, New York, Boston and Princeton universities. She is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow. She researches issues of war and violence in modern and contemporary European literature. She published among other books The Scar of Revolution: Custine, Tocqueville and the Romantic Imagination; Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets, Yale University Press, 2009; and, with Jan T. Gross, Golden Harvest: Reflections on Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust, Oxford University Press, 2012. Konrad Matyjaszek is an architect and cultural studies researcher, and Assistant Professor at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. His work focuses on architecture and urban spaces, Polish discourses of antisemitism and narratives of urban modernization.

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