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Hero, Conspiracy, and Death: The Jewish Lectures

Translated by Alex Shannon


Maria Janion

With Hero, Conspiracy and Death: The Jewish Lectures, the author has written a book of sweeping significance for readers interested in Polish history, Jewish history, and the Holocaust in which she asks troubling questions: Can a Jew be both a Jew and a Pole? Are we right to talk of «worthy» and «unworthy» death in the Holocaust? What are the implications of Adam Mickiewicz’s philo-Semitism? In Zygmunt Krasiński’s anti-Semitism, do we see the «specter of elimination»? Are humanist and enlightenment values useful in analyzing the Holocaust, or did the experience of Nazi genocide render them obsolete? Tracing the history of anti-Jewish stereotypes in early nineteenth-century Poland (and beyond), the author offers answers to these questions that are bold, clear and compassionate.
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1. Portraits


In the epic-lyrical introduction to Part Three of Nie-Boska Komedia, which opens our view onto the camp of “new people,” Krasiński – making use of several characteristic traits – paints a vivid portrait of Leonard. He is the second protagonist of the revolution, after Pankracy, but he is far more radical and ruthless than Pankracy; he is not burdened by ideological doubt, and he advocates murder with neither fear nor remorse. Touching a sword to their shoulders, he offers his men criminal blessings and leads orgiastic “rituals of the new faith.” But how does he appear at first glance? “Eastern eyes, black and shaded by long eyelashes, drooping shoulders, buckling legs, an awkward body bent to one side – on his lips something lascivious, something malignant, and on his fingers golden rings – and he calls out with a husky voice – ‘Long live Pankracy!’” (61-62).312 The context in which Leonard appears highlights his distinctive nature and, above all, his repulsive strangeness.

As George L. Mosse pointed out, the ideal man has a will to rule, honor, and courage; this definition permeates all of modern western culture. The role of visibility, the exceptional importance granted to that which is visible, had revealed itself by the early nineteenth century not only in, for example, the prevalence of various national emblems, but also in certain sciences, such as physiognomy and anthropology. Of particular importance was a book entitled Physiognomik (1781) by Johann Kaspar Lavater, whose arguments were based on the...

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