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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. Wail in the Synagogue


The poignant cry of Jews praying in the synagogues, pleading and lamenting. This was one of the impressions that remained with Mickiewicz his entire life. He took it with him from childhood, from his youth, which is indicated by various statements he made, above all from the period when he was particularly concerned with the mystery of the common Polish and Jewish destiny. In a lecture given at the College de France on 26 December 1843, he praised those “parts of truth” gained from the “soul’s toil.” They are the possession of the Jewish people. “In lands inhabited by our tribe [...] live millions who belong to a well-known people, the oldest in Europe, the oldest of all civilized peoples, who from the depths of their synagogues have, for centuries, not ceased to draw from themselves the plea with which nothing else in the world can be compared, the kind of plea that human memory has lost” (WJ, XI, 343).373

It is clear how highly Mickiewicz valued this exceptional, often non-verbal mode of expression, which could stir everyone emotionally but could not be placed into any sort of logical-rational category.

Juliusz Kleiner – writing about the extraordinary character Judyta, a young Jewish woman in Słowacki’s dramatic poem Ksiądz Marek (Father Marek) – draws our attention to the dominant tone of mystical exaltation highlighted by both Towiański and Mickiewicz. As evidence, he quotes a statement by Towiański: “The highest non-Christian spiritual liberation ever...

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