Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Early Reflections on Poland

with 2 comments

by David


I’m writing from Cracow, Poland, after having spent three days in the nation’s capitol, Warsaw. I’m here with my father, on a roots tour, not unlike Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, except I haven’t read that book, so I don’t really know. (That’s not entirely true: I read the first two pages and found it so horrible I had to put it down).

All four of my grandparents lived in Poland prior to WW2, and all were survivors, in the loose sense of the term, meaning they spent time under Nazi occupation. As far as I know, though, they spent minimal time in concentration camps. Supposedly my maternal grandfather and great uncle (who everyone calls “Uncle”) spent a short time at Majdanek before it became a death camp, but escaped and fled east, eventually being forced into the Soviet army. My paternal grandfather, a lieutenant in the Polish army in the heavy artillery division, purportedly spent time in a labour camp for POWs, his Jewish origins unknown to his captors. I have no idea how much truth there is to these accounts, but these are the stories I grew up with.

As for my grandmothers, of their stories I know even less. My maternal grandmother, I’m told, pretended to be gentile in occupied Poland. Family documents say my  maternal aunt was born in Lodz in 1942, though Uncle insists that she was born in Tiflis, Georgia, possibly a year later or earlier. As for my paternal grandmother, all I know is that she was supposedly hid in a closet by a gentile family who they paid.

In any case, all my grandparents survived the Holocaust, though they lost dozens of relatives, including all of my great-grandparents, between them. After the war, they moved to Montreal, where both my parents were born.

I went to Poland 12 years ago, in April of 1999, when I was a few months shy of turning 17. I went as part of the March of the Living, a teen tour for Jewish high school students that consists of eight days in Poland and eight days in Israel, seeing the tragedy of the Holocaust and the rebirth of the Jewish people in the state of Israel. Montreal Jewish community has a relatively high number of Holocaust survivors and so is very passionate about The March. We sent 105 students that year, along with several counselors, a rabbi, parents, and two survivors of the camps.

The trip is propaganda-laden, a fact which I was only vaguely aware of then, but am fully cognizant of now. In Poland, we danced in the streets singing Hebrew songs as Polish onlookers stared at us quizzically and occasionally hatefully. We visited Jewish sites exclusively, old synagogues and cemeteries, and then the concentration and death camps: Plaszow, Auscwhitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka, what the more politically incorrect among us like to call “Hitler’s Greatest Hits.”

The “highlight” of the trip is the March itself, re-enacting the short “March of the Dead” from Auschwitz to Birkenau. For most of the program, the different March groups have different schedules. This is the only Poland portion of the trip where all members of the international March of the Living participate together, a sea of blue raincoats with white Stars of David on them. I think there were 3000 of us. In Israel, the only time all 3000 of us were together was when we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in Jerusalem.

In any case, that was 1999. My memories of the trip are somewhat dim, though I recall Poland appearing almost medieval, though perhaps that’s my “demi-orientalism” kicking in (to borrow a term from my excellent professor of eastern European history, Larry Wolff). This is the view that eastern Europe is not quite Europe, and not quite foreign either, but rather something in between.

Maybe I’m imagining things, but a lot seems to have changed since then. Poland is part of the European Union now (no more “demi” for them) and the economy has improved. The country seems much more modern to me, and very pleasant. I’ve been returning to my culinary roots, at least, eating a steady diet of meat and potatoes in delicious and hearty portions. Thus far, I’ve reaffirmed my belief that life is too short, and the world is too vast, to be a vegetarian.

I’ll stop there for now. I’ll have more specific observations about Warsaw soon, and Cracow, and then later about our other stops, Lv’iv and Budaniv, Ukraine, and finally Vilnius, Lithuania.


Written by David Weinfeld

September 10, 2011 at 15:22

2 Responses

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  1. David — I look forward to reading more about your trip and impressions. My family is also from Poland, although as Catholics they naturally had a different experience of the occupation. My grandmother was deported to Germany as a forced laborer, and made her way from there to Canada, but I still have relatives all over the country today.

    As someone who grew up with the myths of Polish nationalism (perpetual victimhood, spurned vanguard of the West, etc.) it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of those who were exposed to other conceptions of Poland. Many Poles are highly critical of the concentration camp tours taken by young Jews, which they claim tends to overlook both modern Poland and Polish culture, past or present, in general. Seeing the entire country through the lens of the camps, they say, not only risks mistaking Poland for a giant cemetery, but helps play into the notion that the Holocaust was at least partly Polish in origin — an understanding about which Poles are extremely sensitive, and sometimes see as yet another attempt to “put Poland down”.

    My own experiences in Poland were probably just as “propaganda-laden,” as yours were in 1999, though. My family sung along to national hymns in their car. We steered clear of Auschwitz. In Warsaw, we made pilgrimages to a monument dedicated to child soldiers who fought during the 1944 uprising (was it somehow more justifiable for children to fight now than in African civil wars today, I wondered?) and to a museum of which I can’t remember the proper name but which could accurately have been titled the Center for Condemning Russian Oppression. (That said, the Auschwitz decision wasn’t universal among my family members — younger generations are much more open to exploring this chapter of Polish history — and we did extensively tour Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow).

    I was also called out for my own “demi-orientalism,” after taking apparently one too many photos of what I found to be evocatively beautiful decaying old buildings in Krakow’s Old Town. My family made sure I saw a lot of glittering new malls and cavernous hypermarkets, as well. And I must have said a lot about the fact that, in 2005, horse-and-buggy was still considered a practicable form of transportation in rural Poland. A recent phone call confirmed that — EU be praised — the entire village now drove comfortable German sedans.

    C. Szabla

    September 10, 2011 at 16:25

    • Hey C, thanks for the great comment. I address some of this stuff in my most recent post. My last trip to Poland was exclusively Jewish, so this time I’m making a point of seeing lots of non-Jewish stuff as well. I also know so much more now than I did then, having studied a lot of European history in college, and a course on eastern European history, as well as eastern European Jewish history at the grad school level, even though my focus is on the US. I’ve come to love general Polish history, in which Jews play an important but not all-encompassing part. All the sites I see, Jewish and non-Jewish and some a mixture of both, are so much more meaningful now. It’s like I’m a different person, and Poland is a different country. We’re probably both better off than we were 12 years ago.

      David Weinfeld

      September 11, 2011 at 19:17

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