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War and Peace
Essays on Religion and Violence
By Bryan S. Turner
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2013 Bryan S. Turner
All rights reserved.
SACRED MEMORY AND THE SECULAR WORLD: THE POLAND NARRATIVES
Jewish Narratives of Poland: An Intimate Ethnography
"What?! You slept with the enemy?" my nice Jewish doctor snapped back, hearing I'd stayed with a Polish Christian family in my dead father's old shtetl. Just a few years earlier, the same thought might have entered my own mind had I entertained such an idea. For me, as for my physician, Poland had been "fixed in my Jewish imagination as the land of unreconstructed anti-Semitism," to use Eva Hoffman's words (Hoffman 2004, 137). To think differently about Poland and Polish Christians would signify disloyalty of the worst kind: betrayal of the sacred memory of the persecution and suffering of the Jews, a suffering, we have been taught, that extends into thousands of years of the Jewish plight.
Indeed, a few years earlier, on my first pilgrimage to Poland, I felt a terrible unease. On that occasion, I walked the streets of my father's hometown, recoiling from the townsfolk, and reaching out to no one. I recall looking suspiciously at a huddle of old women chatting on a stoop. I took special notice of the old men, some walking on the street, others grouped on a corner, who peered back at me with equal suspicion. Wasn't it anti-Semitism I saw in their glower?
That first trip in the summer of 2001 coincided with a series of critical events in Poland around the release of Jan Gross's book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. One month before my arrival in Jedwabne, a commemorative ceremony was held on what became a sacred and contested site: the spot on which the Jewish townsfolk were set afire in a barn exactly 60 years earlier.
Gross's slim volume packed a huge charge. In Jedwabne, it was not the Germans who annihilated the Jews but the Polish Christians who had slaughtered their Jewish neighbors. There were draggings, knifings and pummelings, and then the major event: Jews burnt alive in the barn.
By the time I arrived in August, the ceremonies were over, and a new, controversial tomb-like monument was in place. But my trip was not triggered by Gross's book or the intense debate and discussion in Poland that resulted. I was there as part of my long-term, anthropological study of my father's life, an intimate ethnography of a charming, difficult man whose life was torn apart by the upheavals of the twentieth century, including the political and structural violence of his homeland (Waterston 2005; Waterston and Rylko-Bauer 2006). In 1913, my father was born Menachim Mendel, or Mendeleh in the Yiddish diminutive, the youngest of Priwa and Itsak Isak Waserstein's seven children. World War I left the Wasersteins "helpless, the poorest of the poor," according to my father's account.
My father raised me on stories of Polish anti-Semitism, imbued as a natural, fundamental and timeless feature of the Polish spirit. "The Polish were very anti-Semitic and they had to relieve themselves to get rid of the Jews," my father said, not just as recollection but also as warning to a Jewish daughter about to visit Poland for the first time. Mendel backed his statements with anecdotes, his kind of proof: the songs ridiculing and demonizing the Jews, derogatory comments by Christian teachers and schoolboys, all the nasty rumors; even the bells of the church, he claims, rang out hatred for the Jews.
Though Gross's book was published in 2001, the story of the Jedwabne massacre was not new to me. I grew up on it, hearing from an early age what happened that sweltering day in July 1941. My father and his immediate family escaped the burning, having left for Cuba starting in the 1920s, the last of them arriving in Havana in 1939. Among the Wasersteins who remained in Jedwabne was Szmul Wasersztajn, my father's cousin, known to the family as "Shmulke," whose postwar testimony provided the basis for Neighbors:" Local hooligans armed themselves with axes, special clubs studded with nails, and other instruments of torture and destruction," Shmulke offered in chilling testimony. "(They) chased all the Jews into the street [...] people were beaten murderously and forced to sing and dance. In the end they proceeded to the main action – the burning. Jews were ordered to line up in a column, four in a row [...] and all were chased into the barn. Then the barn was doused with kerosene and lit." Gross's main argument brought shockwaves to Poland. "In July 1941," Gross concludes, "half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half – some 1,600 men, women and children" (2002, 7).
Shmulke Wasersztajn was saved by a Christian neighbor, who hid him in a barn, although his mother, Chajcia, was killed in the massacre. Eventually, Shmulke would join the Waserstein clan in Havana, after the extended family set down roots on the island. There, Shmulke's testimony would become family legend, passed from one generation to the next. For me, my father recounts the massacre:
When the stable wasn't big enough for all the Jews to be burned there, they took out the younger people – you know, 13, 14, 15, 18 years old, and they took them to the Jewish cemetery. They made them dig a ditch. The boys had to dig a ditch, and they put them in a row and they put them with hammers: "Next!" and "Next!" and each one of them [.] each and every one of them [...] screamed out, "Shema Yisroel Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad!" ["Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One"].
In an article Barbara Rylko-Bauer and I wrote about our projects and the challenges of intimate ethnography, we discussed the kinds of emotions each of us knew we must confront in our respective projects: "The emotions," we wrote, "are like a mound on a field that indicates something important lies beneath, needing to be excavated" (2006, 402). I would try to confront my conflicting emotions of loyalty and betrayal to my father and to my sense of collective identity first by exploring my father's reflexive attachment to the experience of Jewish suffering (even as he reinvented himself in new circumstances). In listening carefully to my father's rendition of the massacre, I hear that his narrative is only partially an accounting of events – the "happenings"; the tension between myth and fact is evident in this recitation. In my father's telling, the story becomes a legend, even as it "speaks truth" to the violence and horror. In this storyteller's hands, Jedwabne is a parable of heroism and suffering, with young boy-heroes shouting the main statement of their Jewish belief (the Shema) at the moment of their deaths. The narrator invokes the sacred, not as protection from the violence of the world but to move the now-dead boys to another, more exalted place, immune from, detached from the wounds of the flesh. This maneuver shifts the secular dynamic to sacred ground, thereby leaving the whole history behind the event untouched by critique, analysis or insight. And yet, throughout his life my father remained burdened by the defining events of the century, including the massacre in Jedwabne, and his earliest experiences of war on Polish soil. Relentlessly pursued by annihilationists, my father embodied the diasporic Jew whose habitus drove his desire to repeatedly tell the story that kept him faithful to the suffering he really did endure.
I would also attempt to confront my conflicting emotions and sense of collective identity by expanding the focus of my inquiry beyond my father's life history: I would sleep with the enemy.
Return to Poland: Journey beyond Myth
Serendipity played a part in the next stage of my project. On a cool autumn day in 2005, I began sharing "my father's story in history and anthropology" with a group of undergraduate students in my 59th Street City University of New York classroom. In the middle of the lecture, one student shot up his arm. "What?" I asked, slightly annoyed at the interruption at a key moment in my narrative. "I'm from Jedwabne," Stasio Danielski said. I was shocked. Though I had already been to Poland, been to Jedwabne, it still struck me as a mythic place. How could there be a real-life, flesh-and-blood, Polish Christian person from Jedwabne – my student, someone in my care, in my trust?
Thus began "the Poland Narratives," my effort to gather voices of Polish Christians. This part of my project has taken me to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, home to a large population of working-class Polish Americans and Polish Christian immigrants, and back to Jedwabne in 2008 with my student Stasio.
Stasio and I stayed with his uncle Nelek and aunt Elka in Lomza about 15 kilometers from Jedwabne. Nelek and Elka were generous hosts, insisting I use their bedroom while they moved into the living room, sharing that space with their nephew. Things moved very slowly in the Danielski household. The food, vodka and conversation flowed but it seemed forever before they would take me to Jedwabne.
Finally the day did arrive. We pulled into Jedwabne. Nelek drove to the monument, though I hadn't asked him to do so. Elka dug into a grocery bag, pulling out a glass memorial candle and placing it gently at the foot of the stone.
A short distance away is the old Jewish cemetery. Seeing it for the first time seven years earlier was for me a stark emblem of Jewish extermination on Polish soil: the graves untended; broken stones the only remnants. This time even those relics were unseen. I could not find them buried beneath the overgrown grasses that I slogged through while Stasio filmed me from the sidelines.
We walked to the well-tended Christian cemetery to visit the graves of Stasio's family and those of aunt Elka's relatives. Stasio's grandma and grandpa, Nelek's sister, Elka's parents. Elka wiped the headstones, swept dirt off each grave and laid her candles on them. The grocery bag was now empty. Together, we lit each candle.
Afterward, we wandered through the cemetery and came upon a startling find. There, in a condition much more ragged than the Polish Christian graves yet in much less a state of decay than in the Jewish cemetery, were the graves of German soldiers killed in Jedwabne during World War I. Rustic wooden crosses, bouquets of plastic flowers strewn about and the remains of memorial candles marked this cemetery.
Though the Jewish cemetery looked different from the time of my first visit, the Jedwabne massacre monument looked the same as it had seven years earlier. Joanna Michlic has written about the sequence of events from the time Gross's book was published in Poland in May 2000 to the commemoration ceremony on 10 July 2001. She notes that Gross's volume ignited an intense, difficult, disturbing and ongoing debate in postcommunist Poland about Polish Christian and Jewish relations and the Holocaust, particularly the role of ethnic Poles in colluding with or resisting the annihilationist project (Michlic 2002, 9; Brand 2001; Polonsky and Michlic 2004; Chodakiewicz 2005). Participants in this "battle over the memory of Polish-Jewish relations and the Polish collective self-image" (2002, 7) include representatives from secular and religious segments of Polish society – priests, presidents, scholars and intellectuals, politicians and journalists. It has also involved interested observers outside of Poland, including rabbis and politicians as well as scholars and members of the postgeneration like myself.
Michlic posits two approaches to the "rewriting" of the history of Polish-Jewish relations: a self-critical stance (2002, 10) in which Polish Christians face their "dark past" in relation to Jews and they come to terms with the distortions in their "collective self-portrait [...] solely as victims (of the Nazis) and (as) heroes" (2002, 3); and a self-defensive stance that effectively silences any questions about the past, collective memory and Polish national identity. Among those in the self-defensive camp, Michlic explains, are right-wing nationalists many who are virulent anti-Semites, and who have a large presence in the right-wing media in Poland.
In the midst of this politically and emotionally charged discussion came a decision from the Polish state authorities: "an appropriate commemoration of the Jewish victims of the Jedwabne massacre" would be installed (2002, 12; emphasis mine) and marked with the words, "To the memory of Jews from Jedwabne and the surrounding area, men, women and children, inhabitants of this land, who were murdered and burned alive on this spot on July 10, 1941." More than that, the new monument would replace an old plaque in place since 1963. That plaque, its message now refuted by Jan Gross's revelations, had been inscribed with these words: "The place of destruction of the Jewish population. Here Gestapo and Nazi gendarmes burnt alive 1600 people on 10 July 1941" (2002, 21–2; see also Gross 2002, 114).
Mourning in Jedwabne: Sites of Memory and Memorialization
John Matteson's essay on "Grave Discussions" describes how public memory is shaped and enshrined by monuments that look like graves, and how commemorative ceremonies sanctify a particular reading of the past (2001). Examining how and why monuments to the American Revolution were developed in nineteenth-century New England, Matteson writes, "commemoration [is] a word that means 'to be mindful together' [...] 'together' is key, for commemorative objects [...] establish common cultural ground [...] the monument tries to place [...] limits so that we truly may be mindful together" (2001, 419).
But that was in New England, the British enemy by then far away, and the "we" referred to the making of an American citizenry in context of the making of a particularly "American" national narrative. In Jedwabne, the Jews came back to haunt; the monument the product of a dynamic interaction between memory and politics, narrative and history, and the sacred and the secular. The result was that sacred memory in Poland was forced to shift, implemented by secular authority. For Jews, the sacred – that which must be protected from criticism – is upheld in the "appropriate" commemoration in Jedwabne: memories of the Holocaust, its victims and perpetrators, and is consistent with a larger Jewish motif: the root of the problem – the root of the massacre lies in anti-Semitism. At the same time, Poles were called upon to confront "their dark past" now inscribed with a new narrative. For some among them, the sacred memories of Polish identity and faith were defiled, and the monument a sacrilege. It is difficult to get beyond the impasse.
We may never know the full extent of what "happened" in Jedwabne in July 1941; discussion seems to have stalled around a relatively narrow set of issues and partial bits of evidence. The number of dead, for example, returns as a significant point of contention. Did the dead number 200, 400, 1,600? In the wake of Gross's book, Poland's Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) launched an exhumation at the site of the mass burning in May 2001 (2003 Institute of National Remembrance). One month later, the IPN called it off in response to objections by some Jewish religious leaders who considered the exhumation a "desecration of the dead" (CNN 2001; Gross 2002, 122). At that point, 200 remains had been found; for some, proof that the number of dead is significantly fewer than 1,600. There was also the matter of bullets of German make pulled from the site, evidence, some argued, that the Nazis had committed the deed, not the Polish neighbors, although later the bullets were revealed to be of a type used by Germans in World War I. Were these parts of the weaponry, I can't help but wonder, that played in the deaths of soldiers buried in Jedwabne's cemetery for the German war dead from World War I?
Can there ever be a "being mindful together" in Jedwabne? It strikes me, listening to the words as well as the silences of my new friends in Jedwabne, that the monument and how it evolved ruptures as much as it might heal, creates new silences as much as it opens up dialogue. For those who live in Jedwabne, the monument stands as an unbearable accusation even if for the rest of Poland it opened up a space to dialogue about "Poland's dark past." Jedwabne and its current residents – one, two, even three generations after the event – seem to be bearing the brunt of that dark past. "Jedwabne is cursed," Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told me, as if to quarantine the problem and locate it in the township. The public dialogue offers folks from Jedwabne little consolation; only the right-wing nationalists seem to lift the burden of guilt off their shoulders, entrapping them further into hostile relations (imagined or concrete) with Jews.
Excerpted from War and Peace by Bryan S. Turner. Copyright © 2013 Bryan S. Turner. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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