Welcome to Poland - it's where my family were killed

The acclaimed novelist Richard Zimler visits his grandparents' homeland and finds the old prejudices dying hard


By Richard Zimler, December 22, 2011
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Richard Zimler in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.  He says younger Poles tend to have neutral or even favourable feelings towards Jews

Richard Zimler in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. He says younger Poles tend to have neutral or even favourable feelings towards Jews

My mother's father, Itzhak Gutkind, grew up in a three-storey townhouse in Brzeziny, a small but bustling city at the heart of Poland's textile industry. Back then, at the end of the 19th century, Brzeziny's colourfully painted terrace houses were home to a mishmash of 7,500 Jews, 5,000 Poles, 1,200 Germans and several hundred Russians.

Happily, Itzhak and his wife, Genendel Kalish - my grandparents - emigrated to America long before the Nazi occupation of Poland. Eight of their brothers and sisters remained behind, however, and none of them survived the Holocaust. Even today, 66 years since the end of the war, Brzeziny, like thousands of cities across Poland, remains Judenfrei - free of Jews. No more than 25,000 Jews live today in a country of 40 million.

So it was that when my Polish publisher proposed a book tour for their edition of my latest novel, The Warsaw Anagrams - set in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and '41 - my heart did a small dive toward panic. My mother had died several years earlier, but I could see her throwing up her hands and exclaiming: "Don't you dare go!"

Despite her warning, I decided to accept my publisher's invitation; I realised that a grandson of Polish Jews coming to Poland to promote a novel set in the Warsaw ghetto might prompt some discussion in the media of the country's 3.5 million Jewish citizens who died in the Shoah. And so it was that on November 20, I became the first person in my family to walk Brzeziny's streets in nearly 70 years. And just before noon, I saw what I never thought I would see - my grandfather's house.

Standing in front of that grim, unpainted building, I felt as though I had accomplished the impossible simply by being there - because it had been Hitler's goal that no Jew should ever set foot in this town again.

It was the local museum director, Paweł Zybała, who had discovered the address of my grandfather's house and led me there. In posing together for a photograph, I put my hand over Paweł's shoulder and he placed his arm around my back. A Jew and a Pole embracing in Brzeziny seemed a wonderful testament to how far Poland has come over the last decades. Yet as I got in our car for the ride to nearby Lodz, Adam Drzewuicki, the young publicist assigned to chaperone me, told me: "One of the museum people just confided in me that the residents of Brzeziny are still deeply antisemitic."

Most people in Sokolow have never met a Jew and still hate them!

That revelation shocked me. Realising how easily I could be fooled by my own tingling enthusiasm, I decided to talk to every journalist I would meet on my tour about the current state of antisemitism. And here are the conclusions they helped me reach: 1) the smaller a Pole's town of residence, and the greater his or her age, the more likely he or she is to have retained a strong dislike for Jews; 2) young people under 30 or so, and who live in the large cities, tend to have either neutral or favourable feelings toward Jews and often demonstrate a curiosity about Polish-Jewish history.

Katarzyna Markusz, a 29-year-old freelance photographer who spent the last few years researching the blood-soaked history of the Jews of her hometown of Sokolow Podlaski, added an important nuance to my conclusions. Over our tea at the MDM Hotel in Warsaw's busy Constitution Square, she told me: "We Poles say that the country is divided into two regions, A and B. A is everywhere to the west of the Vistula River [which passes through Warsaw and Krakow]. It is open-minded and relatively wealthy, and antisemitism there is slowly disappearing. Poland B is backward, isolated and more traditional, and antisemitism there remains strong."

Sokolow is very definitely located on the B-side of this psychological fault-line. "Most people there have never met a Jew and still hate them!" Katarzyna told me. She herself has paid a high price for uncovering the story of the town's vanished Jewish community of 5,500. No one in Sokolow will now hire her as a photographer.

On the day after my conversation with Katarzyna - having been made aware by her that a Jew might be something of a curiosity even at the heart of Poland A - I subverted the planned opening of my talk to students at a Warsaw high school by first asking: "How many of you have ever met a Jew before?" Only about 10 of the 65 students in the classroom raised their hand.

Teachers at Maria Konopnicka school had selected one of the students who had already read The Warsaw Anagrams to comment on the book as a way to open the session. To my relief, the student - Naomi Di Biasio - described the book as very moving, but she and other students soon expressed a concern that reveals, I think, a very important facet to the Polish perspective on the tragic fate of the country's Jews: that my portrayal of Poles in the book might have been too negative.

In The Warsaw Anagrams, the narrator, an elderly psychiatrist named Erik Cohen, is denounced by Christian neighbours and arrested by the Gestapo. It was a fate that awaited many Polish Jews. And yet the majority of Poles I spoke to seemed to believe that most of their parents and grandparents did their best to protect their Jewish neighbours. According to Professor Bohdan Michalski, a Holocaust specialist at Warsaw University, however, about five per cent of the Polish population came to the aid of the country's Jews. Another five per cent would have actively collaborated with the Nazis.

"And the remaining 90 per cent?" I asked him.

"They did nothing. They kept quiet."

To the students at Maria Konopnicka school, I said: "Before the Second World War, about one out of every three persons in Warsaw was Jewish". Pointing around the room to every third student, I added: "You and you and you would have been Jewish. So don't you think it was appropriate for me to include something in my book about those neighbours of yours who would have denounced you to the Gestapo, or who did nothing when you were forced into the ghetto?"

I was not sure that the students were happy with my comments, because I had learned by then that some Poles see themselves exclusively as victims of the Nazis. Although that is not true, it is true that the Nazis treated Poland with particular brutality and violence. Nearly six million Poles were killed in Second World War.

Bohdan Michalski made this Polish perspective clear when he confided in me that his mother was four months pregnant with him when his surgeon father was arrested in a Nazi round-up of civilians in 1944. Bohdan explained that his father and 200 other men were taken into Gestapo headquarters. "A month later," he added darkly, "their charred bodies were found in the yard behind the building."

"But what could the Nazis have possibly gained from the death of your father?" I asked naïvely.

With his eyes gleaming, he shot back: "Have you forgotten? The Nazis hated the Slavs as well!"

At the end of my talk with the students, I asked them how prevalent antisemitism was in Warsaw. One girl raised her hand and told me forthrightly: "Antisemitism just isn't a part of our lives." The others agreed that for their generation it is a non-issue.

I did not entirely believe them until I went to the reception for me in the headteacher's office. The French teacher, Marguerite, told me that she takes students to visit Auschwitz at the end of every school year. "You can tell from their silence how very deeply it affects them."

'The Warsaw Anagrams' is published by Corsair at £7.99

Last updated: 11:38am, December 22 2011