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‘Thinking of Polishness in different terms’: New book examines Poland’s Jewish revival

In ‘Resurrecting the Jew,’ Geneviève Zubrzycki explores the ongoing reckoning with Polish national identity and its complex relationship to the Holocaust

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Geneviève Zubrzycki

To outside observers, the ongoing revival of Jewish life in Poland, of all places, may seem like a kind of perverse fad, not least because the movement has largely been animated by non-Jewish Poles who are increasingly communing with Jewish history through such acts of philosemitism as visiting klezmer clubs, studying Yiddish, attending Jewish festivals and wearing yarmulkes.

“Sometimes, when North Americans or Western Europeans hear about the Jewish revival in Poland, they think it’s all fluff,” Geneviève Zubrzycki, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan who has closely observed the phenomenon for years, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “I think they are very wrong.”

In her new book, Resurrecting the Jew: Nationalism, Philosemitism and Poland’s Jewish Revival, Zubrzycki contends that this engagement represents a deeper and more meaningful reckoning with Polish national identity and its complex relationship to the Holocaust, which has long been actively suppressed by the right-wing governing party. “I think that it is a very important process of this kind of examination of Polish history, the difficult parts and all,” she said. “It’s important for thinking of Polishness in different terms.”

Meanwhile, the populist Law and Justice Party, led by Polish President Andrzej Duda, has tried hard to control the conversation on its own draconian terms, vehemently rejecting what it describes as the “politics of shame” surrounding discussions of the Holocaust and passing legislation to criminalize accusations of Polish complicity in the Nazi genocide.

But while some observers have suggested that the efflorescence of Jewish culture is a reaction to such measures, Zubrzycki posits, in one of the central arguments of her book, that the dynamic is in fact the other way around.

“A lot of people think that Poles are doing this either as a form of expiation, of guilt, for example, or as opposition to the current right-wing populist government,” she told JI. “What I’m showing in the book is that, actually, the phenomenon has deeper roots than the current government.”

“If there is a reaction,” Zubrzycki added, “it’s actually from the populist government itself to this Jewish revival.”

Released this week and published by Princeton University Press, Resurrecting the Jew is the product of a decade of field research and extensive interviews with multiple subjects, including some Polish Jews who are now reclaiming their heritage in a country that was once home to the largest Jewish population in Europe.

The book will be published in Poland next month, when Zubrzycki is scheduled to give a lecture at the JCC in Krakow.

Zubrzycki, who directs the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia and is affiliated with the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, previously wrote about a different aspect of Polish-Jewish relations in her first monograph, The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland, published in 2006. She completed her most recent book under the auspices of a 2021 Guggenheim fellowship.

In conversation with JI, Zubrzycki discussed the larger significance of Poland’s Jewish revival. “It’s clear that Polish society is more divided over those issues than ever,” she said. “It’s as if there’s two Polands.”

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: You started this book 10 years ago and have put a lot of work into exploring this subject. Was there anything in particular that first set you on this long and intensive path?

Geneviève Zubrzycki: The book is, in a way, the companion to my first book about the non-memory of the Holocaust. The first book was about antisemitism and this kind of shock that Poles went through after the fall of Communism, when different narratives of World War II came about. In that book, I was interested, really, in Polish national identity and its relationship to Catholicism — and, of course, the “Jewish question,” quote unquote, came to be central to this. At the same time, when I was researching Polish antisemitism, nationalism, Catholicism, I encountered the beginning of a Jewish revival. I was in Poland at the time, and it was the first festivals of Jewish culture, for example, in 1990 and 1991. I was a graduate student then, and I was seeing this parallel move. 

On the one hand, you have the Catholic church that’s kind of coming back with force. You have people reacting to new narratives of World War II, where the Holocaust is really anchored as a key historical moment. And on the other hand, you have people trying to recover their Jewishness and recover Jewish culture that has been destroyed and also silenced by Communism. So this new book is about that process of recovery. There are two kinds of lines. One is by Jews themselves, who are re-appropriating their identity; many people did not know they were Jewish or would not speak openly about this. So there is the revival of Jewish communal life itself, and then there are a lot of non-Jewish Poles who are increasingly interested in what happened to Polish Jews, and who are trying to commemorate and celebrate Jewish culture.

JI: Your book makes clear, notably, that non-Polish Jews represent a larger share of that kind of investment and interest, just by dint of there not being that many Jews in Poland.

Zubrzycki: Exactly. In the book, I document the growth and spread of festivals of Jewish culture, and there are over 40 in Poland. Obviously, these are not made solely or even primarily by Jews and for Jews. At one point, I didn’t go to Poland for five years, and when I went back in 2010, the festival of Jewish culture in Krakow that I had been attending for several years in the 1990s was like 10 days long and had 30,000 people. That was a shocking difference. There’s not a day where you open a newspaper or a magazine or something where there’s not a new book about Jewish life in Poland or Jewish culture. I became really interested in what Jewishness and Poland’s Jewish path means for non-Jewish Poles.

JI: What are the motivations for Jews themselves who are seeking active identification with their past — including some who didn’t know they were Jewish — and then, as a parallel, non-Jews engaging with Jewish culture through festivals and studying Yiddish and attending Passover Seders, for example. More broadly, are those groups interconnected or do they exist independently of one another?

Zubrzycki: They exist independently, but they do intersect in some places. The revival of Jewish communal life in Poland is made possible by the fall of Communism, by the influx of resources, both human and material, to Poland to help Jews live a Jewish life — you have foundations that are there, they’ve founded Jewish schools, etc. You have that on the one hand, but one of my arguments is that there’s something going on in Polish society that is also making it possible for people who either were hiding their Jewish roots or did not know about them to learn about them and want to learn about them. There’s been a cultural shift in Poland where, basically, being Jewish is not necessarily a stigma, so that you don’t need to hide yourself as a Jew. And those festivals of Jewish culture — you know, the music, the novels, all of that, of course, and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw — all provide this kind of cultural and social environment where someone is discovering that they have Jewish roots, for example, or knew already and could actually embrace them instead of hiding them further. That’s where they kind of interact. I’ve met and interviewed many people who would be interested in Jewish culture, would go to those festivals, and then they start digging in, and they say, “Oh, well, my maternal grandmother was Jewish.” There’s a lot of that stuff. They are different phenomena, but actually they can support each other.

JI: You refute this notion in your book, but I wanted to bring it up for the purposes of our conversation. Alongside a new and growing interest in Jewish culture by non-Jewish Poles has been an effort by the right-wing governing party to impede criticism of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, including a libel law that criminalizes such discussions. But you argue that engagement with Jewish history is not — as one might reasonably assume — a reaction to the Law and Justice Party. Could you elaborate?

Zubrzycki: A lot of people think that Poles are doing this either as a form of expiation, of guilt, for example, or as opposition to the current right-wing populist government. What I’m showing in the book is that, actually, the phenomenon has deeper roots than the current government — and that, if there is a reaction, it’s actually from the populist government itself to this Jewish revival. Although the Jewish revival begins in the late 1980s and starts its first steps in the 1990s after the fall of Communism, it really booms after the publication of Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, in 2000, about the murder of Jews by ethnic Poles, their neighbors. 

This creates such a shock in Polish society, which becomes very divided over this issue. The more liberal parts of Polish society kind of want to reckon with that past, and learning about Jewish history and resurrecting Jewish culture is part of that reckoning — that, yes, Poles did this and we cannot hide these pogroms and that terrible history, we need to face up to that and we need to also kind of rediscover the Jewish past, the good and the bad parts of Polish history. And the right-wing government is not interested in that reckoning. They feel that this kind of critical examination of Polish history is a threat to Polish national identity. That’s what they’re really trying to suppress with laws, for example, and all sorts of forms of censorship.

JI: Do you think that resistance is at all reminiscent of the opposition, say, to removing Confederate statues and otherwise more deeply reckoning with the legacy of slavery in the U.S.?

Zubrzycki: It is a parallel. In the U.S., the reckoning with slavery is part of a process that has been going on for a long time, and Trump and right-wing white nationalism are coming against that movement to re-enshrine white nationalism. That’s something a little bit similar in the Polish context.

JI: It seems, at base, like a rejection of shame. 

Zubrzycki: It is, yes, and that’s what they call it. Law and Justice is saying we need to end this “politics of shame.” And that politics of shame was the recognition of Polish participation in some crimes against Jews during World War II.

JI: If your suggestion that the populist government is reacting to a surge of interest in Jewish culture is true, does that suggest Polish society is heading in a more pluralistic direction, even as the Law and Justice Party remains in power?

Zubrzycki: I think it is slowly, incrementally becoming more pluralistic. Data supports that, when you look at younger generations. I mean, young Poles are not going to church as much as people of their age 20 years ago, for example. It’s not just that people at 20 typically don’t go to church; it’s that there’s something about the new generation that they’re becoming less interested in specific versions of Polish national identity. They tend to be more pro-E.U.; they tend to have traveled and worked abroad; they’re more secular; they’re more liberal than even their parents were at the same age. The Catholic Church is losing ground. And even though Law and Justice was reelected, it’s a populist government that’s successful because it does provide important provisions for the working classes, so they get their support. I think, yes, there is a movement toward more pluralism over time. However, it’s clear that Polish society is more divided over those issues than ever. It’s as if there’s two Polands.

JI: How much does the commemoration of Jewish history have to do explicitly with the Holocaust?

Zubrzycki: There has been a lot of commemorative activity over that, but also the argument that you cannot just commemorate the murders and the death, and that the Jewish contribution and Jewish life in Poland cannot just be restricted to only the murder of Jews in Europe. That’s why it’s going both ways. Some of the argument is that in order to understand what was lost, we need to understand what was. It’s understanding the music, the literature, the architecture. What’s interesting, too, and I tried to show in the book, is that it’s not just like a cosmopolitan, urban, elite movement. There are organizations that go especially to former Galicia — so, Eastern Poland — and school kids and their teachers prepare programs about their small villages that used to be shtetls. There’s a movement for local education, and recovering [the] Jewish history of a region is part of local education.

JI: Galicia in particular is an interesting part of the equation because Galician Jews were looked down upon by other Jews. My maternal grandmother’s family was from the region.

Zubrzycki: Because they were poorer, right? So it was more like country Jews, in a way. It’s shtetl Jews. Although, when you think of Galicia, it’s also Krakow and now Lviv, even, in Ukraine. That’s a Polish Jewish town. That was Galicia.

JI: So there are a number of initiatives that extend beyond the metropolitan centers.

Zubrzycki: Absolutely. And very important ones. A lot of educational initiatives in very small towns where students in middle school and high school are given assignments to basically learn about the Jewish roots of their towns. There’s no Jews left, but then they learn this, and I’ve been to sessions where they present their work. It’s very impressive.

JI: Has there been any resistance?

Zubrzycki: I haven’t heard of resistance. This is an incredibly popular program that’s run by an NGO. It’s not sponsored by the government, but it becomes part of the history program. For example, they send specialists on the history of Polish Jews who help the local teachers develop programs about the history of their small town, and then they build projects with the schoolchildren.

JI: One reason I ask is because there was a somewhat curious detail in your book about the far right’s efforts to label its opponents as Jews, even — and perhaps especially — if they’re not Jewish. What’s going on there?

Zubrzycki: That’s what Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of Poland’s most important newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, is talking about — that basically, in Poland, Jewishness can be imputed to someone regardless of their origins if you want to oppose them. You basically accuse your political opponent of being Jewish. He’s talking about “magical antisemitism.” It’s not that someone is a Jew, therefore this person is XYZ; it’s that I find this person with XYZ faults, and therefore that person must be a Jew. Though the Jewish community in Poland is small, you often have even right-wing figures who are turned into Jews by people to the right of the right.

JI: Do you think the epithet is functioning as a stand-in for, say, a kind of unwelcome foreign influence?

Zubrzycki: In Poland, it’s liberal socialism and capitalism that are Jewish. So people who want to embrace those values say, “OK, well, that’s Jewish. I’m supporting Jewishness, because I want to be European. I want to be cosmopolitan. I want to be secular.” They embrace the values that the right is rejecting.

JI: You’re Quebecoise. Your father’s side is Polish. You note in the book that you’re not Jewish. But I thought it was interesting, as your own interviews suggest, that conceptions of Jewish identity are somewhat fluid among Polish Jews due in part to a history of concealment. 

Zubrzycki: If I’m talking with my name in Poland, unless I’m in a Polish Jewish circle, they wouldn’t think I’m Jewish. But if I was in a Jewish setting, where there’s a lot of people who discover, by chance, that they have Jewish ancestry, then that was never taken for granted that I would be, you know, Catholic, for example. Because your name is not an indicator of your ancestry in Polish Jewish circles. So if I’m at the JCC and I’m interviewing people, some people have very Polish names, but, “Yeah, my grandfather changed his name,” or, “Yeah, my grandmother was actually Jewish.” They often assumed that I also had Jewish roots, and they would ask me, or American Jews would ask me, “What’s your story?” “On what side?” “Are you Jewish?” They would ask me things like this because that’s the reality of Polish Jews. Those who survived after the Holocaust, many of them changed their names or became secular or converted.

JI: In your book you outline different levels of engagement with Jewish culture and history. There are some cruder and perhaps even antisemitic figurines, like the “Jew with a coin,” as you write. Then there’s hip or more “casual” involvement like visiting a Klezmer club. You also point to a sort of “critical-introspective” tier as well as “empathetic versions of appropriation.” There’s clearly a diversity of engagement, but — if it’s possible to quantify — which tier do you think has attracted the most participants?

Zubrzycki: So the “Jew with a coin” and some of those representations are becoming part of folk culture. They’re sold in the marketplace, and there’s debate about what those mean, or whether they’re antisemitic. There’s some debate even among Jewish scholars. What I call empathetic or cultural engagement, there’s a lot of people who are in that category. When you think of, for example, the JCC in Krakow, that is offering all sorts of programming to Jews and non-Jews. I mean, 95% of their volunteers are not Jewish. These are people who are deeply invested in supporting Jewish life in Poland. That’s an interesting thing for me. Why do they do this? There are motivations behind this. So I cannot tell you, per se, what the proportion is. For sure, it’s easier to buy a cheap “Jew with a coin” than volunteering and giving 10 hours a week of your time to a Jewish organization. 

But I’m not sure that’s how we should think about the problem. When you think of what becomes visible and in the public sphere, the face of Poland is also changing with museums, with Jewish institutions, with these programs, with these public forums where people talk about difficult issues and Polish Jewish relations. It occupies a large, large chunk of Polish public life.

JI: What were some of the more unique stories you heard in your research and interviews, either with Jews or non-Jews?

Zubrzycki: From the Jewish categories, you hear stories, very, very moving stories, of grandchildren, you know, snooping around and finding, for example, a grandmother’s application to the German government to receive compensation, and the grandchildren had no idea that she was Jewish and no idea that she had been in a camp. You have stories of people learning on their grandparents’ or parents’ deathbeds that “I’m not your birth mother,” for example, or one story of a grandfather who had a stroke and woke up speaking Yiddish. You have stories like that that are just unbelievable. And then you have stories from non-Jews who say, “Well, I heard about that pogrom in Jedwabne.” That was one woman who was, like, 30 when I interviewed her, and she was in high school when she heard about this. She convinced her parents to drive all the way to that town, like 10 hours in the car, to see what that was about. She was from Galicia, from a small village, and then she decided to study Jewish studies and started to work at the JCC in Krakow. There are stories like this, of individuals who are building their life around this difficult reckoning and supporting the revival of Jewish communities in Poland.

JI: As you say in the book, as well, this kind of reckoning is somewhat unique among the former Eastern bloc countries. Hungary, for instance, which has a kind of tortured history with the Holocaust, has a population of 100,000 Jews, larger than Poland’s. But most public engagement with Jewish life appears largely to take place between the Jewish community and the government. In Poland, though, it seems more like an organic outgrowth of civic life rather than something sanctioned by the state. 

Zubrzycki: Right, absolutely. The Jewish community in Poland is much smaller, although there’s potential for growth, because people are finding out that they have Jewish ancestry, and then they may decide that they want to explore that. When I went on a Birthright trip, all of them had Jewish grandparents; they’d satisfied the criteria, but most of them have never lived as Jews. They qualified because they have ancestry. But they’re Polish. And then they’re trying to figure this out. You know, how Jewish are they? And what does it mean to be Jewish?

JI: What was their experience of Israel like, having traveled with them through Birthright? 

Zubrzycki: It was different for many of them. I mean, it was an important discovery. The program lasts 10 days, and there’s a sharp evolution. By the end, they had made solid relationships with each other. Some of them felt more Polish after, and some of them felt more Jewish. I think that the effect of a trip like this lasts over time. When they came back to Poland, they already had more baggage to kind of feel Jewish, so then some of them might really embrace that.

JI: Among non-Jews in Poland, have you observed any recognition of Israel as a component of Jewish identity?

Zubrzycki: Yes, but in different ways. They have things like days of Israeli culture and dance troupes that are about Israeli dance. There’s also the knowledge among more educated people, for example, that Ben-Gurion was Polish. There’s this feeling of, “OK, the birth of Zionism, it’s Polish Jews.” There’s a feeling of pride that Poland also participated and that Polish Jews were big in the creation of that. With the current government there are some tensions, but in general, Poland likes to present itself as Israel’s strongest ally in Europe, and certainly in the E.U. Even before the move to the right, it was a way also for Poland to carve its own place within the E.U. Now, we have direct flights to Tel Aviv for, like, 50 bucks from different Polish cities.

JI: What do you think outside observers generally tend to miss about Polish engagement with Jewish life and history?

Zubrzycki: Sometimes when North Americans or Western Europeans hear about the Jewish revival in Poland, they think it’s all fluff. I think they are very wrong. I think that this is an important movement. I’m not saying that it’s a mainstream movement embraced by all of Polish society, but it’s been going strong now for 20 years. It’s not just in big cities, it’s in small towns; it’s in the four corners of the country. And I think that it is a very important process of this kind of examination of Polish history, the difficult parts and all. It’s important for thinking of Polishness in different terms. That’s what I wanted to show in the book.

I do think that it’s important to think about the lessons of this and to think about the implications of some of my findings and what that in-depth study can teach us, for example, about the U.S. and other places. You could think of Turkey, which has a complicated relationship with the Armenians. There’s a lot of lessons to be taken from what’s happening in Poland now, why this reckoning of the past is also occurring in the cultural sphere.

JI: You weren’t born in Poland, but do you feel like your own interest in this subject, as a non-Jew, ties in at all to the movement itself?

Zubrzycki: Of course, in a way. I mean, I’m not a right-wing Polish nationalist. And, for me, it was important to understand where that movement came from and why it’s expressed that specific way. But the interesting thing, too, is that my first book was about the opposite, and you interview people who have very radically different opinions about that, and the role of the social scientist is to basically listen to them and try to understand how that works. But, you know, now my closest friends in Poland are part of this movement because I spent so much time with them.