Monday, May 5, 1997

Book Review: Bondage To The Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust by Michael Steinlauf


Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Bondage To The Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust by Michael Steinlauf
Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1997
189 pp. $ 16.95

It is a tradition at Passover Seders I attend to sing “Zog nisht keynmol” (“Don’t Ever Say,”), the Yiddish anthem of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, when the poorly armed, starving remnant of Warsaw’s Jewry held off German troops for a month before the Ghetto was razed entirely. We were singing this, as is the custom, several years ago, when the rendition was transformed, made unforgettable for me, by the presence among us of someone who had seen the Ghetto burn.

As a boy, Jurek joined onlookers on the Aryan side, watching in pain, knowing, without knowing why, that a part of him was burning behind the wall. Jurek was a Jew — though he did not know it at the time — whose mother, in an act of what he called “shamanistic foresight,” deposited him in a monastery several years before the war broke out. By the time of this seder, he had long since been aware of his origins, which is not to say the process of reconciling Jew and Pole was — if it ever would be — complete. I found myself caught in the machinery of reconciliation when I made a careless, accusatory remark about the role of Poles in the Holocaust to which Jurek, moved as he had been by hearing the song of the Warsaw Ghetto sung in Massachusetts, nevertheless took immediate exception.

The seder was hosted by Michael Steinlauf, author of “Bondage to the Dead,” a spare, incisive essay on the history and psychology of Polish-Jewish relations, centering on the Holocaust. Nearly every event Steinlauf describes in this book is fraught with the layered complexity, if not always the poignancy, of Jurek’s experience. Steinlauf declares himself “‘pro-Jewish’ among Poles and ‘pro-Polish’ among Jews.” This means he has indispensable equipment for uncoiling a history in which actions on one side of the divide, however innocent or necessitated, all too often cast horrific shadows on the other.

The Kosinski affair is a case in point. Jerzy Kosinski’s standing in the United States, founded on his masterpiece, “The Painted Bird,” was challenged, in the early 1980s, by the claim that he was not the book’s true author; he had farmed the prose out and reaped glory from the results. The controversy immediately took on Cold War ramifications: Kosinski’s attackers coming mostly from the left, the right responded that Kosinski was being mugged for being too staunch an anti-Communist.

Poland, too, has its Kosinski affair, every bit as tangled though in the end the issues reduce to a variant of the perennial Polish issue: Jew and Pole. In 1994, a biography appeared in Poland showing that peasants had, in fact, hidden and protected Kosinski’s family during the war. Their reward? To be depicted on the world stage by means of “The Painted Bird” as unimaginably brutish and cruel. The moral: once again the ungrateful and self-serving Jew stabs his self-sacrificing Polish neighbor in the heart.

The Kosinski affair belongs to a central narrative of “Bondage to the Dead.” After World War II, the Communist regime exploited every tendency in the Polish psyche to deny Jewish suffering, and, more grotesquely, to recast the Jews as perpetrators. This process was furthered even by those rare occasions when the regime appeared to give Jews pride of place. Immediately after the war, for example, a memorial was erected to honor the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. No comparable monument was dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising that took place a year later, it being in the interests of the Stalinist regime to de-emphasize the role of non-Communist Polish partisans. Such a raising of Jew above Pole was one of the more indirect ways the regime had of inciting anti-Semitism. The authorities did not shrink from cruder means, informing the populace, for example, that “Moshe Dayan was a disguised nazi war criminal, [and] that Martin Bormann was hiding in Golda Meir’s apartment.”

The goal was to disassemble history and put it back together according to an ancient formula, one in which the enemy would, as ever (according to one strand of Polish sentiment), be the Jews, this time reinforced by Germans with whom they were secretly in league. The Holocaust is not so much denied, in this bizarre scenario, as redirected; it turns out to have been visited, with Jewish help, principally upon the Poles.

So grand a victory for magical thinking could only occur, according to Steinlauf, when decades of Communism prevented Poles from confronting their real role in the Holocaust. Poles had not been perpetrators but bystanders. Perpetration, as Steinlauf describes it, is, in fact, simpler to resolve; in postwar Germany, “a small portion of the guilty could be punished, the crime could thereby be symbolically expiated, and the society, for better or for worse, attempt to move on.” Witnessing is a more difficult debt to discharge. Though they didn’t do the killing, Poles often benefited from it, “making use of land, factories, warehouses, money jewelry, furniture, clothing, dishes, and linen that had belonged to Jews.” According to Steinlauf, drawing from the works of Robert Jay Lifton (notably “The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life”), that guilt could not possibly be appeased under Communism. Instead, the Poles had to cheat, finding a way to see themselves as the martyred group once more.

In the end, this state-sponsored psychic contortionism gave anti-Semitism a bad name. After the fall of Communism, anti-Semitism ceased to be a prime mover in Polish politics. Even before, in the years of Solidarity, honest efforts at an accounting were under way. Steinlauf ends the book by asking, once again, how Poles will deal with “the imprint of their most agonizing historical memory, the image of the Jew destroyed before their eyes”? But he leaves us with hopeful signs: I.B. Singer has posthumously become one of Poland’s best-selling novelists, and Polish secondary school students have responded enthusiastically to essay questions concerning Jewish culture.

At the risk of displaying ingratitude toward a longtime friend — and seder host — I must make mention of the book’s one flaw. The first section, a summary background to the Holocaust, is a rather dry rendition, with the element of psychology yet to be introduced. It is with the discussion of witness-guilt that the book takes on character and direction and makes its special contribution to our understanding of Polish-Jewish relations and of nationalism in general.

How much truth about itself can a nation endure? How much self-scrutiny can it tolerate before retreating, bruised and resentful, into its ancestral mythology? These are questions with obvious relevance for race relations in the United States, and for the contests between nationalities in the Balkans, the Middle-East, and other parts of the world. “Bondage to the Dead” prosecutes them strenuously in the Polish context. At the same time, it answers the question I’ve had with me since my encounter with Jurek; it is no longer mysterious to me that such a man would want to affirm the Jewish side of his identity without being willing in the least to surrender or defame the Polish side.

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