Konstanty Gebert: 25 Years of Freedom
MAGDALENA WÓJCIK: WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE JEWISH UNDER COMMUNISM?
Konstanty Gebert: The answer to this could be an entire series of seminars, because it all depends: what kind of a Jew, in what year, and where. However, generally speaking, it was common knowledge that being Jewish was not a good idea. The first association would be the fear that ensued after March 1968. That is what has formed our entire generation: fear and defiance.
I was a rather typical member of the so-called Judeo-Communist environment, which was also fully assimilated. There was also another Judeo-Communist faction, where the language spoken at home was Yiddish. We spoke Polish at home. We did not even bother to deny that we were Jewish, it just didn’t seem to matter at all. And that’s how it was until March 1968, when it suddenly turned out to matter a lot, even though nobody actually seemed to know why.
For the first ten years after March 1968, the greatest problem experienced by those who chose not to leave was the feeling of being left alone. We all felt like we were the last Jews in Poland. Even if you suspected someone might be a Jew, you could not just ask. Just like today you would not ask someone whether they have AIDS. Aside from being alone, there was a sense of an omnipresent threat. We knew we were being punished, we just didn’t know what for.
I did not even know what that horrible thing, a Jew, was. I would learn about that later from books.
When the Jews left, they had to leave a lot of their books behind. After March ’68, the second-hand bookshops were full of amazing books, such as a series of brilliant translations of Sholem Aleichem. It was in these novels where, for the first time in my life, I encountered people who were just like me!
I could not understand all the cultural references, I had no idea what the difference was between a tallit and shacharit. But I knew what would happen on the next page – for example, that someone would take offence and refuse to eat. It had never occurred to me before that I could read a novel that was essentially about myself, about my family and friends!
But it also was not much help. The great breakthrough happened in the second half of the 1970’s. First of all, a political opposition started to emerge. This helped to somewhat ease the feeling of being alone. And then, in a very natural way, the Jewish Flying University evolved from this movement. It suddenly turned out that there was a place where Jews belonged, where Jews could admit to be Jews and that it was really no problem! It also turned out that we all shared similar experiences of the post-1968 trauma.
I must also admit there was something disappointing about it: what I thought to be my unique personal trauma turned out to be a common experience. But it was also very liberating.
Later, during Solidarity times and then under martial law, the communists had more pressing issues to deal with than the Jews. That was also very liberating: realizing that being Jewish was not the most important thing out there. There was this euphoric feeling of community in the air. I will never forget a statement by the Solidarity chapter in Puławy in April 1981. In Puławy, or somewhere near Puławy, a Jewish cemetery had been desecrated. After it happened, the Solidarity chapter announced that from now on all Jewish cemeteries in that district were under the Union’s protection, and that any attack on them would be perceived as an attack on the Union. That statement was amazing!
This is the kind of euphoria people are experiencing in Ukraine right now. That is why I support Josef Zissels.
I know how wonderful it is when you realize you are part of something much greater! Of course, euphoria never lasts long. Something nasty always crawls out and it gets unpleasant. But no one should take this moment of joy away from them, because most of the time history is not kind to anyone anyway.
However, I would like to emphasize that I am a Jew from an assimilated communist intellectual family from Warsaw. Were I a Jewish miner in Lower Silesia, my world would look completely different. That is why it makes them furious – and rightly so – when this Warsaw-based Jewish environment is considered as the cultural norm. But that is a topic for a different conversation.
I did not mention official Jewish life because official institutions first incited fear, and then later – distrust. We considered them part of the communist regime, which, of course, was not fair, but it was not far-fetched either. And they were scared of us, and they were right to be scared! Because it was obvious that these young bearded men who were friends with Catholics were trouble. I can actually understand what the Jewish officials were thinking when they tried to convince us there was no point in trying so hard to be Jewish, instead of just being happy to see young people coming to the synagogue. If you were an old Polish Jew, you really had enough tsuris in your life and you did not need any more.
Jurek Kichler used to tell this great anecdote. He belonged to the Social and Cultural Association of Jews (TSKŻ) in Wrocław. He got upset once and he asked: “Why don’t we actually keep any Jewish traditions here in TSKŻ?”. And he got a perfectly honest answer: “What do you mean? We did celebrate the October Revolution anniversary!”. That was their idea of a progressive Jewish tradition. We found it very difficult to understand that it was not something imposed from above. That it was not some forced collaboration. It was a genuine Jewish tradition of social radicalism, which was deformed by Polish post-war communism, but was not
a product of it. It is a paradox that the answer Jurek received had a lot more to do with the real Jewish tradition than his question. He did not know that much about Judaism back then. It was all beyond our experience. I suppose we must have offended quite a lot of people. We were arrogant in our belief that we knew better what it meant to be Jewish.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE JEWISH HOLIDAYS AND TRADITIONS? HOW WERE THEY CELEBRATED?
We needed books to learn how to celebrate them! It was awfully funny, because my late wife, Małgonia, and I decided to become kosher, or at least as kosher as we could. It was actually because we wanted to be fair; we didn’t think we could justify our lack of observance just because we were not brought up that way. All those generations before us worked so hard for their children and grandchildren to remain Jews, and not to live the Jewish way just because we did not know how – it felt like we were being ungrateful. Still, we had no blueprint, no directions. It was almost like a social experiment. So, in 1970’s Warsaw, where there was nothing in the shops to start with (not to mention anything kosher), we decided to keep Shabbat and keep kosher.
It was a nightmare! We did figure out the technicalities of Shabbat eventually. There was just one thing I couldn’t grasp: where was that oneg, the joy of Shabbat? It seemed to me that oneg would only be possible when that nightmare finally ended. Then you could kick back, have a smoke and get back to normal life!
But we were determined. We said we would give it a year and then decide whether we would give it up or not.
Of course, sometimes you had to compromise. If you had to start Shabbat at 3 p.m. in the winter and you had to heat the water up for your child’s bath, there was no discussion – you would heat the water up. But actually, we gave up as little as possible. And after a while we realized it grew on us, and it was not an issue anymore.
And after a year passed, we realized (to our own surprise) that we actually liked it a lot. We also realized that by living this way we had gained something that we never even knew existed.
Actually, almost all the people who were actively organizing the Jewish Flying University became religious. But it was still a minority of all the people from the JFU. And when after 1990 we realized that the epitome of a Polish Jew was a bearded man wearing a yarmulke, I considered it perfectly natural. I understood only later that it did not have to be natural. And that if someone isn’t a bearded man wearing a yarmulke, they might not be happy with this representation. But for me, this was the only proper expression of Jewish identity. There was no nation, no language, not even a Jewish street or district – what was there left, then? Well, maybe just the fact that when I prayed, I was connecting to all the Jews in the world.
There was a massive brouhaha about it later. Shoshana Ronen and Michal Sobelman came to Warsaw. They were actually almost religious refugees who had left Israel because of religious coercion and “chose freedom” in Poland. And then they saw the beards were here as well! Shoshana wrote a piece for “Gazeta Wyborcza” calling us frauds and saying that we were teaching our Jewish children all the wrong things. It all started at a Lauder camp, when the religious participants opposed organizing dance parties on Friday evenings. And Shoshi got furious! She said she was having none of it, she said it was wrong to make those poor kids believe that a good Jew is a religious Jew, and that it wasn’t true! That there was also Spinoza, Marx, Freud, etc. She let loose with all the fury she brought with her from Israel. And I answered her in a rather unpleasant way and we decided to have a public debate about it.
The debate took place in the TSKŻ club in the Jewish Theatre. All the people who supported Shoshi’s point of view came, of course. They all suspected that I believed that only a religious Jew is a real Jew. I never said anything of the sort. I only said that there is no Jewishness without religious Jews, and that I would very much wish to see everyone going to the synagogue. I never said, however, that Jewish radicalism and Jewish atheism are not part of the authentic Jewish tradition. I personally dislike it, but this doesn’t make it any less authentic. I never experienced such defeat in a debate, before or after. They destroyed me! Some elderly lady saved me in the end – she stood up and she said that she was close friends with my mother, and that she’s sure that I meant well (laughter).
But later it turned out that there was no religious war to be won or lost here. I still believe that Polish Jewish culture would not survive without the Nożyk Synagogue and without religious Jews. We are a minority, and not the most important one at that! What we do is fundamental and very important, but it is not creative at all, we are a boring kehillah. Almost everything interesting in Polish Jewish life is happening outside the Jewish communities, and it is being done by people to whom it has never even occurred that they could do anything within the community. And it is also possible that the community doesn’t think these people could work within it. It’s not about someone winning and someone else losing. It’s just that the frontline has moved somewhere else, and that is a good thing. But 20 years ago, this was an extremely important issue. I did not understand at all that when I was saying that I wished to see everyone in a synagogue, I was actually attacking the identity of those who wouldn’t go there. Their identity was the radical pre-war one: not going to the synagogue at all, and celebrating Yom Kippur with a ham and cheese sandwich and a cigar! You can do that kind of thing when there is a large community around you, and some inner Jewish conflict to win or lose. But in 1990’s Poland there was no inner Jewish war. And the only thing that was left from that Jewish radical thinking was that it was important to eat ham on Yom Kippur, but nobody really knew why anymore. Of course, they could very well have felt threatened, but I just couldn’t understand it.
I WOULD LIKE TO ASK ABOUT THE FALL OF COMMUNISM. IN JUNE 1989, DID YOU THINK ABOUT WHAT THAT CHANGE MIGHT MEAN FOR POLISH JEWS?
I managed to go to Paris in 1986. Probably the communists decided that if I leave, I will never come back and I will not bother them anymore. In Paris I met Sewek Blumsztajn, and I told him: “We will meet at the Warsaw airport the day after the victory over communism. You will be coming back to Poland, and I will be running away”. Because, first of all, in 1986 the fall of communism was an abstract concept. I really did not believe that I would live to see the day. And secondly, even if I could have imagined it, I expected it to be the return of the Second Republic of Poland: aggressive Catholicism and nationalism and the like. And even though I believed the fight for independence and democracy in Poland was right, I was still concerned that I would have to leave afterwards. I didn’t really think much about Jews in June 1989, there were more important things to worry about. But whenever I did think about it, I was quite afraid of what the future might bring.
On the other hand though (and I consider this a bit schizophrenic), when I thought about Poles, I was not afraid at all. Since I had to go underground during martial law, I got to know a different side of Poland, a side I would have never discovered otherwise. Before 1981, my Poland was confined to Warsaw city center. The rest was just wilderness, ubi leones. And then suddenly I would find myself staying with some workers from the Ursus factory neighborhood, or at a presbytery in some village. Of course, since I was underground, I couldn’t tell anyone who I was, but I could listen to Poles talk openly in the presence of a person they trusted. And it was nothing bad! Of course, you would also meet some nasty person that you would get into a discussion with. And it would turn out that others cared about that nasty person, but they were also willing to admit that he or she was being nasty.
And so, even though I had a feeling that Poland was heading towards bad times, I did think well of Poles.
I should also tell you about Jedwabne, because it was quite funny. I learned about Jedwabne in 1975, I think.
I was hitchhiking across the country, and I ended up in Jedwabne, of all places. I asked some drunk guy for directions, and he said „Oh right, you need to go that way, next to that place where they burned all those Jews”. And I said, “Excuse me?!”, “Well, by the barn, where they burned the Jews”. And there was something about the way he said it that made me ask: “Who did it, the Germans?” “No, not the Germans, our people!” “Who?” „This one, who lives over there, and the father of that woman who is walking that road, and so on”.
I left Jedwabne and I forgot that conversation completely. There was just no space in my brain where I could put it! I only remembered it years later, in March 1980, when we had a discussion about Jedwabne in the Jewish Historical Institute.
And so I learned that other history of Poland, the history I never really knew before. I never knew it because of my communist upbringing. The Home Army was not mentioned much, and it was not mentioned kindly. I read about our beautiful history from forbidden books, and I would learn the nasty bits from talking to elderly people. I was also a bit surprised by myself, but despite all that I learned, I still definitely thought well of Poles.
JEWISH LIFE IN POLAND HAS CHANGED A LOT OVER THE PAST 25 YEARS. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THESE CHANGES?
You know, I have no clue. I think the most amazing and unexpected of all are you, young people nowadays. You have no idea how incredible it is to me: I am sitting in a taxi with a young woman who speaks Hebrew and Yiddish, who did Hebrew Studies at university. First of all, the fact that someone like this exists, and also that you are not the only one – there is a whole community of such people! And secondly, the fact that we are talking about it in a taxi and nobody is thinking “What if the driver overhears something and tells someone about it?”. And the driver doesn’t even seem to care at all. The fact that Jewish life became normal just like that is something I never expected to happen, and that is what I consider the greatest achievement. My dream was to belong to a boring Jewish community in a boring country, and that dream is almost complete now.
But it is also quite incredible that most of my darkest fears never came true. It was never obvious that Poland would keep its independence and that it would become a truly democratic country. The expectations I had based on previous experience were not very optimistic. Also, that the biggest problem for Polish Jews would be demographics and not anti-Semitism, well, that was just inconceivable. And now, yes, our biggest problem is the fact that there are so few of us. And it is, in a way, our historical defeat: when during the early 1990’s people started coming out and finding their ways to various Jewish institutions, we had no idea what to do with them. We were completely disorganized. We had no structure and no clear path, and a lot of people couldn’t find what they were looking for in the Associations of Jews and in Jewish communities. They left and they worked out their Jewish identity and heritage on their own. We missed out on lots and lots of Jews.
Later, in the Jewish community – and I consider this to be a common sin shared by all the organizations – all these people returning to their roots really needed to be supported and confirmed in the fact that they were Jewish.
At the end of 1990, we voted on a very important amendment to the Community statute. At the beginning, you could only belong to the Jewish community if you were a halachic Jew. That was logical, consistent, coherent. But I believed that non-halachic Jews should also be able to sign up – membership in the community is different than counting people for a minyan, and should be available to them. Everyone agreed. It wouldn’t have made much sense if they hadn’t, because by then half of the group were non-halachic Jews. Following this conclusion I said that if we no longer care about Halacha, we should also accept people who have no Jewish heritage, but have proven that they belong to the Community, like Ruth the Moabite. If they don’t adhere to another religion and if they say: “Your people will be my people and your God my God”, then why not. It did not go over very well. The others said that there had to be some limits. And I said that if Halacha is not the limit, then why would we allow racism to draw the line? But to tell the truth, who
I really cared about were half a dozen non-Jewish wives, who had done more for the Jewish community than all the Jews put together.
My proposal was ultimately rejected: instead of being open and inviting, the Community became more closed to the outside world. I am not saying we should include everyone in the minyan. All I am saying is that we should look for the things we can do together, instead of pointing out the things we can’t.
That’s how Beit Warszawa came to be. And it’s our own fault, both sides of this conflict are guilty. I remember that in the 1990’s, there were many more people in the Nożyk Synagogue during Shabbat. And during other holidays, the synagogue was actually full. I am very happy to see there are more synagogues and more possibilities today, but I miss that one full synagogue.
We cannot say the demographics issue is our fault, because fault implies conscious decisions. But we missed the right moment: if we had managed to rebuild the community structures sooner and if we had known how to make it more friendly and more open, there would be many more of us today. People are not going to experiment a second time, so it was an either-or situation. For me, the big test was what would happen when the kids from the Lauder-Morasha School would graduate from university. But luckily, most of them remain within the widely understood Jewish community. For example, my children are definitely not Jewish in the same way I am. And maybe they are different because of the way I am. But they remain Jewish. That means we have succeeded. But there is still too few of us. This secures the future of Polish Jews, but not of Polish Jewish life. And if we don’t manage to attract the confused ones, our only hope will be the Soviet aliyah, the way it has changed Germany. B’ezrat Ha-Shem 15 thousand Jews, I am not asking for that much! Of course, I would like them all to join the community. It would be a completely different community then! It would probably mean fights and a lot of yelling, but that’s good, that’s very good! As long as the arguments and fights remain inside.
WOULD YOU AGREE THAT BEING JEWISH IS SOMEHOW TRENDY NOWADAYS?
I have a problem with the word “trendy” – there is something negative about it. Also, I think that if it has lasted for almost 40 years, it’s not a fleeting trend. It shows that non-Jewish Poles feel the need to somehow participate in the Jewish tradition. For many reasons. Firstly, because it has always been present in Poland. Of course, it would be naive to believe in all those myths about mutual love, acceptance and cultural exchange, but it is not hard to see how much Polish there is in Yiddish and how much Yiddish there is in Polish. Poland was never ethnically homogenous before 1945. There is this great scene in Alina Cała’s book, “Wizerunek Żyda w polskiej kulturze ludowej” (The Image of the Jew in Polish Folk Culture). Some peasant talks about how those horrible Jews worshipped Behemoth in their synagogues, how they murdered babies for matzah, etc. And then he says: “But you know what, the crops are not as good since they’ve gone”. Therefore, it is not natural that there are only Poles in Poland. Also, Polish culture was always most interesting when it got bastardized. Thirdly, it is also a moral issue. And also, 20 years ago, if you said the word “Jew”, there would be a sudden silence in the room. Everyone would be uncomfortable. Nobody knew how to address it.
In that sense, it is a trend. Because it is both radical, subversive and uncomfortable – and also traditional, fundamental and existential. I would be surprised if there was no interest in Jewish things at all.
AND THE NEXT 25 YEARS? WHAT DO YOU EXPECT?
Oh no, no way. Look, during the last 25 years I would never have been able to dream up what’s happening now. I had no idea. But surely there is a lesson in my experience of 1989: anyone who experienced these events lost the right, once and for all, to be a pessimist. It was simply not possible for communism to just fall apart like that, without a drop of blood being shed. And then to create something decent on top of it?
This proves, first of all, that if we made it, we have no right to assume someone else might not make it. And secondly, that we have no right to fear the future. Of course, there is never any guarantee that things will work out nicely for everyone. There will always be problems and we can already see them coming. But I strongly believe that those who witnessed a miracle have a duty to be skeptical when the rationalists say that miracles cannot happen. Because they clearly can. ■
» first published in June 2014