Leah, the war is over
I suppose I have to start with a caveat, which is that this is very much about a personal journey that I went on. I am a second generation of Shoah survivors. I didn’t think I’d feel emotional like this, however, I don’t think I would have ever gone to Poland unless it was within a Jewish framework. For me growing up as a child, Poland was always a place of great anger for my parents, they never spoke Polish after the war. They had grown up and families had lived in Poland for a long time, so the idea of even stepping on Polish soil was problematic. Now, I had been there some years before with my husband Charles. We’d gone to Warsaw to Krakow and to Auschwitz because for 3 days, because we were in the ‘hood’, – going to Prague, Budapest and Vienna, and Charlie prevailed upon me to go and so we arrived, and it’s in the 1990s and it’s exactly as I expected Poland to be. Poland is not technicolour – it’s grey, it’s one thirty in the morning and we’ve been ripped off by a taxi driver! We arrive at the hotel and I’m looking out the window of this hotel and we’ve gone up to the room and looked out at its grey stones and cold light from a lamppost, and I start to hyperventilate, I really started to get highly agitated, and – as I said to some of you the reason I’m married to my husband for so long is because of what he did at that time, there was five words he said to me : “Leah, the war is over”. But in fact what I was channelling as I was going there was this whole sense of being my parents, and everywhere I looked I though where would I hide? And all of a sudden the birch trees that they talked about sort of appeared to me, because we took (ironically) a first class ticket to Krakow to go to Auschwitz. So we’re on a train to Auschwitz, I mean the irony was just absurd, and I’m looking out the window thinking where would I jump out of this train? And I have to say in fairness to my family that my parents aren’t, well they’re neurotic as any parents are, but they’re not particularly neurotic survivor parents – who said ‘you have to eat this’, and ‘do you know what we suffered?!’. Although my uncle and my father were both in Auschwitz and both had tattoos, which to this day I regret I never actually took their numbers, because my father died too young, and my mother was in a labour camp in Russia she was in the ‘Vilna ’ ghetto.
So, when it came to going this time, it’s only because there was going to be a Jewish framework which sort of made it ‘do-able’. It was also because I was going to visit the town my mother had come from, which she’d always talked about so glowingly. I knew I’d never get there any other way, and that was really important to me. And also because the way Paul Forgasz constructed the trip, it was very much what this exhibition is about, it was not just about the past, it was very much about looking to the future. So it was contextualising something beyond the Shoah. I should also say that Charlie and I had come from very different backgrounds in regards to our Polish experience. His father had grown up in Poland and spoken Polish, had been working with Poles, so when we had our Shabbat meals, and would sit down and spoke about the war, the ‘argy bargy’ that used to come across the room, because on one side my family was saying the Poles were disgustingly shocking and Charlie’s father would say “it was German occupied Poland, and what about the Germans?” And Charlie’s father would say “the Poles were very good to me, it was the Germans I despise”. And that’s a narrative that goes through for very many of my generation – it is the sense that we don’t have an expressed anger for the Germans as much as we do for the Poles, because for Polish Jews like me our parents sense of homeland was so ripped apart and betrayed, and perhaps for German Jews they feel the same about Germany. But certainly for Polish Jews of my generation it’s a really tough call. And I’ve noticed more since I’ve come back from Poland – every time I have a conversation I can see peoples responses are me two months ago, the knee jerk reaction saying “I know what the Poles are doing. They’re putting on a cover show”. But it’s a very cynical narrowed kind of response, so there’s an awful lot to talk about, and I’m just choosing a couple of things I thought reflected something of the modern Poland, and something of their responses to the Jewish situation, and my responses to it. And I’ll start with the extraordinary museum called POLIN, which was conceived of in 1995, and was only opened last year. And it’s probably, regardless of the fact that it happens to be in Poland, it is the most extraordinary museum I’ve ever visited in my life, and you would know that I am a ‘museum groupie’. It also has an additional resonance because it is in Poland, it’s sited on the land where part of the Warsaw ghetto happened to be and also sited opposite a very famous sculpture, that many of you would be familiar with, by Nathan Rapoport which I think was designed in the 1940s as a memorial to the martyrs of the Warsaw ghetto. So that’s a very almost Russian-looking sculpture, of these very strong-looking, which is ludicrous, because it was about the Warsaw ghetto martyrs, but the Russians wanted to almost neutralise the Jewish kind of thing, so they wanted these stoic, labour looking-like figures. So opposite there, is it’s [POLIN’s] positioning, it’s the first public / private venture in Poland of a museum, and it was only made possible because of several things: Firstly because of a philanthropist in LA who had come from Poland who championed the project, a guy called ‘Tad Taube’. And he’s very involved in a lot of the foundations in Poland today, and his parents left in 1939. It’s also because there’s an association with Jewish history in Poland that we’re very anxious, after they had gone Beit Hatfutsot, and saw that Polish history was represented there, they thought we really need to represent it here, we don’t need to represent the Shoah because Poland is the cemetery and Poland is where the extermination camps are in reality, we don’t need to represent that, you can go and see that. And the Polish government, post the Soviet occupation, came into democracy in the 1990s, and so something lifted in Poland as well. It’s another narrative that Paul Forgasz had probably opened up for many of us, there was this big shut down after 1945 when the Communists came to Poland and Fascism was the sworn enemy of the Russians. Anything to do with the war, the Shoah, Jews, non-Jews, religion was subjugated and ignored as the big issue for Poland was Communism triumphing over Fascism. So the whole Jewish story wasn’t told, there was a complete blanketing, so anyone who grew up in Poland in the 1950s-1960s, like someone who is my age, would of had none of that history at all. But, post 1990s , post solidarity, post-democratising of Poland there’s a whole other narrative being taught in the schools which is trying to see where this great void happened to be, Jews were something like 10 percent of the population and now are probably one thousandth of the population, existing in Poland today. So, POLIN is pretty much almost Poland’s gift to the Jews, but also the Jews gift to the Poles.
Because in fact it’s dealing with the whole intertwining of history, because you cannot deal with Polish history without dealing with Jewish history because Jews were so prominent there. And it’s not telling a story of peaceful co-existence, it’s dealing with the whole reality of Poland and the very troubled kind of time, it has the Shoah like we have here as a component of the history because that’s real for them too, but it’s not the defining quality of it. The architecture itself is already telling, it was designed by Finnish architects. It has glass panelling on the front that talks to the whole transparency of relationships and it has POLIN written in Hebrew and an English kind of font, and you enter into this huge atrium. Which has this great slash in it, and it’s filled with light, absolutely filled with light. And the symbolism like with the Liepeskin’s museum in Berlin is very much about that notion that this could be the cleaving of the red sea. It could be the cleaving of the two communities, there are bridges raised up above which kind of reference the Ghetto bridges in Warsaw but also reference the bridges between the Polish and Jewish Communities. The museum itself is, it was set up with 130 scholars from around the world and they recruited Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett who was the chair or director of the performing arts museum in New York, and she was an ‘absolute gun’, and she sort of got this group of curators and they’ve created eight almost theatrical spaces and each of those galleries have been designed by different sorts of people and their tracing that trajectory of Polish history from the very beginning and the reason it’s called POLIN and not the history of Jewish poles in Poland, but POLIN is a legend that the Jews were welcomed in the 12th century. And every room is so vivid, perhaps sometimes it is too overwhelming. There’s moving screens, there’s tables in some of the rooms that if you went in a 15th century room, and there would be an interactive map of Krakow as it existed then, you’d touch something and a building would sort of come to life and unfold in front of you. You’d see Talmudic quotations all over the space. There’s a space where it’s the yeshiva, and they’ve got a film that they have created, of a yeshiva rosh, head of Yeshiva giving a Talmudic lesson, and you can sit on little wooden chairs as though you’re in the yeshiva yourself, experiencing this particular lesson.
There are rooms that aren’t filled with you know ‘hey, we’re absolutely fantastic’, but talking about the business leaders that came, one of the reason that Poles were welcomed by most of the places in Europe was they were going to be a financial advantage for the aristocracy, and they did a lot of the ‘dirty sort of deeds’. What it doesn’t have there is a series of objects, it’s not about Judaica, it doesn’t deal with memorabilia in that sense, but in one of the most exquisite rooms that is there. In the 15th and 16th century there was i think it was called ‘Judais paradise’ the most extraordinary time in Poland and it ended in horrendous massacres, as most extraordinary times do end with kind of down stories, but in the 17th century they’ve restored a synagogue that is now in the Ukraine, a wooden synagogue and they just had a small fragment of wood which had a very faint patina of colour on it, and they got craftsman and artists from around the world to come, and they’ve recreated with the sponsorship of, Irene Pletka Kronhill, whose got an Australian connection, this extraordinary synagogue interior. And it’s like entering into a… it’s colour, it’s colour, it’s light, it’s little birds, and flowers and ornate, it’s almost like the framing of ketubah. The whole space is just like a circus tent, and it’s all been recreated meticulously with this rich technicolour. And it’s such a shock, on so many levels it’s a shock it, because it’s a shul fitout, and shuls, we don’t do that kind of thing. And that’s kind of extraordinary. And it expresses such a joyousness about Judaism which I think is a wonderful lesson.
I’ll tell you a couple more things about some of the other gallery spaces at POLIN. They have a section beyond that which is the interwar period, and they’ve recreated like a yeshiva, for those who might have been there, a street in Warsaw, an inter-war period, where life flourished in Poland at that time, it’s the Poland most of my generations parents understood and knew, so there was cabarets, there were newspapers, and there were journals, and there were intellectual circles, and there were politics, and this extraordinary energy, so they’ve created a little street and you enter into buildings and you enter into all these rooms filled with all this extraordinary energy of music, and debates, and newspaper articles that are blasted on the walls, and you just get this wonderful sense of this vibrancy in this place, beyond that you go into a very dark space.
It’s the first space that’s really quite dark, and this is already getting darker in this inter-war period. So it’s very theatrically constructed and every single thing is very carefully considered. You go into the Shoah, and that’s fragmented and that’s very difficult angles and a very hard kind of place, it needs to be a hard kind of place.
They put the boots into the fascists, and they make a very strong point about that the Poles were also victims. It’s one of the things I had never considered. Because when I went to Auschwitz the first time, they talked about 6 million Poles were killed, and it’s true, 6 million Poles were killed: but 3.5 million were Jews, but the other 3 million or 2.5 million were actually Poles. And one of the narratives that I’ve never known, and probably never wanted to know and I’m having difficulty talking about with my friends even to this day, is the fact that Poland was occupied by Germany by the Nazis because they needed space for their growing people. And it’s why they came to the south initially, and why Auschwitz was chosen was because it was on a railway link to most of Europe, because there was huge salt mines there. The Germans were going to occupy starting from Krakow and further up, Polish land. The Poles were regarded ‘Untermensch’ and in the 1930’s the first thing that Hitler did was to kill most of the Polish intellectuals. Kill them or imprison them. It was a massive sort of push. So during the war one of the things we did learn, not that I’m saying there was no anti-Semitism I have to put that caveat out there for starters, but no Poles were ever given roles in a concentration camp. The Germans didn’t like the Poles, they regarded them as slaves, the Slav people. They were going to use as support kind of slave people, they used Ukrainians and they used Germans [at the concentration camps].
So that wasn’t a narrative that I actually got, so in this Holocaust section there is very much a sense that in fact because it’s a Polish Jewish history museum, they’re talking to the Poles about the fact that they too, were victims of Nazism and it wasn’t just a Jewish kind of story. When you exit the Shoah exhibition, there’s a series on 1960s or later in the 80s with Walesa and the Solidarity movement, the whole communist sort of period, and it ends with a very light-filled room that’s got eight or ten large screens that have got just a large face answering questions of young Polish Jews, I think, I didn’t spend there long enough, I’ll tell you after how long I spent, I still didn’t stay there long enough, and I’d wished I remembered the questions, but they were things like: Do you feel you are a Jewish Pole or are you a Polish Jew? How do you feel about Israel? Do you know any Jews in Poland today? And they’re just contemporary faces, young, a lot of Poles that have got a Jewish background but they haven’t acknowledged it.
But they are people that are happy to do this. So this is the end part of this exhibition that takes you into light. So it’s very much talking to a younger generation and opening up the ‘elephant in the room’ that Jews are a part of our life. You ask yourself who goes to this museum, who goes to these kinds of museums and it’s not called the Libeskind museum where you’re going to have a lot of architectural kind of groupies rocking up to it as well as a lot of other people. Although you do certainly get that, and its worth it just for the architecture.
It opened in October 2014 , and they had queues and queues of people when they were there. And it’s now a year later. And we went there on a Thursday and I think on a Thursdays it’s generally free, so the place was chock a-block as museums usually are when it’s free kind of access. We were there for two hours there and that was just literally finger nailing it. We came back there, and we only had six hours there, and it wasn’t enough. When they take you on an initial guided tour its two and a half hours. And most of the guided tours are in Polish. Because the people who are going to this museum are the Poles. And people say to me, “bloody hell, they’re leveraging off the Jews”, and when I think about it, one of the issues they had for raising money for the museum, initially, going to the Jewish community largely in America who are the major philanthropists, many of whom are Poles who said: We’ve left our wealth in Poland, its time they gave us something back. Which made an awful lot of sense. But they did manage to build an enormous amount of revenue…I think the Jewish community raised I think, something like forty million and the Polish government gave eighty million dollars. It’s a massively expensive museum and you can see it. But, when you go into the book shop, which we do, we bought books wherever we go, we usually bring back fifteen kilos of luggage of papers and books. What would you expect to see if it’s pitched to the Americans, and the Australians, and to the English? You’d expect to see books in English, and you’re struggling to find a book in English. It’s pitched to the Poles. And I’m thinking to myself why is that happening, why are they coming, and who’s coming, it’s all age groups, and guys who look like truckies, and guys that look like not your gallery visitor. And one of the reasons when I’ve been reading about it that makes sense, there is no current museum in Poland that tells the Poles about their own history. There’s nothing they can actually go to in Warsaw, there’s lots of Holocaust museums, the Jewish story Galitzianer Jewish museum, and there are other sorts of museums, but there isn’t a Polish museum that tells them that story. And their story is very much linked with the Jewish history. So when they’re reading about Jewish history in Poland, because it’s tracing the chronology through the centuries, they’re learning about their own history. So that’s a really important thing. The museum’s endeavour was to actually deal with, not to avoid the lack of peaceful co-existence, but to look forward to say it’s been bad, and there is a cycle of bad, but we have to find a way to understand each other and to sort of move forward. For me, that was sort of a very healing kind of space to go to on this particular trip.
Because there are plenty of places to go where your guts are ripped apart very profoundly. In Warsaw when you wander around the streets, Warsaw was completely destroyed. Those of you that saw The Piano, might recall that incredible scene that Roman Polanski made at the end of the film, where there’s just this rubble, well, Warsaw was completely destroyed. So, when you wander around Poland today looking for a trace of the ghetto life, all you might have is a small fence, that might be a brick, that might go up to the side of the air conditioning ‘thing’, have a little plaque that this was an edge of a wall somewhere. There’s nothing there, it’s very much like Spain, in a sense that there’s an absence of something that you know is there but you can’t touch it, you can’t sort of grab onto it. For Jews going to Poland to go to this museum, you don’t get a sense of the way Warsaw was during that time, but you get a bigger picture, you get a sense of how profound the loss is because of the Shoah. And you could only know how profound a loss is, if you know what it is you’ve lost. And for many of us we never had a sense of that, I mean there’s a reason why 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland for all these years, it couldn’t have been all bad otherwise why would you bloody well live there?
And it’s almost like, it wasn’t like the New York of its day, but in many ways in terms of the Jewish life that was there, it was very much that. My mother came from a town called Vilna, which was known as the Jerusalem of Poland, it’s now Lithuania. I went to the school that she actually went to. Actually went inside that school, because it’s now a Jewish community centre. When you wander around towns, like Vilna and Artoo and Vilna wasn’t destroyed. It’s shocking in that it’s so beautiful, it’s as beautiful as she always told me it actually was. She talked about the park that was opposite the school, it’s there. In a lot of towns the parks are beautiful but they are actually filled with the rubble of cemeteries. And there’s plenty of cemeteries that you see everywhere, but I think if you had to go to one place in Poland to actually give you a sense of what Jewish Poland life would be like, this place has absolutely nailed it, it’s quite extraordinary. And you need time to sort of really dissect it. So okay, that was one of my experiences in Poland. I don’t know how much .. .’oh god!’. I’ll talk about one other thing, and I’ll contextualise your March of the Living.
So, we went from Warsaw, we went through all the towns, towns I’ve always heard about from my parents conversations of, Bialystok and Lodzen. And all these places all of a sudden came to life, but they came to life in ways I never expected, they came to life in ways of great beauty. An Italian baroque kind of small villages, with beautiful squares … look it’s 70 years later, Melbourne isn’t like what it was 70 years ago when my mother got off the boat. She came on cup day and was living in Italy in 1949 and she was going to the opera, and she was like you know, what nobody’s here, its six o’clock and it’s closed? Melbourne isn’t that place either, so clearly Poland’s not that place either. Poland also is emerging more slowly than other parts of Europe because democracy has only been there for twenty or so years. So that changes as well, Krakow is a town that’s extraordinary, if you go to Poland you absolutely have to go there, it’s a University town, the Jagiellonian University has been there for centuries. And like any university town it’s got an incredible vibrancy. When we’ve been there some years before, on that ill-fated trip with Charles, it wasn’t the tourism town that it’s turned into, but has still probably got the most beautiful city square I think in Europe almost. More beautiful than San Marco Square.
It’s just extraordinary. You see wandering around carriages with white horses, taking people around, it’s all those things that you imagine: a beautiful city square. It’s huge, but every where are all these cafes with umbrellas, people playing cello, and music, there are galleries around there, all these glorious stores, it’s not the Poland I kind of figured. But then you go to the Kazimierz which is the Jewish quarter, and that’s like, for those of you’ve been to Mitte in Berlin, which was in East Germany for a long time, so was quite untouchable. If you’ve been to Brunswick Street, if you’ve been to parts of Thornbury, it’s got a real gorgeous ‘grungy kind of edgy feel’, and that was where the Jewish quarter was. We happened to be there fortuitously when the Krakow Jewish Festival was on. And it was the twenty-fifth year that it’s been on. This is the program of the 176 events that they happened to have in this ‘thingo’. And when you look at this program, it’s not like Limmud Oz, because it’s not 3 days of concentrated things, it’s spread all over the city, you’ve got events like klezmer music, you’ve got event tours to specific cemeteries, only in Polish, and they will say whether it’s a Polish tour or it’s an English speaking tour. You’ve got discussion groups talking about how to write and discuss Jewish sites in Poland. You’ve got Israeli dancing, you’ve got how to make challah (God love them), you’ve got Hasidic singing, you’ve got Israeli jazz. You’ve got this extraordinary plethora of activities, it’s a summer festival. And they get something like sixty thousand visitors coming to Krakow, and Krakow’s a sort of happening kind of place in any case. But significantly, the number of Poles that attend this festival is far in excess of the number of Jews that will come.
I would never have gone to Krakow to a Jewish festival….. a pox on them, let them have their Jewish festival. So I’m hunching that I’m not unlike a lot of my generation, who would have though, like Annette would have probably gone, ‘pffft!’, and crosses. But when you go there what’s extraordinary, two things pan out, there’s the thing that really affronted me the first time I went there, that sense they’re leveraging off the Jewish experience. Which is a narrative that is there and is very true. There are little cafes selling Jewish food and there are klezmer musicians doing their particular schtick. And I saw through a lens of exploitation the first time I went, and I thought how could they be doing this?, And this was in the 1990s, there are no Jews here. When you did see something you might see a graffitied door somewhere. Or many years ago we went to a Warsaw theatre and they were producing ‘Fiddler on the roof’ and we went to the dress rehearsal and we had headphones on and we could hear them singing in Yiddish and I said are these guys Yiddish? And they said no they’re all Poles. And I’m thinking yes!
I was triumphant! thinking ‘terrific these Poles have to learn Yiddish’. Because there were no Jews there to do this thing. That was the lens I had on then. And of course the same things could be happening and I just see it differently. So this time when I came though Poland and I saw this festival and I saw the different sort of performances. Especially in Kazimierz when I saw these Klezmer people playing on Sunday afternoons where people are eating their poppy-seed cake and drinking their borscht or doing whatever they are doing. I thought about Australia, I thought about the fact that we play indigenous music, we often use indigenous music, we do things that aren’t necessarily exploitative entirely, they’re often playing homage to a culture that’s a part of our world. And that’s the lens through which I see what they’re doing in Poland and I’m probably giving you a benign kind of take, but I’m thinking if you are a young Pole today and you are Ely’s age, your parents weren’t even born during the war, and you’re trying to make a living in a country where in fact it’s tough to make a living, and you know tourism is coming, why wouldn’t you do something like that, where you know people are actually… and why wouldn’t you want to tap into a culture that’s rich and its really wonderful, because the music is wonderful and the food is well..I don’t know whether it’s Jewish food or Polish food, I discovered my inner Pole, you know it was kind of spooky. So I saw that in a different light. I sent out an email, some of you may or may not have received it, when we went to this Friday night concert that was part of the festival. So it was listed as an event this Friday night, and as I said was filled with people from all other the place. What kind of stunned me, was the fact that there was no security on the door, we’re in Poland, this anti-Semitic hotbed, sort of short time ago, anybody could come in, there are hundreds and hundreds of people there, at ten-thirty at night when the kabbalat Shabbat had finished. It was the most lyrical kind of kabbalat Shabbat people wandered out in the streets in big ringed circles dancing like they were at a wedding, singing joyously in the street, and not everybody there was Jewish.
I mean it wasn’t like it was in a little closed off space where you could feel safe. You felt so extraordinarily…I don’t know, if you thought about being safe..but later on when I reflected I thought..my god, we weren’t looking over our shoulders, you felt so much that this was your town. It was a really extraordinary feeling. We went next door to the Krakow Jewish centre which I think has about a thousand visitors a week, perhaps over the summer, and it’s run by a guy…and we had a shabbat in the open air for one hundred and fifty people in a little garden sort of space opposite to the community centre, and they set up these trestles and everything was in paper plates, and very Jewish, Kosher. But the people who were serving you were university students, who were interested in Jewish history. There are something like nineteen faculties of Jewish history throughout Poland. Most people aren’t Jews. And I’m not even feeling cynical, ..if I were your age, if only I were your age! If I was that age and there were this great void in my world, and I’m a reasonably sentient human being, why wouldn’t I want to find out who they are and what those people had and what their culture was that contributed to my world. So you can kind of understand young Poles doing that. Also, many of the people who have become tour guides are really, they are masters in sociology, anthropology, in history, there really seriously educated people who’ve made a great serious study of Polish Jewish history. Because in so they are learning their own history but, it’s so entwined…Im going to stop.
It was an extraordinary trip in my head as much as it was in the physicality of it. I never expected to feel what I felt, and I have to say not everyone who went on that trip felt like me, some were more entrenched in their views or they might have been emotionally swayed at different times and said “Uh, you know those Poles!”
It doesn’t matter where you go, you’re going to have your own particular take. I think for Polish Jews we are so invested in it, and I have a sense of feeling earthed in my parent’s memory, I have a sense of their, what was their memory of home. And I suppose it’s like if you have children who live overseas and they phone you on the phone. And you don’t know their ‘hood’ you don’t know where they live. You feel like you’re with them but you’re not really with them. I really have sense of feeling that I have reconnected with something that’s profoundly part of me, even though I might have wanted to have pushed it away for an awfully long time.
That’s very .. therapeutic, basically I’m a mess. Thank you.