As a freshman in high school, I had two heroes, both of whom were condemned to isolation cells for speaking out against stultifying regimes of oppression. It was absurd and woefully self-indulgent for me to draw parallels between my adolescent rebellions against private-school administrators on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Adam Michnik’s unbending confrontation with the Communist Party in Poland or Anatoli Sharansky’s refusal to be broken by eight years of imprisonment in Siberia. I even knew it was absurd. But I did it anyway, because 14 is an absurd age. I believed that the cause of human freedom anywhere was the cause of human freedom everywhere.
Of the two, Michnik’s fate was the more precious to me. I cut out a black-and-white photograph of him from the inside pages of a magazine that I found in our high-school library and taped it to the door of my locker–not on the inside, but on the outside, in open violation of school policy. Luckily, no one in my high-school administration seemed to have any idea who Michnik was, or else the message of defiance that I intended would surely have been noticed by the authorities. I read everything I could find about Michnik, which wasn’t much, and was happy when the Polish authorities released him from prison for an afternoon so he could attend his father’s funeral, where he flashed a victory sign to the assembled mourners and secret policemen that was duly reported in a single paragraph of a longer article in the New York Times.
When Michnik was released from prison for the last time, during my freshman year of college, I felt a weird sense of personal triumph. I knew that I had done nothing meaningful to help the great cause of human freedom that he championed, but I had not been wrong to believe in my hero, who had stood up to the Polish Communist party and the Soviet Union and unmasked their lies. No matter what they did to him, he refused to give up an inch of the precious real estate inside his own head. He knew what was true, and what was ugly and false, and no one could force him to say otherwise. In the end, Solidarity triumphed, and the ashes of the Communist system blew away like a bad dream.
If the historic triumph of the dissidents and refusniks can appear in retrospect like every authority-hating adolescent’s fantasy version of Disney on Ice, it is also a powerful lesson in how history works, at least sometimes. The refusal of Michnik, Sharansky, and hundreds of other brave individuals to bow to a hopeless imbalance of power became a fulcrum that encouraged a small but dedicated corps of activists and believers to keep pushing against the weight of state power and learned hopelessness until inch by inch, the prison doors swung open. Even at this distance, it’s a ridiculous story, unscientific in the extreme, a fairy tale—and, like most good fairy tales, a necessary antidote to the more common wisdom that injustice will always win in the end. Hundreds of millions of people owe their personal freedom to a handful of men and women who turned their hearts and minds into countries that the bureaucrats and secret police could never occupy.
The fact that some of the heroes of the great anti-Communist refusal turned out to be leaden ideologues or petty political schemers and scroungers is, in the greater scheme of things, a forgivable offense, or at least a predictable one. In that context, it is worth recording that the post-Soviet Michnik proved himself again to be a conscience-driven man with a historian’s understanding of the dialectics of change. He refused to toe Lech Walesa’s party line, and he refused to be part of a self-congratulatory and often self-interested campaign of personal and political vengeance against the apparatchiks who had jailed him, some of whom had talents that could be useful to Poland. Instead, he became a distinguished essayist and editor-in-chief of Poland’s second-largest newspaper, the Gazeta Wyborcza—and would now be a member of his country’s new multi-millionaire elite if he had not given up his shares in his newspaper’s parent company, Agora, in order to safeguard the paper’s editorial integrity.
I spoke to Michnik recently at his translator’s apartment on Sutton Place where, owing to the early hour, our host offered cigarettes and coffee instead of cognac. The story of how he became a high school pin-up on the Upper East Side while he was in jail in Poland made him laugh, even as he wondered at the fact that anyone in the West outside of a handful of college professors and expats had heard of him. By the end of our two and a half hours of conversation, which is excerpted here, Michnik, who has the constitution of a bull, was clearly just getting started. He was especially eager to discuss his latest project, a typically freewheeling three-volume omnibus of Polish writing pertaining to the subject of anti-Semitism, including the work of anti-Semites and philo-Semites alike, which will be published in 2015 in an English translation by the Oxford University Press.
As a child I learned that the Jews, including members of my own family, were victims of a terrible crime in Europe. So, the idea that some members of my Jewish family supported a different mass-murdering criminal named Joseph Stalin came as a shock.
My friend used to say: “In my family there was always a Hasidic tradition. Unfortunately, the Tzadik of my father, his name was Stalin.”
Yes! And it strikes me that even today there is the tendency among Jews, but also more generally on the left, to say, “Well, Stalin’s crimes were not as bad as Hitler’s.”
And of course you can add to that: Stalin defeated Hitler and he stopped the Holocaust. And the second thing: In 1948 the Soviet delegation to the United Nations voted for the recognition of the state of Israel.
Yes. “The people who served Stalin made a mistake, of course, but they could not have known about his crimes, and, after all, he served beneficial historical forces.”
I often hear this argument that they did not know. Of course they could not know everything. But it was enough to read Soviet newspapers to know. Who wanted to know, that person knew. Who did not want to know, they did not know.
I promised myself that I would never in my life explain myself to others by saying I did not know about something that was happening in front of my eyes. But of course I also did not know about certain things. About the pogrom in Jedwabne—I did not know. But once I learned about it, I knew that we absolutely have to tell the whole truth. This is my philosophy.
Were you aware when you were a young Polish Scout that the group of Jews who were part of the elite of the Polish Communist Party after the war—including members of your own family—were hated by Polish society?
My experience was very specific, particular, in fact. My father hated Stalin and Soviet Communism. So I have never been brought up in the cult of Stalin at home. My father considered Stalin as a bandit, and he never hid that from me.
What was shocking for me were the events in Poznan in 1956—that suddenly the Polish army is shooting at Polish workers! And of course that was also the moment when anti-Semitism appeared for the first time in my life. But I had the so-called “good looks,” you know? So during German occupation I could have walked the streets. Also, I had a name which does not sound Jewish at all. So, I, personally, did not have that kind of experience.
What was your father’s name?
Ozjasz Szechter. After the war, my father did not want to change his name, even though so many Jews who stayed in Poland did. And even though in the Communist Party, they would tell him “Change your name”—“No. That’s how I am, and that’s how I will stay.” He did not make a career for himself after the war. He did not want to be part of the party apparatus.
But I was brought up as a Pole. The fact that somebody was a Jew meant as much for me as the fact that somebody was from Poznan or Kracow. We did not speak Yiddish at home and there was no Hebrew, of course. For me anti-Semitism amounted to stupidity, the lack of enlightenment.
It was a primitive superstition. Until it became the policy of the Polish state.
The problem that you are talking about appeared very visibly in 1968. That is when I faced a very sharp choice, caused by the fact that the official propaganda—you know the media, the press—informed me that I am not a Pole. Gomułka in his famous speech, when he was addressing the party, said there was this meeting of the youth and “the majority of them were of a Jewish background.” So it was very clear, officially, that there was a statement being made that Jews are not Poles. And if they want to leave Poland, they should go.
I remember that particular scene, I remember it very well. I think that was in May 1968. I was in prison. And I was in this “karcer,” the special punishment cell, the so-called “hard bed.” And suddenly they took me out for a hearing to an elegant room with red carpet. “Mr. Adam, would you like a cigarette? Would like some tea or coffee?”
Then the young police investigator, maybe in his thirties, not really much older than me, said, “Mr. Adam, when you leave prison, would you consider going to Israel?”
“Why should I go to Israel?”
“Because now every Jew can go to Israel!”
So I told him, “I will emigrate to Israel the day after you emigrate to Moscow.”
He was very angry, but for me that was an incredibly important moment, because I decided, myself, about my own identity. It was much less important for me what the Communists or anti-Semites said about me. For me, the important thing was what I thought about myself. My father was pressuring me to emigrate. He would say “Look, they are going to kill you here.” I had this very provocative, sharp speech that I gave in court at my trial. “They will never forgive you that,” my father would say. He wanted me to go. I said, “No. I will stay here to tailor their shrouds.”
At that point, within my own circle of friends, in my own milieu, very different positions emerged. Many of my friends were pushed into the Jewish identity by the official propaganda. And many of them emigrated.
At that point, I began to ask myself a question about that specificity of Jewish Communism. I thought about that a lot. I developed a sort of skepticism, which allowed me to look at the world through Jewish lenses. I did know that those are important lenses, and that one should look at the world also through those lenses. But those should not be the only lenses that you have.
And this is where certain ambivalence towards the Jewish narration about Communism, Poland, 20th century, and so one has emerged in me. And this anthology was born out of this ambivalence. I wanted to show the variety of points of view from which this issue could be analyzed.
There is a pervasive sense here, in America, and in the Jewish community in particular, that the Poles were murderers, and that the whole of the Jewish experience in Poland can more or less be reduced to Treblinka and Auschwitz and the Miłosz poem about the merry-go-round outside the Warsaw ghetto. We do not have to waste time thinking about Poland, because it was a country inhabited by these morally idiotic people who were complicit in the worst crime in human history.
You know I have lived my entire life in Poland, right? So I knew that those attitudes are nonsense, because I have seen those horrible people every day: at school, in the tram, in the movie theater. Of course I knew that those judgments are unjust. But at the same time, I did know that there is a problem there. In Poland the Jewish question and the anti-Semitic question are taboo questions. One does not talk about it—so let us talk about it!
I had an important conversation in Sydney, Australia, with the leader of the Jewish community in Australia. And he told me that every Pole had sucked anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.
There was a different matter with Elie Wiesel. He came to Poland, I convinced him to come, for the 50th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom. Instead of talking about Kielce and so on, he began to talk about the cross that is erected in Auschwitz. The people were completely stupefied. And that caused a terrible reaction, you know, because he put the Kielce pogrom and putting a cross in Auschwitz on the same plane, which is absurd.
You are right. But I thought I knew this history well, and still it came as a surprise to me to learn how many Christian Poles were sent to Auschwitz.
Elie Wiesel made a big mistake. And after he was criticized in Israel, he answered, in response, that those who criticized him were anti-Semites.
Yet there’s still a question that has to be answered for these conversations to make sense. People look at you and say: “Oh! Well, maybe I didn’t know that so many Poles were sent to Auschwitz. But I also know that the Poles were guilty of something bad during the Holocaust.” And the Poles, the best Polish poets and historians and critics, also know that they are guilty of something very bad. So, what is the right name for the Polish crime?
I think that I have an answer to that question, which is also your answer in putting this anthology together: The Poles were simply not curious enough and engaged enough—intellectually or empathetically—with their Jewish neighbors. They didn’t care if their neighbors died. That does not mean that Poles are guilty of genocide. It does mean that in those special, horrible historical circumstances, where someone like Hitler and the Nazis commit a huge crime, the moral failings of a society—any society—are laid bare. And history records those failures.
You know, in Poland, there are things that happen daily—there are rapes, and there are robberies and so on. Does that mean that all Poles are responsible for all the rapes and the robberies? That’s nonsense! Humans are responsible. Miłosz once wrote that all of us who lived during the Holocaust, we all are responsible. Primo Levi wrote the same thing.
But there is one thing that sits in the center of the Polish conscience like a bug. When Jews were taken to the ghettos, they left their homes, their apartments, and somebody else moved in. Later on, he/she was not very eager to move out. And he/she did not want to remember that. But the same is true of the German homes in the Western part of Poland, where Poles moved in. It was this huge, tectonic shock, tsunami. And Poles don’t like to reminisce. But this is not just a Polish issue—this is an issue throughout all of Eastern-Central Europe. It’s in Slovakia, in Romania, in Hungary, Czech Republic, in Lithuania. But only Poland is openly confronting that issue today.
That’s entirely true. But I want to return to this question of the connection between our everyday moral failings, namely our lack of curiosity, empathy, and interest in our neighbors, and large-scale historical crimes like the Holocaust. Let us go to the example you used, of rape. If I am living in an apartment building and in the apartment next door I can hear that a woman is being brutally raped, I can say: “It’s not my business. I am not the one who raped her. Moreover, I have no power to stop the rapist, because he is bigger than me and he has a gun.” And maybe the police in my town are in league with the rapist. But even so, I am certainly guilty of a huge failing as a human being if I don’t knock on her door afterwards and say: “Are you OK? Can I help?” I would say that even beyond that, I have some level of responsibility as a member of society to be vaguely aware of who that woman is and what her life might be like, even before she is raped.
And yes, certainly under extreme circumstances like Nazi occupation or Stalinist rule, there is an even stronger disincentive to know anything about our neighbors, because maybe if we know too much someone will knock on our door and then do something terrible to us, too. But more and more, as I grow older, I feel that the demand to be engaged in some way with our neighbors is an absolute moral requirement of living in any society. And you know that is one of the reasons you spent time in those punishment cells in prison under the Communists, so you must agree with me.
When I was in Israel, I heard something exactly like that from Leibowitz—did you know him?
I met him once, at a lecture. He was a great man.
He said exactly the same thing you do, but what he was telling me about, of course, was the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yes, and I think he was right.
I was shocked. That was my first time in Israel, ever. I did not really know the situation and I was also poorly informed. What was being written in the Polish newspapers, at that time, was that Israel is a “new fascism.” I came to Israel, it was democratic country—so if they are doing what they are doing, then obviously this is what is ought to be done. And Leibowitz said: “No! Those who are doing it today are preparing a catastrophe for Israel.”
Of course, there is something like my own responsibility for what my compatriots are doing, but to judge Polish attitudes under the Nazi occupation is exceptionally difficult. For example, Jedwabne—a clear-cut crime. But there was no Polish state then. If there had been a Polish state, the prewar Polish state, the police would have come and nobody would be able to put someone in the barn and burn them up alive.
Personally, I felt terribly guilty for the participation of Polish military in the invasion to Czechoslovakia. I even talked about it at court, during my trial, in 1968. If I had been out, and not in prison, I would have protested, because that was done by my government. Of course, I didn’t elect it, but nevertheless, it was a Polish government. Jedwabne was done by a bunch of bandits. In Kielce—a bunch of bandits. So it is difficult to say that those bandits were acting on behalf of the state.
But maybe that is the question. If my government chooses to go to war in Iraq, maybe I could go to the street and wave a sign for or against. In the end, there is something impersonal about these actions, because I am not the state official who decides where armies go. Maybe he knows something that I don’t. But I am responsible when my neighbor does not have food or is in some kind of danger. Or I can choose to say that person’s fate is not concern of mine and it’s only an accident of history that we live in the same building.
Yes, but that is a drama of the human condition.
Yes, yes! This is the drama of the human condition, every day. And then there are extreme circumstances in which this individual, common, human drama becomes a social, collective drama, a question that the whole society is forced to answer.
You are right.
When I concentrate hard on this question of what did the Poles do …
There are no Poles—
Some were the blackmailers (szmalcownicy), some were in “Żegota,” others were the monks who hid Jewish children.
There was “Żegota,” there are good and bad people, there are saints and there are devils and there are collaborators—but you call yourself a Pole and so you do believe there is also such a thing as “Poles,” too.
Yes, I agree with you, but it is difficult to direct accusations to such a generic and highly generalized community. You cannot generalize when you say “Jews.” Jews are such and such. That is anti-Semitism. So there is Jakob Berman, who was responsible for Stalin’s crimes in Poland, and there are Alter and Ehrlich of the Bund, who were victims of Stalin.
I am not proposing that we are all individually responsible for any crime or bestial deed that is committed by someone who calls himself a Pole or Jew. What I am saying is that to be a member of the community—which I think is a human need, and is not a bad need—we take on a share of the responsibility for what the community as a whole believes and does. The failures of the larger community are our failures, too.
Yes, but in Poland, during the war, there were communities who were totally rejecting Nazism and totally rejecting genocide. And of course I can imagine that I identify myself with those communities. And in that sense, one could say that in Poland there was no “one nation.” In different situations, different “nations” emerged, starting historically, with such constructs as “the gentry nation” and “the peasant nation.” The first Polish president, Gabriel Narutowicz, was assassinated—and the reason for the assassination was that he was elected to be president with Jewish votes. Nevertheless, there were the people who elected him and the people who murdered him. And I was always on the side of those who elected him.
Of course, I do believe that as a Pole it is my obligation to remember with shame those who assassinated him. But if suddenly, somebody from outside, French, or Russian, or Jew, comes and says, “You are responsible,” I say: “I am not.” And in that sense, I disagree with the statement that Poles, as a whole, are responsible for the crimes of the blackmailers (szmalcownicy). It is a disgrace that they did exist! Such as today, it is a disgrace that there are murderers, rapists, and robbers.
But I am talking about something else.
Yes, I understand. But I think that this is the reverse of the thesis that I often hear in Poland that there is no anti-Semitism there. If you say that everybody was an anti-Semite or is responsible for the anti-Semitism, you take off the responsibility from the anti-Semites.
I agree that it is not very useful to judge the actions of other people from completely safe conditions 50 or 75 years later. It is completely ahistorical.
However, that also means that the actions of collaborators who turned over Jewish children to be killed and the actions of people who have risked their own lives and the lives of their families and hid children for years in their homes—neither of those is mine to judge. From where I sit now, I would strongly approve of the actions of one and strongly disapprove of the actions of the other. And I would like to believe that of course I would have been a good person rather than a bad person. But who knows?
But you have the freedom to condemn those who were engaged in the situation in which the children were killed. It is very difficult to judge somebody who was hiding in his own apartment 20 Jews and that is why he did not go to the neighbors. Or, let us say, you have an illegal printing machine at home—
Translator: Let me just try to tell him in my own words, because it is fairly abstract what you are saying, and it is also extraordinary: Adam, what he wants to say is that people should be more curious about the others, because if they were more curious about the others, they would get to know them better and once they get to know them better, they would probably become engaged with them somewhat. And the world would be better.
Yes. But that this is also therefore a level on which it is permissible to judge a society and its relations and its values as a whole. In normal social existence you might be able to make generalizations: “This is a society in which people are alienated from each other” or “This is a society that has an impressive degree of collective connection and responsibility.” But then there is also the fact that bad things do happen in history, and when they do happen the existence of this kind of solidarity is a very powerful force for resisting many kinds of large-scale crimes. And in places where that rich mix of curiosity, imagination, and empathy does not already exist, the worst things can happen. When you look at the functioning of totalitarian governments, there is a conscious effort by the state to fracture social solidarity, in order to enable the committing of crimes.
I agree with that.
The sin of Polish society during the Holocaust was that it did not meet the minimal demands of human solidarity with the Jews, even before the war.
Hannah Arendt wrote the same about Jews.
There is a kind of tit-for-tat language that I find disgusting, when you hear Poles say: “Oh, Jakub Berman killed Poles, therefore the Jews are as bad as the Poles who killed Jews.”
It is nonsense.
Or to take a current version: The Gaza Strip is the same as the Warsaw ghetto or a concentration camp, and therefore Jews are the new Nazis.
It is nonsense.
But the question is in what way it is nonsense.
Of course, the actions of Berman in no way can justify anti-Semitism. They can explain certain kind of emotions, but they cannot justify racism.
But let us look at the larger group of five hundred to a thousand committed Jewish Communist apparatchiks who came back to Poland in 1945, ’44, a group that in some sense included your parents. Did they act with a sense of social solidarity and connection with their neighbors who were Poles?
They were acting in the sense of solidarity with the Communist community.
Right. And in that narrative, the Communist narrative, in which no one except for Zhirinovsky and a few million other Russian revanchists believes, they remain respected members of their Stalinist community. The rest of humanity judges them unfavorably. But recently, when I was in Warsaw, I went and talked to Bartoszewski and then to Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz, two Poles whose actions during the war were unquestionably heroic. They were true Polish patriots who acted to save Jewish lives. Yet I was struck by how little they knew and registered not just about the people that they personally hid, but about Polish Jews in general.
Well, of course they did not know about Jews from shtetlkh, but they would have the sense of the urban Jews.
A certain sense, maybe. But the ways in which they were different were foreign and un-interesting. And these are two men who are among the moral elite of humanity. I was struck by the fact that even their imaginations stopped when it came to Jews.
As far as I can say, you are a supporter of doing away with racial segregation in the United States. I can easily imagine that you could go for demonstrations and meetings and that kind of stuff. How many Blacks come to your house today?
That’s a good way to put the question, since I am a first generation American, and my family has no connection whatsoever to the terrible history of slavery and racial oppression in this country. We are entirely innocent of the crimes committed against black people in America. However, since I was born in New York City, and continue to live here, the entire fucked-up history of the relationship between white people and black people in this country is my responsibility, too.
Yes, but how many Blacks come to your house? None!
I grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, where the first girl I ever kissed was black. But your larger point is a valid one. If I invited you to my house tomorrow for dinner, chances are that everyone—or nearly everyone—around the table would be white.
Ninety-five percent of my American friends are, as you would imagine, liberal Democrats, and so on. And there was no single time when I would meet a Black person in anybody’s home. Those are not racists—it is quite the opposite. The same in Israel. All those people are very liberal, but you know—I met no Palestinians there ever!
What does it all mean? It means that, indeed, before the war, beyond the milieu of the assimilated Jews, those contacts were nonexistent. There was this weekly newspaper called Tygodnik Literacki, which is incredible. There was [the poet Julian] Tuwim, Leśmian, of course, but they were all assimilated Jews, those ones who were the part of society. They were only Jews for anti-Semites. There was a Jewish section of Warsaw where you could spend 20 years and not speak a word of Polish.
When I was living in Paris, my boss, so to speak, was Anotni Słonimski, a completely Polonized Jew, 100 percent, from a very well-known Jewish literary family. He told me that during the war he was in London and he met the Jewish poet, Icyk Manger, who lived in Warsaw, in the Jewish district. He was a poet, and my boss also a poet, in the same city—and they had never met! There was a separate association of Jewish writers. There was a Jewish press published in both—in Yiddish and in Polish.
These were two different worlds—because that is how it was. Was that the result of anti-Semitism? No! Well, of course there was anti-Semitism, but them not being together was not because of racism. Was it a result of Jewish exclusiveness? No! Jews wanted to live within their own community.
Isaac Bashevis Singer describes it best. There are two of his books—“The Manor House” and “The Legacy” about this crossroads, about this Polish-Jewish intersection in the second half of the 19th century. And you cannot see animosity there, but there is a profound otherness.
In 1930s it was much worse, because you had ideological anti-Semitism. And that is something that the Polish mentality did not know how to deal with yet.
But again, this is a problem of the entire region. Russians do not want to admit that Dostoyevsky was an anti-Semite. Romanians do not want to admit that Eliade and Cioran were fascists. For Ukrainians, Chmielnicki was a national hero. And so on, and so on.
And this is why this topic is so important and this is also why I put together this anthology, because I believe that it helps us to understand both the Jews and those other nations. In the anthology you will find articles that were written against anti-Semitism, but would they be published today, they could be clearly seen as anti-Semitic. So there was this Polish philosopher, Karol Irzykowski, who wrote that “Jew is a Pole with reservations”—but of course, he was against anti-Semitism and he signed various protest letters against it. Even when you read Gombrowicz, within his little argument, you can see this thread that the Jews are somewhat “different,” so “different”—“do not try to be like others.”
To my understanding, anti-Semitism is an ideological virus. It has deep roots in the historical formation of Christianity, and especially, in the history of the Roman Catholic church.
And what about Voltaire?!
Wait! I was about to say that through Voltaire and up through Marx it then becomes a virus of the enlightenment and of the left. We can recognize the features of the mania that it inculcates: the belief in Jewish conspiracy, and the octopus and the love of money, domination and infiltration. It is a disease with these specific obsessive features, like a unique form of schizophrenia.
But then, there is something else, which is the lack of engagement and empathy with one’s neighbors. And on that level and only on that level, the lack of feeling for or suspicion of Jews is the same as the lack of feeling and suspicion of Gypsies, or gay people, or Blacks, or whoever in that society is exiled from the community of neighbors because they are different. That is how you could have heroes of “Żegota,” who might in every cell of their body have been free of the anti-Semitic virus, and yet were also guilty of a lack of feeling or connection to the Jews that they saved—which is a trait they shared with the rest of Polish society.
In Poland, it was even more complicated, because during the Nazi occupation, in the milieu of “Żegota,” there were people who had, in their past, this non-controversially clear anti-Semitic past. Among them there was Jan Dobraczyński, the writer—he has his tree in Yad Vashem. There was also Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. So this was even more complicated, because here you have the ambiguity of the Polish Catholic church. On the one side, anti-Semitism was very widespread there, but on the other side, there was this very strict Evangelic demand—do not kill. And that had great influence, even among the anti-Semites.
Your own essay in the anthology about the two bishops in Kielce, one of those whom had a letter in which he is obviously using anti-Semitic ideas to justify …
Kaczmarek! Horrible, absolutely horrible! I could not believe my own eyes when I read it. So outrageous! And on the top of it, he was writing this for Americans! So he was also an idiot! To write something like this to Americans in 1946 one must be a moron.
Right. I have a good friend who is a Polish novelist, a great guy, we like the same kinds of crime stories, we have similar domestic arrangements, and we both like to drink, and so on. But in a funny way, I know that for him, in addition to the fact that he likes me as a person, and I like him as a person, I am also a kind of symbolic presence, the missing Jew in his life.
Aaah, yes, yes! That is yet another issue! Today, in Polish culture, it is a new phenomenon. I call this the pain of the cut-off hand. You go to the bookstore and you have shelves and shelves of Judaica—so many historical books about Jews! Many more, one has to say, than anti-Semitic books.
Do you find people in your life ever look at you this way: “Adam, you are one of us, a true Pole, but you are also a Jew, and so you can answer this emotional need that we have to be a society that includes Jews, even though they are gone?”
You have to ask some other people about that. I do not feel that. But maybe it is there, because I never thought about that. And, of course, I register the anti-Semitic attitudes toward me, because what is often hidden behind them is the opposition toward a neoliberal, democratic worldview. I am obviously a very controversial person in Poland, but not as a Jew—as Michnik.
Do you think that the demands that your half-brother should be brought back from Sweden to be tried for his role as a judge in the Stalinist system, during which he condemned people to death, is part of a larger attempt to do justice, or is simply a personal attack against you?
They want to hit me. I am 100 percent sure. He was never that important. He was just a minor figure. He was not a meaningful actor. They do not demand the extradition of many others. His biggest crime is his name.
Did you feel that it was strictly personal, or in some way it was also a way of saying—well, this group of Stalinist Jews committed these crimes back in the 1950s, so now we are going to make that your lineage?
There might be something to that, yes. And of course the subtext is anti-Semitic. But, again, that is not specifically Polish, you know—you can see it in Lithuania.
In 2006, I was traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, because I was writing an article about her. And there were going to be elections in the Gaza Strip in the West Bank. And as it happened I had just spent three weeks in Gaza. Now, I speak about 200 words of Arabic, but I did not even need any Arabic to see that when I walked down the street, the election banners that people had in their windows and in their stores, were the color green, which was the Hamas color. So whenever I would walk out with a member of the family I was staying with, to buy vegetables or whatever, the banner in the store was green. So, when I was with Rice, I asked her, “What do you think the result of the elections is going to be? And she said, “Fatah is going to win.” I said, “I was just in Gaza, and I think Hamas is going to win. And what will you do if I am right?” She said, “Well, then they will have to govern and either will have to become more moderate, as they are faced with the responsibility for governance, or they fail, and then Fatah will be elected the next time.” To which I asked her, “What makes you think there will be a next election?”
Very good question.
So she gave me an answer. She said: “I was serving on the National Security Council in 1989 and we all watched the amazement and joy when the Berlin wall came down, and all of these societies which have been imprisoned by Soviet Union, became democratic societies. I believe that the desire for human freedom is just as much present in the people of Gaza, as it is in people in Czechoslovakia or Poland, so you are wrong.”
She had quite a bit of a point here. Nobody has ever learned how to swim without going to the water. Democracy has to be learned. Poland was always characterized as a country where there cannot be democracy, because democracy in Poland is only needed to organize anti-Jewish pogroms. And that was really expressed by very serious people! That was one of the reasons why a large part of the Jewish society, not Communists at all, supported the elections in 1946. At the international conference in Paris, in 1946, the World Jewish Congress voted in support for the Communist government in Poland. I was quite recently at a discussion in the Jewish Historical Institute where this was given as an example that the government was good.
That is the result of looking at the world exclusively through the Jewish lenses, because for Jews it was a good government. Well, of course not for all of them, but still, in 1946 there were still synagogues, and so on. But later on, there were terrible things taking place. In the Soviet Union, there was the “doctors’ plot.” The entire Jewish culture in Russia was murdered in that way.
I had a funny conversation once with (former Solidarity organizer) Konstanty Gebert, who came from the same milieu that you did in Warsaw after the war. He was talking about the synagogue he belongs to in Warsaw, and so on, and I asked him: “Where did you learn to be so Jewish?” He told me that in 1968, at the same time that you were in prison, his mother was stripped of her job, and he was sent to a remedial class at his high school …
Kostek? I did not know about that.
And he said that in the neighborhood where he lived—which was probably the same neighborhood where your parents lived—so many families emigrated that there were many personal libraries for sale at second-hand bookshops, part of the things that they left behind. They could only take a limited weight. So they left behind books, including all the Yiddish writers who were translated into Polish. And he picked up those books and he said something to the effect of, “Well, all I know is this one word—Jew. And I know that this word exists and is important, because my mom no longer has a job and I’m being sent to remedial school. So maybe somewhere in these books, it says what it is that I am supposed to be.”
[In Polish] Interesting, I did not know about that.
Translator [in Polish]: Me neither. I think that he confabulated a little bit …
OK, whether the story is true, or not …
Translator: I am just wondering! We were just talking about it because Kostek is his good friend and I know him too. But who knows? It is a very interesting story, though!
He said that when he started to read those books, there was something in the rhythms of the thought and the expression, where he thought that he recognized himself. Was there a moment for you when you felt that way, or found a Jewish lens to be in some way a positive or a familiar thing?
No, never. Wearing Jewish glasses gives me the possibility to see something that I could not see without them. But the same thing I could say about putting on Ukrainian glasses, or Russian glasses and so on.
I once argued about that with Kostek. And we decided that he is a Polish Jew, and I am a Pole of Jewish background. That is a different kind of identity. I would always tell him that one’s national identity is built on the sense of shame: What nation do you feel ashamed of? I was ashamed of the Polish invasion in Czechoslovakia, but I was not ashamed of bombing Gaza. I did not like it, but, as we say in Poland: It is not my circus and not my monkeys.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.