I am a child of the Holocaust, but unlike many Jews of my generation I have no interest in digging up the past to resurrect the memory of family members who perished at the hands of the Nazis. To what end? To take time and trouble to search through the archives for long-buried documents and memorabilia requires a bedrock belief that the effort will yield happy memories of a vanished era. As the only son of orphaned parents, as someone who endured a singular, unspeakably lonely childhood in Poland in the years immediately following World War Two, I have no such belief, and no such memories.
People may think such an attitude makes me a bad Jew. Or a bad citizen of Israel, as I am now. For decades, the wisdom has been that if we want to grasp the full horrors of the Holocaust, we need to show unquestioning reverence for the world that Hitler and his mass murderers wiped out. But this strikes me as an aspiration, a retrospective attempt to find some redemption in the worst of our recent history. It is not a reflection of the reality experienced by many of Hitler’s victims.
When I think back on my parents’ experience as targets of the Nazi extermination machine, or on my own experience as a Jewish boy in a Poland bereft of other Jews, what comes back above all is the fear.
When the Nazis invaded in 1939, my parents lost everything—their families, their possessions, their livelihoods, their youth, their dreams. They even lost each other, as Hitler’s inexorable march eastward pulled them apart and kept them separated for four long years. Even after they were reunited at the end of the war, even after I was born in 1947 and they worked to build a life in a country that had been shattered beyond recognition, they worried every day that with one unwelcome knock on the door everything might come undone all over again.
The fear was far from unfounded. Everything around us was fragile: politics, the economy, even the stones of the city where we made our home. We lived in Wroclaw, in western Poland. Until Hitler’s defeat it had belonged to the German Reich. Now it was filled with refugees from other parts of Poland who, like my parents, had nothing and nobody to go home to. The 500,000 Germans who had previously resided in Wroclaw—Breslau, as they knew it—fled before the advancing Red Army in the spring of 1945 or were expelled. Our lives were to be rebuilt in a place to which my family had no previous connection, on the rubble left by others.
My father, Salomon Goldberg, was assigned to Wroclaw as a logistics expert by the Polish Communist Party, of which he was a proud and enthusiastic member. In the fraught prewar years of his youth, when a newly independent Polish state eyed its Jewish minority with suspicion and mounting hostility, the party had been his refuge and his inspiration. Once the Nazis arrived, it also became his means of survival. He was quite sure now—or so he insisted—that the party would protect us and provide us with the future we yearned for.
Wroclaw at that time was suffering from a significant housing shortage, not only because of the destruction left by the war but also because of a massive influx of Poles uprooted from the east, the part of the country now absorbed into Ukraine and Belarus. The party decreed that no household in Wroclaw should leave any room unused, and it sent inspectors around the city for spot checks. We were assigned a second-floor apartment in an old German building with lions’ heads carved above the entrance. It was comfortable but far from luxurious. Still, we knew that one of these inspectors could drop by at any time and order us to share our living space with perfect strangers—maybe even spies.
This was the knock on the door we were afraid of. My father’s status with the party guaranteed us nothing, not least because, as a Jew, he struggled to win the respect his position should have afforded him. My parents would tell me the story of the Nazi officer who had come to their apartment in Krakow and ordered them out. They implored me never to open the door to anyone. I had a contrarian nature (one of the reasons, no doubt, why they admonished me so regularly), but on this I never dared disobey.
Already, I was afraid of many things: of the bombed-out buildings near our house that were too dangerous to play in; of the large neighborhood Catholic church, where I knew I was not welcome; of the drunkards who sometimes slept in the gloomy entranceway to our building, inducing me to dash up the stairs with my heart in my throat every time.
All these things contributed to an unnerving sense of the world beyond my immediate family, a world that tolerated us at best but could discard us at a moment’s notice. I looked at the heavy wooden door to our apartment as a barricade as much as an entranceway.
In a basic sense, of course, the apartment was not ours. If anyone could be said to own it, it was probably some German family that lived there before. But, more importantly, we now lived in a world where property rights had lost much of their meaning. If anything, we were proud to have taken something from the Germans. Since they had killed my grandparents and my aunts, uprooted my parents, and sent my mother to Auschwitz, it seemed like the least we could do.
It was only decades later, after the fall of communism, after I had returned to Eastern Europe not as a Polish citizen but rather as a World Bank official dedicated to the region’s economic redevelopment, that I began to see the larger forces feeding these childhood feelings: how Stalin and Hitler had undermined rights of ownership across Europe in the furtherance of their expansionist ambitions and left a poisoned legacy that would last decades. Poland was the most brutal example of this, its borders and political character forced first one way and then the other at a cost of millions of lives, including nine-tenths of the prewar Jewish population.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the communist governments of Eastern Europe crumbled one after the other, many Jews with family roots in the region felt a compulsion to rush back to the places where their ancestors had lived and suffered and died and, in many cases, to lay claim to property they believed to be rightfully theirs. I never had any interest in the latter—what was I going to claim? But, I will admit, not having yet thought through the historical implications, I was briefly tempted by the former.
I, too, went to Krakow, where my parents and other relatives had lived before the Nazis invaded. I, too, went to Chrzanow, the shtetl 30 miles northwest of Krakow where my mother and father had both been raised in a strict religious environment they longed to escape. And what did I find? That the people there had the same fear I’d had instilled in me as a child.
They, too, were afraid of a knock on the door.
“Do you know of the Sperlings?” I asked at one building in Krakow. This was the family of my mother Sofia’s cousin, Leon Sperling, whose parents had died in the camps. “Do you know the Korngolds?” I asked in Chrzanow, referring to my mother’s family. “Or the Goldbergs?”
“No, no,” people would say, their faces blank. “We never knew such people. There were never such people here.” I didn’t press the point. I hadn’t come to take anything from them. I had no interest in burdening them with misguided nostalgia for a lost world that hadn’t been mine in the first place.
My mother, I know, felt similarly. She retained some residual fondness for Krakow. But she had no nostalgia whatsoever for Chrzanow. She had spent her formative years there pushing her parents to let her leave and attend a secular school in the city, as she eventually did, so she could pursue an education and a career. None of these struggles seemed to matter now, not with her parents and all but one of her siblings gone.
My mother returned to Chrzanow at the end of the war to look up the maid who had been asked to safeguard my grandparents’ silver and other precious heirlooms. “I don’t want anything back,” my mother said. “Just give me a couple of spoons to remember my family by.”
The maid, astonished to see her still alive, gave her the spoons. After that my mother left and never set foot in the place again.
My Jewish identity was not forged through religion, because I grew up with none, but rather by how others perceived me. It was enough.
When the kids in Wroclaw called me a Jew, it was to tell me I was not one of them. When my mother invoked my Jewishness, it was to make sure I’d never forget the hell she’d been through in Auschwitz. My calling in life, she said, was to take revenge on Hitler by proving I could do things that “subhumans” like us were not supposed to be able to do. I was to get up early, study hard, and focus on getting ahead. In this way, my identity was stamped on me as surely as the stamp on my mother’s arm.
If it weren’t for the isolation of our existence, I might have done more to resist my mother’s never-ending exhortations. As it was, I had few friends and was content to attend to my books and the current affairs that we all followed assiduously. If my attention wavered, my mother was always ready with an admonition to do better. She held Auschwitz over me like a cudgel, rarely giving me details of what she had endured but still burdening me with the symbolic weight of her experiences. It was the only way she could make sense of the fact that she’d survived when so many others had perished.
Her determination dictated everything. I was a child conceived against the advice of her doctors and carried to term despite a plethora of health problems, including several herniated disks that she suffered as a result of the beatings she’d taken in the camps. Now that I was in the world, I had to succeed at all costs.
I rebelled, of course. My mother’s love often felt stifling to me, and on many occasions I took pleasure in doing the opposite of what she expected, knowing it would drive her to distraction. One time, I sneaked into the bathroom and grabbed my father’s precious party certificate, which he wore around his neck for safekeeping and removed only when he was shaving, and threw it into a bowl of soapy shaving water.
Another time, I slipped out of the house to buy myself ice cream, even though I was not allowed to go out unsupervised and was warned over and over that ice cream could give me a cold. When, in response, my mother cut off my pocket money, I sat on the steps of our building and offered my watch for sale instead. It wasn’t long before a young passerby lifted the watch from me and ran, forcing me to return upstairs empty-handed and to confess all.
Over and over my parents reminded me that we did not live in a free society and urged me never to discuss politics outside the house. Once, when I was getting my hair cut, the barber asked me if I preferred Stalin or Eisenhower, and my contrarian nature induced me to answer: “Eisenhower.” Luckily, I was young enough that the barber did not take my answer seriously.
Sometimes, when my mother was upbraiding me, or in quieter moments when we were doing the dishes together and my father was out of earshot, she would reveal small pieces of the hell she had been through during the war: her time with the partisans in the Ukrainian forest; her capture and deportation to Auschwitz in a cattle car filled with prisoners urinating and defecating and having sex around her; the deal she’d struck with a doctor in the camp so she’d receive bread in exchange for needlework; how she could see the smoke and smell the stench of the crematorium from her barracks; how, even after her back gave out from multiple beatings, she had the genetic good fortune to retain some muscle in her upper arms so she wouldn’t be selected for liquidation.
Often, there was an edge to these stories. Often, she would invoke the memory of her friend Suraleh. “It would have been better if I had died and she had survived,” she would say, “because the son she produced would have been better behaved than you.”
I had some sense at the time that this was a terrible thing for a mother to tell a child. If you suffered as much as you claim, I’d say, pushing back, why didn’t you go to the barbed wire so you’d be electrocuted or shot?
Her answer: “It’s not so easy to die.”
One time, to torment my mother with more than my usual bullheadedness, I jumped onto a window ledge and threatened to throw myself out. “Nu, just try it,” she said with perfect indifference.
It’s true, we lived on the second floor, not the sixth, and it was just a 10-foot drop to the ground. But I’m not sure another mother would have been quite so calm. Again, she said: “You think it’s so easy to die?”
My parents used to tell me that the reason they’d been separated during the war was because my father was abducted by the Red Army somewhere in eastern Poland and force-marched to a large military encampment in the Urals to serve the Soviet war machine against his will. Recently, though, I’ve concluded with some reluctance that this story is not true.
A more likely scenario is that my father was selected as one of a number of Polish party members seen as potential postwar leaders once the Nazis were defeated. By working to support the Soviet military, he could demonstrate his Stalinist bona fides and guarantee himself a career on his return to Poland in 1945. That, at least, is what my mother told her cousins Leon and Helen Sperling. And the Sperlings, who emigrated to America after making their own escape from the Nazis, revealed it to me decades later, in 1990, when we met up in New York. My father chose to go to Russia, the Sperlings told me, even knowing that he could not bring my mother with him. My parents made up the story about the abduction, disturbing as it was, because it was more palatable than telling me that he had looked out for himself and left her behind. Given how much my mother had suffered after their separation, they worried that I might never forgive him.
The Sperlings’ account certainly explained why my parents had always been so evasive about the details of the story. And it made sense of something else that had bothered me: why my mother often expressed great bitterness about the relative comfort in which my father had lived as a military supplies and logistics officer. “You had a deluxe war,” she would say. “You were warm. They kept a place near the stove for you.”
The tension between them on this point was considerable, only underscoring the fact that while my father was a committed communist, my mother never believed in the cause. She identified, rather, as a Zionist. Under other circumstances, she might have heeded her brother Efraim’s calls to emigrate to Palestine as quickly as possible. Efraim urged her many times, in fact, to leave my father and stick with him instead. But she would not. She wanted a child, and after seeing how the Nazis had broken up so many Jewish families, she was not about to break up another one.
My father might have been a true believer, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable being identified with the Stalinist wing of the party. On more than one occasion, he let slip that he would have much preferred Trotsky as Soviet leader. Still, he understood the hard realities of a world in which individuals are not afforded the luxury of personal opinions. Those who had not proved their “Muscovite” bona fides during the war, including the popular Polish postwar leader Wladislaw Gomulka, had been purged, whereas he had a career and a chance to be part of the socialist utopia he’d always dreamed of building. It was a trade-off he was more than willing to make.
He knew, of course, that the world we moved in remained deeply uncertain. He knew about the pogroms directed against Polish Jews returning home from the war, and about the wild tales that Jews were abducting and ritually murdering children. But he thought of such disturbing developments as “childhood illnesses” of the postwar world, mere bumps along the road to what he saw as a perfectible future.
My father’s extreme dedication to the socialist idea made him incorruptible—to a fault. As far as I know, he never took a bribe, despite the pitifully low salary he brought home, and never took advantage of his position as a food supply coordinator to spare us endless queuing for bread and other basic necessities. I have vivid memories of my mother berating him night after night about the many hours she had spent waiting in line, with little or nothing to show for it. Why would he not let us seek things out on the black market, where they could be found? “I’m a party official, and a Jewish official at that,” my father would tell her. “What will people say?”
In time, my father was promoted, but this proved to be a mixed blessing because it heightened his visibility and therefore his vulnerability. He had an official car and a driver now, and we had to presume that the driver’s job was to spy on us as much as it was to ferry us around. No more talk of Eisenhower, my mother would insist. I was to say nothing at all, even if the driver asked me a question or offered me a gift.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, my father’s position became much more fraught because the Stalinists were now without their protector. Hostility toward Jews was on the rise, too. One night, as my father was walking home, he was assaulted by antisemitic thugs who broke his jaw and knocked out several teeth. He sought to explain this away, once again, as the birth pangs of a new world. But my mother was no longer buying it, if she ever had.
Efraim and his family were in Israel now and kept asking when we were going to join them. Gomulka, soon to be reinstated as party leader, had no fondness for Jews, having previously accused them of “national nihilism” and arguing that they had no place in the leadership. How could this end well? Schloime doesn’t deserve you, Efraim would tell my mother from the Middle East. You have suffered, and he doesn’t even know what that is. He’d rather stay with the antisemites than come here.
After my father walked into the house with blood pouring out of his mouth, my mother patched him up and called the doctor and arranged for him to have gold teeth inserted in place of the ones he’d lost. But when my father offered more excuses for the thuggishness of his party comrades, she no longer pretended to agree with him. She just laughed.
The event that shattered my father’s beautiful dream more than any other was Khrushchev’s infamous denunciation of Stalin in February 1956. Word of the so-called “secret speech” spread quickly across the Eastern bloc and so shocked the leader of the Polish party, Boleslaw Bierut, that he dropped dead of a heart attack a few days after he received the news. I remember a group of my father’s friends convening in our living room to absorb the realization that de-Stalinization was now in full swing and they could expect to be its targets. Instead of keeping up their usual animated conversation over biscuits and strong Russian tea, they sat in a state of absolute dejection, their faces creased with shock, It was like a funeral.
For months, my father couldn’t stop asking himself where the revolution had gone wrong. Had Lenin miscalculated in thinking Russia was the place to start the communist revolution? Would Germany have been better? I, meanwhile, was barely 9 years old, and my overriding thought was to escape the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in our household. What did I care if Stalin was a hero who had liberated the camps in time to save my mother, as my father always maintained, or if he was a tyrant, as his successor had said so unflatteringly?
What I really wanted was to be sent away to summer camp, and after lobbying my parents I was sent off to a place on the Baltic coast near Gdansk. I thought the experience would allow me to strike out on my own and establish some independence. But I was naïve, as only a 9-year-old can be. I underestimated how far politics can reach even into the life of a child.
The camp was stern and rigid and prized discipline above everything. We were not allowed to keep money or valuables with us—making it impossible to run away. Our letters home were rigorously supervised, which prevented us from giving anything close to an honest account of what we were experiencing.
At first, I welcomed the distance the camp put between me and my parents. But as a relatively sheltered only child, I was not remotely ready for the torments and humiliations of my fellow campers. When a teacher invited each of us to talk about our families, I volunteered in all innocence that I had relatives in Palestine. I may even have mentioned that my uncle’s family sent us packages of oranges—a luxury most Poles could not enjoy. That very night, the retribution began. “You Jews killed Christ,” the boys in my dormitory yelled, “and you’re going to pay for it today!”
In the melee that followed, a lamp came crashing down and the counselors came running, sparing me serious harm. But I was terrified. I had never previously experienced such deep, existential dread of what others could do to me solely because of who I was. Decades later, I learned—again, from the Sperlings—that I’d come back from camp with a bad stutter. At the time, I erased it from my memory—along with just about everything that happened at the camp after that first night of torment.
Soon after I returned home, it became clear we were not going to stay in Poland. I was not privy to the conversations between my parents, so I don’t know if the deciding factor was the political dead-end facing my father, or my mother putting her foot down, or their alarm over what I’d been through. 1956 was a rough year all around. First the economy nosedived, then reformers took to the streets and clashed with the army and police. Then came the Suez crisis, which prompted the Polish media to tar Israel not only as a nation of Christ killers, but as an agent of Western imperialism too.
To me, as a child, all these jarring events blurred together. I thought about summer camp and the police state and the Catholic Church and simply hated all of them. Somewhere I had a notion that living under communism was the problem, but because of my father’s influence that thought was also at war with its opposite—that communism wasn’t perfect yet but soon would be. It was very confusing.
We left, finally, in May 1957. We took a train from Wroclaw to Krakow, the city of my parents’ greatest happiness, so I’d have a chance to see the beauty of the medieval city for myself. Then we traveled on to Szczecin, on the Baltic coast, took a ship to France and, over the next several days, made our way to the new life awaiting us in Israel.
We were terrible misfits at first. How could we not be? We were pale-skinned and wore odd clothes, and had to struggle with a new language and a culture we found shockingly different. Part of my father’s resistance to emigrating had stemmed from a belief that Palestine was a barren desert filled only with Zionist loafers. To some degree, we had all come to believe it. The Mediterranean sun, far from cheering us with its warmth, struck us as malevolent. My mother took one look at the Bedouin tents lining the road from Haifa, where we had disembarked, and exclaimed: “What kind of place have we come to? It’s Asia! They’re all Asians here!”
In many ways, we were fortunate. Efraim and his wife, Leika, were well established in the seaside city of Akko, 10 miles north of Haifa, and through them we were able to move into an apartment right away. Later, when it became apparent that my father’s background as a communist apparatchik made him unsuitable for most forms of employment, Leika helped my parents obtain a loan and a business license so they could set up a bookstore and small lending library on the ground floor of our building.
Still, we struggled. My father fell into a deep depression over the loss of his communist utopia. My mother recovered soon enough from the sight of so many unfamiliar faces, but she found herself caught between her husband and her brother, who continued to vent his disapproval at her marriage and didn’t hesitate to taunt my father in front of her. We told you so, Efraim would say. What did you think, Schloime? That those antisemites would take you as their leader?
My greatest challenge was that I was no good at the two street skills deemed indispensable for boys of my age, soccer and throwing stones. Most of my peers had emigrated to Israel when they were still toddlers and knew no other reality. They had no interest in my former life in Poland, or in anything else I had to offer. I didn’t want to be like them, either, so for the most part I stayed home, reading books and newspapers when I wasn’t doing my school work, just as I had in Poland for so many years.
Efraim did not approve of my solitary ways. He thought I should toughen up and stop reading in Polish, a language he associated with my father’s laughably discredited ideas. I was a Zionist now, he said, I needed to read in Hebrew. Whenever he came to our apartment, he would march into my room and try to take away my Polish-language books, which incensed me. On one occasion, he even tried to hit me. In response, I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a long knife to let him know I was not my father and wasn’t going to be intimidated into submission. The scene so stunned my mother that she fainted. Efraim, though, never laid a hand on me again.
My father was not so lucky. The three of us had a standing invitation to join a gathering of family and friends at Efraim’s house every Friday night, but the taunts that Efraim, Leika, and their brother-in-law Marian threw my father’s way did not let up over time. They laughed at him when his first job at a discount supermarket did not work out. They laughed at his consternation at free-market pricing and his struggle to understand how the same item could cost more at one store than at another. After my parents started their bookstore, Marian asked him how it felt to be a capitalist taking money away from the people. At some point, I couldn’t bear to witness this any longer. My father had come to Israel a broken man; he didn’t deserve it. I told my mother she should go to the Friday night gatherings alone.
Israel at that time offered no language in which to express the trauma of our past. People in the late 1950s and early 1960s didn’t talk about the Holocaust except in private, and even then only with others who had gone through similar experiences. Adults of my parents’ generation would sometimes ask for news of this person or that person—we’d hear ads on the radio asking for information about missing relatives—but there was no wholesale reckoning with the past, and certainly no national appeal to the memory of those that were lost, as would become commonplace decades later.
Israel was a pioneer society that prided itself on its young kibbutz workers fertilizing the parched land and its robust military that could take on all comers. It wanted to promote heroic images of itself as a dynamic young country, not dwell on Jewish suffering and wrap itself in the mantle of victimhood. Growing up, I’d be shocked to hear people referring to camp survivors as sabunim, heaps of soap. Identifying as a survivor was seen as an admission of a certain lack of toughness—an acknowledgement of how close you’d let the Nazis come to making you a literal bar of soap.
Our Sephardic neighbors, immigrants from Morocco and Yemen and Egypt, had no personal context in which to understand what we had gone through. And the kids who’d come from Eastern Europe didn’t want to know, and would have laughed at me if I’d tried telling them. My uncle Efraim’s exhortation to forget the past was typical. Our only job, as survivors, was to keep on living.
Still, the Holocaust remained an inescapable presence in my life. My mother blamed it for her insomnia, and since I suffered from the same condition I was made to understand that the trauma had somehow been passed on to me like an acquired gene. My mother would get up in the night, complaining that there was not enough air in Israel, and many times, I would get up too, especially if I had a test the next day and I knew I would have to answer to her if I didn’t ace it.
The friction with my mother was constant. She was quick to broadcast her pride in my achievements, but I didn’t want to be put on display like a trophy, just as I didn’t want to be defined by her sense of historical justice. From time to time we’d receive visits from fellow Auschwitz survivors, and the expectation was that I would treat such occasions with the respect they deserved. Once, though, I became so infuriated when my mother wouldn’t stop talking about my high scores in geography that I was rude both to her and to the Auschwitz survivor and walked out on the lunch. Another time, a younger woman who had been just a teenager in the camps gave me a long stare while my mother was in the kitchen preparing refreshments. “I wish I had a son like you,” she said.
This, too, unnerved me. How long would I have to go on being defined by other people’s suffering?
In an important way, of course, Israel offered us an ideal answer to the age-old problem of antisemitism, and on this my mother and I were in perfect agreement. Every year, we’d go to Haifa for the Independence Day parade, and my mother would thrill at the Air Force flyover and the overall spectacle of military strength. “A Jew is flying a plane!” she’d marvel. “A Jew is driving a tank! Is a Jewish boy really allowed on a tank?”
I spent my three years of military service at naval headquarters on Mount Carmel, just outside Haifa, and spent the Six-Day War bringing cables to the generals and colonels assembled inside the war room, a ringside seat to history that nobody else of my lowly rank was afforded. This period was a watershed for me, both politically and intellectually. I did not share the country’s general euphoria at the outcome of the war, because I worried about the long-term costs of occupying the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. I don’t credit myself with any special insight on this; no less a figure than David Ben-Gurion was saying much the same thing at the time. Looking back, though, I see how much I owed to the intellectual training I’d received from my father.
He, too, thought the desire to acquire land as a chest-beating exercise in nationalist pride was the height of folly. We should have been offering reparations to the many Palestinians displaced at the time of Israel’s founding, just as the West German government was making payments to displaced Israelis of German origin. Instead, we were imposing military rule with its many moral abominations and corrupting what would turn out to be generations of young Israelis recruited to enforce it. “We will pay dearly for this,” my father said.
No doubt Efraim would have made fun of him for taking this position. My mother certainly didn’t agree; the way she saw it, Israel should do whatever was necessary for our security. But on this occasion my father also happened to be right.
Where I parted company with my father was on economic questions. This was now my area of study, and under the influence, first, of Don Patinkin at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and, later, of Milton Friedman and his free-market disciples at the University of Chicago, I began to step away from the orthodoxy of the left-wing Zionists who had ruled Israel since its founding and became a critic of the country’s heavily subsidized state-run industries and farms. My professors on both sides of the Atlantic taught me how unsustainable the statist model was over the long term. Indeed, after Israel shifted to the right with the rise of Likud in 1977, many of these enterprises found it impossible to survive without the governmental support on which they had come to depend.
Just as I understood Israel to be the answer to the problem of antisemitism, I found free-market capitalism to be the answer to the problem of communism. This didn’t just put me at odds with my father. Where once I dreamed of a political career in Israel, I was now a decidedly odd duck in the Labor Party, my natural home, and an even worse fit for Likud because of my distaste for their positions on territorial and military issues.
I started my career instead as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. By the time I returned to Israel in the late 1970s, as chief economist for a potash mining conglomerate at the Dead Sea, my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and it became increasingly difficult to share my ideas and insights with him. I much regret that he was unable to take in the remarkable events that rocked Eastern Europe throughout the 1980s, from the shipworkers’ strike in Gdansk in 1981 to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I can only guess what my father would have made of Gorbachev, of glasnost, or of the people-powered revolutions that swept away the old order. My guess is that, despite Gorbachev’s tremendous unpopularity in Russia, he would have been one of Gorby’s men, someone who believed in correcting an essentially well-intentioned system. And when that correction failed, he would have reacted with the same sadness and disillusion he experienced on learning about Khrushchev’s secret speech.
My own reaction to the revolutions of 1989 was different: I saw a unique opportunity to forge a different future for the region. Poland, the country of my birth, had been robbed over and over by political forces buffeting it on all sides, but now it had a chance to shape an altogether different destiny. I was an expert in economic development now. What could I do?
As it happened, I was spending a lot of time in the United States to fight my corner of an international trade dispute involving potash exports, and within a few months I’d pulled some strings and persuaded the World Bank to offer me a job. My destiny, apparently, was to go home.
I’ll admit, my first reaction to seeing Poland again was not kind. I took one look at the dilapidated buildings with their hangdog, depressive air, and all I wanted to do was gloat. We won, you lost. I’d been away for three decades, and the contrast with Israel’s economic development over the same period could not have been starker. One joke I overheard on my first trip in November 1990 stayed with me. If you want to know where the bathroom is, just follow the smell.
It didn’t take me long to find evidence of the antisemitism that had haunted my early childhood. At the time, the United States was putting together an international military coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and I asked a taxi driver what he thought of Poland joining the effort. “This is all the fault of the Jewish lobby in New York,” he said. “The Jews run the world, and it’s Polish blood that gets spilled.” When I reached my hotel, I told him: “I’m one of them.” And slammed the door.
I realized soon enough that I’d been seeking out just such a reaction—something else I wasn’t especially proud of. The wounds of my past were still raw. Almost despite myself, I kept looking over my shoulder and wondering who on the street might be sizing me up as a Jew. Some part of me, perhaps, was thinking of my mother, who had reacted with near panic to the news that I was returning to Poland. She was afraid the secret police would be on to me because I’d never fulfilled my obligation to serve in the Polish military. I knew, of course, that as a World Bank official I was in no danger of being conscripted. It was incumbent on me to move past such feelings, and I soon did.
One of my jobs in Poland was to lead courses in market economics. The conversations I initiated with Polish business leaders were not all that different from the ones I’d had with my own father when he was first finding his feet in Israel. They, too, struggled with the concept of price differences. “I can understand competition between sellers,” one of my students said. “What I don’t understand is competition between buyers.”
Later, I spent six weeks in a struggling furniture factory in Poznan, two hours’ drive north of Wroclaw, where the absence of any mechanism to track expenses and receipts reminded me, once again, of how my father had run our family bookstore. He, too, never knew how much money he had or how much he was owed. If a book was not in stock, he would not hesitate to take a bus to Haifa to pick up a copy. “Are you crazy?” my mother would ask. “The trip itself costs money, not to mention the time.” To my father, these concerns were not nearly as important as the fact that a customer had asked for something and it was up to him to provide it.
The World Bank’s investment arm might have taken a 25% stake in the furniture factory, but I was far from a welcome figure when I arrived in Poznan. On the first day, the factory manager pointed to an enormous limousine he’d ordered for me. “We will take you to Auschwitz for two to three days,” he said. “I know you guys always want to go there.”
You guys. I recognized this right away as a test of my resolve, a way to see if I was just another Jewish Holocaust tourist they could keep occupied and out of the way. The reason I had come, I told the manager, was to help him run a viable business in the newly deregulated economy, and that was the only thing I intended to do. Once I’d convinced him of this, he became much more amenable.
As my job kept taking me back to Poland and to other parts of the former Soviet bloc, I continued to take advantage of my status as someone both familiar with the local culture and crucially removed from it. Nothing, it seems, gets people’s attention like a Polish Jew who says he understands communism. In Russia, I overheard a factory manager whisper to one of his colleagues: “He’s one of us.” It was meant not as an expression of kinship, but rather as a warning that I wasn’t just another naïve Westerner. They needed to be careful around me.
Often, people would assume, perhaps half-jokingly, that I was still a full-blooded Pole, but this too was a less welcoming statement than first appeared. “I’m so happy that you and the rest of your guys are coming back,” one high-level Polish official with whom I became friendly liked to say. Again the expression, your guys.
I would tell him that I saw myself as Israeli, not Polish, but he was not deterred. “Never mind,” he’d say, “we will take you in whatever way you want to present yourself.”
The tone between us was light, but it was also clear that my friend was bothered by the Jewish question in some fundamental way. The whole country was. Poland’s role in World War Two was now a keen and fractious talking point, as I witnessed for myself at a book event in Warsaw when Jan Gross, a historian who had conducted extensive investigations of Polish crimes against Jews, both during World War Two and after, was shouted down by a rowdy gang of skinheads.
“For 800 years you were here,” my friend would go on, “and you were so happy you didn’t want to leave. You could have gone anywhere, but you didn’t. Then, because of some unpleasant events after the war, you don’t like us anymore. You even blame the Holocaust on us.”
It was a reading of the Jewish experience in Poland that no respectable historian would endorse. Was I supposed to be amused by this? Later, I learned my friend was not quite the dispassionate observer of Jewish matters that he presented himself to be. His family, he told me, had taken over property previously owned by Jews and held on to it because nobody came back to claim it. This revelation caught me off-guard, but I also realized I had no simple response. In the work I had done on privatization and property rights, I had become keenly aware that Poland’s history does not lend itself to easy answers about who owns what. It was the reason my Polish colleagues and I were determined to solidify questions of ownership for the present and the future.
But what, if anything, should be done about the past? It’s a question that continues to preoccupy and frighten many Poles, not least because of the insistence of many Israelis and American Jews that the Nazi terror was aided and abetted by ordinary Poles and that Poland therefore owes a debt of some kind to the international Jewish community. There is plentiful historical evidence of cooperation with the Nazis, of course, as the work of Jan Gross and others has illuminated. But I’ve always been struck by the tendency of Jews around the world to blame Poland for the Holocaust itself. No doubt this tendency has something to do with the fact that the West German government started paying reparations to victims of Nazism in the early 1950s, whereas Poland never had the financial means to consider such a move, let alone the motivation or the will. One country, in this mindset, has atoned, whereas the other has not.
To me, though, such a view is misguided, a conflation of multiple issues. Yes, Poland is still plagued with antisemitism. Children continue to be taught that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, and the old conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination are still in circulation. Yes, antisemitism was ascendant in the run-up to World War Two and reemerged again as soon as the war was over. I know, because I experienced it myself. But let’s be clear: Poles did not organize or run the concentration camps and, in this respect, they have nothing to atone or pay for. The Nazis were their enemy, who subjected them to a brutal military occupation, targeted the intelligentsia and the top political leadership for annihilation, and put millions to work as slave laborers. The Nazis alone conceived of the Final Solution and constructed the terrible killing machine devoted to its fulfillment.
The rise of Poland’s right-wing populists, the Law and Justice party, owes much to the confusion that persists around these issues and the fear the party has managed to whip up to win and maintain power since 2015. It has issued repeated attacks on historians who identify wartime crimes against Jews, and it has passed a series of laws criminalizing anyone who accuses Poland of involvement in the Holocaust. Such measures have been widely condemned, and rightly so. But they did not appear in a vacuum. Too often, Israel has pointed to the vile populism of the ruling party as evidence of Poland’s historical responsibilities concerning the mistreatment of the Jews, thus conflating two separate issues and making a bad situation only worse.
To call this a sensitive subject is an understatement: I can’t raise it in Israel or with my Jewish friends in the United States without provoking an uproar. But Israeli government officials would do well to remember that Polish liberals in and out of parliament are as appalled at the antisemitism of the Law and Justice party as they are. Israel could be forging alliances with those liberal forces and offering them moral support. Instead, Israel is risking needless damage to its relations with Poland over the long term.
For many years I avoided returning to Wroclaw. I was afraid of stirring up unpleasant memories and afraid, too, that the few landmarks with meaning for me would be unrecognizable after decades of neglect. I finally made the trip in 2006 and was surprised at how moved I was to see everything again. The Catholic church, St. Maurice, was unchanged, and I took pleasure in popping my head inside, just because I could. The corner store still bore a sign saying FRYZJER, Polish for barber; this was where, more than half a century earlier, I had blurted out that I preferred Eisenhower to Stalin. Our building, at 68 Traugutt Street, still had stone lions above the entranceway.
I even saw the old apartment, thanks to the daughter of a World Bank colleague, a Wroclaw native, who asked the residents if they would be open to a visit. They were newlyweds, a pair of young doctors working at a local hospital, and only too happy to learn about the history of the place they called home. As my wife and I ascended the curving staircase and noticed the same heavy wooden door, it was as though time had stood still. The kitchen table was in the same place, facing the sink where my mother and I used to do the dishes.
It was, unfortunately, too late to tell my parents about this reacquaintance with the past. My father died in 1992, after many years of dementia. And my mother followed in 1995. She, at least, lived long enough to overcome her initial anxiety about my return to Eastern Europe and to take pride in my travels as a World Bank economist. At last I was doing the work she’d always dreamed of—helping, quite literally, to rebuild what Hitler had destroyed.
If only things had worked out so smoothly. More than a quarter-century after my mother’s death, it’s now clear the revolutions in Eastern Europe fell short of our aspirations, for reasons far beyond what I or any other individual could control. Poland and some other countries managed to reform their economies, but liberal democracy has not survived. To establish stable, free-market democratic systems, the region would have needed a second Marshall Plan, but Western countries, led by the United States, failed to provide investment on anything close to the required scale. Instead, they underestimated—or chose to ignore—the disruption that transitioning to a market economy would cause to tens of millions of people, and the upshot was a trend across the region toward right-wing populism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism.
Was 1989 another false dawn, my own moment of ideological disappointment, much as the postwar years in Poland had been for my father? The parallels are certainly pertinent, but so are the differences. I’ve never shared my father’s idealism, his belief in the perfectibility of a world racked by cruelty and human folly. I’m a cynic by nature, and I do not consider human beings to be any more morally redeemable in the 21st century than they were in the darkest days of the 20th.
Such is the unsentimental nature of the education that life has dealt me.
Itzhak Goldberg is a former World Bank official who worked on private sector development in Eastern Europe and Russia after 1989. He has been a fellow with the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw and is currently residing in Israel.