Cupboard as a vestige of the Holocaust in Polish culture

In Polish literature, film and theatre, how are the hiding-places, used by Jews during the Holocaust, portrayed? Why does the wardrobe, used as a hiding-place, make us think not only of specific experiences during the occupation, but also of the place it occupies in Polish memory? What are the permanent manifestations of the visual, discursive, performance and material presence of the Holocaust in Polish culture? Read the study by Dr hab. Justyna Kowalska-Leder about the wardrobe as permanent trace of the Holocaust in Polish culture. This text is part of the Jews in Hiding on the “Aryan Side” section in which we discuss this context of the Holocaust in details in many aspects.

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“Cupboards and Jews… Perhaps one of the most important symbols of our century. Life in the cupboard… In the mid-twentieth century. In the middle of Europe,” reads Hanna Krall’s short story Ta z Hamburga [The One from Hamburg, (1993), which was adapted for screen by Jan Jakub Kolski as Away from The Window (2000). The cupboard – alongside the attic, sofa, chest, cellar, barn, monastery, tomb, haystack, dugout, or space in a double wall – was one of the many possible hideouts in which Jews sought shelter during the Holocaust. Those located on the "Aryan side" were usually places of contact between Poles and Jews. This contact took many different forms: from long-term or occasional help, aid given selflessly or for a charge, all the way to blackmail, denunciations, and murder. The stories of these places are a rich source of information about Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. They prompt us to reflect on particular experiences of the occupation, but also on the Holocaust as part of Polish memory. They bring to mind the trope of "the cupboard and the Jew" as a visual, discursive, performative, and also material manifestation of the permanent presence of the Holocaust in Polish culture.

The diary of Fela Fischbein, a young woman who hid with her husband for several months in the attic of the Dunajewski family home in Wola Komborska, twenty-five kilometres from Krosno, is a record of her growing humiliation and dislike of the hosts. Although they do not profit from providing aid to the Jews, they openly show how tired they are of the constant need to arrange food for their charges and of the threat of denunciation. Long-term selfless help does not build a bond between the two parties, on the contrary – it results in growing mutual dislike.

A similar scenario took place in the village of Żwirówka, near Mińsk Mazowiecki, where Brandla Siekierek was hiding with her husband and two sons from mid-1942 until the end of the war. The hideout, located on the concealed upper floor of the barn, was provided to them by Bronisław Bylicki, who – according to Brandla's diary and testimonies of other members of the Siekierek family – soon began to regret his generous gesture. Both sides found themselves trapped. The Jews were completely at the mercy of the host, who was waiting in vain for war to end, increasingly pestered by his wife and mother who ridiculed the kindness he had shown to the Jews.  

Trapped Jew. The theme of Jews hiding during the Holocaust in Polish literature, film, and theatre

Echoes of similar experiences reverberate in Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness (2011). Leopold Socha, helping a group of Jews hiding in the sewers of Lviv for several months, almost leaves them in the lurch, no longer able to mentally endure the threat to which he exposes not only himself but also his family. However, he eventually overcomes the crisis, providing aid with increasing zeal and selflessness. Agnieszka Holland – contrary to many testimonies from the times of the occupation – shows the relationship between the helpers and the hiding Jews as bond-forming, a story with a happy ending, in more ways than one. Not only do the charges of Leopold Socha survive the war, but they also reciprocate his care with affection and gratitude (years later, they even submit him for the title of Righteous Among the Nations). Socha, in turn, although he would die shortly after the war, achieves a moral victory over his own weaknesses and overcomes his status of a common thief and a wheeler-dealer.

The hideout was not always a trap in the figurative sense, imprisoning both Jews and Poles. At times, it was a very literal, deliberately set snare, as in one of the episodes of Henryk Grynberg’s Żydowska wojna [Jewish War] (1965), in which the brothers Manes and Abel Brzozak come to landowner Podorewski not to recover the valuables that they had left with him, but to ask for “some flour, groats, potatoes and pork fat.” Podorewski “let them in and said that he would give them everything they needed, but they should hide for now, so that no one could see them, and he would prepare everything.” And so they spend the night in the basement, from time to time knocking on the hatch blocked by a heavy chest, unaware that the landowner had immediately called the military police station. Loading the Brzozak brothers and two more Jews onto a lorry, the Germans give a short reply to their implorations for release:

“How can we let you go anyway? And what would those who denounced you say to it?”. 

Sometimes the hideout remains a trap even when there is no longer any danger outside. Shortly after the war, the orphanage in Otwock, described by Hanna Krall in Sublokatorka [The Subtenant] (1985) took in a large group of people who miraculously managed to survive the Holocaust. One of them, Olga, was particularly amusing to many due to her uncertainty as to whether the war was really over. “The forester for whom she worked and who was hiding her did not tell her that the war had ended, so she continued to work and would hide in the basement every time she heard some strangers walking by. When the voices ceased, the host gave her a sign, and she would come out.” One day, the girl found a scrap of newspaper with an article informing that the German occupation had ended. So she sneaked out of the forester's lodge to a nearby town to check if the information in the paper really was true.

A similar theme of imprisonment after the war is the central plotline of the film In Hiding (2013) directed by Jan Kidawa-Błoński. Janka, who during the war hid beautiful Ester in the basement of her house, keeps the girl convinced that the occupation continues. She does not want to bring an end to the erotic relationship that has developed between them. Possessive love drives Janka not only to constant lies, but even to killing Ester’s fiancé who survived the Holocaust. However, the Jewish woman eventually leaves the apartment. In a café, the waiter tells her that the war is over, so she doesn't have to pay for the cookie with a golden ring, as she tries to do. The film, which was seemingly supposed to focus on the power relationship between the two women, follows the typical genre conventions of an erotic thriller. The movie harboured criticism not only for the illogical development of the plot, but also for the clearly instrumental use of two themes: the Holocaust and lesbian love, showing gratuitous sex scenes between a beautiful Slavic cellist and a swarthy Semitic ballerina.  

The cupboard as a concomitant trap and shelter from the Holocaust also features in Tadeusz Różewicz’s play Pułapka [The Trap] (1979), inspired by the biography of Franz Kafka. In the opening scenes, Franz, a "doctor of law, secretary, and author of books," feels an irrational aversion to the cupboard that his fiancée plans to buy. The plot is set in Czechoslovakia before World War II, and among the characters in the play there are the writer's parents and three sisters. As the events unfold, there are more and more prophetic signs foretelling the Holocaust. The wide smile of Franz’s fiancée Felicja reveals her gold dentures. Their sight disgusts Franz, evoking in him associations with rotting meat. The writer also confides in one of his sisters about a nightmare featuring a mysterious cupboard. After opening the drawer, Franz saw a black, swirling, reeking drove, in which he was horrified to recognise not mice, but "a human anthill… they were wearing kapotehs like Jews from the east… […] they must have been deprived of air or food, because squealing and squeaking, they were trying to push through the gaps."

The world of Pułapka also features malevolent guards-torturers in black uniforms, accompanied by ferociously barking dogs. In one scene, they are goading a crowd of naked people, including Franz's sisters. Another time, an apprentice barber begins to torture a client and eventually puts an armband with the Star of David on the thrashed man. There is also a character in the play who does not participate in the development of the plot, but against the background of a black wall reads out a text discussing the work of dentists tearing out golden teeth from corpses dragged out of the gas chamber. It sounds like one of the documents buried by members of the Sonderkommando near the gas chambers of Birkenau.

All these references present in the world of Pułapka are a kind of flashlight piercing the bourgeois existence, revealing the spectre of the Holocaust lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. The play ends with prophetic hallucinations of Franz’s father, ill and feverish. They focus on the cupboard in which, as he suspects, the members of his family will soon be seeking shelter. He tries to gauge whether the imaginary cupboard will accommodate all of his closest and more distant relatives along with the necessary supplies of food and water. He initially hallucinates about the cupboard as a chance for salvation (“And you know that such a cupboard can save the life of your mother and your grandmother, and your grandfather, and your sisters with their husbands and brats, and your uncle Siegfried with a horse, and your father…"), but his final words leave no hope: "They will choke us all out and burn us… They will find you in the basement and under the bed, and in the cupboard, and in the wall… […] They are coming… They are coming for us…".  

In the storyline of Różewicz's play, the eponymous trap refers to the family ties constricting the protagonist, conflicted with his father and desperately trying to avoid marriage by jumping from one fiancée to another. The sinister noose of history is slowly and inexorably tightening around this confined bourgeois world. It is impossible to escape it, despite the fact that the approaching danger is palpable, its rhythm pulsating beneath the surface of trivial everyday life.  

Skeleton in the cupboard. Seizure of Jewish property by Poles

Although Jews used all sort of different hideouts during the occupation, Hanna Krall is right by pointing to the cupboard as the symbol of one of the most distinctive experiences of the twentieth century. "Cupboards and Jews" – the semantic potential of the juxtaposition of these two words is strengthened by its association with the popular phrase "a skeleton in the cupboard," which means an embarrassing, horrible secret. In the testimonies from the era, this metaphorical sense is transformed into a literal description of lived experiences

Diaries from the times of occupation and post-war accounts surprisingly often describe Jews as the "living dead," "deceased taking a holiday," and similar. The authors of these notes do not try to add stylistic flare or create oxymorons. They simply recall – and adopt – the language of the surrounding world. This is how people thought and talked about Jews back then. The terminology was influenced by the status accorded to Jewish people by Nazi legislation and the plan for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." Condemned to extermination, they were perceived by those around to be as good as dead. In 1945 or 1946, the author of an anonymous account compared the appearance of the inhabitants of the Lviv ghetto to the bodies of convicts murdered by hanging:

I looked at these living corpses (deceased taking a holiday, people used to say), and asked myself, ‘How are we different from those who have their arms crossed on their backs and their throats tied?’".

The mental image of the "deceased taking a holiday" influenced the attitude of Poles towards Jews and their property. Even in the hands of its rightful owners, it was already treated by the Polish neighbours as "left behind by Jews." In a diary kept in a hideout in Warsaw since May 1943, Calek Perechodnik recorded a scene that had taken place in his hometown of Otwock the preceding summer:

“My caretaker, Stefanowa Demeruk, a woman who was essentially raised together with my wife, also comes running to us, but by no means to assure us that we can count on her. Because, as she makes it very clear, we are already living dead anyway, so she is very interested in finding out who is worthy of inheriting our things, especially bedding.”

Poles traveling in trains through Otwock on the day of the "liquidation" of the local ghetto make the sign of the cross upon seeing the Jews gathered near the railway station – "after all, they already see corpses in front of them." Six months later a certain Alchimowicz – distinguished resident of Otwock, captain of the Polish Army and pre-war bailiff – refuses to return fur lining, one of the many valuable things he had taken for safekeeping, to Perechodnik's father. The author of the diary does not hide his disappointment. Alchimowicz declares that he will indeed give the lining back, but only when the spring comes, because it will keep his wife warm during the winter.

“Apparently, the human soul reacts differently in the presence of a living person than when dealing with living corpses. In the latter case, you say a devout prayer for the living corpse to turn into an actual corpse which will stop pestering ‘decent people.’"  

In the monograph on Polish-Jewish relations during the occupation, written in a hideout on the "Aryan" side, Emanuel Ringelblum described the dirty business of Poles appropriating Jewish property left to them for safekeeping. He estimated that in almost all such cases, the items were not returned under the pretence that they had been stolen or requisitioned by the Germans. He associated this phenomenon with the special status given to Jews in Nazi legislation: "Jews are seen as ‘deceased taking a holiday,’" he noted in the chapter Zagadnienia gospodarcze polsko-żydowskie [Polish-Jewish Economic Issues]. 

Repressed, it falls out of the cupboard. Keret’s House in Warsaw as a hideout

After the war, the perception of Jews as living dead transformed into the image of Jews as alive after death. Murdered on a mass scale, denied a proper burial, unmourned and uncommemorated, they turn into the figure of a zombie, as in the popular novel by Igor Ostachowicz, Noc żywych Żydów [The Night of the Living Jews] (2012), or simply into ghosts that, as urban legend has it, are still haunting the area of Warsaw's Muranów district.  

The trope of "cupboards and Jews" makes us think both about the specific experiences of the occupation and about the Holocaust as part of Polish memory. In this context, the cupboard may symbolise the space of repressed experiences, too difficult to accept by Poles suffering from the "obsession of purity" described by Jan Błoński in the 1980s. However, what is repressed never truly disappears but manifests itself in various, often surprising ways, as shown by Elżbieta Janicka on the example of Etgar Keret House in Warsaw.

The autumn of 2012 saw the official opening of the "world’s narrowest house," with the ceremony attended by the capital city’s officials, including the president, and many local residents. Designed by Jakub Szczęsny, the installation was hailed by the press as "an event on a global scale" and praised for the ingenuity and modernity of its solutions. The house is an insert constructed between the pre-war townhouse at 74 Żelazna Street and the block of flats at 22 Chłodna Street, in a space where the local inhabitants used to dump garbage which was too big to fit into the rubbish bins.

The house measures 152 centimetres at its widest point and 92 centimetres at its thinnest. It is entered by a staircase leading to a hatch in the living room floor. It is equipped with a microscopic room with a bed, a tiny bathroom, and a mini kitchen. The only window in the house allows – as was the case in many hideouts from the times the occupation – to see only the tree crowns and the sky. People suffering from claustrophobia are advised not to visit the site. The installation often slips the eyes of passers-by, and even when noticed, it looks like a ventilation grille. It is symbolically “dedicated” to Etgar Keret, as the house is not his property. Visits to Keret House, while young artists discovered in a competition are granted Stays in Keret House. Thus, the installation is intended to be a means of promoting Poland, especially Warsaw, and a tourist attraction.

Keret House is not viewed exclusively as a modern architectural curiosity. Attributed to it are many meanings associated with the times of war and the relations between Poles and Jews. The author of the project and journalists have pointed to the location of the object – near the place where in 1942 there was a wooden footbridge over the "Aryan" Chłodna Street, connecting two parts of the ghetto. The story of Etgar Keret’s family is associated with Warsaw. His mother was born there in an assimilated family forming part of the intelligentsia. She was the only one to survive the Holocaust. After escaping from the ghetto, she hid in many places, and after the war she lived for some time in a Polish orphanage. She illegally reached Palestine even before Israel's declaration of independence. In an interview with Paweł Smoleński, the writer confessed that his mother was a great teller of stories from the times of occupation. In her accounts, she often returned to events related to various hideouts in which she sought shelter. She remembered perfectly the topography of the Warsaw ghetto and the infamous footbridge over Chłodna Street. The experience of hiding during the occupation was also part the plight of Etgar Keret’s father:

“During the war, Dad was hiding in some burrow in a Polish town. It was so cramped that those in hiding could not get up or lie down, but just sat there for many months. When the Russians came and got them out, they suffered from muscular dystrophy, no one could walk." 

No wonder Efraim Keret hated crowded spaces until the end of his life.  

In the text Lapsus freudowski… (A Freudian Slip…), (2016) Elżbieta Janicka interprets the microscopic Keret House, situated on the site of a former junkyard, as a symbolic representation of the place of Jews in the Polish culture and historical memory. This once again reveals the aforementioned mechanism of repressing uncomfortable content from social awareness. The Holocaust, the ghetto, and Jewish hideouts are triggers evoking anxiety, a sense of unwanted complicity, or shared responsibility for the Holocaust, which must be immediately removed from consciousness. What is repressed does not disappear, however, but manifests itself in a distorted form. The thinnest house in the world and its ascribed meanings and forms of commemoration are just one of such manifestations. What the descendants of Holocaust survivors have received from the inhabitants of Warsaw is a well-disguised cranny near the former footbridge over Chłodna Street. Meanwhile, as Janicka notes, before the war Keret's mother lived in one of the capital's most representative spots, at the corner of Nowy Świat and Aleje Jerozolimskie.

Keret visited Warsaw again in 2014, after two years of absence from "his" house, which coincided with the publication of the Polish translation of his book The Seven Good Years and the ceremonial opening of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The Gazeta Wyborcza daily decided to trace the story of the installation over this two-year period. It turned out that although the statistics pointed to a great popularity of Keret House, as it had been visited by 10,000 people, the inhabitants of the nearby buildings believed that the interest in the structure had been basically negligible after its ceremonious loud opening.

Gazeta Wyborcza’s report of Keret's visit to Warsaw included a peculiar reference to the Holocaust, as if some malicious poltergeist was stubbornly trying to spoil the merriment surrounding the narrowest house in the world. In a large photo accompanying the article, we see Keret during a press conference in the Studio bar in Warsaw. The image, however, is dominated by the black and white photo that the organisers placed behind his back. It shows Keret himself in his Warsaw home, dressed in a shapeless white bathrobe with dark vertical stripes. The writer's face is serious, his gaze blank, as if slightly scared. The entire composition – black and white photography, garment resembling a striped uniform, the absent gaze of a man with stereotypical Jewish feature – evokes associations with iconic photos of prisoners from liberated extermination camps.

It is hard not to get the impression that in the context of Keret House, the "repressed" – as Freud would put it – is “victorious" once again. “The world’s narrowest house" is therefore, in the Polish perception, not so much a symbol of the Holocaust as of the content repressed by its witnesses. Their descendants – just like the theatre audiences from the post-war period to the present day analysed by Grzegorz Niziołek – only repeat the cycle of repression. Meanwhile, the context surrounding Keret House (its location near the former footbridge over Chłodna Street, the wartime fate of the writer's parents) suggests that we are dealing not with repetition, but on the contrary – with an attempt to overcome the wartime past.

A similarly paradoxical story is described in the press article Robili remont, zniszczyli zabytkową skrytkę dla Żydów [Historic Hideout for Jews Destroyed during Renovation].. It discusses the hideout in which engineer Leon Jolson, together with his wife and mother, hid after escaping from the Warsaw ghetto. It was a tiny room of about two square meters, entered through a cupboard in the apartment. The married couple survived the war and emigrated to the United States. In 1989, they founded a commemorative plaque on the façade of the townhouse at 4 Kopernika Street. It informed about the existence of a hideout in which "Polish Jews, mother, son and daughter-in-law, hunted by the Nazis, were hiding during the occupation.” Ten years later, the provincial conservator entered the hideout into the register of monuments (the only monument of that kind in Warsaw), and the townhouse began to attract tourists, mainly from Israel and the United States. In 2002, new tenants, a middle-aged couple, moved to the flat (at the time, it was social housing). After two years, they converted the hideout into a kitchenette and disposed of the cupboard. The case came to light in 2012, three years after the death of engineer Jolson, when the apartment was inspected by the capital's monument conservator. The couple faced up to ten years in prison. They both pleaded guilty and asked for a two-year suspended sentence. The case of the hideout in the apartment at Kopernika Street touches upon the problem of the unclear status of many material remains of the Holocaust, as nobody really knows what to do with them.  

Pole in the cupboard. Hiding uncomfortable aspects of Polish-Jewish relations behind the screen of Saints and Righteous Among the Nations

In his documentary Polak w szafie [A Pole in the Cupboard] (2007), TArtur Żmijewski uses this particular piece of furniture as a symbolic space of repression of difficult themes related to the Polish-Jewish past. The title is supposed to surprise and be thought-provoking, as it brings to mind an obvious association: when we talk about Poles and Jews, we know who will be the ones to hide.  

Appearing in the film are students of the Institute of Applied Social Sciences and Collegium Civitas who participated in a research expedition to Sandomierz organised in 2005 under the supervision of Professor Joanna Tokarska-Bakir. Talking to people around town, they tried to answer the question of whether the local community still believed in blood libel. The research site was chosen intentionally. In 2000, a statement made by priest Stanisław Musiał sparked a nationwide debate on an 18th-century painting by Charles de Prêvot which hangs in the Sandomierz Cathedral. The work depicts Jews committing ritual murder on Christian children. The debate revolved mostly around the question of what to do with the bothersome painting and who should take the initiative in this matter.

The protagonists of Żmijewski's film try to answer the same questions. They do it not only verbally, but also through performative techniques, working on a copy of the painting. In the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, they burn it, tear it apart, paint it over, stuff it in a small box, and label it with captions meant to expose the falsehood of blood libel. The students also discuss their experiences from field research. They are staggered and depressed by the anti-Semitic statements of the respondents, otherwise nice and warm people who often welcomed them with tea and cake. The tone of the film is pessimistic, dominated by the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness: nobody really knows what can be done to stop blood libel from circulating among the inhabitants of Sandomierz. Neither leaving the painting in the cathedral, even with an appropriate caption, nor removing it from the sacred space is expected to bring positive results.

Żmijewski's film reveals – perhaps not entirely in accordance with the author's intention – a dichotomy between the young, educated students from Warsaw and the ignorant, simple small-town dwellers. However, the behaviour and statements of the latter are not shown directly, only related by the researchers. The sensibility of Warsaw students makes them take the side of the victims of unjust accusations of ritual murder. In one scene in the film, several students give their first and last names and then add: "I could die like Icek Herszkowicz" or "I could die like Lejba Frajlich." Each speaker cites the name and surname of one of the Jews sentenced to death for allegedly partaking in ritual murder. It is interesting to see how none of the students consider the possibility of identifying with the party believing in blood libel, nor do they try to ponder on the contemporary needs which this belief may satisfy. The figure of a resident of Sandomierz, forcibly pulled out from the cupboard, becomes the embodiment of irrational hostility towards Jews intertwined with mindless fear. The local resembles a "savage" encountered during field research.  

Soon after the premiere of Artur Żmijewski's film (though probably only coincidentally), the Charles de Prêvot painting in the Sandomierz Cathedral was covered with a curtain featuring a portrait of John Paul II. This symbolic and, above all, grotesque sight was evoked by Zygmunt Miłoszewski in his crime novel A Grain of Truth (2011); it also appears in its screen adaptation directed by Borys Lankosz (2015). A Grain of Truth is set in Sandomierz in the spring of 2009. Prosecutor Teodor Szacki (Robert Więckiewicz) is working on unravelling the mystery of a killing resembling a ritual murder.

The work incorporates many contemporary themes: from references to the popular television series Ojciec Mateusz [Father Mateusz] broadcast continuously since 2008) to echoes of the debate surrounding Jan Tomasz Gross's publications and the painting by Charles de Prêvot. The curtain with the image of John Paul II hinders the work of investigators as they are looking for clues all around the town, including the cathedral. Maria Miszczyk, Szacki's superior, “felt John Paul II's gaze fixed on herself […]. And she wondered if he could feel the eyes of the Jews fixed on him, those Jews taking blood from Christian children and shoving the babies into barrels studded with nails. And what would he have to say about it?”.

Ultimately, the church authorities decided to remove the curtain in early 2014. At the same time, that is nearly fourteen years after the publication of the article by Father Stanisław Musiał, a plaque was hung next to the painting, informing that the depicted events were contrary to historical truth and that Jews were persecuted and murdered as a result of false accusations.  

Covering uncomfortable pages in the history of Polish-Jewish relations with symbols of goodness and mercy is one of the techniques used by opponents of the "pedagogy of shame." In relation to the Holocaust, they usually use the figure of the Righteous, more appropriate and useful in the context of war history than the figure of the "Polish Pope." When the debate sparked off by Władysław Pasikowski's film Aftermath (2012) was sweeping through the media, the Polish national television aired (three years after its premiere) the documentary Historia Kowalskich [The Story of Kowalski Family] (2009) by Arkadiusz Gołębiewski and Maciej Pawlicki, presenting the wartime fate of a Polish family from Ciepielów who were killed in December 1942 for helping Jews.

The story of the Kowalski family is presented not only through testimonies of witnesses and recollections of their descendants, but partially also through re-enactments. The viewer can therefore watch, among other things, a scene of the punishment suffered for hiding Jews: a burning cottage with the Kowalski family, including women and children locked inside. At the climax, German military policemen catch a girl trying to escape and throw her into the flames. This scene is supposed to be a response to the image of a fire-consumed barn in Jedwabne recovered from oblivion by Jan Tomasz Gross in Neighbours (2000); Pasikowski's film, too, was also inspired by the book and the debate surrounding it.  

It is worth emphasising that the issue of who reported on the Kowalski family to the Germans is discussed in the documentary in a way which avoids casting even the slightest of doubts on the noble attitude of Poles. The viewer learns that the informant’s identity has never really been discovered. The only logical, though uncertain explanation leads to a Jew who, in order to save his skin, exposed the hideout of his fellow coreligionists. The problem of the identity of the informant is “solved” in a similar way in the film Życie za życie [Life for Life] (2007), also by Gołębiewski and Pawlicki. The documentary opened an educational project which later came to include Historia Kowalskich. Życie za życie has the tagline Accounts of orphaned children, grandchildren, neighbours nd has been created "In memory of Poles who gave their lives to save Jews." The people appearing in the film talk about around a dozen of such tragic cases, but each time, the question of the denunciator is either completely ignored or answered by pointing to a Jew. This film was also broadcast by the Polish national television and was funded from the Patriotism of Tomorrow operational programme run by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage.

Heroic Poles and vile Jews throwing up roadblocks in the way of people trying to help Holocaust victims are the main focus of Grzegorz Górny's book Sprawiedliwi. Jak Polacy ratowali Żydów przed Zagładą [Righteous. How Poles Were Saving Jews from the Holocaust] (2013). The publication resembles an album, replete with prints, photos, and photocopies of documents reproduced on chalk paper. The story told in Górny’s beautifully published work sounds like a fairy tale of a society that, ignoring a deadly threat, saved Jews persecuted by the Germans on a truly mass scale. As the author soberly notes, not all Poles had it in them to directly expose themselves to the risk of the death penalty, but he claims that the bravest ones received nothing but kindness, moral support, and admiration from the Polish society. In this context, it is completely incomprehensible why the rescuers feared their surroundings so much that they were reluctant to admit to having helped Jews even after the war. Górny ignores this contradiction, focusing the reader's attention on the issue of Jewish ingratitude, which manifests itself, for example, by the fact that the Survivors are reluctant to share the stories of their benefactors with the Yad Vashem Institute. The institution, in its turn, applies very strict criteria when awarding the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

No wonder, then, that the group of over six thousand Polish people bestowed the distinction are "only the tip of the iceberg, because the scale of help provided to Jews by Poles under the German occupation was much greater." In Grzegorz Górny's story, the theme of Poles helping Jews is juxtaposed with mass Jewish collaboration with the Germans. Although the book should mainly deal with what happened on the "Aryan" side, because it was there that Jews were seeking help from Poles, the author pays a lot of attention to such issues as the cruelty and demoralisation of the Jewish ghetto police, the Judenrats, and, of course, to the legendary evil figure of Mordechaj Chaim Rumkowski. Against this background, the actions of the omnipresent Polish Righteous Among the Nations look even more noble.

When it boils down to it, the public debate on Polish-Jewish relations during World War II initiated by Neighbours and fuelled by Gross's subsequent books and by publications of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research seems to involve two parallel currents, never converging with each other. One systematically and persistently uncovers and exposes the terrifying attitudes of the Polish society towards the Holocaust, while the other conceals these truths behind the screen of the Righteous, who during the war suffered at the hands of the Germans and after its end were persecuted by the Jews, many of whom joined the communist security apparatus.  

The Jew comes out of the closet. Jewish identity in Poland at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries

In the second half of the 1980s, the Polish society saw revived interest in Jewish culture and the Holocaust. It was described by Michael Steinlauf as a "reconstruction of memory" about Jews, and by Piotr Forecki as a “fashion for Jews." It formed part of a wider phenomenon that began to sprout around the time of the formation of the Workers' Defence Committee and manifested itself on a mass scale with the birth of "Solidarity." Bronisław Baczko called it "an explosion of memory" in which topics so far absent from public debate came to the fore, including the Katyn massacre or the events of December 1970. State authorities also showed an interest – outright performative in nature – in "Jewish topics," which manifested itself primarily in the publication of new editions of Jewish literary works and ceremonies organised on the subsequent anniversaries of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Studies were published on the aid granted to Jewish people by Poles during the Holocaust and on the history of Jews in Poland in the 18th and the 19th century, as well as monographs and source texts about the Warsaw ghetto.

In 1988, two important publications were issued: Stosunki polsko-żydowskie w czasie drugiej wojny światowej [Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War] by Emanuel Ringelblum and the first Polish edition of The Jews in Polish Culture by Aleksander Hertz. In the years 1979–1987, subsequent editions of Hanna Krall's Shielding the Flame were published, and the 1980s saw the literary scene flooded with personal documents, autobiographies, and memoirs of Holocaust Survivors, as well as "Jewish-themed" issues of the Więź and Znak monthlies. Of course, the topic of Polish-Jewish wartime relations was tackled in the most uncompromising manner in the so-called “second circulation” publications or works published abroad.  

The turn of the 1980s and the 1990s also saw the growing trend of Poles looking for their Jewish roots and incorporating them into their identity. The rudimentary categories of Jews as an ethnic, national, religious, or linguistic minority simply do not apply here. Sometimes the sense of Jewish identity prompts people to join a religious or secular organisation, study Hebrew or Yiddish, take a longer trip to Israel, or develop a particular interest in Jewish issues. This applies to both the representatives of the "second generation," who usually found out about their Jewish roots still in the times of the Polish People's Republic and started to discuss them openly in the 1990s, as well as to the people of the "third generation," who discovered their origins after 1989. Both generations most frequently found out about their Jewish descent during adolescence. It was usually a family member that revealed to them the long-hidden secret, often a grandmother or grandfather at the end of their lives. Many representatives of the "third generation" are now adults born in the 1990s, raised in families which started to cultivate Jewish traditions, sent children sent to newly established Jewish kindergartens, enlisted them in the Maccabi sports club, or were simply open about their identity. 

According to the 2002 census, only 1,000 Jews lived in Poland. At the same time, as Marcin Kołodziejczyk notes, more than 3,000 people belonged to Jewish organisations but did not acknowledge their roots publicly.  

“People would say that the older generation had ‘entered the closet’ after the state-led anti-Jewish smear campaign of March 1968. In the 2011 census, as many as 7,000 people identified themselves as Jews. The real number of Jews in Poland is unknown; according to various sources, it is some 20,000 up to 100,000 people – estimates vary depending on the optimism of the assessors and whom they classify as a Jew. It is certain, however, that never before in its history has Poland experienced such a renaissance of interest in Jewishness as it is experiencing now,"   reads the article by Marcin Kołodziejczyk, bearing the telling title Moda na żydowskość [Fashion for Jewishness] (2014). 

According to the author, this fashion is best noticeable among young people and celebrities. They often make sure to ostentatiously flaunt their Jewish origin but have no knowledge of the tradition and only superficially try to practice its selected aspects. The trend affects not only the "new" Jews but also the rest of the society, and it manifests itself – as Kołodziejczyk writes – in increased interest in trips to Israel, initiatives of high school students aimed at discovering the Jewish past of their cities and towns, the popularity of Jewish culture festivals and kosher restaurants. Agnieszka Graff argues against this diagnosis in the Wysokie Obcasy magazine, pointing out that discovering Jewish roots is not an easy process and the attempts to incorporate them into one’s identity have little to do with fashion or celebrity. In the article, however, she does not refer to her own experiences which she earlier described in the long interview for Polityka magazine titled Graff. Jestem stąd [Graff. I Am from Here] (2014), pointing to other publications dealing with the problem of contemporary returns to Jewish identity: My, Żydzi z Polski [We, Jews from Poland] (2014) by Irena Wiszniewska and Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland (2013) by Katka Reszke.  

The process of Polish Jews "coming out of the closet" which started at the turn of the 1980s and the 1990s is most noticeable in large urban centres. This is because, on the one hand, metropolitan societies tend to be more open to the processes of modernisation, and on the other, cities offer direct access to Jewish organisations and associations. As pointed out by Bożena Keff, “Being a Jew is cool in Warsaw's elites, in a big city. But it's not something that would make an impression on someone living in provincial Poland."  

Among the Survivors of the Holocaust, there are many individuals who throughout their post-war lives never spoke about their experiences during the occupation, nor did they mention their Jewish roots. One of such people was Stefania Grodzieńska, a popular satirist, writer, and actress, who during the war lived in the Warsaw ghetto together with her husband Jerzy Jurandot and performed at the Femina theatre. When the spouses found shelter on the "Aryan" side in mid-1942, Jurandot wrote down his memoirs from the ghetto. Many years later, Godzieńska, already a widow, insisted that they only be published after her death. Her wish was respected, and Jurandot's account, titled City of the Damned (2014) was published in a single volume together with a collection of poems by Grodzieńska earlier included (under the pseudonym Stefania Ney) in the 1947 publication Dzieci getta [Children of the Ghetto].

One of the themes of the performance Hideout/Kryjówka (2014) by Paweł Passini and Patrycja Dołowa, usually staged in confined spaces of private flats, are attempts to persuade those who survived hidden on the "Aryan" side to discuss their past. This way, the director and the screenwriter refer to their own experience of talking to Survivors.

“In Poland, for some reason people speak of ‘admitting’ to being a Jew. And our interlocutors often said: ‘But I haven't come out of the closet yet,’” explains Passini.  

Turns of phrase such as "admitting to Jewish origin" or even the word “Jew” used in affect as insult are interpreted by Bożena Keff as an anti-Semitic tradition deeply rooted in Polish culture.  

It can be concluded that in the case of contemporary Polish Jews, the "cupboard" still exists and contains in itself strongly integrated communities bound not only by their origin, but also by genuine friendships, common interests, and passions. Members of these communities feel safe and comfortable in a metropolitan, intellectual environment, in which "Jewishness" is in the worst-case scenario perceived as a display of extravagance or as a curiosity enriching the monocultural landscape. This does not mean that a metropolitan Jew only starts to feel uncomfortable when venturing out to the province. The story of Emilia, who attends the Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue and describes herself as living in a double Jewish-religious and Polish-secular world, is an excellent illustration of the phenomenon of "cracking open the cupboard doors." She is the mother of ten-year-old Olek, whom she has introduced into the world of Jewish tradition but decided not to circumcise until he is able to make this decision himself as an adult.

“I burden him with my ‘cupboard,’ from which I have not fully come out. […] Olek is very direct, open, and talkative. He can easily talk to people he doesn't know. Chat with them, get in closer contact. And yet he attends a Jewish school, previously he attended a Jewish kindergarten. I was afraid that he would start talking about it. But to say to him ‘don't speak about it’ would mean that there was something wrong with that. […] He doesn’t go out to the playground. But when he was small, he would sing Jewish songs aloud while in a tram. […] He probably senses that I live a schizophrenic life. He must sense it. I remember how we were once going to my friend for the Sabbath. Six-year-old Olek, elegantly dressed, is going down the stairs in front of me, I close the door. I hear a neighbour ask him: ‘Oh, Olek, why are you so elegant?’ I freeze. And he replies: 'We're going to a party at mum's friend's place.' So he concealed the actual reason. I catch up to him and he says: ‘A neighbour asked me where we were going, but he doesn't have to know, does he?’ Willingly or not, I passed my cupboard on to him. Although it will be easier for him. Probably.”  

In contemporary Poland, being a Jew becomes a dignifying trait, but this dignification has a very limited range. The "new" Polish Jews – unlike LGBT people – do not publicly appeal to others to "come out of the closet." There are many sites on the Internet which encourage gay people to come out. Podobnie, choć na mniejszą skalę, działają społeczności, które radzą, w jaki sposób publiczne There are also similar communities, although active on a smaller scale, which provide people with advice on how to publicly declare atheism or openly discuss struggling with infertility. The Coming Out Day, observed on 11 October and celebrated in Poland since 2009, applies only to the nonheteronormative community. It seems that nowadays the Jewish coming out not so much an act of leaving the closet but rather an arduous climb to a higher shelf.

Dr. Justyna Kowalska-Leder, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, October 2021.


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