Going After Krakow

Brigid Pasulka is the author of the novel A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True, which takes place in Poland. She is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is her first post.   When I went to Poland … Read More

By / September 21, 2009

Brigid Pasulka is the author of the novel A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True, which takes place in Poland. She is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is her first post.


When I went to Poland for the first time in 1992, I was a junior in college. It was not my idea; I was tagging along with some friends from my study-abroad program in Germany. We had already made it as far as Berlin, and they thought it would be fun to hop over to Poland, so we took the train to Warsaw and found a six-dollar hostel near the train station. (Note to travelers-in any city in Europe, never stay in a place that’s near the train station.) I only have vague memories from that trip: broken windows in the station, flocks of pigeons wandering around inside, Kris Kross videos playing on a loop in the waiting room, black market dealers harassing us to sell dollars. All around us the language sounded like angry buzzing and shushing, and when we did approach people on the street (in German because, after all, we were studying German) they were curt. Some of them simply walked away.

Overall, my impression of the country was gray. Poor. Depressing. And I remember thinking that there wasn’t even that much to see, since all the buildings dated from 1945. I wrote the entire weekend off as a waste and vowed never to return to Poland.

Then my senior year at Dartmouth, I took a joint literature and history class on the Holocaust. I should have been winding down my education, thinking about my future, but instead I became obsessed with knowing about what had happened to the Jews and how it was possible for human beings to do this to each other. I read voraciously. We went to the just-opened Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and watched many documentaries. When I would talk with my friends, the topic of the Holocaust somehow always came up. I think that this class, more than my Polish roots or my sense of adventure, was what made me decide not only to return to Poland, but to live there for a year after I graduated.

So when I arrived at the train station in Krakow in August of 1994, I knew far more about Jewish Poles than I did about non-Jewish Poles. I went to see the old synagogue in Kazimierz, the towering memorial in the field at P?aszów, and Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory long before I thought about going to the castle or the salt mine. I didn’t even know about the legendary Polish resistance against the Nazis until, ironically, I read about it in one of the buildings at Auschwitz.

Some people might find this odd. After all, my family, who came to America from Poland in the early 1900s, are practicing Catholics, I spent most of my childhood in a farming township in rural Illinois, and except for one aunt by marriage, didn’t meet anyone Jewish until I was eighteen. Seriously. But in talking with people, I have since learned that this is not all that odd, that the atrocities of the Holocaust are many people’s introduction, and sometimes sole knowledge of, Poland.

Anyway, my desire to know more eventually led me to find my grandmother’s cousins, who lived in a tiny farming hamlet between Krakow and O?wi?cim (known to most of the world as "Auschwitz"). My grandmother’s cousins were gracious hosts, but when I began to ask about the war and the Holocaust and whether they knew at the time what was being done to the Jews, they avoided my questions. This disturbed me greatly at the time, just as my brazenness probably disturbed them. It also fueled my curiosity and led me to read more about the experiences of non-Jewish Poles in the war.

And so I continued my endless odyssey of learning.

I learned about the total Nazi occupation of Poland for the duration of the war, about the 3 million non-Jewish Poles who were killed, about the Polish universities, schools, theaters, books and other evidence of Polish culture that were completely wiped out. I learned that Poland was the only country where the penalty for sheltering someone of Jewish origin was summary execution of the entire family, and yet anywhere from 50,000 to 450,000 Jews were saved in this way. I found out that of those whom Yad Vashem has recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, nearly one-third are Poles. I read over and over about the comparatively low numbers of Polish collaborators and about the systematic resistance against the Nazis-the vast networks of partisan fighters, spies and underground institutions that caused the Nazis to retaliate against the Poles and cause far more human and material destruction than in any other European country. I read about the Polish government-in-exile’s exhortations to the West that the Nazis be stopped, their proclamations to the Polish people that anyone who cooperated with the German murder against the Jews was going against Polish law, and the systematic work of underground courts, who carried out death sentences against Poles who assisted the Nazis. I learned about the once-thriving Jewish community in Poland, dating back to the 11th Century, when Poland was seen as a refuge.

But in my reading, I also learned about the flaring and ebbing anti-Semitism that is said to have begun in the 1600s. I learned about towns and villages who did cooperate with the Gestapo and give up their Jewish neighbors, businesses who profited from Jewish labor, the "Blue Police," and the imprisoned Poles who held roles as kapos to their fellow prisoners. I learned that while some leaders of my own faith gave up their lives to protect Jews, some were known to hear the confessions and grant absolution to Nazi soldiers. And of course, some stayed silent. I learned of Jedwabne, where in 1941, non-Jewish Poles killed hundreds of their Jewish neighbors, and of the pogrom in Kielce in 1946, when 40 newly returned Jewish Poles were killed. I read that while sympathy for the Jews motivated some heroic actions during the war, others were motivated more by hatred of the Nazis than anything else.

And I tried to put many of these things into my novel.

So how do I reconcile these pieces of information? I don’t. Because I don’t find these facts to be contradictory or competing truths, but rather completing truths-details that fill in and anchor the entire historical record.

There seems to be a trend in society today to seek out only those sources that repeat what we already know and confirm what we already believe. And perhaps this is human nature, to search for clean edges and conclusive Truths with a capital "T". Though the Internet is a miracle of community-building and information-dissemination, it also allows people to make a sport of lobbing spurious "facts" back and forth at lightning speed, snowballs whose only purpose is to hit the target and then disintegrate into the ether, never to be checked.

Of course, the antidote to this is to return to one of the most fundamental traditions in both the Catholic and the Jewish faith-lifelong study and returning to the core texts. In this case, that means primary documents, statistics, and the testimonies of the people who were there. Today, thanks to the work of many dedicated people, there are vast caches of information at our disposal, but our goal in reading should not be to homogenize the information, or to narrow it down to fit our current comprehension. Rather, our goal should be to create an ever-widening perspective, a horizon vast enough to include even what we don’t want to hear. Because acknowledging even what we don’t want to hear is not only the key to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, but is also the key to recognizing the violence, persecution and genocide that has happened and is happening in other places in the world.

Simple reading. The same act that we use to keep the past from eroding is the same act that can prevent the acid of ignorance and hate from seeping into the future.

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