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Thy Neighbor as Thyself

Thy Neighbor as Thyself
A history of Jews and gentiles in a Polish village, from medieval
times through the Holocaust
October 12, 1997
The New York Times Archives

The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews.
By Eva Hoffman.
Illustrated. 269 pp. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company. $25.


Jews were not always the pariahs of Poland. Invited by kings and
welcomed by nobles, grateful Jews flocked into medieval Poland,
bringing their entrepreneurial skills with them. Poland was, according
to ''Shtetl,'' by Eva Hoffman, ''the place to which Jews went when
they were expelled from other countries.'' Resentment festered among
burghers and peasants who felt threatened by the newcomers, but
expressions of anti-Semitism were less frequent in Poland during the
Middle Ages and Renaissance than in most other European countries.

Nor did the Poles encourage assimilation -- a policy pleasing to most
Jews, but one that Hoffman believes bore disastrous consequences. From
about 1550 until 1747 Jews elected their own legislative assembly,
with powers to levy taxes for the state and supervise morals for the
community. Gentiles and Jews lived side by side for centuries, both
with their own exclusionary sense of moral superiority. They met as
shopkeeper and customer, moneylender and borrower, trader and
supplier, but they scarcely knew each other. Both groups suffered from
Cossack and Swedish invaders in the 17th century; partitions of Poland
in the 18th; and epidemics, economic decline and political instability
endlessly. But they suffered separately, in an extreme version of a
multicultural society with few common values and little sense of a
shared destiny.

Mutual insularity and indifference became more difficult to sustain in
the more complex 19th century. Poles, whose country had disappeared
with the partitions, became overwhelmingly concerned with nationhood,
by which they all too often meant national homogeneity. Jews,
meanwhile, questioned whether their own lives might improve under
German, Austrian or even Russian rule. Suspicion and resentment grew,
yet so did moments of solidarity, when Jews fought beside Poles in the
rebellions of 1830, 1863 and 1905. To political tensions were added
the pressures of economic change. Jews with their traditions of
education and commercial activities were quick to benefit from new
industrial opportunities, while Poles, precisely because of their own
agrarian and aristocratic heritage, were comparatively slow. Jews were
soon regarded as capitalist exploiters, even while many of them
agitated as Socialist reformers or revolutionaries.

Against this panorama of uneasy but not always hostile Polish-Jewish
relations, Eva Hoffman paints a portrait of the shtetl -- the little
village -- of Bransk. Situated 110 miles east of Warsaw, near the
prewar Soviet and Lithuanian borders, Bransk had 4,600 inhabitants
before 1939, of whom over half were Jews. There are no Jews in Bransk
today, yet their traces linger. Scattered gravestones reassembled;
Polish speech laced with Yiddish; local folklore and folk songs -- all
testify to a people absent, rarely missed, yet vaguely, almost
unconsciously recalled.

We know what happened to the Jews of Bransk. Like their coreligionists
throughout Poland, they were brutally assembled in a public square in
the ghetto where they had been forced to live, while Polish neighbors
watched, sometimes applauding, and occasionally sympathized with and
helped the Jews. From there, they were crammed into boxcars for their
journey to the death camp at Treblinka. We know this, but we know much
less about who they were and what their lives had been before the war.
This we learn from Eva Hoffman. With parents from a village near
Bransk and herself raised in Cracow after the war, she is supremely
qualified for her task. Inspired in part by a PBS documentary titled
''Frontline: Shtetl,'' she visited Bransk and interviewed residents
there, including one young Roman Catholic man who is dedicated to the
preservation of the Jewish memory. She explored archives, studied
musty documents and more recent memoirs and interviewed survivors in
the United States.

In the 1920's and 30's, Bransk's Jewish community -- conservative,
insular and culturally homogeneous -- underwent profound
modernization. Sewing machines, cameras, magazines with pictures of
furniture and fashion, public schools, lending libraries, local
theaters, phonographs, radios, trade unions, political parties -- all
brought the outside world closer. International conflicts in this
border region also intruded, demanding political awareness and choice:
Germany or Russia during World War I? Poland or the Soviet Union in
1920? Communists or anti-Communists during the Soviet occupation of
eastern Poland from September 1939 to June 1941? Every Jewish choice
created enemies, until Jews were the scapegoats of all.

But ''Shtetl'' has a purpose other than portraying a people on the
brink of destruction. Hoffman wishes to re-examine the general
condemnation of ordinary Poles for their behavior toward Jews during
the Holocaust. Her work is, in this sense, in direct contrast to that
of Daniel Goldhagen, who argued in his recent book ''Hitler's Willing
Executioners'' that ordinary Germans participated more often in the
murders of Jews than is generally recognized.

Hoffman's position runs something like this: Polish-Jewish relations
have not always been purely hostile; Polish nationalism, like the
Jewish variety, emerged among a people without a country and fostered
a besieged mentality until World War II; Jews chose to remain apart,
in part from a sense of rejection but in part from preference, and
thus they fostered no common areas of interest with their Polish
neighbors; and Nazi terror during the occupation of Poland was as
intense as anywhere in Europe. Many Poles behaved abominably during
the Holocaust, but others behaved well: ''Every Polish Jew who
survived . . . did so with the help of individual Poles.'' The
tendency of memory is to simplify, to exaggerate, to deny ambiguity
and complexity. ''If cross-cultural discussions of difficult histories
are to be at all fruitful, they need to start with acknowledgment of
complexity rather than insistence on reductiveness.''

While it is difficult to dispute these statements, one should be
cautious in drawing conclusions. The history of the Holocaust in
Poland is complex, often ambiguous, and has singular aspects -- but so
was it in every other European country. Nazi terror and retribution
were undeniably more intense and more public in Poland than in Western
Europe, an effective deterrent to active rescue but not an excuse for
personal initiatives of informing and betrayal. Jews sometimes needed
no overt assistance for survival, but simply a benign indifference --
a popular willingness to look the other way, and remain silent. This
they often found in European countries west of Germany. They found it
much more rarely in Poland. Throughout Europe, the Nazis tried to
create a climate in which cruelty against the Jews was socially
acceptable. In Europe west of Germany, they failed. Public brutality
against Jews was quietly frowned on, and unusual. In Poland, they
succeeded. Ordinary men and women were often not ashamed to applaud
the violence they witnessed, and sometimes to participate.

Of course there were exceptions. Of course there were economic,
social, geo-political and cultural explanations. Of course the
situation was complex, ambiguous and terrifying. But Poland was
different. Jewish partisans were rarely accepted in non-Jewish
fighting units; in France and Italy they were welcomed. And only in
Poland were Jewish survivors murdered when they returned to their
homes. We ask ordinary Germans to acknowledge their past. We complain
that the Japanese, the Austrians and others have not done so. We might
look to our own past, and consider our own arrogance, cruelties and
mistakes. But with regard to Poles and Jews, if it is true, as Hoffman
says, that Jews might question whether their ''ethos of separateness''
came at a heavy price, so should Poles confess to much more than
''irrational prejudices.'' They should admit not a universality, but a
frequency, of complicity in murder, and they should praise the
outstanding courage and independence of many rescuers among them who
ignored more general patterns of behavior.