Celebrating Jewish Literature: The puzzle of Poland

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The largest number of Righteous Gentiles (those who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II) listed at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, are Poles with 7,232 known rescuers. Unfortunately, after the war, Polish partisan groups searched for and murdered many Jews hidden by these rescuers. The exact number of those killed is unknown. To add to the puzzle, some former Polish Jews, who now live in the United States or Israel, still feel nostalgic for the country they once and, sometimes still, consider their true homeland. This enigma is explored in two new books: the memoir “Jews in the Garden: A Holocaust Survivor, the Fate of His Family, and the Secret History of Poland in World War II” by Judy Rakowsky (Sourcebooks) and the novel “Poland, A Green Land” by Aharon Appelfeld (Schoken Books).

Rakowsky’s memoir combines the history of Jews in Poland with the personal travels she made with her cousin Sam (Rakowski) Ron. Her interest was sparked when Sam finally became willing to discuss his experiences during World War II, including his time in a concentration camp. Since the 1990s, Sam and Rakowsky made numerous trips to Poland. At first, some of his former non-Jewish friends and neighbors were suspicious that he wanted something from them (for example, the return of property and belongings that had been taken by non-Jews once the Jewish population had been deported by Nazi troops). Sam and Rakowsky learned more about the final days of some of his relatives: although they had been hidden, they were betrayed to Polish partisans – groups that opposed the Nazis, but which were still antisemitic – who found and murdered the hidden Jews. The families of people who hid them were ostracized for their actions, even decades later. Visiting the mass graves of these people was a moving experience for both Sam and Rakowsky.

However, they did learn one exciting piece of news: someone accidentally revealed that one of Sam’s relatives survived the war. Even though the rest of Hena Razenka’s family perished one night in 1944, she managed to escape. Unfortunately, none of Sam’s friends were willing to discuss what happened to Hena and acted as if they wished they hadn’t mentioned her. Rakowsky, who works as an investigative reporter, decided to search for Sam’s relative, but found it extremely difficult: people either refused to help or declared that there wasn’t any record of Hena. An additional problem is that many Jews who remained in Poland after the war changed their names and hid their Jewish identity for safety reasons. Rakowsky writes of those who only learned of their Jewish heritage when a parent or a grandparent was on their death bed. 

Even with all he discovers about the Poles who betrayed or killed members of his family, Sam refuses to hate or condemn Poland. He’s quoted as saying, “I feel a sense of belonging here. I come here and I see who our family was in the community. People liked me even if they weren’t crazy about Jews. I was good-looking and strong. I got good grades and we were well off. I was the only boy in my class who was Jewish. I don’t want my old house back; I have enough houses in the United States. I like coming back as a success.” Yet, Rakowsky’s study of the Polish partisan and resistance groups leads her to note that the operations of these groups “were not always so different from the attitude, policies, and practices of genocidal Nazis.” When the Nazis left the area, many of these groups murdered members of the Jewish population that had managed to survive the war. She also writes of how the government of Poland has refused to publicly acknowledge what occurred and recently passed laws to keep this history hidden.

This review can’t do justice to the depth of personal and historical detail offered in “Jews in the Garden.” The prose is clear and easy to read, and the pages flew by. Even those who may feel they have had their fill of Holocaust-themed non-fiction may find themselves fascinated by the details that the author offers, particularly because what she learns from her search is still relevant today. This is also true of her discussions of politics in contemporary Poland. “Jews in the Garden” comes highly recommended. 

While the people and events in “Jews in the Garden” are historical, “Poland, A Green Land” offers a fictional look at one Jew’s relationship to Poland. The novel focuses on the second generation: Yaakov Fine was born in Israel to parents who survived World War II and emigrated to Israel. As a child, Yaakov felt alienated from his parents, who seemed unable to leave their European lives behind. For example, while they spoke Yiddish to Yaakov, they spoke Polish to each other, and their community was made up of those who had also come from Poland. At first, Yaakov is happy to cut ties with that part of the Israeli community when his parents die. However, he suddenly finds himself wanting to travel to Poland, even though his wife doesn’t understand his sudden interest, because he feels a great need to explore the place his parents still saw as their true homeland.

At first, Yaakov seems unsure about how he should spend his time in Poland. For days, he wanders aimlessly in Krakow before heading to Szydowce, his parent’s village, a small place off the beaten track. There are no hotels, so he takes a room with Magda, who welcomes him with open arms. To his surprise, Yaakov feels at home in Szydowce. He enjoys spending his days wandering along its roads and observing the river. In fact, it begins to feel more like home to him than Israel, allowing him to finally understand his parents’ nostalgia for their former hometown. Yaakov is thrilled when he learns that Magda remembers his family and tells him stories about their lives. In fact, the two grow very close, something not appreciated in the village.

Although, at first, people didn’t seem concerned about Yaakov’s visit, that changes over the course of his stay. Their dislike of him increases when Yaakov discovers that Jewish gravestones had been uprooted and used to pave part of the town’s center. His attempt to buy some of the stones creates problems and Yaakov learns that an undercurrent of antisemitism still exists in the village. Madga explains the reason to him by saying, “Jews don’t have ordinary lives. Poles aren’t killed because they are Poles. A Pole walks the street at night, and nothing happens to him. A Jew is always in danger.” Unfortunately, some in the village still believe it was the Jews’ own fault that they were murdered during and after the war.

The prose in “Poland, A Green Land” is blunt and plain, although easy to read. The plot, what there is of it, is extremely slow moving. At times, it seemed as if something dramatic was about to happen, but that proved not to be true. In fact, the novel’s main movement is internal: it’s the changes within Yaakov that stand out. That makes it an interesting counterbalance to “Jews in the Garden,” which included far more history and action. The two works have similar themes and ideas, but readers may better understand what happens (and doesn’t happen) in “Poland, a Green Land” after reading “Jews in the Garden.”