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Slonimski on Jewish identities and sensitivities

jan peczkis materials|Thursday, January 8, 2015

The essay "On Jewish sensivity" was written by the great Polish poet of Jewish ancestry, Antoni Slonimski. It was allegedly composed in response to rabid personal attacks triggered by Slonimski's critical review of an exhibition by avant-garde Jewish artists. I believe that this is the first English translation of this important cultural document.

  Slonimski is uncompromising. No punches are pulled nor any words minced as he expresses his extreme irritation with the subject matter of his article. My translation attempts to convey this mood as faithfully as possible, both in the vocabulary and in the thought. It is truly surprising to see how many of Slonimski's statements would today be dismissed as "antisemitic canards". When written in the 1920s they were self-evident truths, openly discussed in a leading Polish literary journal (whose editor-in-chief, Mieczyslaw Grydzewski, was also an assimilated Polish Jew.) At once dated and very current, limited by place and time and also eternally universal, naive and noble, texts like this one help us realize our astonishing hubris and foolhardiness in trying to impose the completely arbitrary norms of political correctness upon history. A few words about the author: Antoni Slonimski (1895-1976) was a grandson of Chaim Zelig Slonimski (1810-1904), a progressive Jewish educator and science writer. Together with Julian Tuwim (another great Polish-Jewish poet), Jan Lechon, Kazimierz Wierzynski and Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Slonimski belonged to the innovative and influential Skamander Group, active from c.1920 until the fall of the Second Polish Republic in 1939. In one of his best known poems, titled "Little Towns", he laments the disappearance of Jewish shtetls in the Holocaust. On the other hand, Slonimski never had much time for "Jewish sorrows" and Jewish nationalism. Once, when irritated by complaints similar to the ones described in the following essay, he exclaimed, "I am a Pole, a Catholic and a National Democrat (Endek)!" (As far as I know, only the first two claims were grounded in fact.) The paragraph and, occasionally, the sentence structure have been modified for greater clarity. Comment by Antony Polonsky "The article is an example of Slonimski's commitment to what he regarded as internationalism, opposing both antisemitism and Jewish separatism. He later very much regretted the way he had formulated his ideas". =====================================================================
From Wiadomosci Literackie, vol. 1, 1924, no. 35, p. 3.
One of the cardinal and predominant characteristics of the Jewry is the contempt for the greatest achievements of the human spirit. The Jews disdain everything: they butcher the language they speak, they ignore the purity of speech, body and heart, while attaching an irrational value to money. "An important difference!" - one hears this silly phrase from every other Israelite in the street. To say "Rataj cigarettes" instead of "Seraj cigarettes" is a detail not worth the slightest attention. This disdain for language precipitates the disdain for literature. A realistically thinking merchant says to a non-realistically thinking salesman, "Go read Sienkiewicz!" (1) A similar attitude is also noticeable in the Polish society, but among the Jews it is significantly more pronounced. I doubt if one can find in any other milieu the type of a poet who does not believe in the existence of poetry and thinks that writing good poems is just a matter of flashy technique and conforming to current fashions. A certain young writer of this kind quite seriously asked me to tell him the secret of creating poems that would be easy to publish and which would be "much talked about later". The Jewish indifference to physical insults - I have witnessed Jews in coffee shops slapping one another's faces and then resume their business without even getting up - is related to their contempt for physical labour. Hard manual work is good only for the "roughnecks" (2). Physical laborers are almost non-existent among the Jews, because theirs is a non-productive nation, active by and large in commerce and middlemanship. Ninety per cent of the white-slave traffickers are Jewish. In reply to such accusations they typically state that it is the result of the conditions in which they are forced to live. Perhaps the Jews are oppressed and barred from many positions of employment but certainly not to such a degree that they would have to engage in white slavery.(3) The psychology of a Jewish procurer reveals to us yet another form of contempt for things so pure as the love and honor of a woman. Everything, absolutely everything - the whole world, the stars, oceans, continents and peoples - disappears and becomes unimportant in the face of the overwhelming greed for money. Jewish humor reflects this in a way both funny and sad. I cannot resist quoting here the following anecdote: A young and poor Jew wants to marry a girl without a dowry. His father tries to dissuade him. The son says, "Well, at least I will be happy." The father replies, "Nu, and when you will be happy, what will you get out of it?" Here is the tragicomic disdain of everything but money. If we wanted to reach the genesis of all that disdain, indifference, even hate, we would find it all already in the Old Testament, where the enmity toward other nations is clearly delineated, and where God himself ignores all ethical norms and even basic honesty when it comes to conquering the land (the stone shower upon the Amalekites) or multiplying the riches of the chosen people (the theft of silver vessels in Egypt). "The chosen people" - this is the inner core, the mysterious cabbalistic sigil, which animates the Golem of the Jewry. I know very few Jews who wouldn't be deeply convinced about the supremacy of the Jewish race. This is precisely why that nation, so contemptuous of everything and everybody else, does not tolerate the slightest accusation, the smallest criticism against itself. The sensivity is so great that any bolder pronouncement in this matter creates a danger for its author. It is allowed in Poland to criticise waiters, Czechs, Germans or parliament deputies; a writer may turn up his nose on things so perfect as the Notre-Dame-de-Paris cathedral; one can chastise Michelangelo for composition errors but it is not allowed to write scathingly about Jews, especially when it is done in a rational manner, since rabid criticism only plays into their hands. If the writer in question is Nowaczynski (4) or Pienkowski (5), the Jews are rather pleased as they can easily ridicule such crude and primitive antisemitism. It also provides them with concrete proofs of their persecution thus confirming the negative opinion about Poland abroad. With much triumphant fanfare they then send news releases to all the press agencies of the world. But if some unpleasant truth about the Jews comes from a person not involved in political life, they would readily stone him to the death on the spot, especially if this person is also Jewish and thus seemingly fully entitled to criticise his own nation. The "renegade", the man who violates the terribly powerful Jewish solidarity, is the most hated individual among them. Indeed, if not for the British law and government in Palestine - despite the two millennia which have passed since the crucifixion of the Christ - the Jerusalem rabbis would crucify every single Jewish Christian, every single member of this small sect that resides to this day in Galilee. The Jews who recently booed the production of Slowacki's "Father Marek" (6) at a Praga theatre; the Jewish contemporaries of Heine who kept attacking him; the Jews who anathematized my grandfather for publishing a scientific journal in Hebrew; the Jews who demonstrated against Tuwim for his poem "The Stockbrokers" (7) - these Jews are apparently so sensitive that they really should not live in a country where they are everywhere offended in public, where their beards are cut off, or where they are simply slaughtered as has happened many times in Russia or Romania. In a country where the word "Jew" is considered an insult, one cannot be oversensitive. One can either shut up and make money, or develop national pride and go away. Poland despises the Jews but very few people realize how much the Jews despise Poland. All I have said so far does not apply to the simple, quiet Talmudic dreamers, who - beside the highest level of Jewish intelligentsia - form the best part of the nation. I am referring here to the despicable majority of the people who produce nothing, to those wealthiest and most cynical brokers and wheeler-dealers, and to all those Jewish nationalistic hacks (8) who raise such hell about their mangy pride. In Palestine, in the vicinity of Tiberiad on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, I have seen Jews more proud and dignified than you, kikes (9) from paltry Jewish rags. They were saying much harsher things about their own nation - things which would stain you with the blood of their labor and sweat. If some of you, gentlemen, have so much racial ambition and national dignity, you should give up petty susceptibilities in Warsaw and go to work with them on the malarial plains of Galilee or in the heat of Jericho. And if one's sensitivity has been already dulled, if one's reason tells one to ignore the indignities - where is, I ask, the room for that foaming, dirty rage generated by any criticism of the Jewish nation? It is in the best interest of Jewish nationalism to develop self-criticism and even satire. If Jews had their own George Bernard Shaw, who laughs at all things sacred to the average Englishman, they would beat him to the death with walking sticks in the street. In the Palestinian settlements I have seen poor students, dreamers and idealists - but I have not met there a single one of those jobbers (10) who are rich enough to buy land in Palestine and who should hand over their ill-gotten fortunes to the handful of people rehabilitating the ideals of their nation. The true love of the fatherland sometimes enchants me, but its false variety always fills me with disgust. A patriotism of convenience, surrounded by a string of conditions, must appear repulsive. It is difficult to love and, at the same time, to calculate, hour by hour, how much does it cost and what profit does it bring. This applies both to the local Jews, the mock Zionists, and to those assimilated "Poles with three days notice" who love Poland very much but if, God forbid, something happens, then they love her not so much anymore. The hypocritical and base attitude of the Jews toward the national issues raises in me not only disgust but also anger. This people, complaining about the chauvinism of other nations, is itself the moust chauvinist nation on the Earth. The Jews, who lament the lack of tolerance among the others, are the least tolerant of all. The nation that screams about the hate directed at itself, is capable of the strongest hatred. Some gents from Jewish newspapers bemoan my becoming an "anti-Semite" because I have once written a few negative words about the Jews. "A grandson of Zelig Slonimski attacks Jews!" No, my dear sirs, I am not an anti-Semite. But nobody can forbid me to talk about what is evil among Jews. And, please, do not try to hoodwink me with the traditions of my family. I know very well who my ancestors were; I also know that my grandfather - that Zelig Slonimski - had been anathematized by Jewish communities (and not only in Poland) for daring to publish a scientific journal in Hebrew, for daring to speak to the obscurant Hebrews about the achievements of science, for fighting against the mediaeval regime of Orthodox rabbis. On the tombstone of my grandfather the vindictive Jews inserted into the bombastic inscription these poisoned words, "Here lies the great, but stray, star of the Jewish nation." I am not blinded by any arbitrary dislike of Jews - just as I can enumerate the negative features of this nation, I can also enumerate the positive ones - but I must categorically defend the freedom of criticism. Nothing will probably ever cure the deep-rooted revulsion I harbor against particular Jewish milieus. Please forgive me but I dare say that, if the Jews are not worse than the others, they are most certainly not better either. And nothing will convince me that the people to which belongs my bloodline is a "chosen people". However, some readers may ask, "All right but why do you feel the need to write about all that, and who cares?" A few recent happenings turned my thoughts to this subject. A small article, published three months ago in "Wiadomosci Literackie", brought a series of attacks against me. The same thing happened to Jan Lechon (who dared to state that, during the recital of a great Russian actor, the audience was full of "horrible Jews"),and to Julian Tuwim for his poem "Little Sruls" (11). Against the background of these minor events my point of view contrasted drastically with the opinions of not only the scribblers in jargon but also of many intelligent Semites - so much so that I realized with horror how much the Jewish sensitivity is not just a localized inflammation but a widespread and permanent result of the deep, terrifying conviction of the Jews about the unconditional superiority of the "chosen people". Just a few days ago I attended a soccer game between the club "Hakoah" and the Warsaw representation team. There, at a sports stadium, which is supposed to be free of nationalistic strife everywhere in the world, I witnessed the glaring Jewish solidarity. There is nothing wrong in the fact that Jews cheer the success of their professional soccer team. But the dark mob of ignorant Jews who did not understand the rules of the game, and who howled, whistled and roared, presented me with a picture of the violent, militant nationalism. This act of Jewish "revenge" for all the experienced "wrongs" turned into a great nationalistic manifestation. The Jews, who are always kicked, retaliated by kicking a soccer ball. Lechon is not allowed to write about "horrible Jews", as if there were no truly horrible individuals among them, but he is free to state that "Ibsen was right to hate his compatriots" - for this nobody in the Polish society throws mud at him. I was not allowed, while sketching a picture of the postwar generation, to speak unflatteringly about Jews, but not a single Pole took offence when I wrote about the boorishness and petit-bourgeois mentality among the Gentiles. In the fight of Jews against Poland and Poland against the Jews I really don't know which side is more powerful; however, if that soccer game was any image of this struggle, I must confess that my entire sympathy and support were on the side of the weaker Warsaw team. There are many ugly things in the strategy and tactics between these two old enemies but the Jewish side excels in bias and hypocrisy. Since such a spontaneous and ardent nationalism already exists, it is obvious that it should be channelled toward the most noble and most pure goal, i.e., toward the renewal in Palestine. I have no doubt that over there, in their own land, working hard and enjoying the peace created by every productive effort, the Jews will lose that neurotic sensibility and the habit of rejecting creativity, beauty, reason and tranquility - in a word, everything that money cannot buy. For I do not believe any more that this nation, seemingly destined to disseminate cosmopolitan ideas, to fight against narrow-minded patriotism and to proclaim universal humanistic truths, could easily get rid of its chauvinism and intolerance. The Russo-Japanese War, which adorned the Japanese nation with a nimbus of heroism, created a fashion for things Oriental and added a daimonic (12) aspect to the Japanese race. Legends have been created about the strength and power of these brave people, just like now, when the Jews became undoubtedly fashionable in the West, great and unusual intellectual powers are imputed to them. An extreme symptom of this phenomenon is the official proclaiming of their Jewishness by many artists and painters. Until now almost every Jewish artist in Paris, London or New York City gladly acknowledged the citizenship of the country of his birth (especially the beloved Russia) but recently the Jewish art world has been taken over by nationalism. Fashionable are the glamour of Jewish mentality, Jewish wit and the pragmatic Semitic worldview. Every other Jewish snob now talks about the antiquity of his race. Jews start considering themselves the cream of society even in the most banal, "beau-monde" meaning. It is thus quite difficult to explain to them that they are not nearly so outstanding, that they have achieved nothing in art, that they suffer from tragic non-productivity in comparison with which the Slavic non-productivity is a joke. In literature, apart from the enchanting Heine (who wrote in German), whom else do they have? What great composer came out of that most musical nation? They do not have any great figural art and even if a few Jewish individuals can be found among the best writers and artists, they do not belong to Jewish art, just like Conrad does not belong to Polish literature. It feels strange indeed to observe how everything outstanding among this great people is being taken over by other nations. England scoops up, like cream, the most talented individuals of the Jewish ghetto; even the weak Poland forces the Jewish nationalists to write in Polish, and educates them and charms them by her art and culture. Well, even in financial matters the Jews easily outdistance the helpless peasants of Poland or Russia but they cannot quite measure up to the business talents of Germans or Americans. Where then does the greatness of the chosen people lie? Probably not in the fact that the most beautiful book ever written since the beginning of the world, the most noble fruit of the human race, the great teaching of Jesus Christ, is hated by the Jews? Tragic in its downfall and admirable in its ardent self-love, this nation, scattered all over the earth, often has carried before humanity a standard of civilization. Often the mind and heart of a Jew rose high above the human mediocrity - but this never happened in the name of the hate of the world (13). Talking about a renewal of a nation automatically implies its fall. Therefore, I am addressing you, all young fighters and creators of the national greatness. You, the noble-minded, whose eyes are not covered by the cataracts of hate, you who love your nation in its poverty and weakness and who dream about its deserved greatness and about work on your own land - I turn to you with a demand to kill with a red-hot pen the sensibility and blind passion which always prevent a clear and calm reflection on the matters of this world. If I had any nationalistic feelings, without a moment of hesitation I would come and live with you in that hard but beautiful country. I would write and work on the shores of the Mediterranean, in orange-scented Jaffa or in the green Galilee. Oh, if I could only feel Jewish! But my heart belongs to this small, proud fatherland of people lost in the wide world, who wander across all continents and who have neither memories of, or roots in, any homeland. With my hand on my chest I swear that I do not at all have any nationalistic sentiments! I feel neither Polish or Jewish. Not without jealousy I looked upon the Jewish pioneers putting up the tents in the Valley of Sharon, and I listened to their Hebrew songs by the evening bonfires - just as I had listened, not without jealousy, to the marching songs of Polish soldiers going to a distant war with Russia. If I have spoken here some harsh words, it does not mean that I hate Jews. But do not think, either, that it is love that dictates to me those words full of bitter anger.   Footnotes:
(1) Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), famous Polish writer, 1905 Nobel laureate. His series of historical novels commonly known as the Trilogy has been considered a pinnacle of romantic patriotism.
(2) In original: "chamy".
(3) This often contested fact has been amply confirmed by other contemporary sources (for example, the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, especially "The Magician of Lublin", where one of the secondary characters is a Jewish white slaver.) See also the recent research on this topic at http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml? itemNo=89949&sw=poland
(4) Adolf Nowaczynski (1876-1944), leading literary critic, satirist and playwright of the Young Poland period. Famous for his sharp tongue, Nowaczynski was both anti-Semitic and anti-Pilsudski (for the latter he paid with his eye, knocked out by some Polish army officers.)
(5) Pienkowski - I have been unable to identify this person.
(6) Juliusz Slowacki (1809-1849), one of the greatest Polish Romantic poets and playwrights. His drama "Father Marek" ("Ksiadz Marek") is a mystical, patriotic and religious play based on the events during the anti-Russian Confederation of Bar (1768-1772).
(7) Polish original title: "Gieldziarze".
(8) In original: "szrajbelesy".
(9) In original: "gudlaje". Translation according to the Kosciuszko Foundation Dictionary.
(10) In original: "geszefciarze".
(11) Polish original title: "Srulki". The Jewish name "Srul" bears an unpleasant phonetic relation to the Polish slang word for "defecate".
(12) Slonimski uses the adjective "demoniczny" in its Classical Greek, Socratic meaning; that is why I have translated it as "daimonic" and not "demonic".
(13) The meaning of the last sentence is obscure in the original. ===================================================================== I and My Village, by Marc Chagal   --Antoni Slonimski, "Elegy for the Jewish Villages" "Gone now are those little towns where the shoemaker was a poet,
The watchmaker a philosopher, the barber a troubadour.
Gone now are those little towns where the wind joined
Biblical songs with Polish tunes and Slavic rue,
Where old Jews in orchards in the shade of cherry trees
Lamented for the holy walls of Jerusalem.
Gone now are those little towns, though the poetic mists,
The moons, winds, ponds, and stars above them
Have recorded in the blood of centuries the tragic tales,
The histories of the two saddest nations on earth." =====================================================================   Click here to see larger scans of original Slonimski article in Polish  
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