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Poles and Jews: A Uniquely Thoughtful Approach

Jan Paczkis|Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Whether or not one agrees with everything he says, one can feel enlightened and uplifted by Sherwin's refreshingly-different and generally-balanced analysis of Polish Jewry and Polish-Jewish relations. He writes: "Indeed, the contemporary view of Poland as a land endemically inhospitable to Jews runs sharply counter to much of historical experience." (p. 55). And, it turns out, contrary to the claims of Jan Thomas Gross, far from all Poles attempted to erase all memories of Jews: "The Jews of Makow are gone...The cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis. The tombstones were used for construction. Remnants of these tombstones still pave parts of the road near the bus depot. After the war, the Poles of Makow salvaged what they could of the shattered tombstones and built a monument to the Jews of Makow." (p. 76).

Sherwin soundly repudiates the common notion that Poland is little more than a giant cemetery of Jews (p. 6). His travels throughout Poland uncover a surprisingly-large remnant of Jewish artifacts. Much of his book consists of detailed descriptions of the achievements in philosophy and religion of past Polish Jews, especially by the Hasidim. His entire work has a flavor of mysticism.

Rabbi Sherwin believes that most of American Jewry has turned to a lachrymose view of history (p. 87), forgetting this rich tradition and replacing it with poor substitutes: "The `myth' of death/rebirth, Holocaust/Israel tends to replace belief in God as the foundation of Jewish faith...Concerning American Jews, a number of Jewish scholars have observed that faith in Israel and in the Jewish people has replaced or superseded belief in God...The ideology of survivalism, coupled with the dual dogmatic pillars of Jewish civil religion of Holocaust-destruction and Israel-rebirth, folded nicely into an increasingly secularized Jewish self-identity." (pp. 85-86). Sherwin goes as far as suggesting that American Jewry is in danger of eventually self-destructing through the neglect of its heritage (p. 87, 90, 100).

Sherwin repeatedly stresses the reciprocity of Polish-Jewish prejudices, mentioning, for example, the Jewish belief that Christians are idol worshippers (p. 18). He also comments: "Perhaps the Jewish stereotype that Poles are anti-Semites was as problematic as the Polish stereotype that Jews are atheists and communists." (p. 32). But why do Polish anti-Semitism and Jewish Polonophobia persist? Sherwin believes that both Poles and Jews retain unexamined views of each other that have been handed down two or more generations from their ancestors, and usually without personally knowing anyone of the other group (pp. 129-130).

Sherwin freely acknowledges what many Poles had long suspected: "In the popular American and Israeli understanding of the Holocaust, the Poles all but replace the Germans as the perpetrators of the Holocaust, as the archenemies of the Jews throughout the thousand-year Jewish presence in Poland." (p. 84). He cites a visit to Auschwitz (p. 82) during which Israeli students were all but told that Poles were co-responsible with the Nazi Germans for the Holocaust, and suggests that this was being done not with the direct intention of denigrating Poles but for the forging of a post-Holocaust Jewish identity. (Even so, the outcome is identical.)

Sherwin criticizes what he considers the exaggerations of Polish aid to Jews during the Holocaust, but unfortunately makes no attempt to analyze the extent of this help. He also elaborates on the seemingly-paradoxical fact that prewar Polish anti-Semites often played a major role in the wartime rescue and hiding of Jews (p. 129).

Sherwin addresses the reality and limits of the Zydokomuna (Jewish Communism): "In this regard, it must be admitted that both for idealistic and self-serving reasons, proportionately more Jews than non-Jews were involved with the communist powers. But the popular Polish perception that Jews outnumbered non-Jews in the party or the state apparatus is patently false."(p. 136).

Sherwin recognizes the fact that contemporary Jewish attitudes may actually give rise to what may be called "secondary anti-Semitism": "However, to be sure, the pervasive Jewish stereotype of all Poles as anti-Semites may well encourage young Poles initially devoid of anti-Jewish sentiments to become anti-Semites." (p. 135). He also writes: "While the `competitive martyrology' of Jews and Poles results in nothing except the amplification of tensions, few Jews have acknowledged the devastating impact that the Nazi occupation had upon the non-Jewish population of Poland. (p. 133).

Sherwin includes various tidbits of little-known information, including the strongly philo-Semitic orientation of Kosciuszko (p. 143), and the fact that Hasidic dress is actually modified Polish clothing (p. 101). Rabbi Moses Isserles of Krakow once taught that philosophy originated with the Jews, and was only later copied by the Greeks (p. 37).

While not written for this purpose, some old rabbinical teachings discussed by Byron L. Sherwin find correspondence to Christian thinking. For example, the teachings of the Rabbi of Kotzk (Kock?) on the good works produced by genuine faith (p. 122) recount the Reformation teachings of good works as a fruit of genuine faith. Musar's warnings against an excessively mechanical obedience to the Law (p. 120), and that to the detriment of moral and ethical virtue, are reminiscent of the teachings of Jesus Christ against the Pharisees. And, contrary to the common view that the Jewish conception of God is one where He is less personal than in the Christian conception of God, Sherwin cites some Hasidic teachings (p. 114-115) that point to a very intimate human-God communion, even using such terms for God as "our little Father", "my darling", and God being not in heaven as much as "In our guts." A superb book!
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