Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature
and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for
several journals and is the author of Clifford
Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter,
Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham
New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales
of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's
reviews, visit his website: www.nickcatalano.net
to eastern, Central European cities (I was recently in Warsaw,
Cracow, Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna and Prague) yields variegated
impressions, some pleasantly historical, others strangely disturbing.
All of these cities underwent a double dose of invasive horror
by Nazis and Communists in the last 75 years, a misery unlike
any in memory and the cloud of this history sits unevenly on
each city. The charm of Budapest, Vienna and Prague is wound
around romantic recollections of Mozart operas, Liszt strains,
Kafka fiction, Freud discoveries and the silly excesses of Maria
Theresa and Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. However, the legacy
of Poland’s geniuses (Copernicus, Chopin, and Sklowdaska
-- Marie Curie) cannot eradicate the lingering presence of Nazi
madness. Hitler's final solution was damnably successful in
Warsaw: only one synagogue remains.
city offers a brave front of reconstructed classical architecture
but like Hamburg and Cologne (all cities totally destroyed by
WW ll bombings) the restorative attempts fall short. The memory
of the Jewish ghetto, the concentration camps, and the fiery
devastation constantly intrudes on the present-day visitor.
HISTORICAL MUSEUM: THE TRUTH (THE HORROR OF HORRORS) STOPS HERE
recent upturn is the 2014 completion of the Polin Museum of
the history of Polish Jews -- a triumphant creation of scholarship,
artistic innovation, detailed preservation, and dramatic recreations
chronicling the thousand year history of Polish Jewry. It is
a convoluted story of a remarkable people who are utilized for
their talents and industriousness by ambitious Polish rulers
only to be castigated and persecuted by jealous and shortsighted
ones. When a government needs Jewish organizational and mercantile
talent the race enjoys prosperity; but when succeeding rulers
enjoy a period of stability they shun Jews who invariably suffer.
practice also characterized topsy-turvy Semitic policy throughout
Europe: at one extreme in 1290, England expelled its entire
Jewish population; Conversely, in Venice the tolerant mood of
1516 lawmakers ordered Jews to reside in a small, poor area
– the site of a former copper foundry described as a geto
in Italian. By day Jews could leave the area and engage in a
limited number of occupations: selling clothes, printing, teaching
music and dance, and practicing medicine; but at night they
had to return to the ghetto. A generation later Martin Luther,
in Germany, urged Protestants to raze the Jews’ synagogues,
schools, and houses and burn all Jewish prayer books . . . And
so it went for the Jews – periods of convenient tolerance,
periods of segregated lifestyles, and periods of sudden persecutions.
early as the 10th century Jewish merchants were already traveling
along trade routes that passed through Poland. In 1264, the
Statute of Kalisz, issued by Boleslaw the Pious, Duke of Greater
Poland, gave Jews permission to settle, follow their religion,
be protected from harm, engage in various occupations (by this
time many were doctors, writers, bankers), and even play a role
in the minting of official coins. Succeeding rulers (King Kazimierz
in 1335) reconfirmed the charter and improved living conditions.
This era presaged a golden age for Jews (1569-1648) which coincided
with the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth as
it became one of the largest, most diverse, and most tolerant
countries in Europe. The commonwealth never experienced the
religious wars that were tearing apart Western Europe. But,
after some years the prosperity propelled incidents of anti-Jewish
violence and the Khmelnytsky uprising in 1648 devastated several
this uneven history, Jewish survival instincts prevailed and
the population expanded. By 1765 a census showed there were
750,000 Jews living in the Polish commonwealth -- the largest
Jewish community in the world and a center of Jewish life. However,
as the Polin museum carefully shows, Jewish prosperity continued
to vacillate as the whims of various authorities played with
their fate. The relationship with the Catholic Church is a case
in point. Museum documents show many church institutions often
loaned money to Jews in return for expertise and advice. However,
in a strongly worded encyclical in June 1751 Pope Benedict XIV
forbade Catholics to have any contacts with Jews -- an event
which set the doctrinal stage for a new level of Polish anti-Semitism.
1772 and 1795 the existence of the Polish commonwealth was obliterated.
Prussia, Austria and Russia forcefully partitioned the territory
and initiated new laws curtailing customs in Jewish life. During
the next decades these harsh laws evolved into the infamous
Russian pograms. In the mid-1800s anti-Jewish riots resulted
in the first deaths, and by the dawn of the 20th century thousands
of Jews had been killed. The Polin museum chronicles the various
political and economic circumstances during the initial anti-czarist
period (1900-1910) for which Jews somehow received the brunt
of the blame. This period saw mass Jewish emigrations from Poland
mainly to the United States.
WW I, Polish Jews were drafted by each of the partition powers
to serve in the war and often were forced to fight against one
another. But by the Treaty of Versailles the partition ended
and the world now recognized the ‘new" country of
the formation of the new nation dubbed the Second Polish Republic
there began what some historians consider a second ‘golden
age’ for Polish Jews. The Polin museum has an exhibition
dubbed The Jewish Street which symbolizes a new era of culture
and freedom. We see writers, actors and artists (Julian Tuwim,
Antoni Stonimski) at the Cafe Ziemianska dancing and engaging
in vigorous political repartee. A new Yiddish literary world
is ushered in, headquartered at 13 Tiomackie Street in Warsaw.
Philosophers, politicians, economists and sociologists all gather
in anticipation of a glorious new page in Polish Jewish history
and Jews in Warsaw now number some 400,000.
19 years of the new Jewish ‘golden age’ their lives
undergo a change unlike any endured by an ethnic populace in
the history of the world. After invading Poland in September
and killing thousands of Polish civilians, the Nazis quickly
turn their attention to the ‘Jewish problem.’ By
1940 they have erected a walled ghetto in a four square kilometer
area where Warsaw’s 400,000 Jews are forced to live in
indescribably horrible conditions. By 1942, some 100,000 die
of starvation and disease. On July 22 of that year the planned
extermination of the entire Jewish population begins and by
September 12th 310,322 men, women and children are sent to death
camps and gassed. Some 6,000 elderly and infirm Jews unfit to
travel are murdered right in the street.
the ensuing months the horror continues as the war takes tolls
everywhere. On May 16, 1943, Nazi General Stroop reports to
Hitler “Warsaw’s Jewish district has ceased to exist.”
have been many instances of genocide in world history (one at
present exists in Syria). But what happened in Poland is the
only situation where industrialized murder occurred with the
logic, planning and physical implementation akin to that taken
in an automobile assembly line.
have been countless tomes written about the methodical, systematized
procedures but a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau yields an immediacy
to the revulsion encountered there that no newspaper account
or history book can capture.
progression of events all revealing the Nazi penchant for precision
and exactitude initiated matters: On September 3rd 1941 laboratory
experiments result in the death of 850 political prisoners at
Auschwitz by use of Zyklon B, a cyanide gas normally used as
an insecticide; On January 20th 1942 Heinrich Himmler’s
deputy Reinhard Heydrich chairs the infamous Wannsee conference
in Berlin during which the official theme of the conference
is announced as “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
In Article 3 of the conference -- with detailed, scholarly research
-- the exact Jewish populations of over 30 European countries
and territories is published. It provides for 11,000,000 million
Jews to be exterminated.
nightmarish meticulousness the gassing methods of murdering
are refined as other Nazi victims join the litany at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Each group is given a different colour: pink for homosexuals,
brown for gypsies, blue for Jehovahs, green for criminals, red
for political prisoners, yellow for Jews – a system reflecting
a new Nazi taxonomy.
insidiously German economic proclivity is revealed as Auschwitz
visitors view collections of human hair, shoes, teeth, clothing,
suitcases -- all to be saved and allocated for future use in
whatever context might be imaginable to the fiendish gleaners.Worse
accounts of this insanity have been published over the last
70 years and are easily available in books and online. Despite
the cascade of countless photos, diaries, film, primary sources
and continuing revelations, holocaust
denying is alive and well in almost every part
of the world.
other areas in the Jewish Diaspora reveal similarly astonishing
accounts of the history of this race. And, of course, further
instances of injustice, tolerance, prosperity and persecution
of Jews can be found in post-Nazi years in places everywhere.
But a visit to Warsaw dramatically telescopes this singular
history. Present and future generations would do well to visit
at some point.