Historical Notes: A multicultural experiment in Poland

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The Independent Culture
THE HISTORY of Polish Jews is an example of a highly contested past. There are many such histories, subject to divergent collective memories - Serb and Croat, American and Indian. They serve as symbolic battlegrounds for their participants' moral truth and identity. What makes the conflict between Polish and Jewish memories especially intense is the enormous fact of the Holocaust - an event that took place largely on Polish soil, although it was neither planned nor executed by Poles.

The Holocaust casts its shadow backwards as well as forward, and often the entire history of Polish Jews is read retroactively in its dark light. But history isn't like story; it isn't a straightforward narrative, unfolding towards an inevitable finale. Before the terrible destruction, there were centuries of multifarious, vibrant life. Jews started settling in Poland as early as the 11th century; from the 18th century onwards, they comprised 10 or more per cent of Poland's population, which made them that country's largest minority, and a constituency with its own rights, problems and even powers. This was in marked contrast to other European countries, where Jews were never more than a tiny percentage of the whole.

Indeed, Polish-Jewish history can be seen as a centuries-long experiment in multiculturalism avant la lettre. While there were undoubted strains of anti- Semitism in Polish culture, at least some of the tensions were caused by majority- minority antagonisms and conflicts of interest, still so familiar in polyethnic societies today.

In pre-modern times, Poland was often a refuge for Jews escaping from persecution elsewhere. The medieval Polish laws were surprisingly tolerant, granting Jews full religious and legal autonomy. This allowed the growing minority during the Renaissance to develop the splendid spiritual and political institutions which made Poland the centre of Jewish life in Diaspora. For about two centuries, there was something like a Jewish parliament in Poland, called the Council of Four Lands; there were religious seminaries, yeshivas, which drew students from all over Europe.

This golden age did not last. As Poland fell into economic chaos and was partitioned at the end of the 18th century, relations between Poles and Jews deteriorated, sometimes to the point of anti-Semitic violence. But, even during that fraught period of tangled political alliances and mutual resentments, there were moments when Poles and Jews joined forces, as during the series of insurrections mounted against the colonising Russians.

The shtetl - the word is a diminutive of Yiddish shtot, or town - was where the multicultural experiment was at its most intimate, and least tested. This was where Poles and Jews traded with each other daily, picked up bits of each other's vocabulary and medicinal lore. This was also where they remained most spiritually separate and unfamiliar to each other.

The shtetl changed slowly; but, with the onset of the 20th century, the winds of modernity swept even through these traditional, Orthodox communities. The contradictory interval between the two World Wars, after Poland regained its independence, saw the rise of nationalist, ideological anti-Semitism. But this was also a period when Jewish political and cultural life thrived, when every shtetl had upwards of a dozen Jewish political parties, and when Jewish literature was undergoing a great flowering.

It is impossible to know what would have happened to the shtetl, or to Polish Jewry, had their rich and fascinating world not been so abruptly extinguished. However, one cannot understand their history without bringing its two parts into interaction and dialogue with each other. Only from such dialogue can a full picture of the past begin to emerge.

Eva Hoffman is the author of `Shtetl: the history of a small town and an extinguished world' (Vintage, pounds 7.99)