My Parents’ Interwar Poland:
Differing Attitudes Towards Jews

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My parents, like most Polish Jews, were supporters of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the great Polish hero who led Poland to independence after WWI. Piłsudski and his Polish Socialist Party advocated an “inclusive” vision of “Polishness.” He considered any resident of Poland who embraced the cause of Poland’s freedom, regardless of religion or ethnicity, to be a “true Pole.”

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Representatives of the Polish Jewish community in Dęblin welcome Marshal Józef Piłsudski 1920.

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Diametrically opposed to Piłsudski’s approach was the “exclusivist” vision of Polishness espoused by Roman Dmowski and his rightwing National Democratic Party, the Endecja. The “exclusivists” deemed anyone who was not Roman Catholic or not of ethnic Polish descent to be outside the Polish national community. Dmowski accused the Jews of being Poland's most dangerous enemy and made anti-Semitism a central element in his radical nationalist outlook.

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Cartoons from nationalist interwar periodicals depicting Jews crucifying and exploiting Poland.

My parents were deeply disappointed when, after Piłsudski’s death in 1935, Poland increasingly embraced Dmowski’s views and enacted a host of anti-Semitic laws designed to pressure Jews to emigrate. 

Gora Kalwaria: Center of Polish Hasidism

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My father was among the thousands of Hasidim who made spiritual pilgrimages to be with the Ger Rebbe in Gora Kalwaria.

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Gora Kalwaria Jewish cemetery during WWI.
The mausoleum of the previous Rebbes of
Ger is in background.

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Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter, the third Rebbe of Ger (center of crowd, not wearing a hat), led the largest Hasidic sect in Poland.

When my father received his draft notice in 1936 he traveled to Gora Kalwaria to ask his Rebbe for advice on how he could remain a Hasid in the Polish army.  The Rebbe told him, “Wherever a Jew finds himself he can always remain a true Jew.  Furthermore, the discipline of being in the army can teach you to be a better servant of God”.

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Even after Rabbi Avrohom Menachem Alter’s death in 1948, my father continued making pilgrimages to his Rebbe’s grave in Jerusalem.  

For the nearly two years that he served in the Polish army my father was fortified by the words of his Rebbe.  My father only ate raw fruits and vegetables that he got from the army kitchen and eggs that he cooked in his own kosher pot. At the end of his tour of duty my father proudly recalled his commanding officer reviewing his military record and saying, “It says here you fulfilled all your obligations to the Polish army yet you never ate a single Polish army meal.” The officer stood up and discharged my father with an admiring salute. My father always spoke with pride of his Polish military service and of his ability to remain true to his religious values.

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Zdunska Wola: My Parents’ Hometown

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Pub of my maternal grandparents, Avrohom Yehudah and Chava Rochel Nussbaum,
at the corner of the market square in
Zdunska Wola.

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Tombstone of my grandfather, Avrohom Yehuda Nussbaum, died 1935

Zdunska Wola Jewish Cemetery before WWII

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Bais Yaakov afternoon religious school in Zdunska Wola attended by my mother.

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Civilians in Zdunska Wola market square trying to flee as German planes bomb the city.
One of the first bombs destroyed my grandparents’ pub, September 1939.

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Zdunska Wola Ghetto.  Jews being forced to humiliate each other.

My first visit to Zdunska Wola Jewish Cemetery, January, 1989

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Like many Holocaust survivors from Poland, my father never wanted any of his children to set foot on Polish soil.  Nonetheless, the first time I told him I was going to his hometown of Zdunska Wola he asked me to pray at his father’s grave. My father had suffered a series of debilitating strokes and hoped his father might be able to intercede in Heaven on his behalf.  My father told me I would find his father’s tombstone upon entering the cemetery’s main gate if I went to the right, counted ten rows along the back wall and then counted four rows forward. When I got there a few days later I found the cemetery in shambles. Many tombstones were missing and most of those that remained had been toppled and broken. The sad condition of the cemetery seemed to confirm my father’s belief about Poles. They could not even let dead Jews rest in peace.

Following my father’s instructions, I counted ten rows to the right and four rows forward. Unfortunately, all the tombstones in that section of the cemetery had been removed or smashed into small fragments. Nonetheless, I figured the tombstone is merely a pointer but what is most sacred is the actual resting place of my grandfather. I knew I was more or less in the right neighborhood. I said the appropriate prayers and asked my paternal grandfather to do what he could on behalf of his ailing son.

When I returned to New York my father asked me if I had found his father’s grave. I told him, “Of course. Your father’s tombstone was exactly where you said it would be, ten rows on the right side and four rows forward.” I figured even if the tombstone no longer existed in reality, let it at least continue to exist in my father’s memory.

Some of the film’s Memory Keepers

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My first meeting with Kamila Klauzinska who cares for my ancestral cemetery
in my parents’ hometown of Zdunska Wola.

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Kamila has learned Hebrew to create a genealogical database of Zdunska Wola’s Jews.

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I meet Szymon Modrzejewski whose volunteer group, Magurycz, has restored over 100 cemeteries of Jews, Ukrainians and other minorities.  Szymon started his work as an act of youthful rebellion against the communists who permitted these cemeteries to be destroyed.  However, over the years this work for Szymon has become a deep spiritual calling and his life’s mission.

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Szymon and his volunteers retrieving tombstones  used during the communist era to build a dam in Jasliska’s river. Szymon and his group cleaned the tombstones and returned them to Jasliska’s Jewish Cemetery.

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Karolina and Piotr Jakowenko in the prewar Jewish Prayer House they preserve in Bendzin. They rent the space to keep the landlord from painting over the murals.

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Centenarian Henryk Prajs showing me the cemetery he restored in Gora Kalwaria, site of my father’s prewar pilgrimages to the Rebbe of Ger.

Irenuesz Slipek’s work at Warta’s Jewish Cemetery

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A Holocaust survivor from Warta returns to find all tombstones have been removed 
and the Jewish cemetery about to be turned into a park and a road.

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In 1986, as a result of Ireneusz Slipek’s “one man campaign” the Ministry of Religion forced the town to return over 1,000 tombstones. The town authorities “complied” by dumping them on the cemetery ground.

Ireneusz Slipek begins his 20-year mission of restoring the cemetery

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Ireneusz Slipek worked despite three heart attacks and occasional death threats.

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Composite made from fragments of broken tombstones that Ireneusz Slipek glued together.

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Memorial made by Ireneusz Slipek for two survivors killed on December 13th, 1945, after returning to Warta.  This angered those in Warta who wanted to erase this dark episode from their town’s history.

Beata Luczak continues the work started by Ireneusz Slipek

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Members of the Ireneusz Slipek Association at Warta’s Jewish Cemetery.

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Beata and her students cleaning Warta’s Jewish Cemetery.

Museum of the History of Polish Jews

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Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Plaza

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The Museum, built on the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Plaza, to me symbolized the missing tombstone memorializing 1000-years of Jewish life on Polish soil.

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To me the Museum, erected in Poland’s capital with the help of the Polish government, suggested Poland had finally become the inclusive country my parents always dreamed of.  To show my appreciation to the new Poland and to the Memory Keepers who made the Museum possible I obtained Polish citizenship soon after the Museum opened.

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A year after the Museum opened a new government came to power that sought to appease its nationalist base with a “historical policy” that erased or minimized Polish victimization of Jews during and after the Holocaust. Prof. Dariusz Stola, a prominent historian and the Museum’s first Director, was outspoken in his opposition and was eventually ousted from his position.