A Personal Film by Menachem Daum

When my parents reminisced about Jewish life in prewar Poland their perpetual mourning would suddenly evaporate and for a few minutes it felt as if the Holocaust had never occurred. Even as a child I knew the Jewish life they had known and loved no longer existed and yet I was inexorably drawn to find what remained of it. I started my search in 1989, the last year of Poland’s communist regime. I was disappointed to discover that in the decades since the end of WWII most traces of Jewish presence in Poland had been destroyed. The communists adopted the ethno-nationalist narrative that Jews were never “true Poles” and systematically erased Jews from Polish history. I found the Jewish cemetery in my parents’ hometown of Zdunska Wola to be in shambles as was the cemetery in Gora Kalwaria, the site of my father’s spiritual pilgrimages to the Rebbe of Ger. I met Henryk Prajs, the last Jew of Gora Kalwaria, who was caring for its Jewish cemetery. Henryk remained despite postwar ethno-nationalist anti-Jewish violence that drove most survivors, including my parents, to flee Poland. I left my first trip to Poland wondering whether nearly 1000 years of Polish-Jewish history could still be saved from cultural annihilation? Given the almost complete absence of Jews in Poland, who would possibly do this work? 

After the fall of communism I noticed gradual improvements in my ancestral cemetery in Zdunska Wola and learned this was largely the work of a local resident, Kamila Klauzinska. Her early efforts were met with derision; “Why not fix the Catholic cemetery instead?” or “Are you Jewish?” Kamila felt all alone until, in 1997, she met Ireneusz Slipek who was restoring the Jewish cemetery in the nearby town of Warta. In the early 1980s Warta officials had decided to “clean” their unkempt Jewish cemetery by removing all the tombstones and converting it into a park and a road. Ireneusz was the only person to protest. For the next 20 years, despite occasional death threats and three heart attacks, Ireneusz worked alone almost every day, including the day he died, to restore the cemetery. To honor his memory Kamila organized Poland’s first gathering of “Memory Keepers” whose goal was to reintegrate Polish Jews, albeit posthumously, into Polish society. Many, as Ireneusz himself had been, were motivated by the liberal Catholic teachings of Pope John Paul II.  Many also wanted to cure their country from the lingering ill-effects of communist rule. Because the communists embraced anti-Semitism they felt the need to become “anti-anti-Semites.” For 25 years after the fall of communism I befriended many Memory Keepers. I witnessed how their once radical inclusive view, that the history of Polish Jews is an integral part of Polish history, gradually became mainstream. In 2014 their many years of effort led to the opening of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I was so moved by the Museum’s opening that, as a gesture of support for my Memory Keeper friends and the new Poland they were forging, I obtained Polish citizenship. However, only a year after the Museum’s opening I and many Memory Keepers were deeply disappointed by the results of Poland’s 2015 presidential election. The new government took a pronounced rightward turn which energized Poland’s resurgent radical ethno-nationalists.

The battle facing Memory Keepers is no longer whether Polish-Jewish history is or is not a part of Polish history. They have won that battle. Today, Memory Keepers’ must struggle against their government’s “historical policy” which appeases ethno-nationalists by erasing the dark spots in Polish-Jewish history, especially evidence of Polish victimization of Jews during and after the Holocaust. I meet Memory Keepers who have become victims of this “historical policy” including the Director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews who was ousted from his 
position. I leave Poland with mixed feelings; sadness because so little is left of what I was looking for but also joy in finding many Christian Poles who share my parents’ and my own love for prewar Jewish Poland. I have no doubt my parents would have supported Poland’s Memory Keepers and their struggle to build a more tolerant, open, democratic and self-critical country. I can do no less.