How one man is helping his country to remember

A controversial project aims to write the Jewish people back into Polish history, says Louis Jacob

Sunday February 21 2010

IN Poland, it’s never really a good time to bring up the Jewish thing. It is present always, but only as an illusive undertone, one which seems at times to have been lost to the whispers of ghosts on the haunted tracks from Krakow to Auschwitz and from Warsaw to Treblinka.

So when large murals with the bold statement ‘I Miss You, Jew’ began to appear on the walls of once Jewish neighbourhoods in Poland, people were a bit confused. Some were downright insulted.

In a cafe not far from Prozna, the only surviving street of the Jewish ghetto where thousands of Jews lost their lives in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, I meet the creator of the murals, Rafal Betlejewski, a Warsaw-based artist.

His desire to create his own narrative, one which he hopes will ultimately lead him to a greater understanding of his own ‘Jewish complex’, inspired him to create the project. After six years of preparation, the ‘Tesknie za Toba Zydzie’ (I Miss You, Jew) project and website were launched on January 27, to coincide with International Holocaust Memorial day.

The aim is to create an accessible online archive. Rafal’s idea is simple.

“Local people in those towns and neighbourhoods once populated by Jewish people, will gather around an empty chair and declare ‘I miss you, Jew’. The photos of these actions, along with testimony and old photos from anyone who wishes to contribute, will be posted on the website. It has already been a notable success. It’s amazing how many Poles want to write warm letters to the long gone Jews.”

Rafal sees the slogan and the murals as an attempt to reclaim a language which he feels has been turned over to anti-semitism and to recast the memory of the Jews in the minds of the Polish people.

“When you understand that Poland had been the main Jewish country for six or seven centuries and that it had produced such an enormous load of cultural content, suddenly you realise that the holocaust was actually ‘our great loss’. Poland is poorer now. We are not the same nation. Our cities don’t have the same flavour or poetry and literature is less vibrant,” Rafal says.

Ten years ago, Jan Tomasz Gross, a professor of history at Princeton University and a Polish Jew, published a controversial book entitled The Neighbours. It told the story of the village of Jedwabne in north east Poland, where on July 10, 1941, the Jewish inhabitants were rounded up and locked into a barn which was then burned to the ground, killing up to a thousand people. Gross’s shocking contention was that contrary to popular belief, it was the Polish people of the village who perpetrated this crime, and not the Nazi occupiers.

According to Rafal, it demolished an accepted narrative that he and so many others had been made to believe in school.

“No one wanted to believe it, me included. Because of this book and the whole public outcry surrounding it, I suddenly realised how little, if anything, I knew about the Jews in Poland. Being just a regular student of the pre-1989 Polish education system and a reader of mainly Polish literature, a sheep to Polish Catholic culture if you like, I had no idea whatsoever as to the role the Jews had played in the history of Poland,” he explains.

Like many Poles of his generation, Rafal felt little empathy with the Jews, whose plight had simply not played a part the shaping of his own consciousness. He feels that he had no way of knowing that they used to live here in such numbers.

“I did not know their customs, language, philosophy, poetry, tradition etc. And I absolutely had no idea of the holocaust and its gravity,” he says.

He decided to travel to Jedwabne.

“I realised that it was a no-man’s-land, a place where no Polish person could truly define themselves, because everything they pertained to know was wrong. The repression of the Jewish memory, if you will, had not been accidental, it had been a concerted political effort and it is my opinion that the Jews had been tragically wiped out for a second time, in being removed from the national myth.”

He hopes that the project, which runs for a year, will represent a positive platform on which Poles can communicate repressed feelings, a place where a nation can begin to “break the spell of statistical truth, the numbers, and the dates. I hope that we can begin to connect to what used to be the real Polish-Jewish experience: the face-to-face, next-door kind of coexistence. In many ways I feel we really do ‘want’ to miss them.”


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