Stanford teacher finds Poles intrigued by Jewish culture

In a cabaret outside Krakow, a chanteuse sang in Polish, her face illuminated by a ner tamid, the eternal flame commonly seen in synagogues. Between songs the woman listened, rapt, as Steven Zipperstein told her about the history of the light hanging overhead.

Neither the presence of the light nor the singer's thirst for knowledge about Poland's Jewish past are unusual, said Zipperstein, who directs Stanford University's Jewish studies program. In fact, remnants of Polish Jewry can be found throughout Poland today — in bookstores, antique shops, nightclubs and private homes.

Zipperstein observed this striking cultural phenomenon last month while teaching a summer course in modern European Jewish history at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, cosponsored by New York University and Krakow's Center for Jewish Culture. He was also given access to archives that had been unavailable to Western scholars before the fall of communism.

While most of his students were North Americans, Zipperstein frequently met with Polish professors and students who offered insight into Poland's fascination with Jews and into the Polish anti-Semitism he had heard so much about.

"Jews represent a time when Poland was culturally richer and more interesting," Zipperstein explained. "As Poles see themselves coming out of the slumber of communism, what they remember about Jews is that they cooked great food, wore exciting clothing and that some were mystics."

Poles "recall all this without responsibility or guilt" for the tragedies wrought by the Holocaust, Zipperstein said. And they ask themselves, "Isn't that [Jewish heritage] exciting and interesting? And doesn't that make Poland more interesting?"

Nonconformist Poles hang mezzuzot on their walls and place chanukiot alongside other sculptures, he notes. They also eat tsimmes — a Jewish dish combining meat, carrots and potatoes — in their attempt to "create a national identity" in the wake of communist rule. But it's as if they're starting from scratch, Zipperstein said, as if "they've been fed a lousy history.

"They blame the travesties which occurred on their soil on the Russians and Germans. There is truth to that, but there's a more complex story," Zipperstein said. Part of this story involves acknowledging their own responsibility throughout history.

"Since the 18th century, Poland has seen itself as a Christian nation that was persecuted," he added. Yet Poles tacitly approved of atrocities that took place in their country.

He said his Polish colleagues and students certainly understand the vagaries of Poland's troubled history. Press these intellectuals on questions of Polish-Jewish relations and they agree that the usual pat answers are inadequate. However, he said, Poles in general "don't have new answers yet."

Meanwhile, Polish intellectuals look askance at their compatriots' anti-Semitism, calling it as "primitive thoughts by primitive people," Zipperstein said. Only 8 percent of Poland's college-age population actually attends college, a statistic Polish intellectuals use when explaining both the country's ugly history and the present-day hatred that thrives there.

"It's a more complicated scenario than you might think. I was dealing with [well-educated Poles] willing to wrestle with these issues," yet "I still had moments of frustration," Zipperstein said. "What I understand as a tortured history, they understand differently.

He says he "would meet people and talk about the problematic nature of the Polish-Jewish relationship." To his consternation, Poles of every type defended their compatriots' wartime behavior, and "would say the only bad Poles during the war were hoodlums."

He said intellectuals dismiss Polish anti-Semitism — which Zipperstein found was not as rampant as he had been told — as ignorance. He found this attitude slightly more palatable.

"I was on a train to Warsaw and I noticed graffiti with names of rival soccer teams followed by `equals Jews'" in German.

"Clearly this was an expression of hatred. The use of German terms rather than Polish was quite telling," Zipperstein said. "I'm not dismissing this. Anti-Semitism is so clearly expressing something hateful." But the graffiti was like calling the rival teams "jerks" and little more than that, he said.

"There is no place like [Poland] in the world. I think we would be foolish not to recognize this is a place dealing with its Jewish demons and wanting to engage in discussion."

Such dialogues, he said, also need to engage Poland's tiny Jewish population — rather than just Western Jews — and that population's role in the country's history and future.

Between the World Wars, 10 percent of Poland's population was Jewish, comprising the world's largest concentration of Jews. Krakow is home to the only former Jewish community that was never destroyed.

Krakow and its surroundings boast some 20 synagogues, not to mention mikvot (ritual baths), cemeteries and a Jewish museum. Zipperstein taught classes in the city's old Jewish quarter, which is now home to some 100 Jews.

Most of the neighborhood's buildings stand derelict. Questions of ownership and responsibility linger, begging the question, "How can a Jewish community be responsible if it doesn't exist?"

In all of Poland, only 4,000 Jews remain.

However, Zipperstein insists that Western Jews cannot fill in for Polish Jews in this dialogue, as it is clearly more their issue than ours.

"I understand," he said, that Poles "have to come to terms with their legacy."