Poles werent all anti-Semites, Polish-born author says

Does Poland deserve the notoriety it holds among Jews as an anti-Semitic nation?

According to Eva Hoffman, a Polish Jew and author of the new book "Shtetl," the answer is not as clear-cut as "yes" or "no."

As she writes in the book's introduction, "This…is an effort to counter what I see as…the notion that ordinary Poles were naturally inclined, by virtue of their congenital anti-Semitism, to participate in the genocide, and that Poles even today must be veiwed with extreme suspicion or condemned as guilty for the fate of the Jews in their country.

"My aim is not to absolve any more than it is to condemn," she writes, "but it is, at the very least, to complicate and historicize this picture."

Hoffman's book, which she recently discussed at Berkeley's Easy Going Bookstore, is a companion piece for the 1996 PBS "Frontline" series of the same name. Like the film documentary, the author's work traces the history of a shtetl in Bransk, Poland, from Renaissance times through the end of WWII.

However, "Shtetl" goes into greater depth than the documentary.

"The book has become an entity of its own because of my own personal interests from growing up in [Poland]," Hoffman said in an interview.

The documentary, according to Hoffman, depicts Poland as anti-Semitic. However, the author argues, "a lot of Polish-Jewish history has become misconstrued.

"Poland's Jewish history is a very long and fascinating story," said Hoffman, who was born in 1945. "We forgot how Poland once had the biggest Jewish population in Europe."

The book examines why and how the Polish people could allow part of the Holocaust to unfold in their country. Were the Poles, to borrow the title of a recent best-seller, Hitler's willing executioners?

"This is a great oversimplification," Hoffman said. "The Holocaust wasn't created by the Poles, although the main concentration camps were situated there."

For Hoffman, a former New York Times Book Review editor, the opportunity to write this book for the award-winning series was too good to pass up. Not only was Hoffman born and raised in Cracow, Poland, she also said her parents were helped during the Holocaust by a Polish peasant who hid them for two years. Also, Hoffman says, she was one of the first Jews born in postwar Poland.

During the Renaissance, Bransk, like other shtetls situated throughout the fields and mountains of Eastern Europe, was a dreamlike hamlet like the ones that appear in Marc Chagall's paintings.

The town fostered Jewish literacy, fiddle music, piety and charity. During the 12th century, Bransk's Jewish community built great synagogues and schools. In the 16th century, the yeshivas of Poland became renowned throughout Europe. In the late 19th century, Polish artists painted portraits of Jewish Simchat Torah services, weddings and everyday trade.

"Jewish life was very much a part of the landscape," Hoffman added. "Jews were Poland's most important minority and about 10 percent of the entire population."

Although the 16th-century Poles and Jews held off the Cossacks, their 20th-century descendants couldn't stop the Blitzkrieg. After Luftwaffe squadrons decimated the non-military target of Bransk, the Gestapo set up a forced labor camp on the site of the liquidated town. Not a single Jew remains there today, according to the book.

According to Hoffman, Hitler and Stalin's joint invasion of Poland caused immediate strains between their victims. The Jews eagerly greeted the Soviet Red Army soldiers with flowers and banners. These actions angered the Poles, who always viewed Russia as Poland's traditional enemy. To further complicate matters, the predominantly Catholic Poles viewed Hitler as their savior from "godless communism." Still, it must be remembered that some Poles helped Jews escape from the death camps.

"I wanted to convey the complexities between two peoples caught up in the beginnings of World War II," the author said.

Although the Holocaust decimated the Polish Jewish population, today there is a revival.

"Many Poles who never knew they were Jewish have discovered their secret identity," Hoffman said, adding that a number of Poles with one Jewish parent do not identify themselves as Jewish.

Also, in Warsaw, Jewish life has become chic. Synagogue attendance has flourished, and classes in historical Jewish scholarship are being taught at Warsaw University. A monthly Jewish newspaper, "Midrash," began this year, Hoffman said, and Jewish schools and summer camps are available for the city's 10,000 Jews.