The Space Between | Coaxing reality out of an ambiguous Polish Jewish past

In 1980, Jacob Mikanowski’s parents were visiting relatives in Queens, N.Y., when martial law was declared in Poland. Unable to return to Warsaw, they ended up settling in State College, Pa., where Mikanowski was born in 1982.

The product of Jewish-Catholic intermarriage on both sides of his family, and regularly shuttling between Eastern Europe and central Pennsylvania, Mikanowski developed a healthy interest in the ambiguities — and living texture — of Polish Jewish history. Today, he is a graduate student in history at U.C. Berkeley, exploring the way Stalin-dominated Poland talked to itself through newspapers and literature in the immediate post-Holocaust years.

“Polish Stalinism might seem a strange thing to be interested in,” Mikanowski, 31, explains at a late-night café near campus. “But my grandparents were Polish Stalinists. They had a difficult life, especially my mom’s father, whose life I know only in pieces.” Having gone to the USSR in 1939, his grandfather got left behind when the war started and in 1941 became a Partisan, joined the Red Army and fought all the way to Berlin. Then, most surprisingly, he became a secret police officer.

His grandfather’s story, which is still unfolding, exists at the intersection of Mikanowski’s personal and academic lives. It also reveals something significant, he says, about the role of contingency in history, how “the pressure of ideology and the inescapability of influence” combine to determine “who survives and how, against what odds.”

Polish and Jewish history, together and separately, share this quality of being outrageously influenced by the movement of larger powers. Poland was continually being overrun by its larger German and Russian neighbors, just as Jews within Poland (and the surrounding Pale of Settlement) constantly adjusted to shifting political and military rivalries.

“I find the individual trajectories of people in this moment especially fascinating,” he explains. “You have writers going from courageous resistance to Nazism to enthusiastic embrace of Stalinism to open dissent. You have people coming out of hiding, coming out of Russia, coming out of the woods, and engaging in this radical project [of Stalinism].”

Jacob Mikanowski

In recent years, thanks in part to the work of Shana Penn, Tad Taube and others connected to Taube Philanthropies, the story of Polish Jewish history has begun to receive a wider, more nuanced and in many ways more celebratory hearing. The recently unfurled multistage opening of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews makes the diverse texture of a millennium of Polish Jewish history plain to see.

As an academic, as well as a cultural critic for magazines such as the Los Angeles Review of Books and Tablet, Mikanowski is eager to help return Polish and Polish Jewish history to the textured details of real life.

“I’d say that in a lot of American Jewish culture, and especially novels, Poland and Eastern Europe in general have become a kind of mythic place — really a space of fantasy — which makes sense given the gulf of generations and the historical distance involved,” Mikanowski says. “But to someone from there or, like me, partly from there, it’s different, and a little more concrete.”

An example is the work of Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, who died in 1942. His short, dreamlike stories, which take place in the town of Drohobycz (now in western Ukraine), have made him a cult figure among writers like Philip Roth, David Grossman and Cynthia Ozick, all of whom have built stories or even novels around him. But while Drohobycz has become (like Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof”) a character as much as an actual location, Mikanowski wants to restore some of the specifics of that world — of a Polish backwater reeling from a brief dance with oil-boom glory, transformed into “one part shtetl and two parts Klondike,” as he describes it.

Like those who have helped create the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, as well as an improbably vibrant contemporary Polish Jewish scene, Mikanowski argues that “the Jewish story in Poland never stops … the Polish and the Jewish stories are never separated.”

Or to quote Mikanowski on Drohobycz, a town in which everything material is broken and everything artistic is possible: “Dead things are never simply dead.”


Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.