The Tale of Two Jewish Towns

Henryk Grynberg


In her study Å»ydowska Warszawa – żydowski Berlin. Literacki portret miasta w pierwszej poÅ‚owie XX wieku (Jewish Warsaw – Jewish Berlin: A Literary Portrait of a Town in the First Half of the Twentieth Century, Warsaw: Instytut BadaÅ„ Literackich PAN, 2016) Alina Molisak points out the similarities between the Jewish quarters in both metropolises. The obvious reason for the resemblance: the inhabitants of Berlin’s Scheunenviertel were mostly immigrants or refugees from historically Polish lands, including Lithuania, Galicia and western Ukraine, often with only transit visas and awaiting an opportunity for further escape through Hamburg or Amsterdam to America. Even ‘their children born in Germany were not entitled to German citizenship’ (p. 267-268). This situation made them an easy target for the infamous 1938 mass deportation across the border to Poland or to the strip of no-man’s land between the two countries. 

The Jewish exotic described by Molisak as ‘Eastern-European’, but mainly Polish, was perceived as alien even in Warsaw. Wanda Melcer, whose 1936 collection of reportages from Jewish Warsaw in the progressive journal WiadomoÅ›ci Literacki was entitled Black Continent (Czarny lÄ…d), saw there ‘dark masses of orthodoxy’; ‘ignorance, hypocrisy, backwardness’; and ‘savage customs of circumcision, the mikveh and ritual slaughter’ (quote after A. Molisak). In a similar, if not even more derogatory  maner, this Jewish world was depicted in some leading Polish prose of the period.  In a novel by Stefan Å»eromski it was a ‘swarming ant-hill spending its life on jabber and idleness’; Krochmalna was “a gutter in the shape of a street”; the children were ‘all extraordinarily filthy’; the father of a family ‘from dawn to nightfall […] wastes his time dreaming up swindles’; even secular Jews spoiled the view: ‘Toward the evening, hordes of Jews started to enter  [the Saski Garden], their fashionable outfits vulgar, excessive and absurd’ (Ludzie bezdomni, quotes after A. M.). Zbigniew UniÅ‚owski viewed Warsaw’s Jewish quarter as a ‘big-city abscess’ with ‘microbes of the gloomy ghetto […] swarming, haggling, and quarreling’; to his ears, an old praying Jew ‘wailed with his viscous, jabbering voice’ (Moja Warszawa, quotes after A. Molisak). No empathy, but disdain and disgust, no humanism, but dehumanization. Or extreme xenophobia as in the words of the socialist Maria DÄ…browska: “Our towns (partly because they were not  ours) have reared – apart from a handful of valuable labourers -  nothing but stinking scum.’ ((Paryże innej Europy, quote after A. M.).

A short quote from Maria Kuncewiczowa proves those statements false: ‘In a niche of a backyard, a low window without curtains; a poor table, a fish in the middle, a family, young children, […] small Shabbat candles’. For Kuncewiczowa, the picture meant that “there are flowers even on Nalewki Street” (Dyliżans warszawski, (quoted after A. Molisak). Similarly Pola GojawiczyÅ„ska in her novel DziewczÄ™ta z Nowolipek, extensively quoted by Molisak, depicted Jewish existence and Polish-Jewish co-existence without evaluation and prejudice. So did, too, the humorous stories of the good-natured, indulgent Stefan Wiechecki (Wiech) in which the inhabitants of all parts of Warsaw were human beings with funny habits regardless of their ethnicity. His ‘narrative remarks on Jewish holydays and customs’ show he had ‘some knowledge of the culture of modern Judaism’ – adds Professor Molisak (p. 144). Honestly realistic was also the foreign traveler Alfred Döblin who in his Journey to Poland noted in Jewish Warsaw men ‘in clean gabardines, their wives wearing fashionable outfits and lipstick in accordance with the prevalent Polish flirtatiousness…’; girls ‘laughing, speaking Yiddish, dressed Polish style including thin stockings’ (quotes after A. Molisak), and expressed sensitivity for hasidic prayers as well as respect for Jewish centuries-old tradition and the strength of Jewish spirit.     

In the meantime, on the soil of the ‘black land’ flourished the poetry of I. L. Peretz; Krochmalna, ‘the gutter in the shape of a street’, was the place where the talents of the Israel Joshua and Isaac Bashevis Singer developed; Krochmalna was also the street  address of the most cultured and most progressive Janusz Korczak orphanage; and the ‘swarming, haggling, and quarrelling microbes’ filled the Yiddish theatres of Ester Rachel and Ida KamiÅ„ska. ‘What sense does it make to live one next to the other and to know so little about each other? Our theatres stage plays from all over the world, often trifling and inferior, yet we do nothing, absolutely nothing, to learn about the soul of a people with whom we are destined to coexist.’ So wrote Tadeusz Boy-Å»eleÅ„ski after seeing a play by Peretz at Ida KamiÅ„ska’s theatre (quote from Teatr zawsze grany by A. Rudnicki).     

In the ‘black land’ - contrary to the ‘brighter’ parts of the city – there was virtually no illiteracy. Its inhabitants read books in both Yiddish and Polish. ‘Only Jews lived on Nowolipie and the neighboring streets, and only Yiddish could be heard. At school we were taught Polish, but only Jewish children went there and all the teachers were Jewish. For a long time, I thought that all people were Jews. At home, my parents, brothers and sisters used Yiddish, Russian and German, but I spoke only Polish. My classroom teacher, Maria Zagraniczna, was an excellent Polish instructor and taught me a love of books. My mother complained to her that I was constantly reading’. So says Lea ‘Lodka’ Grosman, the main heroine of my authentic short-story ‘Blue-Eyed Maria’ (in the collection Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories, New York 2002). ‘While Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw (and Poland) learn Polish culture, have a chance to read Polish books, even without a good knowledge of Polish or not knowing it at all (most works of Polish authors were translated to Yiddish), non-Jews had only very limited possibilities to read Jewish literature (as there were far fewer translations from Yiddish or Hebrew to Polish); also the interest in Jewish culture on the part of non-Jewish Poles was negligible’ – emphasizes the author of this study (p. 250). Similarly one-sided was the often-cited contribution of Polish Jews to the Polish culture.     

Jewish Warsaw had certainly its dark side. According to Alina Molisak, street-walkers were most frequent on Krochmalna, while ‘the center of prostitution was located at Stawki, Niska, Dzika and Pawia streets’ (p. 159); and most likely on nearby Mila made famous by Leon Uris’ bestselling novel. The tightly packed streets of the ethnically mixed Old Town had ‘brothels in almost every house’ (ibid). An even darker stain was ‘the trade in live merchandise’. The author cites the constant presence in Yiddish literature of the period of  ‘a man from Buenos Aires’: a well-dressed stranger who promised poor girls marriage and, if necessary, quickly married them in order to sell them to brothels in faraway lands. The main destination was Buenos Aires where the law did not prosecute prostitution and this sort of trade.  At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Buenos Aires had about four thousand registered Jewish prostitutes ‘mainly from East-European diaspora’. Molisak quotes a 1935 article by the Polish Minister of Health about ‘a powerful [Buenos Aires] organization of traffickers in live merchandise […] consisting mostly of Polish Jews and named “Varsovia”’ - a name the Polish government found offensive and intervened against.

Yet, according to Molisak,  ‘the level of criminality among the Jews of interwar Poland was lower than among the gentile population’, (156). Murder, rape and armed robbery were not Jewish genres. In the counterfeiting of promissory notes and other economic crimes, the statistics were similar for both groups. There were quite a few Jewish burglars and safe-breakers and ethnically ‘mixed gangs of thieves and smugglers’. Gentile thieves used the services of experienced Jewish  receivers (ibid). Gentile burglars and safe-breakers ‘highly valued their Jewish colleagues and often cooperated with them in their larger actions…’ – wrote Marian Fuks (Å»ydzi w Warszawie, quote after A. M.). Yiddish expressions in the lingo of the Polish underworld (such as ferajna, mojra, din-tojra) attest that interethnic cooperation. There is no reason to doubt the interwar German authors who wrote that the criminality in Berlin’s Jewish quarter was just as ‘East-European’ as much as its inhabitants; in particular, smuggling. The Ostjuden ‘were easily capable of smuggling any goods across the border’- as wrote Adolf Sommerfeld in Das Ghetto von Berlin (quote after A. M.). One may add that in the East-European part of the Jewish diaspora smuggling was considered a natural necessity, not a crime, and in communist Poland it became a universal phenomenon without ethnic or class boundaries.

Apart from bearded Jews in their traditional black garb, both Warsaw and Berlin were inhabited by assimilationists who avoided their ‘exotic’ brothers, and even blamed them for  provoking antisemitism. But Alina Molisak reminds that Germany at the end of the nineteenth century witnessed a fascination with East-European Judaism and the spirituality of hasidism, perceived by some German Jews as a means to return to the sources of their religion (p. 117). Return or withdrawal after assimilation proved ineffective against increasing racial antisemitism. For this is how the neo-mysticism of Martin Buber and Gerschom Scholem can be understood. The religious sensitivity of Alfred Döblin, though likely derived from the same source, was rather ecumenical as in his Journey to Poland he had displayed a spiritual inclination to the ‘crucified one’ which some years later led him to convert to Catholicism. The inner need to return to their roots may have been felt by the German Jews who found themselves in the Polish lands as German troops during the First World War. Ida KamiÅ„ska reminisces that posters were printed in both Yiddish and German, ‘as the Germans […] often frequented Jewish theatres’. She even overheard in a street-car their comments on the part she was playing and recalls instances when ‘German soldiers saluted’ after recognizing her in the street. ‘Such were the Germans at the time of the First World War’ – concludes the actress (My Life, My Theatre, New York 1973). It is highly likely, though, that those Germans were Jews. In Poland, particularly in Warsaw, that fascination and the desire to return to Jewish source appeared by the end of the twentieth century, with a delay of one hundred years, when almost nothing remained there of Judaism, hasidism and the Jews.    

The beginning of the end of Jewish Berlin was signaled by Bernard Singer and Antoni SobaÅ„ski, reporting for Warsaw newspapers, the daily Nasz PrzeglÄ…d and the weekly WiadomoÅ›ci Literackie, respectively. Singer at once saw the similarities of the Nazi and the Soviet systems: the Mayday parade, speeches from the tribune, ovations of the crowds, portraits of the leaders, banners. ‘Wherever the citizen looks, there is the immediate proof of the regime in power’ (quote after A. M.). SobaÅ„ski, too, noted the ‘congresses, ceremonies, manifestations’ and ‘the constant talk of sabotage’ (quote after A. M.). ‘Antisemitism has not yet soaked through to the masses, but those in power provoke it in any way they can. No lie or slander is too low for them’ – wrote SobaÅ„ski in 1933 (quote after A. M.). During his next trip, in 1936, he noticed similarities between ‘the  political discourse here and that present in Poland” (p. 71), including the antisemitic demagogy in the Polish press. It is worthwhile noting that the slogan ‘Jews are our misfortune, a calamity for Poland’, which Molisak characterizes as ‘the base of the founding antisemitic myth’ (p. 81), was a carbon copy of Hitler’s “Juden sind unser Umglűck!”. 

The ethnic cleansing in Germany had some unexpected consequences. ‘More than twenty theatres are closed; in others that I visited for a few minutes […] incredible trash’ (szmira). Within just a couple of months, they had fallen to a low-provincial level […]. The situation in film is no better’ – wrote SobaÅ„ski. Singer found that Germanized Jews who ‘previously frowned on the Eastern Jews - helping them but tacitly wishing them the fastest possible emigration’ (quote after A. M.) – now have realized that they share their fate with the slighted Ostjuden, rather than with the German society (p. 308). Similar was ‘the consequence of rejection’ - Molisak’s term - in Poland, not only in the 1930s but also during the communist cleansing of the late 1960s. Singer pointed out ‘a slow return to the ghetto’ and speeding up youth emigration to Palestine, while SobaÅ„ski believed that ‘the great majority of German Jews are just waiting for the longed-for moment when they will again be allowed to become one-hundred-percent loyal Germans’ (quote after A. M.). Such was also the opinion of most of the Polish Jews about their German co-religionists.

Dr. Molisak depicts Berlin’s Scheunenviertel as a ‘sort of transitory territory’ between the East and the West in both space and time (before farther emigration). But Berlin had in the meantime produced an intermediate category of Jews who had managed to advance to a better zone. Paul, born in 1929, lived with his parents and younger sister on Unter den Linden, yet in the fall of 1938, they were deported just like those from Scheunenviertel. ‘They pulled me out of bed at night and we traveled that night on a train’ – he recalled later in his diary. Most deportees were stopped at no-man’s land, because Poland did not want them either. Paul’s family was allowed in, because his father had a well-established immediate family in Poland. Paul’s father spoke Polish, his mother spoke German, and his grandmother spoke Yiddish. He learned to write Polish and has left behind his diary dated from March 1940 to August 1942 (see ‘A Heroic Boy’s Diary 1940–1942’,

Berlin’s Jewish town is recalled in Erwin Leiser’s The Scheunenviertel in Berlin: Remembering Vanished People and Streets. The last leader of that community was Abraham Mordechai Grynberg, also known as Bizojner rav – the spelling of both his last name and nickname is Polish. His shul was overrun by the heavy boots of the heathen. But Hashem took care of the old faithful, and so they found only his bodily shell (still warm) in his room, and Scheunenviertel still managed to accompany him to the graveyard. Shimon Attie made slides out of old photographs and projected them in the places where they had been taken, thus bringing back ‘the silence after the shtibl at Grenadier- now Almstadtstrasse, from where the Bizojner sent prayers to heaven’; ‘the candlelight in windows; ‘the baby carriage at Rucherstrasse 4’; ‘the competing butcher shops at Mulackstrasse 32 and 37’; even the pigeon shop (Tauben Handlung) from the year 1933’. Here “Döblin found his Berlin-Alexanderplatz and Joseph Roth the saddest street where ‘even the most joyous melodies cry’. But Felice Bauer wrote to Kafka that ‘there is more nectar here than in the flowers of Marienbad’. Quotation marks indicate verses from my poem ‘Pamięć (Memory), written after reading Erwin Leiser’s essay and seeing Shimon Attie’s album The Writing on the Wall: Projections in Berlin’s Jewish Quarter. Having read Alina Molisak’s book, I must change one line: from ‘here Martin Buber and Gerschom Scholem handed out faith to the poor’, to ‘from here Martin Buber and Gerschom Scholem drew their faith’.

In conclusion, an explanation is needed. The literary antisemitism in Å»eromski and UniÅ‚owski could have been unconscious. It was in fashion and irresistible. Even such champions of progress and justice, as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and the anti-fascist Hemingway (in Sun Also Rises) succumbed to it. The fate of Jewish Warsaw, Jewish Berlin and thousands of other Jewish towns and shtetels had been foredoomed by the common culture which - generation after generation - contributed to the myth and dehumanization which facilitates atrocity and murder.