Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Bearing Witness

A photo from the Lublin ghetto
In the city of Lublin, in Eastern Poland, in 1992, an avant-garde performance group called NN Theatre was given the use of the city's old Grodzka Gate.  One day an old lady came to see them.  She said she remembered living in the gate as a small child, kept hidden from the outside world.  She had no real knowledge of who she was, and no recollection of her parents.  She did recall that she had been smuggled away, and so she thought that she was probably a Jewish child, who had somehow been protected from the Nazis.

The young Poles who ran the theatre company were astonished and moved.  They had not known about the history of the building they occupied.  It turned out that it had also been known as "the Jewish Gate", and that it led from the old centre of Lublin to what had been the Jewish quarter of the city - an area that the Nazis had completely destroyed.  As a result of this encounter, the theatre company completely changed its course, and set about documenting the Jewish history of their space, so that today it is closer to a museum than a theatre. The Gate still has a performance space, and it is sometimes used - but NN Theatre is now primarily a witness to the horrific history in its locality.  The young man who showed Lucy and myself around the exhibition, and who works with this material every day, was visibly moved by much of what he told us.  To give just one example, there is a series of photographs of a young boy from Lublin during the 1930s - birthdays, holidays and parties - so powerful because they are so ordinary.  The last photograph shows him carefully groomed for his first day at school: it was September 1939.  After that, there is nothing.

The Holocaust hangs like a malignant smog over Poland.  Of the six million Jewish people killed in Europe, three million were Polish. The death camps were almost all in Poland: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno. Lublin's closest camp was Majdanek.  At the start of the war, the city had 120,000 citizens, of whom 43,000 were Jewish.  Almost all of them were killed.

A few days earlier, I had visited the extraordinary Jewish Museum in Warsaw, called POLIN.  In a very different way from the Grodzka Gate, this is also a theatrical experience.  There are actually very few objects in this museum.  Rather, there are spaces to experience, stories to probe, projected imagery and concealed nuggets of text.  There is a reconstructed wooden synagogue of the 18th century, a little cinema screening Yiddish films of the 1920s, a reconstructed Warsaw street.  And, of course, towards the end there is the horrific material on the Holocaust.  In a narrow but high metal tank with rusted walls, there are graphic photos and accounts, on a very intimate scale, of the act of killing.

I found these exhibits almost unbearable - even more than at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.   Much of this emotional power derives from the long and detailed narrative that precedes the Holocaust section.  As POLIN's website explains: "We present 1000 years of Polish-Jewish coexistence, speaking of cooperation, rivalry and conflicts, autonomy, integration and assimilation. While seeking to confront thorny issues, we also bring attention to bright chapters in our common history."  The Jewish presence in Poland has been huge, ever since the early Middle Ages. POLIN makes much of the tolerance initiated by BolesÅ‚aw III in the early 12th century, and his recognition of the economic advantages that would be brought by Jewish migrations into Poland.  The history is not always one of harmony, but it is one of cultural co-operation - what the EU would call "integration", as opposed to "assimilation".  The Jews remained Jewish and the Christians Christian - but they lived complementary lives.  In the early years of the Second Polish Republic, the centenary of which is being marked this year, the Jewish population was hopeful for a productive intercultural future.  "Fate has joined us with the Polish people for good", wrote Sholem Asch in his 1928 book Haynt (Today), "and our wishes and hopes belong to both nations, to one road, to a common bright future."

Both museums, in very different ways, offer narratives of hope, of peaceful coexistence, of cross-cultural understanding.  Above all, they bear witness to the horror that results from the dehumanising rhetoric of racism.  Why then, I found myself asking, has Poland moved so far to the political right in recent years?  Why has it become so notably intolerant of ethnic and cultural difference?  Why has the arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe triggered such consternation there, seeing the rise of a home-grown fascism?

There are no easy answers to this, of course - but I do wonder whether the pressing need to bear witness to the Shoah might not have had an unintended consequence in shifting the narrative.  Emphasising Polish history as an exemplar of tolerance through its Jewish past might serve to suggest a particularly deep relationship between a Polish society largely defined by its Catholicism, and a Jewish society also defined by a religion which shares many of the same scriptural roots.  The profound horror of the Polish experience under Nazi occupation might lead to a very understandable reluctance to criticise the state of Israel, with its foundation myth so rooted in the Shoah.  If modern Poland (and other countries in modern Europe) remains traumatised by the events of the early 1940s, then that may be one reason for the deep suspicion displayed towards Islamic cultures and people.  The Israeli state has a tendency to cast itself as a victim of Islamic aggression, and terror attacks by Islamist groups have helped feed the idea of a Judeo-Christian Euro-American world under assault from this inimical "Other".  A society that defines itself by its Catholic religion and its history of coexistence with Jewish people is very likely to be suspicious of Muslim migrations.

The witness that is borne to the Shoah is essential, of course - and so is the narrative of Polish and Jewish coexistence.  But we need to look for other narratives too.  Perhaps we need to bear witness to the remarkable policies of religious and cultural multiplicity practised under the Ottoman Empire.  Perhaps we need to revisit the dynamic and vibrant culture of Moorish Spain, where Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars and artists engaged in profound and productive cultural exchange.

Museums, theatres...  we have work to do.