Review: Irena Grudzinska Gross on Europe‘s ”Ghost Citizens”

Yad Vashem Photo Archive, Jerusalem, FA76/102. From Ghost Citizens: Jewish Return to a Postwar City

For millions of European survivors of World War II, for the displaced, imprisoned, expelled, and exiled, 1945 was the year of homecoming. For many, though, their home was not there to return to, or not as it had been. Entire cities were destroyed, their factories and bridges, and with them houses and apartment buildings. If one’s house was still standing, it might be occupied by new inhabitants, using the pillows and silverware, looking out through freshly washed windows. The previous occupants were expected to be absent forever, especially if they were Jewish. Some did return and they were not welcome.

How dangerous such returns could be is illustrated in an excellent 2017 Hungarian movie, 1945. Directed by Ferenc Török, with sets designed by the late László Rajk, the film shows the alarm and commotion in a Hungarian village caused by the visit of two Jewish survivors of Auschwitz—not a crowd, not a population, just two defenseless individuals. Their sudden and unanticipated appearance transforms the village’s formerly Jewish houses and their contents into evidence of theft, collaboration, even murder. The return mobilizes the inhabitants into a state of pogrom readiness. The village is determined: no survivor may dare to reclaim property.

A homecoming to no home is also the subject of Łukasz Krzyżanowski’s book Ghost Citizens: Jewish Return to a Postwar City. The author, a Polish historian, grew up in the middle-sized Polish town of Radom, and he uses his town’s story to unearth evidence of the postwar return of Jewish survivors, few as they were. He was drawn to the subject when he came across some notes made by a student doing field research in southeastern Poland. A Jewish mother and her daughter, at the end of the war, came out of hiding and returned to their home; they were raped and murdered by their neighbors. The laconic mention in the records—no names of victims or perpetrators—was all that remains of that tragedy. Well written and beautifully translated by Madeline Levine, Krzyżanowski’s study is a kind of monument to these two women.

The book is illustrated by telling photographs, two of them resembling monuments themselves. The first (above) shows a standing, stocky woman, looking in amazement at a dress she has just put on. She is barefoot, a pair of shoes on the ground waits to be tried on. Behind her we see some furniture and another woman who seems to be hunting through piles of household items. It is 1942 in Radom, and the scene is of the looting of Jewish property after the inhabitants of the Radom ghetto had been deported to the Treblinka death camp. The other photograph is on the cover of the book: a lonely man in an ill-fitting overcoat stands forlornly over a ditch. The land around him is flat and empty, desolate as the man seems to be. That photograph is from 1945. It is a photograph of a returnee.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Sam and Manya Lipshitz fonds 2003-061/011 (01). From Ghost Citizens: Jewish Return to a Postwar City

Both photographs illustrate the despoiling characteristic of wartime. The first shows a scene of abundance, the second, a wasteland, in fact a former cemetery, from which all the Jewish tombstones have been removed; the stones had been used as building materials. No sign indicates that under the surface lie Jewish remains. When an unknown assailant shot one of Radom’s Jewish returnees in the back of his head, he was buried there under a new tombstone; that monument was destroyed the day after the funeral. This time we know the name of the victim—Ludwik Gutsztadt—and we can read his story in Krzyżanowski’s book, but the names of his persecutors remain unknown. 

The leveling of the cemetery was part of an effort to seal the past expulsion: the living were to be erased together with their dead. Krzyżanowski carefully follows all the returnees he could find as they valiantly look for traces of their families and their community. He embeds their stories in a well-told history of the period. Radom then belonged to the district of Kielce, a city in which over forty Jewish Holocaust survivors were killed in a 1946 pogrom. That pogrom made clear that the hostility toward Jews was not only a matter of grabbing Jewish property, of occupying of their homes and places of work. The local population was determined not to have any Jews back. Most of the Jews of Poland did not survive the war, but that hostility did.

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The scale of anti-Jewish hostility is one of the topics of David Nasaw’s fascinating new book devoted to the last million displaced East and West Europeans who, after the war, found themselves in defeated Germany and decided not to return home. Initially, Jews comprised only a small part of this number, under thirty thousand. They were the only category that in 1946 started to grow. It was their reception in Poland that forced their escape into the American occupation zone in Germany, the country of their murderers. Nasaw writes that Polish Jews who survived in hiding or returned from their harsh exile in the Soviet Union met in Poland with “pogroms, the beatings, the shootings in the street [that] were not ordered or directed from above. The violence against the Jews was homegrown, endemic, and encouraged by popular support. It was not carried out in the middle of the night, but often in broad daylight, in public view. Local officials could not halt the violence even had they tried to, which they rarely did.” The entire country refused to be their homeland.

If Nasaw were a scholar in Poland, he would have to think twice before trying to publish such sentences. The nationalistic government is very attentive to the ways writers, journalists, filmmakers and, especially, historians approach the fate of Polish Jews during World War II, scrutinizing them under laws “defending the dignity of Poland” and investing public effort and funds in in programs, textbooks, and research institutions that promote a vision of friendly, blameless Poles risking their lives to protect persecuted Jews. These two kinds of pressure produce a public hostile to critical analysis of Poland’s history and a trickle of trials punishing historians who tell the truth, such as this recent ruling. More trials are on the way.

Krzyżanowski does in his study mention cases of successful returns and describes one of them. It is the story of the lucky shoemaker Bajnysz Kamer, his wife, and his two shoemaker sons. Kamer was a prewar communist who, when the Germans invaded Poland, escaped with his family to Lviv (formerly Polish Lwów, then occupied by the Soviets, then by the Germans, and in the end by the Soviets for good). Deported deep into the USSR, Kamer spent fourteen months in forced labor. Freed but still in his place of Soviet exile, he met fellow deportees: Polish poet Aleksander Wat and his wife, Ola. Both Wats remembered the courageous Kamers defending their Polish nationality against the forcible “passportization” by the Soviet authorities. “He was something out of a ballad, that Kamer,” wrote Wat, “an old communist with an excellent political mind.” The Kamer family survived and returned to Radom in 1946. Bajnysz was politically active for some time, but he did not fit in with the new Communist regime in Poland. We can see him in Krzyżanowski’s book in two of the pictures, one in Kazakhstan and another in Radom in 1950. His imposing figure is visible among the people present at the unveiling of a monument commemorating the Radom victims of the Holocaust. The monument, placed where the town’s main synagogue once stood, depicts a young woman with five Jewish gravestones at her feet. In contrast to the figure standing on the destroyed cemetery, she is looking up and raising her fist; her other hand is also curled into a fist. Perhaps it was a sign of defiance, but the 1950 unveiling marked the last time the Jews of Radom appeared as a group. Already then, though still visible in photographs, they were ghost citizens.

Irena Grudzińska Gross is a scholar and the author and editor of numerous books about East-Central European history and literature, most recently Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust with Jan T. Gross. She was responsible for the East-Central European Program at the Ford Foundation from 1998 to 2003. She is at work on a biography of Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski (1901-1964), an Austrian-Jewish physicist, political prisoner, writer, businessman, communist, then anti-communist, and gambler.

Book Notes
When one thinks of what the last year has been like for the elementary school student, the job of the school librarian, so often a by-definition quiet person working in the background, suddenly comes to seem like a St. Bernard coming to the rescue up a struggling mountainside through an alpine blizzard. Middle School librarian Laura Winnick wrote in Publishers Weekly in July that, as her district was closing, “I frantically took books off of shelves and shoved them into my students’ arms, explaining, ‘You can take out six books now!,’” and was left wondering, “Can the spirit of a library exist beyond its vessel? Can I be a librarian without a library?” A February 25 report in EdTech magazine reviewed several surveys of how school librarians had weathered the pandemic. One Texas librarian told a School Library Journal survey that her job had become “almost exclusively tech support for parents and students having connectivity and/or device issues”—in other words, at the nerve center of the moment’s defining educational crisis. The survey found many librarians initially worried for their jobs, with schools turning all their resources to covering the essentials, but only 7 percent saw their employment impacted.

36.7 percent of libraries surveyed by SLJ were in schools that were open to some degree and allowed a limited number of students into their libraries a time. Some schools created curbside delivery and drive-through book pickup. Others devoted themselves to developing digital reading lists, scrambling to create and share “virtual libraries” with students and among themselves. Those operating in person had to learn about sanitizing their collections and managing traffic patterns and usage. They also saw part of their work as nurturing community in their schools and addressing students’ feelings of isolation and stress, as SLJ put it, “keep students feeling seen and wanting to read.” Erin Hughes of Rockingham County High School in Wentworth, NC, for instance, created “blind-date-with-a-book drive-thru day.” (Librarian Brian Kenney has mentioned how surprised he has been by the popularity of his library’s curbside pickup program as a point of human connection. His library has allowed families to reserve the children’s section one at a time.) Many use YouTube to create on-demand read-alouds. One third said that even as they were transforming their jobs and collections their budgets had been reduced.

In the latest installment of their Publishers’ Weekly’sLive from the Library Lounge” series, of which I am becoming a superfan, editor Andrew Richard Albanese spoke with four librarians (one of them the abovementioned Brian Kenney) and an epidemiologist about where they were one year in. Three of the four libraries are now closed to visitors (motto: “The building may be closed but the library is open!”), an approach endorsed by the visiting epidemiologist, Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia, who set a bearish threshold on reopening public services at five hundred cases daily nationwide (at the time of recording the daily US case rate was fifty thousand). The three librarians with closed libraries spoke of expanding digital capabilities and telephone service and curbside options and delivering more than books—sometimes print-on-demand, sometimes 3-D print on demand!, sometimes vital information about public health and available services—to patrons. They also used their parking lots to provide wifi and vaccinations and food distribution and telehealth services, even a seed library for nascent gardeners. The fourth librarian, however, Joslyn Bowling Dixon of the Newark Public Libary, said she “did not have that luxury.” Patrons in her libraries—less wealthy, less likely to have access to computers and spaces for study—needed a public space and access to physical resources, and she needed to provide tangible services to her community as a political reality in a time of budget scarcity. She observed that there is a wide range of readiness to open safely in different locales, and her community has absorbed a lot of lessons. She said public institutions need to ask themselves, “How can you be part of the solution? Can you be of service in a different way? It comes down to being relevant.” The group closed by looking to a future in which libraries will be a central part of public planning for crisis response; calling for vaccination of librarians as frontline workers; and, above all, for a national commitment to universal broadband. Said Annie Norman, Director of the Delaware libraries, “It should be a right, like a utility.”

Speaking of broadband and rights, the Colorado nonprofit High Country News recently covered a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on broadband in tribal areas, arguing that “a lack of internet connectivity has long contributed to systemic inequalities in Indian Country.” As an example of tribes’ struggles to achieve connectivity, the report sites Mohawk Networks, a new internet service provider that required a decade of planning and fundraising and years to string the seventy miles of fiber throughout the remote community. The report’s author H. Rose Trostle observes that the FCC’s auctioned licenses often go to large corporations and do not prioritize the rural communities that are home to many tribal Americans. When the FCC created a “Rural Tribal Priority Window” a year ago to address this inequity, the first opportunity of its kind, over four hundred applications were submitted. “By owning and operating essential resources for internal infrastructure such as spectrum—the radio frequencies that wireless signals use to travel—Indigenous communities have the opportunity to boost local economies and keep their power and data,” wrote the High Country Times. Lack of access to telehealth and online learning, opportunities for tribal council meetings to gather virtually to address the crisis, and capacity to work remotely aggravated the effects of disconnection on tribal communities during the pandemic.

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