- Beyond Violence: Jewish Survivors in Poland and Slovakia, 1944−1948 by Anna Cichopek-Gajraj
A number of recent works documenting the postwar return of Jews to their homes have shaped understandings of antisemitic violence and more quotidian hostility in Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II. In Beyond Violence, Anna Cichopek-Gajraj [End Page 545] focuses our attention away from the well-known episodes and onto the everyday encounters awaiting survivors in Poland and Slovakia.1 At the center of the book lies the dynamic relationships among the survivors, their Gentile neighbors, and the new state authorities, a perspective that highlights the broader social, political, and economic contexts of return. By focusing on survivors’ efforts to reconstruct their lives, Cichopek-Gajraj brings a much-needed corrective to existing scholarship that emphasizes antisemitism and the virtual inevitability of a Jewish exodus from Poland and Slovakia. As she shows, while large numbers of Jews did leave Poland and Slovakia in the immediate aftermath of the war, it was not until the consolidation of Communist rule in 1948 that many more gave up and left. Poland and Slovakia presented Jews with very different circumstances (both before and after the war), and yet the Holocaust—especially the plundering and redistribution of Jewish property among local populations—as well as the difficulty of postwar conditions more generally, complicated Jewish readjustment in both.
Cichopek-Gajraj reminds readers of the broader, unprecedented human and material devastation caused by the war, as well as of the violence and destitution experienced by Gentiles and Jews alike. This key element framed survivors’ return, but figures insufficiently in the scholarship. Tens of millions were uprooted; in Eastern Europe the war’s end brought massive ethnic cleansing; Communist political repressions got underway; and in parts of Poland and elsewhere civil war reigned. It was a time of intense social anxiety: as Cichopek-Gajraj puts it, people were trying “to return to ‘normality’ in deeply ‘abnormal’ times” (p. 27).
The theme of devastation as experienced by Jewish survivors—material hardship, psychological trauma, physical illness, loss of family, the absence of community—features in the book’s first chapter. Cichopek-Gajraj shows Jews returning to familiar places to learn that they were the only survivors of their family or even community, and that non-Jewish neighbors had moved into their homes. Personal testimonies show readers that the absence of home in both the physical and “figurative (family) sense became the greatest disappointment and disruption of their return. It added to the trauma of the war and [deepened] the survivors’ sense of alienation from their old hometowns and homelands. Postwar homecoming truly became an ‘impossible project’” (p. 45).
The following two chapters consider a topic at the heart of relations between Jews and non-Jews: property. In Poland and Slovakia the theft or redistribution of formerly Jewish-owned property constituted “one of the largest social revolutions of the Second World War” (p. 64). This plunder implicated substantial numbers of local Gentiles in the Holocaust. In Slovakia, Cichopek-Gajraj tells us, contemporary observers estimated that 70 percent of the non-Jewish population had benefited directly or indirectly from the “spoliation of the Jews” (p. 93). The new “owners” were not eager to return property they had acquired. In both countries, the number of survivors was small, and few were ready to pursue the return of their homes or belongings: it was dangerous for lone Jews to challenge the new situations, while the [End Page 546] new (and sometimes old) authorities were content to let the new arrangements stand. Rather than ascribing to greed and feelings of culpability alone the hostility that Jews’ return evoked, however, Cichopek-Gajraj argues that widespread poverty made anxieties over the acquired property run so high. The destruction of Jewish life had been so sweeping that no one ever expected to return the property, and, as the author observes, they correctly judged the situation.
Cichopek-Gajraj’s deeply contextualized analysis reveals that, as in the rest of former Nazi...