- "What! Still Alive?!": Jewish Survivors in Poland and Israel Remember Homecoming by Monika Rice
At war's end, traumatized, bewildered, and often alone, Jewish survivors faced the prospect of restarting their lives. Many who had not the means or yet the desire to settle in other lands found themselves on Polish soil. What sort of reception awaited them upon return, and what obstacles would they face in the months and years to come? Most importantly for the author of this perceptive and closely argued work, would they find words to describe what they had experienced during the war's unsettling aftermath? Might changes in setting and circumstance influence how they recalled and communicated what they knew?
Their initial homecoming, we learn, often entailed uncertainty and peril. In addition to having to confront the shattering loss of all that was precious to them, Jewish survivors were [End Page 119] compelled to maneuver within the damaged landscape of a battered society and a devastated nation. After German occupation ceded to Soviet rule, bitterness, enhanced by years of physical deprivation and ongoing scarcity, moved many among the broader population to express and act on grievances. All too readily these grievances were directed at Jews unexpectedly reappearing after long absences. Timeworn prejudices resurfaced. Blood libels were revived and pogroms sporadically flared. Armed groups targeted Jews traveling within the country. It was especially dangerous for Jewish passengers to ride the trains. Finding a measure of safety in numbers, survivors gravitated toward urban centers such as Lublin and Łódź, where the newly organizing Jewish community gathered, hoping still to rebuild their lives. But antisemitic violence erupted even in the cities, most notably Kraków in 1945 and Kielce the following year. By then, for many the promise of a new life in postwar Poland had proven illusory, and under the impact of such assaults Jews in massive numbers abandoned their former land to settle abroad.
Many arrived in what would become the new state of Israel. Here, at a moment of second homecoming, they met an altogether different kind of reception, welcoming on the whole, and free of ethnic stigma and the menacing hostility in a Europe torn by war, genocide, and their aftereffects. And yet, at a time when in Israel a common narrative of resistance struck the deepest chord, non-heroic survival too easily called to mind invidious stereotypes of the meek and helpless. At last, some of their new compatriots assumed, the survivors would shed humiliation and disappointed hopes of finding acceptance in exile, and instead find their place in a new land of promise. For their part, when asked to speak of their former lives and ordeals, the survivors might yet have hoped to find an audience receptive to their accounts of their own individual experiences. Now that their journey was ended, what in fact would the newcomers say, and what might they hesitate to reveal?
Attending with empathy to the testimony of survivors whose lives were so cruelly upended, the author has chosen to study the traces of memory discernable in the words and images with which the survivors constructed their narratives. The centerpiece of this careful study lies in a perceptive comparison of two interrelated collections of testimonies. The first, originating in Poland, consisted of survivor narratives elicited from 1944 to 1950 under the initial guidance of the Central Jewish Historical Commission (CŻKH), an institution whose scholars devotedly gathered and preserved firsthand accounts of the recent tragedy. The second collection is the product of the diligent efforts of the Department for the Collection of Testimonies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, assembled primarily during the years 1955 to 1970 and extending the foundational efforts of the CŻKH. It is a virtue of the author's approach to have immersed herself in both sets of oral documentation with an eye to discovering the ways in which recorded narratives, considered as markers of individual and of collective memory, registered the effects of transfer from one historical...