Building Bridges: Polish-Jewish Perspectives

Krakow Post: You have been building bridges between Poland and the Jewish diaspora for many years now. Yet technically you are a professor of medicine, and this is all an extra-curricular venture. What do you find most rewarding about this work?

Aleksander Skotnicki: As a physician, and a professor at the Medical Faculty of the Jagiellonian University, I am basically a scientist, and scientific work depends on the collection of different facts and arguments. Finding out what is common in the Polish-Jewish relationship became my hobby, if you like.

At the same time, my patron, Professor Julian Aleksandrowicz, had Jewish roots, and I am his successor. So to some extent it’s my duty to continue his work, because he suffered so much from the German occupation, and from generally being of Jewish origin. He suffered even after the war, not so much from the Polish side, but for many political reasons. So I wanted to defend him a little bit, and to discover his attitude towards Poles. He considered himself a Polish Jew, but he was more pro-Polish than many other people who might be described as clear-cut Poles. He was a Polish and Cracovian patriot.

So anyway, in continuing his work, not just in the medical field, but also through social activity, it became very rewarding to discover new people, to find new families, some of whom had perished, and some of whom were saved, including by Oskar Schindler and others. I am in contact with many Holocaust survivors in Krakow, Israel and America. I find that keeping in contact with them and describing their histories is deeply satisfying and rewarding. I have organised many photographic exhibitions in Krakow over the last ten years – in Kupa Synagogue, the High Synagogue, the Palace of Art, the International Cultural Centre and elsewhere. I publish the histories of specific families in booklet form, each usually with about one hundred pages and with two to three hundred pictures. These are personal histories, but also histories of Krakow. I am a Cracovian, so to some extent I’m doing something for my town.

And building bridges is always better than finding out what sets people apart. These Holocaust survivors are wonderful people – they’re my friends now. They speak very good Polish. They grew up on Polish history and literature. They are very fond of Piłsudski, who restored the Polish state after 120 years of partition. And so if they are still such wonderful patriots until today, after living in America or Israel for the last sixty years, I feel that I should be – perhaps not more – but at least at their level of patriotism.

And it became my passion, or hobby if you like. I am preparing the histories of the next twenty or thirty families. I have collected the documents. I’m working very quickly . Because I know that my own life will probably not be long enough to publish all the data that I have collected over the last few years. But anyway, every year I try to publish 3 to 5 booklets. And I know that some of my contacts are very impatient, because they are 85 or 90 years-old. So I cannot really relax, because to some extent I am under pressure from their expectations, because I promised that I would go ahead, and they have already seen another family documented. They say: “When will you publish my family, Professor?!” So I’m in a little bit of a difficult position, but I will do my best to fulfill their expectations.

KP: An English travel writer from the 1930s described the “picturesque” Jews of Galicia with their long black locks and robes. She was referring of course to the Orthodox community. But as you’ve already alluded to, there was also an important class of assimilated Jews: lawyers, professors, doctors, writers, artists – even the last pre-war mayor, Mieczysław Kaplicki was of Jewish background.

AS: It’s a very important issue – making people aware of how the Jewish community, especially in Krakow, was so assimilated. They became active members of the local community. They accounted for maybe 70 percent of lawyers, 60 percent of doctors, they were teachers in Polish schools (as well as in Jewish schools), professors at the Jagiellonian University, businessmen, bankers, architects, poets, journalists. So they created a sort of intellectual elite in Krakow. And for many of them, it was very important, if not to escape, but to distance themselves a bit from the orthodox jewish district of Kazimierz. Because they realised that to be a modern European here, you should speak Polish, because that was the key to intellectual life. They were educated – they spoke several languages. The more assimilated they became, the greater role they could play in the local community. And many of them had the ambition to do so. They often changed their place of residence from Kazimierz, even moving onto the Main Market Square.

KP: A little earlier, you mentioned Poland’s pre-war leader, Jozef Piłsudski. The Jews of Poland wept with the rest of the country when he died in 1935. They felt that he was a buffer against the extremists, who were on the rise in Poland and across much of Europe. It seems that the Jews were right to feel a sense of foreboding, as up until the breakout of war, matters did deteriorate.

AS: To some extent, those extremists took power across Europe. And of course, there was an economic crisis, and when there is a crisis, people always look for someone to point the finger at, and they say that it’s the Jews. And certainly, the relationship did deteriorate during that time. But many people, including Jews such as Marek Edelman , said that pre-war Polish anti-semitism, well, firstly it was not everywhere, although of course there was a very noisy element of it. But even that very vocal element had nothing to do with Nazi extremism – nobody was killed and so on.

I’m continuing to discover that Polish-Jewish coexistence, especially in Krakow, was very peaceful until the end of the 1930s. Many members of the city council were of Jewish origin. Vice President Jozef Sare was in office for some twenty-five years. That’s a remarkable period of time! General Mond, the chief of the garrison here, was also of Jewish origin. Archbishop Sapieha was undeniably Christian. But of the three key figures in pre-war Krakow, two of them were of Jewish background – General Mond and Mayor Kaplicki. So I must say, I find it heartening that this coexistence was peaceful. I have got to know many Jewish families that lived outside Kazimierz – on the Market Square, on Łobzowka, on Krupnicza. And my very good friend Lucia Uszanowska, who lived on Krupnicza Street, and who now lives in Tel Aviv, said that she lived so peacefully with her Polish neighbours, that she dreams that in Israel today, Jews and Palestinians could coexist as harmoniously.

Many wealthy Jewish families employed Polish servants – girls from villages. These familes celebrated Christmas, they took their children to church on Sundays. They were even closer to Polish hymns and songs than they were to Yiddish traditions. In one particular school I know of, there were Polish and Jewish girls. They got on well, and their families were close. They were united. And when the war started, some of those Jewish girls were supposed to go to the Ghetto, and their Polish friends said, don’t go there – stay with us. And in some instances they stayed in Polish houses, and pretended to be cousins. I have heard many such stories. So all this has evoked a certain atmosphere for me.

Apart from the obvious economic anti-semitism, which was to some extent predictable – as people are competitive – people were close to each other during that time. Although of course, generally speaking, orthodox Jewish society was set apart from its Polish neighbours.

KP: But there were also some sad tendencies. There were the Jewish ghetto benches in the universities, such as in Krakow and Lwow. There are accounts of Jewish students being beaten. Do you put that down to just extremists?

AS: Of course I know all about that. But as I said, my outlook is based on the stories I have heard from about 100 Jewish families, who told me how life was for them in pre-war Krakow. Most of them, as I said, were wealthy, they might even have had two or three buildings in the centre of town. They spent their summer holidays in the Polish mountains; in Zawoja, in Rabka. I collect wonderful pictures of all this. I look at their stories, their pictures, and what they remember from pre-war times. They were well-educated, they had healthy and joyful childhoods.

It’s worth remembering that there was even competition between Jewish groups, more or less orthodox. Even on Dietla street, which had a strip of greenery running down it, we find that pupils from two different Jewish schools, the Hebrew Secondary School and the Orthodox School, fought each other in broad daylight. Then their was the Maccabee Jewish Sports Club. And yet there were also many Jews playing for Cracovia. So there were different kinds of rivalries, attitudes to religion, to modernisation.

All Jewish holidays were celebrated in Krakow. There were processions with music through Dietla Street. Everybody watched. Nathan Gross wrote wonderful descriptions of all this. Nobody stopped anyone going to the synagogues on the Sabbath. If you look at a pre-war directory, there are about 100 different Jewish associations in Krakow. They supported each other. They received donations from the Polish government. The Polish-Jewish Combatants Association was given tax relief.

So if we are talking about pre-war anti-semitism, we have to realise that it was marginal. Secondly, the strand that was anti-semitic was very vocal. People who are looking for antagonism point towards this noisy strand of anti-semitism to reinforce their arguments, saying that it was thus easy to carry out the Holocaust, based on existing Polish anti-semitism.

But if you look from the other side, what Polish Jews continue to tell me is that they did not really suffer from pre-war anti-semitism. During the war, of course – and this was even from the Polish side to a degree. But coming back before 1939, my feeling is that it was more of an economic antagonism, a bit of political anti-semitism as well. But if you’re going into more and more detail – which I am trying to do – you find that this part of society was actually doing quite well in general terms. They took part in normal life, they went to the theatre, to the cinema, they had very good journals – published in Polish. The whole of Dietla Street was occupied by wealthy jews. Is this a sign of terror? Not at all.

KP: Jan Gross’s recent book Fear documented outbursts of violent anti-semitism in Poland immediately after the war, such as the Kielce pogrom, in which 42 Jews were killed. Do you think that this is a balanced book?

AS: You see, I could accept it here. But I am worried that such a book is very widely publicized in America. And if it is the only source of information for a reader about Poland and Jews, then of course, people will say: “Ah, everybody was eating Jews for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

It’s a very one-sided narrative. Some Poles were szmalcownicy (blackmailers). And some were heros. Most were neutral. One side of the coin is never the entire truth. What he says is true. But it is not the whole picture of the situation.

I was recently in Kielce with Bogdan Białek, a psychologist from Krakow who did a wonderful job in expanding the memory of what happened in 1946. Marek Edelman said he would never go to Kielce because of the pogrom. But eventually he came, and he said he was very happy to have done so. Bogdan Białek changed the picture of Kielce, by remembering the pogrom, by rebuilding the synagogue and so on. Jan Gross does not describe this situation, and he is not building bridges.

What we are trying to do is to tell youngsters from Israel that their story didn’t start in 1948 when Israel was created. The story of their families, of which they could be – indeed should be – proud, stretches back several centuries, involving the building of one shared country. Why deprive them of this long history? Why only say that your parents were born where all Poles were anti-semitic, and, along with the Germans, they killed all your cousins?

KP: During the war, the Polish government-in-exile eventually backed Źegota, an official branch of the underground, devoted to saving Jews. Your grandmother, Anna Sokołowska, sheltered several Jews during the war, and she paid for this with her life. It was standard practise for Nazis to shoot entire families of good samaritans.

AS: You see it was very difficult to save one person. These 6000 Polish people recognised by Yad Vashem as the righteous amongst nations – and Poland has the greatest portion of righteous gentiles – they really are heros. Because to hide a person, not for one day, but for weeks, months, even years sometimes, was an incredible achievement. They were like soldiers on the front. Even more so. Because on the front, you have weapons, you have orders, you have leaders. And these people had nobody. They lived under daily threat of death, together with their families. I’m very pleased that the Polish state has recognised these saviours, and given them the rights of veterans. It’s very important.

Countering the argument that all Poles were anti-semitic. Probably in every community, out of 100 people, 20 were anti-semitic, 20 percent very heroic, helping in different ways, and probably 60 were neutral. I could be ashamed that 60 percent were neutral, but it is understandable, considering the terror and the poverty.

The Polish-government-in-exile sponsored Źegota, and spent milllions of zloties. Thanks to Karski, thanks to Sikorski and others, they created the only such government-sponsored organisation in Europe. But many others not connected to Źegota received no money like that at all – they simply did it for their neighbours. My grandmother was just a teacher in a secondary school in Nowy Sącz. She was a very patriotic person, and she taught the concept of helping other people. So although she was already almost retired (she was sixty-five), she tried to help her former Jewish pupils, hiding them amongst the children of peasants in villages. She also used to go the ghetto, bringing food, clothes and medicine. She warned them about the liquidation. Some of them escaped. One lady was pregnant and delivered her daughter in the forests. I later found one family, and they informed Yad Vashem that my grandmother did what she did, and ultimately a tree was set up in Yad Vashem.

My family’s situation is nothing exceptional though. It happened much more than Yad Vashem has recognised. Because many saviours were killed together with those that they helped. Today, you need a signature of a person who was saved to ensure recognition. It’s not easy. Many of the righteous do not think a reward is necessary – they believe that they simply did what was necessary. Some people were afraid of talking about it, because people might have said they were simply paid by Jews. And of course, those that helped Jews created danger for their neighbours. Sometimes whole villages were burnt, because one family hid some Jews. So people didn’t want to tell neighbours. The whole terror of war is hard to comprehend – the psychology.

The danger for those hiding Jews could come from German, Polish as well as Jewish sources. Because there were Jewish spies as well. They were sent outside the Ghetto by the Nazis, and had to bring daily contingents of five Jews who were in hiding on the Aryan side.

KP: It seems that some aspects of shared Polish-Jewish history have been forgotten. It has been estimated that 7% of the elite exterminated in the Katyń crime were of Jewish background, including Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, Baruch Steinberg. Likewise thousands fought for Poland in the September campaign of 39. Whilst many of those rescued from Russian camps stayed in Palestine, many fought with General Anders to the end, as the gravestones at Monte Cassino testify.

AS: Absolutely, in Katyń alone, 475 Jewish reserve soldiers were killed. Mainly physicians. The war in its entirety was also a great disaster for Polish medicine. So many physicians were killed. If you take into consideration that in pre-war Krakow, 60 percent of physicians were of Jewish origin, and one of the first Nazi orders was that Jewish doctors cannot treat Poles – imagine, suddenly, half of the physicians who are taking care of society cannot help. So the medical service dropped by about 50 percent. And then many were sent to Belzec and other concentration camps.

Going back to Katyń, there were chemists, engineers and others. So again, the Polish-Jewish elite. You’re very right. It was a shared destiny. We were together. As Israeli ambassador Shewach Weiss said. “We were on the same train going to Auschwitz.” Jews of course to a much greater extent. But as you know, the first inmates of Auschwitz were a group of Poles from Tarnow. There was a shared destiny. In fact, there were many marriages between Poles and Jews. It was a very common situation. Impoverished noblemen often married the daughters of wealthy Jewish families.

KP: Like Krystyna Skarbek‘s father.

AS: There are many such examples.

KP: The Festival of Jewish Culture is now entering its 20th incarnation. When Rafal Scharf opened the Jewish Cultural Centre on Meiselsa in 1993, he said he hoped that this would be a beacon of reconciliation. Do you feel positive about the last 20 years since the fall of communism?

AS: Absolutely. There has been a renaissance of interest. This history was not described in detail over the last forty or fifty years, due to many reasons.

During the war, the Nazis wanted to kill all Jews. And afterwards a one-nation country was created here in Poland. But this did not give rise to good cooperation with other nations, because you were not faced with them.

And now we are beyond the stereotypes that Jewish or German Poles were positive or negative. And again, with the story of Oskar Schindler, we are escaping from the stereotype that all Germans were bad. If somebody saved 1000 of my fellow citizens, I am very grateful to him. It’s important to create an atmosphere of gratitude. We are creating a museum now in the Schindler Factory, we are writing books. I’m just one of many people in Krakow doing such work. There’s a good atmosphere. We are trying to find out the truth, which is what’s most important. As a professor of Medicine, I’m always trying to find out why people are suffering from leukemia. I am also trying to find out why people behaved as they did in the past.

What we are trying to do is to show that Hitler did not win completely. And we are trying to rebuild this history together. So I think it’s positive to show that we were members of one big multicultural nation, and this persists,
and to find something that is common and positive in this cooperation for future generations. The Jagiellonian University is very pro this attitude. And now people are coming to study from many different countries, like it was in Medieval times, when the university here attracted people from neighbouring countries. We built this multicultural society, and this is wonderful.

4 thoughts on “Building Bridges: Polish-Jewish Perspectives

  • April 26, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    As a direct descendent of one of the four Lerner families in Krakow (first mentioned in 1775),
    I’m waiting to meet you in Tel Aviv on the 30th of May.

  • January 5, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    As a retired physician, deeply involved in genealogy, I’ve discovered a connection between my father’s family in Stanislawow, Poland and the Lax family in Krakow. You have profiled Ryszard Lax in one of your books and I would like to know more about him. Please contact me at this email address.

    Thank you

  • November 29, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    I am the daughter of Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman. I live in Canada. I would like to contact Aleksander Skotnicki. We met once, through my mother, in Montreal. Would whoever receives this e-mail please put me in touch with him?

    • December 30, 2014 at 2:55 pm

      A comlete waist of time. Professor Aleksander Skotnicki is not responding to our comments or requests.


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