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Poland and Hungary: Jewish Realities Compared
Last uploaded : Saturday 16th Feb 2019 at 13:29
Contributed by : Professor Antony Polonsky


Poland and Hungary: Jewish Realities Compared

Conference Report by Professor Antony Polonsky

On 29 January 2019, an all-day conference attended by over 100 people was held to launch volume 31 of Polin: Studies of Polish Jewry, edited by François Guesnet, Howard Lupovich and Antony Polonsky, which has as its theme ‘Poland and Hungary: Jewish realities compared’. At the beginning of the twentieth century, these two communities were the largest in Europe and among the most culturally vibrant, yet they have rarely been studied comparatively. Despite the obvious similarities, historians have preferred to highlight their differences and emphasize instead the central European character of Hungarian Jewry. The volume, which is dedicated to the late Richard Pipes, distinguished Professor of Russian History at Harvard, is divided into five sections. The first compares the processes of Jewish acculturation and integration in the two countries, analyzing the magnate-Jewish symbiosis and the complexity of integration in multi-ethic environments. The second analyzes the similarities and differences in Jewish religious life, discussing the impact of Polish hasidism in Hungary and the nature of ‘progressive’ and Neolog Judaism. The Jewish role in popular culture is the theme of the third section, with accounts of the Jewish involvement in Polish and Hungarian cabaret and film. The fourth section examines the deterioration of the situation of the Jews in both countries in the interwar years, while the final section compares the implementation of the Holocaust in the two countries and the way it is remembered. The volume concludes with a long interview with the doyen of the historians of Hungary, Istvan Deák.
After welcoming speeches by H.E. Arkady Rzegocki, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland, Vivian Wineman, President of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies and Sir Ben Helfgott, its President, the first session took the form on exchange between two of the editors of the volume, Howard Lupovich of Wayne State University and Antony Polonsky, Chief Historian of the POLIN Museum, which examined the main themes of the volume. This was followed by a session exploring the potential of historical comparison between the two communities. Victor Karady of the Central European University discussed the ‘logic of nationalization’, examining how Jewish identification with the Magyar national idea facilitated Jewish integration in Hungary and why this process was less successful in the Polish lands, which remained under foreign rule until 1918. Tim Cole of the University of Bristol analyzed the similarities and differences between the ghettos established in Warsaw and Budapest, a topic which aroused a lively discussion. Anna Manchin compared a number of museums in Budapest, the House of Terror, the Holocaust Memorial Center and the proposed House of Fates, devoted to the child victims of the Holocaust, with the POLIN, Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
The next session was an examination of the role of Jews in Hungarian and Polish popular entertainment before the Second World War. In Hungary, in spite of the apparent success of integration here, the Jews were well aware of the somewhat precarious nature of their situation. They were expected to be a middle class in a society whose values were set by the still dominant noble stratum. In contrast to the official Jewish support for integration, the unease which many of them felt, particularly in Budapest, was reflected in the humourous sketches played in the Jewish music hall (Orpheum) which was discussed by Mary Gluck of Brown University. In Poland, too, Jews played a major role in popular entertainment. In her presentation, Beth Holmgren of Duke University described how the largely Jewish-created cabaret, which developed somewhat later than in Hungary, was used to mock the pretensions of acculturated Jews and depict a multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan Warsaw.
The final session also investigated the issues of integration and acculturation. It took the form of a presentation by Barry Cohen of his book Opening the Drawer. The Hidden Identities of Polish Jews (2018). This is an account of the three generations of Polish Jews, those who survived the war, those who grew up under communism and the third generation which has emerged since the end of communism in1989 and how they have participated in the revival of Jewish life since 1989. Beautifully illustrated by the Polish photographer, Witold Krassowski, who also participated in the discussion, the book gives a multi-sided and complex picture not only of Jewish identity in Poland but of the complex history of Poland and its Jews from the Second World War to the present.
In addition, as part of the programme of the conference, there was showing of the film Pilecki (2015), directed by Mirosław Krzyszkowski, a recreated account of the life of Witold Pilecki. It describes his service in the Polish cavalry, his volunteering to allow himself to be arrested in September 1940 by the German occupying authorities in Warsaw so that he could be sent to Auschwitz in order to report on conditions there, his participation in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, his flight to Italy, his return to Poland to serve in the anti-communist resistance to the new communist government imposed by the Soviets and his imprisonment, trial and execution in May 1948.
Pilecki attempted to organize a resistance movement in Auschwitz and was also able to smuggle out several brief reports in 1940, 1941 and 1942. After his escape in 1943, he wrote two further short reports and, after escaping to the Anders Army in Italy wrote in 1945 an extensive report which has now been published as The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery (Los Angeles, 2012). In this he describes graphically the brutality of Ausch¬witz as a German concentration camp for Poles in 1940 and 1941 and its transformation during the course of the war into a death camp in which nearly a million Jews were murdered.
Pilecki is undoubtedly one of the great heroes of the Second World War. The film is somewhat hagiographic and has very little to say about the tragic fate of Polish Jews. Nevertheless, it gives a good picture of Pilecki’s life and of his patriotic motivations. Its strengths and weaknesses were aired in a very stimulating discussion conducted by Mary Fulbrook of University College, London and Antony Polonsky.
This was a most stimulating and thought-provoking conference and its organizers and supporters, the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies; the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies; the Institute of Jewish Studies, UCL; the European Institute, UCL; the Embassy of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Cultural Institute are to be congratulated on its success.

Editor's note from Carol Gould:
To donate to the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies please go to

http://polishjewishstudies.co.uk/support/ .


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