The possibilities and impossibilities of being a neighbour

German-born Daniel Zylbersztajn has recently returned to Poland, two months after his father's passing away. In the son, this has prompted thoughts on neighbourly relations and the meaning of transformative dialogue in general, taking account of his experiences in Jewish - Palestinian dialogue and his upbringing in Germany.

Daniel Zylbersztajn
4 November 2011

My late father Wolf survived the Shoah by being fit for slave work in the German factories connected to the Buchenwald concentration camp complex and escaping KZ Mauthausen by making a hole in the carriage of his ‘death train’ and running for his life. Following the Kielce post-Shoah massacre in 1946, he abandoned his plans to return to Poland after the war and never went back.

I have recently been to the Polish town of Szczekociny, as a result of reconciliation efforts between the largely Polish Catholic residents of the town and the family relatives of the former Jewish residents of the town. Szczekociny is the town my father Wolf was born in and lived in, up until the soldier agents serving the German Nazi state murderously abolished the presence of the Jewish community there.

When the Germans arrived in 1939, my father was 20 years old. For others the time to fall in love, for him it was the time his mother and his youngest brother Fishl were executed first with much of his family following. At the beginning of July 2011 my mother and I were special guests at this year's Jewish festival in Szczekociny, standing in line of honour for my late father.

It was breathtaking, walking the roads of my father's family and entering the town hall that only ten years ago had still refused to answer my emails and letters. I published the story on my blog at the time and that was how Agnieszka Piśkiewicz, a local Catholic Polish woman with interest in the history of the former Jewish citizens of Szczekociny, got to know me. With her and above all another survivor family from the town, the Bornsteins, small steps were taken in the direction of confronting the local Poles. According to Yossi Bornstein, who is like me, ‘second generation’, the doors and windows were locked when he and his father Izyk Mendl Bornstein first came to Szczekociny. On consequent visits Yossi was followed and an unsuccessful attempt was made to beat him up (prevented by the foresight of taking an Israeli bodyguard with him). Mainly the fear was that the (supplement a disgraceful word here) Jews are coming to take their properties back.

Since then the mayor of Szczekociny has changed and all of a sudden things have started to move. The first big success was the removal of a public toilet erected on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery (aided by some adverse publicity causing outrage in the USA and in Israel). For a few years now a Jewish festival has taken place in the town to commemorate the lost generations and celebrate Jewish culture. Yossi, who is an Israeli citizen, has brought along Israeli school kids for a few years to help restore some gravestones and the festival has become something of a regular event. Still my father would not follow up the multiple invites he received, nor did I for one or another reason make it.

Wolf and Abraham Zylbersztajn

Wolf and his brother Abraham Zylbersztajn at the memorial stone to the Jewish community of Szczekociny (in Israel)

My father's last account of Szczekociny was from 1945. He and his likewise surviving brother Abraham went to see a farmer where their father Hershik - who had died of diphtheria following the camp liberations (a consequence of too rapid feeding of the starved slave workers) - had left some tools and bits and bobs. Sadly the old farmer had died too. His son, a sturdy muscular and tall Catholic Pole, came towards them, and told them to get lost. “Your things had been taken by the partisans,” he claimed, and my father calmed his brother who wanted to argue. "For this he could murder you, and it is not worth it!", he said.
 Of course the Shoah was the fault of the German Nazis. But the Polish Catholic culpability was in the toleration of the crimes as well as profiting from them, by and large through looting. Whilst Jewish people had a history of several centuries as co-citizens in Poland, it had always been an arrangement of parallel lives. The proximity of one to another never diluted and was always carefully guarded, not the least through sometimes vile preaching in the churches based on convenient mis-readings of the bible, that left out the fact that in the bible there existed Jews as well as Romans and that Jesus himself was a Jew, claiming instead that it was the Jews who were the anti-Christs, betrayers and murderers of the Christian Son of God.

Such was the hatred and perhaps the guilt of some (Christian) Poles at that time, that a year and two months after Poland's liberation they stormed a house in which Jewish survivors of the Nazi atrocities had taken residence and ferociously killed by hand those Jews, "the Germans had forgotten." 42 people, all Jewish survivors, died in Kielce that infamous night in July,1946. The echoes of Kielce were enough to make most Polish Jewish survivors change any plans they may ever have had to return home. As a consequence in most formerly Jewish-inhabited towns, Poles barricaded themselves into the formerly Jewish homes - while most Jewish survivors sought to live their remaining lives elsewhere. They went across the border separating the Soviets from the Western Allied Forces and then moved to the United States, Israel, Australia, and in my father's case, Germany.

There was a Red Cross refugee camp in Bavaria and from that survivors like my father moved into a newly formed ‘Jewish Street’ in Bavaria's capital city Munich, Möhlstrasse, situated appropriately enough near the Friedensengel - The Angel of Peace - Monument of Munich. Here these Jewish survivors from all parts of Europe began to busy themselves with all sorts of trades, legal and illegal ones, and then mostly moved on to other shores. My father engaged in his father's trade of a leather cutter (one of the typical Jewish trades, as ‘dirty’ dealing with dead animals' skins was conveniently passed on by European Christians to Jewish communities in the Middle Ages). 

After some years passed by, my father and a good number of others stayed put. His small earnings supported his two surviving brothers who had chosen to follow the Zionist vision for a better life and had moved to Tel Aviv. But there were other reasons for staying: Germany was in a state of collective shame. Nobody would dare to speak out against my father and the others then, and this remained true for most of his remaining life, which was marked by a difficult relationship with guilt and shaming. Living in Germany, my father never wanted to be with Germans, argued with them about the Shoah in his later place of work, and made sure those around him were put in their place. When aged German members of the Wehrmacht supported by the new German right congregated in Munich’s central square, Marienplatz in 1997 to protest against an exhibition that claimed ordinary German soldiers in the Second World War era were complicit in the murder of Jews, he made a point of going there well in his late 70s and arguing with them that indeed they did murder alongside the SS units.

Having been born and brought up in Poland he had no desire either to be with Poles.  This feeling of not wanting such engagement extended itself also to the next generation, myself.  Fed a diet of stories from my father and alongside contemporary news items on racism in the former Soviet Block, in 2011 aged 42, I had never been further East in Europe than Berlin. Still in June 2011, two months  after my father's death, we, that is my mother and I,  accepted an invitation to Szczekociny to that year's Jewish festival which the organisers said they would dedicate to my late father.

Szczekociny festival poster

This year's Szczekociny festival poster

Beside seeing the house of my family and the location of their leather cutting shop in the town's main square, on my visit to Szczekociny we found my father’s and uncle’s birth certificates. This gave me a ten minute extract of the life of my grandfather, Hershik, whom I never knew, as he stood in January 1919 with my father, then a newborn baby, in the town hall to register my dad's birth. This was especially meaningful as my father had passed away so recently, and here was the full spectrum of his life from birth to his passing away. 
It was also nice to see a good turnout which was addressed by the Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich at the festival, and only slightly marred by poor weather.

Sadly we missed a Kaddish ceremony at the old cemetery, because Krakow police had decided to tow my rental car away after it was parked in the wrong spot and it took three hours to release the car. Imagine the feelings one has when being confronted with police bureaucracy during such a visit. Still, hours late we got there and I gave a talk on conflict transformation on the model of the Palestinian / Jewish peace village in Israel Wahat al Salam ~ Neve Shalom (NSWaS).

Wahat al Salam ~ Neve Shalom

The village of Wahat al Salam ~ Neve Shalom

I have worked on and off for the UK friends organisation NSWaS, including as their education officer. I made my talk relevant to the Polish listeners with the theme of "two peoples in discourse, who both see themselves and who both are, victims." I discussed subjective positioning, invoking Martin Luther King Jnr., Franz Fanon, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, and how subjective truth needed to be challenged by the other's subjective truths and through continuous debate rather than one-off agreements. Acknowledgement, whilst accepting difference, that was the motto of Wahat al-Salam ~ Neve Shalom. Perhaps it had something also to say about Polish Christian-Jewish relations, Polish German relations, or even to Poles who live as minorities in places such as London? It was well received.

In the evening I was moved by the attendance of some people of the local Roma/Sinti community at the eve of the festival. The fate of Roma, Sinti and Travellers was the same terrible one during the Shoah, and they remain discriminated against outcasts. Unlike most Jewish people of Poland, Roma and Sinti still live in many rural areas in Poland.

But our presence in Szczekociny was tarnished by the deliberate vandalising of a plaque which had just been uncovered (during the Kaddish ceremony we had missed) and dedicated to the famous Polish Rabbi Dov Ber Meisels, who was born there in the eighteenth century. It was also saddening to see the dimensions of deliberate disrespect shown to the two local Jewish cemeteries by one person who had erected both a factory and a villa on its grounds, and the fact that the old synagogue had been given over to housing the European multi-national Schlecker drugstore and a restaurant.

According to Yossi Bornstein, at one time there had been a plan to open a pig farm and pig slaughter house in one of these Jewish sacred places, maybe precisely because pigs are seen as ‘unkosher’ dirty food in Judaism. This was accompanied by stories of how bones, skulls and grave-stones were dug out of the soil and disposed of somewhere by truck, some years back when the factory was first built. It would only be appropriate that both the cemeteries and the synagogue were at least partially reconstructed and honoured. The Jewish family members linked to Szczekociny have repeatedly requested the erection of a memorial in the cemetery using gravestone remains (most of which were removed from the cemetery to be used in the construction of other buildings), and a small place inside the synagogue to remember not only the synagogue, but also the once Jewish life of the town (in early twentieth century census statistics, the Jewish population temporarily outnumbered its Catholic members). It would be nothing but honourable to create such spaces as a hall of remembrance of former citizens and residents who lived, worked and cared for Szczekociny and were neighbours.

The erection of physical space is doubly important in light of the fact that the Jewish family members of former residents of Szczekociny have officially abrogated any claims whatsoever to any rightfully owned estates, with the associated request that any items that are kept or discovered and which could be meaningful to us Jewish families (such as photos, or other recognizable items that once belonged to Jewish families) be declared.

It may only be hoped that despite the setbacks, the prevailing wind of positive will may strengthen through continued discourse. Music and talk alone are but a start, but change is symbolised also by actions that will endure the generations of today. This includes the erection of physical spaces and the development of education in history and anti-racist integrationist citizenship education, not just in view of the links to Jewish families of people who once lived there, but also in a contemporary sense to the new ‘others’ in Szczekociny. Szczekociny is now also home to Turkish-speaking, Latvian and Roma and Sinti residents, as I saw from a display in the local secondary school. In that sense change is both part of the new spirit of Szczekociny, within the hearts and minds of people, as well as within the built environment. This is the development of modern Germany too.

Germany is the place in Europe with the greatest amount of inter-cultural and dialogue projects. Meeting and engaging with the other is a key ingredient of the post-war era here. Citizenship education was the golden preamble of post-war Germany likewise. This is not to say Germany is not struggling as well with prejudices against non-Germans, sometimes quite crassly so. But the churches, charities and schools are working harder than anywhere else in Europe to counter it. Of course it didn't really move my father, but church leaders had asked him if they could invite him to teach school classes and for Germans to come and apologise in person. However what it did do was to allow my father to make his peace with younger Germans.  Acknowledging the work indirectly he always reiterated that he had no quarrel with young Germans, except perhaps those few who glorified the Nazi era.

One wonders about how much Germany has moved on since 1945 and how much work is still left to be done in places like Szczekociny in Poland.

 The visit has left me with a profound feeling of dissatisfaction in the way communities in which there are differences of faith or ethnicity function, or rather are allowed to dwell. Living now in Kings Cross, London, where there is a sizeable Bangladeshi Muslim population, as well as a disenfranchised English working class community, both with limited meaningful contact to other residents -  it made me consider the importance of going further in neighbourly relations.

Poland teaches us that only when communities are so inter-woven that one cannot live without the other (albeit in conflict at times), can we rest assured that little Hitlers have no fertile grounds from which to  breed their like. The current reality of parallel residency (you may call it in US historic terms 'separate but equal') with little neighbourly interaction, is but a marching order to the Polish Avenue of 1939.

In Szczekociny I was told some raided Jewish houses as soon as the German Nazis expelled them.
 So what does one do with all this?  After some deliberations I have come to the conclusion that I shall be off to visit both the local mosque at Kings Cross, as well as the local pub at times - and have more teas and talks with all my neighbours in the near future. It may well be a bumpy road ahead, both here in Kings Cross and in Szcekociny, for these discourses must not only be in the spirit of light-hearted conversations, but build communities through different points of view, accept the neighbour in his or her entitlement to have these differences, as well as expecting and giving neighbourly care alongside it. Of course this is precisely the heart of the debate, for what neighbourly care and expectation is, can be deemed to be cultural and subjective to a certain extent.

Community cohesion evolves only in the constant of continuous human interaction and discourse and care for a place and for each other. I have seen this in action in Wahat al Salam ~ Neve Shalom where Jews and Palestinians sustained togetheness throughout forty years of the conflict raging around them. On the other hand, not even the fact that my mother's family, the Lewandowskys, were merchants to the Bavarian royal court, and that my grandfather Gerhard wore the German Iron Cross for services in the Red Cross during the first world war, saved him from a six month incarceration in KZ Dachau. It was not German neighbours (one even exposed him to the SS), or friends’ contacts that saved him, but a decent Dutch Christian family in Beekbergen, Holland.  I know in Poland there were also such families, I am told, more than anywhere else during that time. But the overall picture remains grim.

Another lesson I take from Szcekociny is the power of the local villain. It takes only a small group of villains to spoil community cohesion and terrorize particular members. Anyone who has read German history and the ascent of a few haters to power knows that. But I am also thinking concretely about the man who has a house and a factory on the land of the Jewish cemeteries in Szczekociny. Because the villain's power is in disproportion to the kind and gentle acts that make a community flourish, it is not unreasonable to oppose a local villain with the crushing might of a unified community consisting of members from different backgrounds, religions and walks of life. The same applies here in Kings Cross. In Szczekociny, I am told the villain has old contacts from the Communist days: but like Catholics who blame Jews for this and that, they would do well to remember that many of the great Communist theorists and thinkers had Jewish backgrounds. I doubt if many, in spite of their position towards religion in general, would have gone as far as approving of a desecration of a Jewish cemetery or house of prayer.

Daniel Zylbersztajn

Daniel Zylbersztajn

One final point. It occurred to me that my feelings also had a bearing on my understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli and the Islamic/Arabic Jewish conflict. Whilst it is not always good to make comparisons, for there are differences in histories and facts, I did think about my feelings in those spaces in Szczekociny. The least I can say is that honouring current and former Palestinian and Jewish citizens are very important symbols to me. Alongside this, there are virtues in accepting and engaging with the other in a non-threatening way, that accepts the mistakes of the past, the current realities and attempts to build an acceptable and honourable path for the future. I am not thinking only about Israel and Palestine here, and not only about Jewish claims and Palestinian claims, but also about the former Jewish presence in Arabic and Persian-speaking lands.

That my religion and culture has managed to mourn the expulsion from Zion from a distance of as many as forty generations from the original events makes this matter even more poignant. But such memories have to be handled with great care, if they are not to advocate the displacement of more people in the attempt to correct former human wrongs (there are too many examples for both). We are therefore forced to look again at post-apartheid South Africa, post-segregation USA, and also the village of Wahat-al Salam - Neve Shalom and the processes of dialogue and acceptance that in each instance led to the new realities, where formerly confronting, uncompromising and unequal sides live and strive together relatively equally with their respective aspirations. Neither model is perfect, but meaningful open discourse intended to think about mutually inclusive solutions seems the only tolerable way ahead. ‘Together’ is coincidentally also the motto of the Jewish festivals in Szczekociny, at least creating a positive template to work on…

The worst thing I think anyone can do, is denial, missed opportunities, and living side by side without meaningful interaction, dialogue and discourse. Once again let's all think about what being a neighbour should really mean, and work towards our aspirations regardless of the pitfalls and setbacks that may be lingering on the way. The Catholic Pole who was so threatening towards my father and his brother could have easily invited the two of them in for tea and given them a helping hand, for this is what neighbours should do. Not doing so makes anyone who fails in such acts complicit in future injustices, either as their agents or worse, as its latest victims, should events turn in certain directions. Like the inter-cultural organisations in Germany, we must insist on and continue the hard work, must continue to build symbols that come to terms with our past and create meaningful contacts wherever we live.

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