Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Poland’ Category

Vilnius and Vilna: City of Ghosts

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by David

At the beginning of this trip, what seems like eons ago, my father and I attended a conference in Warsaw on transnationalism. At one of the lunches, we sat with Scotsman, a professor at a Swedish university who had spent the previous several years teaching in Vilnius, Lithuania. I knew it would be the last destination on my eastern European voyage, so I asked him how he felt about the place.

His face darkened. “It’s a city of ghosts,” he said.

That’s what I had heard, and read. In this way, Vilnius, formerly Wilno, or Vilna, was not unlike Lviv, formerly Lwow, Lemberg, or Lemberik. Vilnius had once been a mostly Polish and Jewish city, with a small Lithuanian population. In fact, it had been a seat to Jewish intellectual life in Europe, home to the famous rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon, and to YIVO, an academic institution dedicated to the scientific study of Yiddish culture and language, until it relocated to the New York in the 1930s, where it became part of the Center for Jewish history, where I conduct much of my dissertation research.

Indeed, in American Jewish history, a distinction is made among formerly Polish Jews between Galicianers (from Galicia, the region of Poland/Ukraine controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire until WW1) and Litwaks (Lithuanians). They spoke Yiddish with different inflections and pronunciations, but supposedly the differences ran deeper. The Galicianers were supposedly simpler but more pious, the Litwaks more secular but also more educated and enlightened, with YIVO emerging as a shining example of this enlightenment.

The YIVO people who left were smart to get out when they did. Because then the Nazis came and killed all the Jews. And then the Soviets came and exiled all the Poles, and moved the Lithuanians in. And so Wilno/Vilna became Vilnius, a city populated by formerly rural Lithuanians, just as Lwow had became Lviv, a Polish-Jewish city now firmly Ukrainian.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 18, 2011 at 04:50

Budaniv and Budzanow: The Weinfelds Come Home

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by David

The Weinfeld House in Budzanow

My dad and I came home yesterday. Not to Montreal, but to Budaniv, Ukraine, formerly Budzanow, Poland, where my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, was born and raised. We’d come a long way.

In my parents’ home in Montreal hangs a large, blown up framed photograph of house. Standing in front of the house are my great-grandparents, Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, and two of their three kids, my grandfather Arnold, and his older sister, my great aunt Gizela. That was their house in Budzanow. Two stories and with a basement, apparently it had been one of the largest houses in town, as my great-grandfather had been a successful tobacco distributor. My father had that image seared into his mind, because he knew that that house was no more. Or so he thought.

Four years ago, I still didn’t think Budzanow existed. My grandfather had always told my father that Budzanow had been destroyed. Flattened. Erased like so many others shtetls by the Nazi killing machine. In 1999, I visited Treblinka, and took a picture of myself next to a stone commemorating the destruction of Budzanow, annihilated like so many other Jewish communities in eastern Europe. I thought that the last remnant of the town.

And so, four years ago, during my summer Yiddish class, in a discussion about shtetls, I told one of the instructors that my grandfather was from Budzanow, but it no longer existed. “Yes it does,” she said. “No it doesn’t,” I replied. “My grandfather said it doesn’t exist anymore. The whole town was destroyed.” I felt certain. But she said: “maybe he meant the Jewish community was destroyed, but the town is still there.”

And so later that day, thanks to the glory that is the internet, I googled the Polish shtetl Budzanow. And sure enough, it still existed, only now it was called Budaniv and was in Ukraine. I should have noticed an inconsistency long ago. After all, my grandfather had also said that he returned to Budzanow immediately after the war. Though his neighbours greeted him warmly, he found his childhood home looted. He never returned.

In any case, after learning about Budaniv, I excitedly told my father. He was in shock, but that quickly turned to happiness. We said that one day we would visit. And we finally made that happen.

So early yesterday morning, me, my father, our guide Alex, and our driver Vitali set out to find Budaniv. Neither of them had been there before either, but armed with GPS and maps, they said getting there would be no problem.

Our first stop, though, was Tarnopol, to visit the local archives. Tarnopol is the major city in the region Budaniv is located, and contained town registries for all the surrounding villages. The archives were old and dark. There was no internet access, and the computers appeared to be from the 1980s. Everything seemed a bit chaotic, but Alex spoke to a very friendly and helpful archivist, who was able to provide us with voting records from Budzanow from 1930.

My father, Alex, and I brought the two musty record books to the reading room, and began poring through them. Neither my father nor I can really read Polish, but we can read names. At first, it seemed fruitless. But then, not more than 10 minutes after we began, I saw them. “Weinfeld!” I shouted. There they were. Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, my great-grandparents. The book listed their professions: we couldn’t make Moishe’s out, but knew he had been a tobacco distributor, a very religious man having come from nearby Zabraz (another shtetl in the Tarnopol region) to marry Brauna Schutzmann and work in her family’s tobacco business. Under Brauna, it simply said housewife. It also listed their ages: Brauna was 57, Moishe 56, meaning they had been born in 1873 or 1874. And best of all, it lasted an address. There were no street names, but they had lived in the central town area, house number 635.

My father and I were ecstatic. We looked through the books a bit more, but were too excited to stay in Tarnopol much longer. We thanked the archivists, ate a quick lunch, and got back in the van to go to Budzanow.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 16, 2011 at 11:28

Lviv and Lwow

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by David

Lviv Opera House

Today was a day of contrasts in a city with many names. Today, it is Lviv, a Ukrainian city. Before World War II, it was Lwow, a Polish city. Before WWI, though still Polish, it was officially  Lemberg, a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And all the while, until the Second World War, it had a large Jewish minority, many of whom called it Lemberik in Yiddish. These name changes, though, only scratch the surface of the city’s fascinating and tragic history.

The city long had a Ukrainian presence, and the oldest church building, St. Nicholas, is Orthodox, dating to the 1200s. But for most of the past few centuries, Poles dominated numerically and culturally. In the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned 3 ways, the city fell into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Through World War I, it remained mostly Polish, with a small Ukrainian minority, and a much larger Jewish minority. After the war, Poland became a nation, and though the Ukrainian population increased, they still remained the city’s third ethnic group, and the least important culturally. Then the Nazis came and murdered all the Jews, and then Stalin came and expelled all the Poles. Today, the city is almost entirely Ukrainian (with a small Russian minority), its ties to its past severed.

We hired a guide for the day, a superbly knowledgeable and friendly Ukrainian named Alex. The goal was to see mostly Jewish Lwow, but not to neglect the rest of the city. I thought of my recent discovery that my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, had attended Kazimierz University in Lwow from 1922 to 1926. My grandmother, Irene Weinfeld (nee Altstock) had been born and raised in the city. He was 12 years older than her, and they only met in 1944, after Poland had been liberated by the Soviets. But I imagine that they might have talked about beautiful Lwow in their courtship period. My wife, Julie, reminded me that our courtship was similar: we both graduated Harvard in 2005, but only met in New York a couple of years later. But we already had much to talk about, friends and places and memories in common, and that made the romancing all the smoother.

Me at the Remains of Lwow's Rose Synagogue

Thus, despite my unease at being in Ukraine, I felt excited to see the city that may have helped bring my grandparents together. Hiring a guide was the right decision, as seeing Jewish Lwow is more difficult that it sounds. We walked through the cobblestone streets, and stopped at parks  and outdoor markets and decaying remnants of buildings where synagogues once stood. We saw a Jewish hospital, now simply a hospital with Stars of David adorning it. We saw doors that had once been entrances to Jewish shops, with the mezuzahs long stripped away. We saw the apartment where the famous Yiddish poet Sholem Aleichem lived, for a year in the early 20th century, en route to New York. Some of the places were marked with plaques. Others were not. Some of the plaques’ English text contained numerous spelling mistakes. Occasionally, the words “synagogue” or “Jewish community” in the Ukrainian text were scratched out.

Historian Omer Bartov wrote a book called Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present Day Ukraine. I haven’t read it, but the title says it all. Unlike in Poland, Ukraine has not made any effort to come to terms with, or even really acknowledge its Jewish past. According to Alex, the typical Ukrainian resident of Lviv probably has no idea that his or her city had once been a third Jewish.

Poland has not entirely exorcised its antisemitism, past or present. But they are trying. The rejuvenation of the Jewish neighbourhood in Cracow, the construction of the Jewish museum in Warsaw, the clear, beautiful monuments to the Jewish past throughout the country, the inclusion of Jews in Polish museums such as that commemorating Polish events such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, all point to this change in the right direction, a change towards objectivity in looking at the past, a change toward healing. In the essay that concluded his magisterial Postwar, the late Tony Judt observed that acknowledging and coming to terms with your antisemitic past, or at least beginning to do so, was the entry ticket into the European Union. Poland has done it. I believe Lithuania has done it. Ukraine has not.

Nonetheless, the city charmed me. We went from site to site, of the vanished Jewish past, but I imagined that my grandparents may have attended those synagogues, shopped at those shops, walked on those streets. We visited the university, now called the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, teeming with young Ukrainian students, and I imagined my grandfather in those same buildings. We went to several spectacular churches, pointing to the remaining religious diversity still present in Ukraine: from ornate Catholic churches to the dark, mysterious and beautiful houses of worship of the Ukrainian Orthodox, to the Greek Catholic cathedrals, somewhere in between. I came to enjoy the city that had made me uneasy just a day before.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 14, 2011 at 15:56

Family Myth-Busting at the Jagiellonian Archives

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by David

My Great Aunt Gizela's Apartment in Cracow

I love archives. Even when I don’t understand the language, just looking at musty old documents makes me happy. It makes me especially happy when those documents relate to my family.

My advisor, Professor Hasia Diner, is not a big fan of oral history. She believes that most people remember things wrong, or are misinformed, particularly in matters relating to their family background.

In this case, professor Diner was proven exactly right.

My father had told me that his father, Arnold Weinfeld, has received his law degree from the Jagiellonian University sometime in the 1920s. That turned out to be true, except he didn’t really go to Jagiellonian University. They had very few documents on him, aside from his diploma and some exam records, which indicated that he got his initial degree, a magisterium (perhaps the equivalent to a BA or MA), at the University of Lwow. We don’t know in what discipline, but it was likely either law or philosohy (which includes every subject other than law, medicine, and theology). He completed that in 1926, and then took three major exams at Jagiellonian in Cracow to earn his JD, so he could be a practicing lawyer. The three exams were in introductory law, legal history, and law and politics. His grades steadily improved with each exam, and he passed them all. After the war, when he immigrated to Montreal, his law degree was no longer useful, so he became a bookkeeper for Montreal’s main Yiddish newspaper, and then later for the city’s Lubavitcher Yeshiva.

As for my father’s aunt, Gizela Weinfeld, lived a fairly interesting life. She immigrated to the United States before the war, and then got a job as an advisor to the US army of occupation in Germany. She then got a job as the chief reference librarian for the Slavic Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This job required her to maintain frequent correspondence with Soviet officials, so the library could acquire the newest Russian books. Because of this correspondence, the FBI suspected her of being a Communist spy. As it turns out, Gizela was a militant anti-Communist, and when the FBI confirmed her loyalty, they sent her a letter attesting to that fact, which still stands, framed, in my parents’ house.

What sort of education prepared her for this career? My father had told me that she received her PhD in history from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, with a dissertation on Church history. Family lore had it that she was the first woman in Poland with a PhD in history. Or maybe the first Jewish woman. We really didn’t know.

So there we were, in the archives of the Jagiellonian. Just being there resonated with me, as my relatives had studied in that same institution so long ago. Though I don’t know any Polish, I do know old academic documents from my research on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, and with the help of an energetic archivist (himself a doctoral candidate in history) to translate, we managed to set some of the record straight.

Gizela was not the first woman in Poland to get a PhD. That happened in 1905, and was earned by a Jewish woman. Several other women got their PhDs as well before Gizela received hers in 1928.

Gizela did not write her dissertation on Church history. She wrote her 100 page dissertation, of which the university has a copy, on Podolia, a region of Poland (now Ukraine), in the 1300s.

The archives had lots of juicy tidbits on Gizela, including her CV, class records, and comments her professors wrote on her dissertation. We learned that though she and her brothers grew up in Budzanow, a shtetl in Poland, she went to gymnasium (high school) in nearby Stanislawow, probably because Budzanow was too small to have a regular, non-Jewish school. Presumably her brothers (my grandfather Arnold and great uncle Abe) went there as well.

We also learned that just like some of our information was a bit off, Gizela herself could be a bit loose with the facts. In at least one document, she claimed to be born in a city that was not Budzanow. In some documents, she claimed to be born in 1900, in others, 1901. We think the former year is correct, because a copy of birth certificate has the earlier date.

Most interestingly, we learned that the students were required to fill out brief reports of their progress each semester as undergraduates. Gizela also got her first degree from the Jagiellonian University, and filled them out dutifully. In these reports, she was required to describe herself in three categories: religion, language, and citizenship. For religion, she always wrote “Mosaic.” For citizenship, she always wrote “Polish.” But for language, she sometimes wrote “Yiddish,” and other times wrote “Polish.” Why? Perhaps she was wrestling with her Jewish and Polish identity? Or perhaps it was just accidental, and she forgot what she had written the semester before.

But one piece of information suggests that she did find herself caught between two worlds, at least to some degree. One of her records had the street address where she lived while at the university! When I saw this, I pounced on it. We looked the address up on our map: 36 Starowislna. And so later that day, we visited the apartment where my great aunt Gisela lived. My father suspected that Gizela lived in the building with a relative or family friend, or maybe as a boarder. The building was still there, completely dilapidated, with graffiti all over the walls of the passageway that led to the apartments. They opened up into a large courtyard, which must have been very nice back in the 1920s, but had become completely run-down.

We didn’t know exactly which unit Gizela lived in, it was written “II,” so could have been 2, could have been eleven, or might simply have been referring to the rear set of apartments as opposed to the front ones. So we decided to guess that it was 11, as that was the only one we could get to. A man answered the door. He didn’t speak any English, but we managed to communicate to him that a relative of ours had lived in his apartment in the 1920s.  He invited us in. He lived there with his wife and young son. The apartment was nice, modern, and clean, in stark contrast to the building’s exterior, though it was extremely small. The man told us that his grandmother had told him that it was once a Jewish owned building.

No more. After the war, many Jewish owned buildings, and buildings with Jewish tenants, were left empty. It was unclear whether these people were alive, or whether they would return. So the state took them over, and charged a small rent to new tenants. But they did nothing to renovate them. So they remain, decaying but still present, relics of a different time.

36 Starowilsna is located just on the outskirts of Kazimierz, the Jewish neighbourhood, in the direction of the main square and the university. Gizela probably went southeast to Kazimierz to go to synagogue, or perhaps to shop or meet with friends, but she went northwest to go to the non-Jewish Jagiellonian. She lived between these two worlds, at least geographically. I stood in that courtyard, looked at a tall tree that may have been there when she was there. This was the best moment of my trip so far.

Now we are in Lviv, Ukraine, formerly Lwow, Poland, or Lemberg, in the province of Galicia of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hopefully there will be more such experiences to come.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 13, 2011 at 15:29

A Different Cracow

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by David

Cracow I remembered. My memories of Warsaw from 12 years ago were much dimmer, but Cracow stood out in my mind. I remembered the old synagogues, the oldest built into the ground so as to avoid being taller than churches. I remembered hassidim scurrying about. I remember standing by the Wawel Castle, though all our guide told us was that Nazis set up their Polish General Government there and placed a swastika flag atop one of its towers.

A lot has changed in 12 years. Despite the old buildings, Cracow feels like a new city, the economy revitalized, tourists heading from shop to shop. The place is almost painfully charming, and pardon the pun, you get the feeling that hanging out in city’s medieval central square never gets old.

Of course, I’ve changed a lot too. When I came to Cracow in 1999, I was a boy of 16. I didn’t know any history at all, especially non-Jewish history. Since then, I’ve been privileged to attend Dawson College’s Liberal Arts program, where I received a steady grounding in European history, reinforced by my bachelor’s degree at Harvard. At NYU, my focus shifted to the United States, but I took a couple of courses, in eastern European history and eastern European Jewish history, that gave me the knowledge, if not the languages, to understand the region. Frankly, I think both me and the city have changed for the better.

This time around, I made a point of not limiting myself to the Jewish sites. I actually entered Wawel Castle, explored its state rooms, and stood in awe of its beautiful cathedral. I hit all the major churches listed in Cracow’s In Your Pocket guide. I don’t think I went to a single church in 1999, and what a shame that was. But I doubt I would have appreciated them then anyway. I’d have been amazed by their beauty, but without any understanding of the role Catholicism has played in Polish history. Wawel Castle was so much more meaningful now that I know something about the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, and about the three partions of the battered nation in the late 18th century.

I know more Polish Jewish history now too. I understand the role that antisemitism played in revitalizing Polish nationalism, particularly in Galicia, in the late 19th century. From David Engel, I learned that Jews had been invited into the Polish kingdom, but the population expected them to behave like guests, not citizens, placing them a good distant apart even when citizenship was finally granted to them. I’m no expert, but apart from knowing whether to spell Cracow with a “c” or a “k,” I think I have a decent handle on the place.

And this time around, going to those synagogues was more meaningful. Instead of focusing on the death and destruction, I imagined that my grandfather and great aunt may have prayed at any one of them while they attended the Jagiellonian University in the 1920s.

Walking around the Jewish neighbourhood of Kazimierz, I saw life rather than death. The place had certainly changed since 1999. It was somber then. Now, tourists, Polish and foreign, populate the streets. The hassids are still there, but they seem more comfortable. And the kitsch has exploded. One Jewish history professor I know compared it to Disneyland. I see it more like Colonial Williamsburg, except without the tacky costumes and with a death camp an hour away.

This didn’t entirely bother me though. Sure, tour go-courts whizzed past us advertising trips to Schindler’s Factory (unopened in 1999) and visits to nearby Auschwitz. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry comes to mind, except I see no need for that degree of cynicism. Tourists should see the death camps. And seeing death camps costs money. And that money is lining some businessman’s pockets, not advancing the Zionist cause. If capitalism helps people learn, in the most vivid way possible, about the defining tragedy of the 20th century, then so be it.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 12, 2011 at 17:26

Warsaw: A Tale of Two Uprisings

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by David

Warsaw Uprising Museum

I went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum a few days ago. In August of 1944, thousands of Poles in Warsaw rose up against their Nazi occupiers. They lasted almost two months, when the Germans finally crushed the rebellion as Soviet tanks looked on across the Vistula, doing nothing to help the valiant Poles. According to statistics from the museum, the Germans destroyed nearly 90% of the city, and left the Polish capitol, once a city of 1.3 million, with only a few thousand inhabitants.

Needless to say, that museum did not exist when I was last in Warsaw in 1999. Even if it had, though, I wouldn’t have visited it. We stuck to Jewish sites on that trip, and this was a Polish story. It’s a Polish story that the museum tells, and rightly so. The Varsovians are justly proud of their history of resistance. Of course, being the parochial that I am, I couldn’t help but look for any mention of Jews throughout the entire museum, especially the other Warsaw uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. That valiant but failed effort saw the city’s Jewish population decimated.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum had a small but tasteful section on the Ghetto Uprising, and some other Jewish content sprinkled throughout the exhibits. Only once, though, in one sentence, did a plaque mention that some non-Jewish Poles helped round up their fellow citizens and deliver them to the Germans and their ultimate demise.

Indeed, the museum had very little on any Polish collaboration with the Nazis. The Museum’s story was, in a sense, Poland’s story: fucked by the Germans, then fucked by the Russians. It happened in the 18th century, and then again in the 20th. While the Nazis were the museum’s main villains, the Soviets came a close second. The museum highlights Stalin’s refusal to come to the Uprising’s aid. In another prominent section, right by the cafe, the exhibits emphasized the brutality of the Soviet occupation, and how after the war the Soviets specifically targeted leaders of the Uprising, murdering many, to avoid facing that sort of resistance themselves.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 11, 2011 at 19:12

Early Reflections on Poland

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by David


I’m writing from Cracow, Poland, after having spent three days in the nation’s capitol, Warsaw. I’m here with my father, on a roots tour, not unlike Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, except I haven’t read that book, so I don’t really know. (That’s not entirely true: I read the first two pages and found it so horrible I had to put it down).

All four of my grandparents lived in Poland prior to WW2, and all were survivors, in the loose sense of the term, meaning they spent time under Nazi occupation. As far as I know, though, they spent minimal time in concentration camps. Supposedly my maternal grandfather and great uncle (who everyone calls “Uncle”) spent a short time at Majdanek before it became a death camp, but escaped and fled east, eventually being forced into the Soviet army. My paternal grandfather, a lieutenant in the Polish army in the heavy artillery division, purportedly spent time in a labour camp for POWs, his Jewish origins unknown to his captors. I have no idea how much truth there is to these accounts, but these are the stories I grew up with.

As for my grandmothers, of their stories I know even less. My maternal grandmother, I’m told, pretended to be gentile in occupied Poland. Family documents say my  maternal aunt was born in Lodz in 1942, though Uncle insists that she was born in Tiflis, Georgia, possibly a year later or earlier. As for my paternal grandmother, all I know is that she was supposedly hid in a closet by a gentile family who they paid.

In any case, all my grandparents survived the Holocaust, though they lost dozens of relatives, including all of my great-grandparents, between them. After the war, they moved to Montreal, where both my parents were born.

I went to Poland 12 years ago, in April of 1999, when I was a few months shy of turning 17. I went as part of the March of the Living, a teen tour for Jewish high school students that consists of eight days in Poland and eight days in Israel, seeing the tragedy of the Holocaust and the rebirth of the Jewish people in the state of Israel. Montreal Jewish community has a relatively high number of Holocaust survivors and so is very passionate about The March. We sent 105 students that year, along with several counselors, a rabbi, parents, and two survivors of the camps.

The trip is propaganda-laden, a fact which I was only vaguely aware of then, but am fully cognizant of now. In Poland, we danced in the streets singing Hebrew songs as Polish onlookers stared at us quizzically and occasionally hatefully. We visited Jewish sites exclusively, old synagogues and cemeteries, and then the concentration and death camps: Plaszow, Auscwhitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka, what the more politically incorrect among us like to call “Hitler’s Greatest Hits.”

The “highlight” of the trip is the March itself, re-enacting the short “March of the Dead” from Auschwitz to Birkenau. For most of the program, the different March groups have different schedules. This is the only Poland portion of the trip where all members of the international March of the Living participate together, a sea of blue raincoats with white Stars of David on them. I think there were 3000 of us. In Israel, the only time all 3000 of us were together was when we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in Jerusalem.

In any case, that was 1999. My memories of the trip are somewhat dim, though I recall Poland appearing almost medieval, though perhaps that’s my “demi-orientalism” kicking in (to borrow a term from my excellent professor of eastern European history, Larry Wolff). This is the view that eastern Europe is not quite Europe, and not quite foreign either, but rather something in between.

Maybe I’m imagining things, but a lot seems to have changed since then. Poland is part of the European Union now (no more “demi” for them) and the economy has improved. The country seems much more modern to me, and very pleasant. I’ve been returning to my culinary roots, at least, eating a steady diet of meat and potatoes in delicious and hearty portions. Thus far, I’ve reaffirmed my belief that life is too short, and the world is too vast, to be a vegetarian.

I’ll stop there for now. I’ll have more specific observations about Warsaw soon, and Cracow, and then later about our other stops, Lv’iv and Budaniv, Ukraine, and finally Vilnius, Lithuania.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 10, 2011 at 15:22

Senate vs Sejm, or Paul Krugman’s Polish History Error

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Paul Krugman had another column today criticizing the incompetent American Senate. He’s right on the money there. But Krugman goes astray when he compares the senate to the Sejm, the Polish legislature of the 17th and 18th centuries that gave each nobleman veto power (he also does so here and here). Well, Krugman is right to say that the American Senate is similarly dysfunctional. But he’s wrong to point to the Sejm’s procedural pitfalls as the cause for Poland’s periodic dissolution. As Matt Yglesias points out, “Poland is located in an unfavorably geographical position that makes conquest by Russia and/or Germany a very likely outcome.” In the late 18th century, the expansionist Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Czarist empires carved up the Sejm-run Poland, in the mid-20th century, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did the job, when the Sejm was long gone.

More interesting is the poem Krugman cites:

a Polish officer serving under Napoleon penned a song that eventually — after the country’s post-World War I resurrection — became the country’s national anthem. It begins, “Poland is not yet lost.”

I’m no expert on Polish history, and I’m not familiar with this piece. But I am familiar with Pan Tadeusz, the book of epic verse written by Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish ex-patriot living in Paris  in 1834. The poem, which according to wikipedia is considered “the national of epic of Poland” begins with this line:

O Lithuania, my country, thou
Art like good health; I never knew till now
How precious, till I lost thee.

Mickiewicz hearkened back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the very same entity controlled by the Sejm, which lasted from 1569 to 1795, when the three neighbouring powers dismembered it for good. Mickiewicz was a Polish-speaking noble, but he was born in a the Russian empire, in a town currently in Belarus. He felt an affinity for the Lithuanian section of the old Commonwealth. Today, he is claimed not only by Poland, but also by Belarus and by Lithuania. And that Commonwealth encompassed parts of Ukraine as well.

The point here is the Poland was, to borrow from old St. Benedict of Anderson, an “imagined community,” namely it was imagined in the heads of Polish nobility who sought to reclaim something they once lost. But that old Commonwealth was populated by all sorts of people, many of whom would not have called themselves Poles. This is all documented very effectively in the brilliant if tragic book, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, by Timothy Snyder.

Equally interesting is work that chronicle the formation of Polish identity in Galicia, the section of Poland governed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, called Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Polish Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848-1914, by Keely Stauter-Halsted.  This book shows how the Polish identity, formerly associated with noblemen like Mickiewicz, transformed into a peasant identity to win the hearts of the Polish-speaking masses, who had formely allied with the Austro-Hungarian state against the Polish nobility. Indeed, it was the very same Polish nobility who led the way in this identity transformation because their power was waning in the face of the Austro-Hungarian state and they knew they needed peasant allies.

The point is that Poland would have been difficult to govern, Sejm or no Sejm, because it was so big and made up of so many different peoples and sandwiched between aggressive, expansionist empires. But this should not distract from Krugman’s basic point that the American Senate is fucked up and that the Republicans are obstructionist.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 8, 2010 at 09:49


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