Bread and Salt: What a Jewish Cemetery in Poland Taught Me about an Arab Cemetery in Israel
© Robert Brym (2014)
Department of Sociology University of Toronto firstname.lastname@example.org
On a wet spring morning, Marek drove southwest out of Warsaw toward my father’s hometown. During the two semesters he had spent as a postdoctoral student in Canada, he and his wife had rented the basement apartment of my parents’ house in Fredericton. My mother would periodically invite them upstairs for a meal, giving my father an opportunity to recount his youth in Poland and the war years in Russia. The two couples – one Jewish and in their mid-60s, the other Catholic and in their early 30s – liked each other, and when it came time for me to attend my first international conference, in Poland, I had little compunction about contacting Marek and asking him if he might be willing to drive me to Bodzanów, the little town 90 minutes outside Warsaw where my father lived until 1939. When I met Marek and his wife in their Stalin-era apartment bloc an hour before we set out on our trip, I saw immediately why my parents were so fond of them. They offered me bread and salt, a traditional Slavic welcome for a respected guest. Their intelligence and generosity of spirit shone.
You can therefore imagine my shock when, twenty minutes out of the city, Marek expressed the opinion that “behind every Brezhnev sits a Bernstein.” I understood perfectly well what he meant, but to gain time I asked him to explain. “Take the Institute where I work,” he elaborated. “There is only one Jew but he is the Director. It’s normal.” Evidence could not sway him. He countered my “There is not a single Jew in the Politburo of Poland or the USSR” with “You don’t always see the Jew but he always pulls the strings.”
In 1977, there were only a couple thousand Jews left in Poland, elderly and highly assimilated remnants of a pre-war Jewish population of 3.3 million. The last substantial wave of emigration took place in the late 1950s, when an anti-Semitic campaign organized by the Communist Party as part of a factional dispute resulted in the departure of about 50,000 Jews. Twenty years later, anti-Semitism was still comparatively widespread. As late as 1999, the World Values Survey found that 25 percent of Poles preferred not having a Jew as a neighbour; the comparable figure for Egypt was less than 17 percent. By this measure, Marek was not an anti-Semite. Like the great majority of Poles, he had no problem living near a Jew.
I don’t remember how we managed to steer the conversation to safer territory or what we talked about the rest of the way to Bodzanów. I do remember that by the time we arrived, the drizzle had become a light but steady downpour, removing the residents from the streets and the remnants of buoyancy from my mood.
In 1977, around 1,300 people lived in Bodzanów, not many more than immediately after World War II. Before the war, the town was twice as populous, but now the Jews were gone. A few, like my father and three of his siblings, had managed to flee to Russia when the Germans arrived in 1939. The rest were rounded up and shot, or deported to a labor camp in Działdowo and then gassed in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the end of 1942.
The town consisted of a main road leading to a central market plus a few side streets. A couple of the larger municipal buildings had dirty, faded, beige, stucco exteriors. The houses were cut out of Chagall’s Vitebsk, with high, slightly sagging, tiled and gabled roofs, narrow windows and doors, and uneven, hand-cut, ochre board fronts. No greenery separated them from the sidewalks, and no ornamentation, not even an awning, interrupted their flat fronts. Yet I was wrong to assume that the town had added only two amenities in the past four decades. As I was about to learn, in addition to enjoying a paved main road and electricity, the residents of Bodzanów now had cold-water pumps in their kitchens.
When the rain let up, we got out of the car and walked around. Noticing a white-haired man standing in the doorway of his house, I asked Marek if we could go over and ask him whether he knew a family by the name of Brym before the war.
My father had taught me only a few “essential” Polish words and phrases, such as “Do widzenia w wolnej Polsce” (“Until we meet again in a free Poland”), so Marek did the asking. However, instead of replying, the white-haired man merely cocked his head and stared at me. Marek repeated his query. Finally, the white-haired man said “może być” (“maybe”). Before relinquishing any more information, he had two questions of his own. What is your business here? Who is the foreigner? Marek explained, and a minute later, we had our answer. The white-haired man was Mr Landsznajder, the only Jew left in town. He used to play soccer with my father. My uncle Kalman taught him to read. After the war he had returned to Bodzanów, married a Polish woman, had a son who was now about my age, and remained there ever since. I had struck gold.
I tried speaking Yiddish with Mr. Landsznajder but he told Marek he was unable to converse in his mother tongue because he hadn’t heard or uttered a word in it for more than 20 years. I nonetheless persisted. A few words soon spilled out of him. Within fifteen minutes, he was speaking fluently. He laughed when I quoted Bialik, the Russian-Jewish poet, who famously told a reporter, “Hebraish ret man; Yidish ret sich” (“Hebrew one speaks; Yiddish speaks by itself”).
Mr. Landsznajder invited us into his home. I noticed the pump in the sink and the crucifix on the wall. His wife prepared boiled potatoes and pan-fried ground meat patties, and when we had our fill, Mr. Landsznajder and his son took us on a tour of Jewish Bodzanów.
There wasn’t much left to see. The house in which my father lived until he was a young man was still standing and occupied. Down a muddy path behind the main street stood a dilapidated structure with a 6-meter tree growing through its roof. It had been the community’s cheder (religious elementary school for boys), where my father had studied until the age of ten. Mr. Landsznajder then announced that he was taking us to the Jewish cemetery.
Near the edge of town, we came across a stone fence embracing an overgrown field, about a fifth of a hectare in size.
“Here is the cemetery.”
“Where?” I asked.
“I don’t see any tombstones.”
“The Germans removed them for building material; the fence was built with money sent after the war by a Jewish former resident of Bodzanów living in America.”
Jews first settled in Bodzanów in the late 1700s. The Polish State Archives for the town date back to 1826. The first mention of a Brym is an 1828 entry recording the marriage of Moszek Brym, son of Abram and Hyna (perhaps Chana misspelled), to Schaia (perhaps Chaya misspelled) Sura Rutrak. Realizing that at least four generations of my family were buried in unmarked graves in that forsaken field, I broke down.
It was time to go. I snapped a few last photos. Mr. Landsznajder asked if I had any American dollars I could give him for medicine. I gave him what I had. We embraced.
Three years after my trip to Poland, I arrived in Israel for a three-month research visit. My first cousin, Devorah (a pseudonym), kindly found a small apartment for me within walking distance of the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. It was my first trip back to Jerusalem since I completed my BA there in 1972.
Devorah had arrived in Israel from Poland with my uncle Kalman and aunt Hadassah in 1957, part of the last wave of Polish-Jewish emigration. After completing public school and army service, she began postsecondary studies and met her future husband, Baruch (a pseudonym), who came from Romania with his parents. Devorah and Baruch now lived with their two small children in Malcha, a neighbourhood on the southern perimeter of West Jerusalem.
Malcha has grown since 1980. It is now the home of one of Israel’s largest shopping centres, a technology park, Jerusalem’s main soccer stadium, the municipal railway station, and fashionable houses for the upper middle class. Back then, it was just an old neighbourhood on a hill.
Late every Friday afternoon I would shower, put on a clean white shirt, blue jeans and sandals, and take the bus to visit Devorah and her family in Malcha. We would sometimes stroll around the picturesque neighbourhood before or after dinner. Until 1948, Malcha was an Arab village, and the old houses – white domes with short spires in the centre – were still in fine shape, their yard-thick stone and cement walls providing remarkably effective insulation from extremes of heat and cold. Devorah and her family lived in one such house, divided in half to accommodate two families. The minaret of a sealed mosque commanded Malcha’s centre. Situated on a hill, Malcha overlooked a busy urban road on one side and an expansive green valley on the other. On the valley side, perhaps a kilometer from Malcha’s peak, lay the now-unmarked pre-1967 Jordanian border. Hike five kilometers due south and you arrive at the outskirts of Bethlehem, the ancient “house of bread.”
As Baruch and I reached the crest of the hill on one of our walks, I noticed some children playing in a field to our right. One hid behind a flat, rectangular stone about 60 cm wide and 90 cm high, tilted about 15 degrees from the vertical. I could make out a few stones of similar size lying flat on the ground. Something like the following conversation ensued:
“What is that area?”
“The old Arab cemetery.”
“Baruch, children are playing there.”
“That’s the way it is.”
“But Baruch, it’s a cemetery. Three years ago in Poland I was taken to a neglected Jewish cemetery in my father’s hometown. There were no tombstones left. The Nazis had tried to efface the memory of our people. Now, just one generation later, we’re in the business of effacing the memory of another people?”
“Bobby, don’t be a child. Look how close the old border is. In 1948, Jordanian soldiers entered Malcha and, together with the townsmen, fired on Jewish Jerusalem from this hilltop. We had to capture it for our self-preservation.”
“But shouldn’t the cemetery be protected as a matter of respect for the dead? At least a fence would keep people out.”
“Don’t be so sentimental. Before 1967, when East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule, the Arabs destroyed plenty of graves in the Jewish cemetery for sport. At least we’re not desecrating this place on purpose.”
Malcha’s history is actually more complex than Baruch described. In 1948, Malcha was an Arab village of about 2,250 people. (The Arabic name for the village is al-Maliha, from the word for salt, apparently because, centuries ago, salt water would sometimes pollute the village well). When hostilities broke out immediately after the UN recognized the State of Israel, the elders of Malcha and several nearby villages signed a non-aggression pact with Jewish officials.
The pact held until Arab armies entered the conflict, intensifying hostilities. On 9 April 1948, the paramilitary forces of the Jewish right attacked nearby Deir Yassin, killing between 107 and 254 villagers (estimates vary). Women, children and the elderly fled Malcha in fear of what might follow in their village. Many of them made their way to Bethlehem, where an organization of former Malcha residents and their descendants exists to this day. The young men stayed behind in case they would have to defend their village. As the war stepped up, Malcha became a staging ground for Jordanian and Egyptian irregulars. Consequently, Jewish paramilitary forces started firing at Malcha. Their main assault began on 14 July. Two days later, the Arab garrison fell. The remaining young men of Malcha now joined their families in Bethlehem.
After the cessation of hostilities, Israel did not allow the Arab residents of Malcha (and of hundreds of other villages, towns, and cities) to return to their homes on the grounds they represented a security threat. We cannot know whether permitting their return and seeking to integrate them in the life of the new country would have placated them. In my opinion, the earlier willingness of Malcha’s residents to sign a non-aggression pact indicated a desire to live in peace. We do know that denying their return enraged them. In 1951, Malcha distinguished itself as the site of the first Arab guerrilla attack on the State of Israel.
Baruch stood on the left of the Israeli political spectrum. He and Devorah wanted Israel to relinquish control of almost all of the territory it occupied in the 1967 war. They favoured the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Standing beside Malcha’s forlorn Arab cemetery in 1980, I figured that, given his political inclinations, I should perhaps excuse Baruch’s insensitivity. Upset, I nonetheless let the matter rest.
Thirty years later, my 16-year-old daughter, Ariella, went on a two-week pilgrimage to Poland and Israel called “The March of the Living.” Organized by a pro-Israel charity, the March sponsors about 10,000 students from around the world annually. In Poland, the students visit the concentration camps and the gas chambers. They then see how Israel translates the slogan “never again” into daily practice. The end of the trip is punctuated by successive national holidays mourning the Holocaust and celebrating Israel’s independence, ritualizing motivation and response. It is an emotionally draining experience, by turns traumatic and jubilant, designed to leave a life-long impression.
Participants in the March learn not just about the Holocaust but also about Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, and other instances of attempted ethnic cleansing. Inculcating opposition to any kind of racial discrimination is central to the March’s purpose. Its mission statement reads, “The diminution of the dignity of any member of the human family is a cardinal violation of Jewish ethical teachings.”
There is just one blind spot in the otherwise laudable program: the Palestinians. Deir Yassin and the expulsions of 1948; the daily indignities visited on the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; the latest racist rantings of Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and its Minister of the Economy; the proliferation of Hebrew bumper stickers reading Rak ha-transfer yavi shalom (“Only the transfer [of Arabs out of Israel and the occupied territories] will bring peace”) – for the March of the Living, all these are irrelevant. Ariella and I talked about this fact before she left Toronto. I tried to impress on her that the kind of person who values principled rejection and two quick tits for tat violates the universal ethical principles for which the March of the Living supposedly stands and runs a high risk of making Israel’s enemies more ruthless in their determination to seek revenge.
Ariella asked my opinion of the common counterargument that rejection and force are often necessary because the enemy’s hatred is eternal and implacable. An unexpected answer soon presented itself. Motivated by her imminent departure, I googled “Bodzanów” for more information about my father’s hometown. I discovered that in 2004, local schoolchildren had cleaned up the old Jewish cemetery as part of a school history project. They found and resurrected the one tombstone the Nazis had overlooked, and an organization called the Memorial Establishment Social Committee erected a monument in memory of Bodzanów’s Jews. These actions touched me deeply. They signified that the thousand-year history of Polish anti-Semitism, still evident when I visited the country just three decades earlier, was perhaps fading.
I was left with a series of questions for Ariella: Could similar actions in Israel further the cause of truth and reconciliation? Could the leaders of the March of the Living organize Malcha’s schoolchildren to clean up the old Arab cemetery? Could they invite Palestinian schoolchildren from Bethlehem whose grandparents grew up in Malcha to participate in the work? Could they go so far as to offer the guests bread and salt?