The Movement of Jewish Shadows

The Movement of Jewish Shadows
Marek Beylin

When Yael Bartana called into exis­tence the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, she auto­mat­i­cally lost absolute con­trol over it. Everyone who feels called out to the black­board by her work can, and actu­ally should, put in their two pen­ny­worth about how they imag­ine the movement’s role, so let me make a few remarks myself.
In Mary Koszmary (Nightmare), a Pole’s appeal for Jews to return to Poland is an appeal for the return of Polishness. A Polishness that keeps con­fronting itself with its own ‘oth­ers’, with the Polish Jews. A Polishness forced to con­stantly ask itself about what it is and to use the answer to redis­cover its own diver­sity and colour­ful­ness. We are grey and homo­ge­neous, and there­fore sad and fright­ened, the Leader says in Mary Koszmary. Our tres­passes against you have been all the heav­ier a bur­den since we have repressed them, and are being ampli­fied by your absence, because our fear of Jews is actu­ally a fear of our­selves, of look­ing boldly into our own unclean con­science. So come here to release the con­strained Polishness so that, through your pres­ence, we can look into our­selves. Bring us our joy and colours, bring us the diverse, mul­ti­cul­tural Poland — that’s how the Leader’s mes­sage could be interpreted.

And so they came. In Wieża i mur (Wall and Tower), they are here, build­ing a kib­butz on the site of the for­mer Warsaw ghetto, where the Holocaust took place, near the Umschlagplatz, from where the Germans sent sev­eral hun­dred thou­sands of Jews to the ovens. If I under­stand well, these newly arrived Jews are sup­posed to replace those mur­dered by the Germans and those killed, turned in and robbed on the ‘fringes of the Holocaust’, to use a term coined by a Polish his­to­rian, by their Polish neighbours.

But pay­ing heed to Israeli expe­ri­ences that advise cau­tion, and in accor­dance with a spirit of time that advises minori­ties to guard them­selves against majori­ties, the kib­butzniks sur­round the kib­butz with a wall and erect a tall watch­tower inside. Seen from out­side, the wall and tower are sym­bols of mis­trust and strange­ness. But from the per­spec­tive of the kib­butz itself, the wall and gate are not only an expres­sion of vig­i­lant uncer­tainty, but also an invi­ta­tion: come and see us in our kib­butz nor­mal­ity, even if the nor­mal­ity were to be hard to under­stand for you. We have come here not to be strangers in a strange land, but to become your strangers who, by dis­turb­ing, chal­lenge you to accept the rule that, as the German philoso­pher Bernhard Waldenfels puts it, ‘human beings will never be com­pletely at home in the world, and … nobody can claim to be the mas­ter of his own home’.

This com­mu­ni­ca­tion claim made by the kib­butzniks and the Leader invit­ing them has been nei­ther ful­filled nor even acknowl­edged. Seen from the per­spec­tive of the street, the kib­butz gate is a part of the wall block­ing from view an unfa­mil­iar, and thus fright­en­ing, real­ity, rather than invit­ing one to enter. The same gate, seen from inside the kib­butz, becomes increas­ingly a sign of illu­sion and dis­il­lu­sion­ment that accom­pany a com­mu­ni­ca­tion failure.

What is miss­ing between the Poles and the kib­butzniks is a liai­son, a con­nect­ing fac­tor: the Jews mur­dered in the Holocaust. But their shad­ows, ever more intensely present in Poland and, at the same time, per­sis­tently rel­e­gated into obliv­ion by the major­ity, are there. If the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland is to take root here, it should inte­grate these Jewish shad­ows. But what exactly would that be sup­posed to mean?

Let us accept after numer­ous philoso­phers that at the begin­ning of social life is dif­fer­ence rather than unity. This is a friend­lier faith, one that pro­tects from the temp­ta­tion of sin­gu­lar­ity and ‘com­plete­ness’. It sti­fles aggres­sion and, in extreme cases, also the geno­ci­dal ten­den­cies dis­played by eth­nic, reli­gious or cul­tural majori­ties. Such a readi­ness to vio­lence is born when minori­ties remind majori­ties with their exis­tence of the ‘small gap which lies between their con­di­tion as majori­ties and the hori­zon of an unsul­lied national whole, a pure and untainted national eth­nos’, as Arjun Appadurai argues.

Frequent in the world and present also in Poland, aggres­sion against minori­ties, or rather against con­structed fic­tions about them, such as that they will dom­i­nate the major­ity or that under their ‘nor­mal’ sur­face hides a treach­er­ous nature, stems from the majority’s futile efforts to build its own sin­gu­lar­ity: the sin­gu­lar­ity of Poles in Poland, or of men or het­ero­sex­u­als in soci­ety. To snatch and free Poles from their sense of com­plete­ness is the Movement’s fun­da­men­tal task. The Jewish shad­ows are wan­der­ing shad­ows, lack­ing any mun­dane haven in their life­time. These shad­ows are our Other. For Waldenfels, at the begin­ning is not human­ity in every­one and not oth­er­ness in one­self, but human­ity in the Other. ‘The other is the first human being, not I’, he quotes Husserl.

These Jewish shad­ows are our human­ity. But for them to change us, we must avoid famil­iaris­ing them, avoid reduc­ing them to our own stan­dards and iden­ti­ties. They would then become merely exotic, so they have to remain as they are: strange, and there­fore dis­turb­ing. Then per­haps we will become able to respond to the chal­lenge that their pres­ence faces us with, and will be given a chance, while talk­ing about our­selves, to notice the cracks in oth­er­ness also in us. Because they are present in every­one and only need to be acknowl­edged. And if we accept that oth­er­ness is not a hor­ri­fy­ing aspect of the out­side world that needs to be co-opted and reduced to famil­iar­ity, but is also a part of our­selves, and one worth par­tic­u­lar atten­tion, then we will be able to walk con­fi­dently through the kib­butz gate, and the wall and tower will become unnec­es­sary. By virtue of the Jewish shadows.

1 B. Waldenfels, The Question of the Other, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2007, p. 4.
2 Arjun Appadurai uses the term in Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
3 Ibid., p. 8.
4 Waldenfels.