Our Man in Warsaw: Konstanty Gebert
Interview by Sarah Breger
Born in 1953 when Poland
was under communist rule,
Konstanty Gebert viewed his
Jewish lineage as a “biographical
accident” until he was 15.
That year, 1968, the government launched an anti-Semitic purge. Many Jewish adults—even communists—lost their jobs, and Gebert was expelled from school. He became an outsider, which would deeply influence his life journey. After the government declared martial law in 1981 in an effort to repress the trade union Solidarity, Gebert emerged as one of Poland’s foremost opposition activists and dissident journalists, writing under the pen name David Warszawski. He began to observe Shabbat and attend synagogue, and he helped establish the Jewish Flying University—a semi-underground group that studied Judaism and Jewish culture. In the two-and-a-half decades since the fall of the People’s Republic of Poland, Gebert has become one of Poland’s leading journalists. A founder of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest daily newspaper, he has written 11 books, covering subjects as diverse as the European 20th century, Israel, Polish Jews, and the Balkan wars. The kippah-wearing Gebert is also a key figure in Poland’s reconstituted Jewish community. In the wake of growing Russian aggression and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, Moment managing editor Sarah Breger speaks with Gebert about the awakening of his Jewish identity, the state of Polish-Jewish relations, the dangerous tensions in Crimea and Ukraine and why he thinks Americans should be more worried about anti-Semites in Western Europe than Eastern Europe.
Could you tell us a little about your parents?
My father left Poland in 1912 for the United States. He was a coal miner and then a steel worker, and also one of the founders of the Communist Party—he was at the founding Congress in 1919. In the United States, he was under indictment through the McCarran Act, which required members of the Communist Party to register and in some cases prevented them from leaving the country. He returned to Poland illegally in 1947, boarding a Polish ship in New York Harbor at its farewell party and kind of forgetting to get off. He sailed back to Poland and could never come back again.
My mother fled Warsaw for Russia in 1939, as the Nazis were closing in. She, too, was active in the Communist Party and returned as a soldier in the Polish Army of the Soviet Union. For more than two years, she sat in the trenches with a machine gun, very effectively killing Germans. She never discussed that period of her life with us, so I pieced it together, speaking to her comrades-in-arms. Apparently, she was incredibly brave. But she spent the rest of her life reinventing herself as a lady.
Was Judaism a part of your family life?
It was a biographical accident. And my father wasn’t even Jewish, which was totally irrelevant. I had friends who were brought up in mixed marriages or completely assimilated families, and they didn’t know they were Jewish. We were too assimilated to even bother denying it. It was that irrelevant.
When did you become interested in Judaism and Jewish culture?
In 1968, there was a state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign. Most of my friends left. I got expelled from high school and was beaten up on the street. It made me think that maybe my parents were wrong to dismiss this Jewishness thing as irrelevant.
What happened in 1968 that led to this anti-Semitic campaign?
In 1968, the government, reacting both to the “wrong” side having won the Six-Day War, and to a student democracy movement in which many activists were Jewish, launched an anti-Semitic purge, officially called the “Anti-Zionist campaign.” Rallies were held in factories and institutions, and Jews were called to condemn “Zionist aggression” and “revisionism,” a code name for the democracy drive. Even those who would were not safe, and those who would not lost their jobs (my mother for example), were expelled from schools (I was), etc. The propaganda onslaught, equating Jews with Zionists, and Zionism with Nazism, was deafening. Some 15,000 people left the country, stripped of their Polish citizenship and all benefits. Around one-fourth settled in Israel, the rest in Western Europe and the United States.
Were your parents disillusioned after that?
How did you go about learning more about your Jewish heritage?
One of the consequences of the mass emigration of Jews after 1968 was that since they couldn’t take all their books with them, you could buy Judaica in Warsaw’s second-hand bookstores for peanuts. I discovered that all the great classics of Yiddish literature—S. Ansky, Sholem Asch, Sholem Aleichem—had been translated into Polish. I started reading their literature, and I had the shock of my life. I didn’t know the difference between a tallit or a mezuzah and a hole in the ground, but for the first time in my life, I was reading about myself and my family and my friends. I knew what was going to happen on the next page. Who gets offended and refuses to eat, for example. I had never expected to read about myself in a novel.
That was my introduction to Yiddishkeit. Then in 1971, I came to the United States for the first time. I tracked down my mother’s relatives, who lived in San Francisco. I spent my first Shabbat with them. I discovered that it’s doable. It’s not Mt. Everest. By the late 1970s, there were more of us in the same situation. So we set up an independent semi-underground study group that we called the Jewish Flying University. And anybody who knew or, more often than not, thought they knew about anything Jewish, would pontificate. Everybody else would listen in rapt admiration. It wasn’t even the one-eyed leading the blind, it was the amputees leading the brain-dead.
How did the Flying University come about?
The starting point was a workshop by Carl Rogers, the American humanistic psychologist, who has since passed away. We were all involved one way or another in the humanist psychology movement. It was a big thing in Poland in the late 1970s. Almost 200 people attended. Carl suggested that we might want to have special interest groups. So there was a divorced people’s group, a parents of small children group, an artists’ group. And somebody suggested, “Let’s have a Jewish group.” I still remember the nervous giggles in the room at the word Jewish being said in public. But a room and a date were set aside. And when I entered that room at that time, that’s when I discovered most of my friends were Jewish, and that’s how most of my friends discovered I’m Jewish.
Word spread. We would meet in private apartments, where people would tell their friends to pop in. So there was always somebody we didn’t know. I remember once this guy standing in the doorway, looking at us and weeping, huge tears rolling down his cheeks. I walked up to him and I asked him, “What’s the problem? What happened?” He said, “I’ve never seen so many Jews in my life.” And there were like two dozen of us. He was from the last Jewish family in a small Polish town. And it was a secret; never tell your neighbors and never tell your friends. So for him, we were the next best thing to the coming of the Messiah.
Fighting for the country’s freedom also meant fighting for our freedom as Jews. In general, democracy is good for Jews.
Were there functioning synagogues then?
In Warsaw there was a shtiebel, because the government had seized the synagogue after 1968. And there were minyanim here and there. But to be Jewish officially, to acknowledge it overtly, publicly—that was kind of scary. In Polish society Jews were viewed as the people who got kicked out. Jews were the people who got blamed for all of Poland’s ills. And the stereotype of the Jew in the popular imagination wasn’t even hateful. It was contemptuous. At that time, you’d still run into idioms like “Jewish courage,” meaning cowardice, “Jewish honesty,” meaning dishonesty. It wasn’t something you wanted to associate with in public.
I started going to shul in the early 1980s. It took me a long time to convince the old gentlemen who were davening there that I was Jewish. The first question they asked me, was, “Redstu Yiddish?” [Do you speak Yiddish?] Eventually, when they were more or less convinced of my bona fides, they said, “Well, you could pass as Polish. Why the hell do you come here?” And, “Well, if you really insist on being Jewish, they need you in Israel in the army.”
I was the youngest by two generations. It was a fascinating geriatric ward, but it was a geriatric ward. For somebody who had no Hebrew and basic Yiddish, it was nearly impossible to try to make heads or tails if what’s happening in shul is a prayer or the umpteenth chapter of a feud between two old men that has been going on for the last 50 years.
Were you already a journalist?
No. I was working as a psychologist. I had no interest in a journalism career. I was also heavily involved with the democratic opposition. After martial law was declared in December 1981 to repress the free trade union movement, I distributed underground press and collected funds for political prisoners. After most of our people ended up in jail or in internment, I started producing a news bulletin on my own and eventually joined with a group that started publishing an underground newspaper. I left my job, so I had more time to dedicate to underground activities. That’s how I became a journalist.
Were your interests in democracy and Jewish culture linked?
The two were connected since the government also made it impossible to have free Jewish expression. Fighting for the country’s freedom also meant fighting for our freedom as Jews. In general, democracy is good for Jews.
How did life change for Jews after 1989?
It changed completely, because suddenly it was possible to be Jewish. When Poland became democratic, we could freely express ourselves. But more importantly, it wasn’t only me and my friends. Literally thousands of people were creeping out of the woodwork and touching base with Jewish organizations, trying to make heads or tails of what they knew of their Jewish heritage. Usually, that was very little. People would show up at shul or the Jewish theater or at the Jewish Historical Institute and say, “My mother, before she died, told me that I’m Jewish. What should I do?” We were completely unprepared for them. The institutions themselves were in a total mess—it took us years to remake them.
Also, freedom means freedom for everyone, which would include the anti-Semites. Anti-Semitism, which was present all the time, emerged quite viciously. It really scared my non-Jewish friends, who, before, would tell me that I was exaggerating or was over-sensitive. They realized it was a serious issue and were much more shocked by it than I was.
What kind of Jewish institutions were established?
We set up a Jewish kindergarten, and it was very successful. Then the parents of the kids who graduated from our kindergarten came back to us saying, “Our kids are missing out on something. They deserve to get the Jewish education that we didn’t have. We need to set up a Jewish school.” We actually managed to rebuild, on a very modest base, a functioning Jewish education system. And the schools are mobbed. They have excellent reputations. Now we are happy as a functioning, if small, Jewish community. The card-carrying members of the community, secular or religious, are some 8,000 nationwide. Maybe some 20,000 more, one way or the other, identify as Jewish even if they don’t belong to any organization.
What kind of relationship do Polish Jews have with non-Jewish Poles today?
The most fascinating things happening in Jewish life in Poland today are happening at the border between the Jewish community and Polish society at large. There is an epidemic of Jewish culture festivals all over Poland, and they are usually produced by non-Jews. And the audience is non-Jewish. The performers are usually, if not always, Jewish. This is an attempt by Poles to recreate what for centuries was an important element of Polish life. That is, a Jewish presence and a Jewish culture. Jews are involved, but it’s mainly a Polish initiative.
Why do you think non-Jewish Poles are so fascinated with Jewish culture?
Because you really can’t understand Poland without the Jews. Before the war, we were 10 percent of the country’s population. Warsaw was one-third Jewish. Warsaw was more Jewish than New York is today. As a result of the Shoah and changing borders, Poland became mono-cultural and mono-ethnic, which for Poland is a historical aberration. Historically, Poland was always multicultural. So the Poles, by trying to reproduce the Jewish presence, are trying to recreate an element of their own past.
Are there competing narratives between Jews and non-Jewish Poles over who was the victim in World War II?
The Poles have a self-perception of being a martyr nation, which is perfectly legitimate—six million citizens of Poland were lost in World War II, three million were Polish Jews, three million were non-Jewish Poles. The city of Warsaw alone suffered more deaths in World War II than any of the Western allies, more than Britain, more than occupied France. It was a massacre of unspeakable dimensions. And the Poles, rightly, consider themselves victims. What is terribly difficult to understand is that one can be a victim and a perpetrator.
Poland could not have a free debate about what happened in wartime until after 1989. By then, many of the eyewitnesses were dead or far away. And the moral urgency of discussing it was gone. The debate finally erupted after the 2001 publication of Jan Gross’s book Neighbors (about the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne); it was shocking for Poles to discover that they might have been perpetrators, whereas the Jews knew it all along.
Poles also tend to attribute responsibility for the atrocities of the communist regime to Jews, arguing that Jews were over-represented. They certainly were but there was no specific Jewish motivation for being communist. Whatever the crimes of communists in Poland, crimes by Polish communists and crimes by Jewish communists were no different. But it was much easier to hate a communist if he happened not to be your brother-in-law, but a Jew.
This topic remains a sensitive issue because Poles are also unfairly blamed, at times. Poland was a victim nation. There was no participation of Poland in the Shoah, even if there was participation by Poles. There is a difference between the French rounding up their Jews and sending them to Auschwitz and Poles being the first inmates at Auschwitz before Polish Jews or French Jews. It’s a horribly complex issue.
Anti-Semitism is coming back to stay. Paradoxically, it’s much more of a threat in the West than in the East.
This sense of victimhood seems to be particularly strong in neighboring countries such as Lithuania and Ukraine. How do they differ from Poland?
There was direct and organized Lithuanian and Ukrainian participation in the Shoah, the way there had not been in Poland. In Poland, you had numerous individual perpetrators. And you had the one massacre in Jedwabne. In Lithuania and Ukraine, you had organized, systematic participation of armed units: The Lithuanian or Ukrainian police. You had dozens of Jedwabnes. The dimensions of the crimes were incomparable.
If Poland had it hard, Lithuania and Ukraine, who were not even nominally independent but under direct Soviet rule, had it harder in terms of even a semi-tolerated discussion. We had the Jewish Flying University. In Vilnius or in Lviv, we would have been sent to Siberia for that.
We’ve been hearing a great deal about the surge in anti-Semitism in Europe. Is this occurring in Poland?
We don’t see it in Poland yet. But I rather expect we will, although there won’t be as much of it as in Western Europe. One main difference is that much of the anti-Semitism is fueled by resentment from the immigrant Muslim Arab communities. This community is tiny in Poland. During the Gaza operation in the summer, we had a demonstration of the extreme right in solidarity with Gaza in front of the Israeli Embassy. There were about 100 demonstrators, yelling things like “We’ll make soap out of you.” And they had a lone Palestinian with them, who looked more and more puzzled. In a way, in Poland it’s so much clearer that the new anti-Zionism is the old anti-Semitism being reproduced by the same old anti-Semites.
Are larger numbers of Polish Jews making aliyah, as Jews are in France and Ukraine?
No. Aliyah is very small. And it’s part of a larger Polish emigration. About a million Poles have emigrated abroad looking for better economic conditions. But I don’t know of anybody who has made aliyah out of fear.
Is this a good time to be Jewish in Poland?
Yes. One of the motives of this revival of interest in things Jewish is that a homogeneous society gets boring. Everybody is like everybody else. In the 1970s, we had this epidemic of trying to be different. You had Polish Hare Krishnas and even Polish Native Americans, dressing up and living in teepees in the summer. Being Jewish is exotic and native at the same time. So yes, in the big cities, it’s fun to be Jewish the way it’s fun to be gay. But I wouldn’t advise anybody to be openly gay or openly Jewish in a small, provincial Polish town.
Are you concerned about Russian aggression in Eastern Europe?
Immensely. Europe had a very successful quarter century, but I think the risk of a return to confrontation with Russia is real. It’s all in Putin’s hands, of course. But I don’t think he would go to all that expense of political capital and also the sanctions just to regain control over Ukraine. He could have done that in a much more economical way. My fear is that Putin’s big project is to try to push the frontiers of the West back to where they were in 1989. If so, we haven’t seen the worst of this yet.
What do you think of the European response thus far?
Europe is reacting but much less forcefully than one would have hoped. This is the fault of its advantage of having had such a successful quarter century, and having lived the dream that war is simply unthinkable. Europe has a very hard time adapting to this new reality. Incidentally, part of Europe’s reaction to Gaza is also due to the fact that we simply no longer understand what it means to be party to a conflict. So we see the destruction in Gaza and we say, “Whatever the reason, this is unacceptable.”
But the latest batch of sanctions is serious, especially the embargo on oil and gas extraction technology. If it’s maintained, it will hit Russia hard in a couple of years, because they will need to start exploring and exploiting new fields. They can’t do that without this technology. So if Europe sticks with it, then Russia will eventually have to respond. The question is how it will respond.
Is this all Putin? Or is there pent-up Russian interest in reclaiming the empire?
I’m not sure if it’s a desire for an empire, but there is a desire to make sense of things. What Putin is telling Russians is that the 20th century was not just one absurd horror, in which the country suffered tremendously, but that it did achieve great power status. Then it was wasted, but now we’re getting it back, as we deserve. This is not really old-style imperialism. It is, rather, a desperate desire to be recognized as a major power once again. Probably [President Barack] Obama didn’t realize that when he said that Russia is a regional issue. That was the most horrible thing that a Russian could hear. “We are not a regional issue. We are a world power. And we’ll prove it to you.” And living next door to the proving ground isn’t fun.
Often this kind of global turmoil spells danger for Jews. Are we in for increased anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe?
Once the situation starts going down the drain, it’s really difficult to predict what particular nastiness will emerge. But I think that this aberrant 70-year post-war period, in which Europe had denounced and rejected anti-Semitism, is over. It does seem a natural, ingrained European reaction to blame all kinds of evils on Jews. And if we have a more complicated situation in Europe, it’s probably not going to be fun for Jews, either. Anti-Semitism is a consistent element of European identity. I think it’s coming back to stay. Paradoxically, it’s much more of a threat in the West than in the East. Putin has claimed that he is trying to save the planet from Ukrainian anti-Semitism—this is nonsense. I’ve been to the Ukraine many times. Yes, I’ve seen anti-Semites, but I’ve seen many more in France.