Marian Turski is one of the few people left whose life encompasses close to the entire breadth of Jewish-Polish history in the 20th and 21st centuries. Born in Lodz in 1926, the journalist, scholar, Holocaust survivor, and founder of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which opened in 2014, has a first-hand understanding of the rupture that his country suffered when most of its 3 million Jews were murdered during World War II. He’s dedicated much of his life to preserving the story of his community, in the hopes that an understanding of Poles and Jews’ shared past can serve as a basis for the survival of Jewish life in the country, where he continues to reside.
In early March, Turski traveled to New York to accept an award from the Fellowships at Auschwitz on the Study of Professional Ethics on behalf of Emanuel Ringleblum, who was executed in Warsaw’s Pawiak Prison in 1944. Ringleblum buried milk cans stuffed with documents relating to life in the Warsaw Ghetto that were recovered after the war. The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute for Poland, which Turski co-chairs, has helped translate and publish some 37 volumes of the archives, “Not for Poland—for you!” said Turski,” adding, “for the entire world.”
Turski, a buoyant and often-grinning 91-year-old who speaks in a slow and deliberative English, believes that such exhumations can point a way forward for the country and its roughly 10,000 remaining Jews. But the past is contested ground—particularly in Poland, whose populist right-wing government passed a law criminalizing certain claims of Polish responsibility for the Holocaust in late January, beginning with the use of the ahistorical phrase “Polish death camps.” The law sparked outrage through the Jewish world, and led to a diplomatic crisis between Israel and one of its closest European allies.
Turksi said he stayed in Poland after the war partly out of a sense of responsibility “to the Jewish tradition—to be the arranger of it. And also to organize people who will come after me.” Turski’s work might not seem as secure to him now as it did a few months ago. “What is so hurting me is that this new debate surrounding this law could harm the process of a renewal of Jewish life in Poland,” he said.
After the war, Turski had every reason to leave Poland. He grew up in a Jewish world so thoroughly destroyed that its contours seem almost alien to the present day: Before the war, Turski attended a Hebrew-language school because of the influence of his father, who he described as “an outstanding Zionist.” Turski’s mother was a Bundist, a socialist movement that emphasized Jewish national unity. “With my father I spoke only Hebrew, with my mother, only Polish,” Turski recalled.
He survived Auschwitz, as well as a forced march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt. After recovering at a field hospital at the former concentration camp near Prague, Turski had opportunities to settle in Canada or the United States. But those countries weren’t his. “I decided to go back to lend a hand to build a new idea,” he recalled, “a new, just Poland.”
In March of 1968, the Polish government began a mass purge of Jews from the communist party and government-linked jobs, a campaign aimed at making life untenable for the country’s remaining community. By the mid-1970s, nearly half of Poland’s 30,000 Jews had emigrated. Turski again stayed behind, this time out of a sense of obligation to the non-Jews who were also swept up in the purge and who had defended their Jewish compatriots. “This was a fight for human values and a matter of solidarity,” he said.
Prominent Poles, including the eventual Pope John Paul II, and Mieczysław Rakowski, a future Prime Minister and then-editor of Polityka, a still-popular weekly magazine that Turski co-founded, spoke out against the anti-Jewish campaign. But inevitably, the courage of influential non-Jews was insufficient to stop the purge. At the same time, the still-powerful if contested conviction that the country’s most virulent forms of anti-Semitism were the work of Germans and Russians, combined with the real injuries suffered by Poles both under the Nazis and then under Soviet rule, made it easy for Poles to see themselves as victims, rather than as perpetrators.
Turksi is uniquely positioned to view radioactive questions of historical memory from both a Polish and Jewish perspective. “The law itself is a matter of how it is implemented,” Turski explained. “I wouldn’t overdo being afraid that this law could hurt preservation of the Jewish memory. However, it’s important that the entire campaign surrounding this law evoked a new wave of old hidden anti-Semitism.”
Turski, who is a former vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee and member of the Committee’s international council, said that Jews and all “decent people … should support the demand not to use the term ‘Polish concentration camp,’” adding that Jews “should be much more sensitive and try to comprehend the Polish mentality.” In Turski’s view, the danger doesn’t necessarily lie in the law’s substance, which he admits is in need of “clarification,” but in the accompanying demagoguery.
The law is dangerous, he argued, because it showed how easily the genocide of Poland’s Jews could be slotted into populist politics—and not just in Poland. The Israeli response to the law, which included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likening the measure to a form of Holocaust denial, didn’t help things in Turski’s view.
“To some extent those are the same kind of politicians in Poland and Israel who do not always look for the great long-run interests of the country and are looking for a quick increase in the electorate,” he said. Grandstanding around issues of historical memory, including the resulting diplomatic standoff between Israel and Poland, could reduce Poles’ willingness to confront their own history in a healthy or constructive way. He pointed out that over 1,200 Jewish cemeteries in Poland are being looked after by non-Jewish volunteers. Because there are so few Jews left in the country, he explained, sustaining Jewish memory in Poland can’t just be the work of the community alone. “We shouldn’t waste this potential of energy of the young people, of the empathy, of their understanding, of their attempt to understand the vacuum in Poland,” he urged, “when you have no more Jews.”
Ironically for a preserver of history, the controversy showed the dangers of being too obsessed with the past. Turksi talked about the importance of memory—zachor, as he put it—to Jewish survival, but then quoted the 18th-century Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who Turski proudly noted was born in a place then under Polish rule: “‘The trick is to not always remember,’” he said. “You have to remember, but not to be vindictive, not to be unforgiving.”
Of course, Turski can remember a time when things were a whole lot worse than this. But he’s 91 years old. At some point in the fearfully close future, there will no longer be any witnesses of Auschwitz left alive, and the legacy of the Holocaust will be the permanent responsibility of people incapable of relating to it as a lived event. The debate over the Polish Holocaust law is, perhaps, a disquieting preview of what could happen when the slaughter of Europe’s Jews lies beyond the memory and moral authority of the living.
I wanted a sense of what would be lost when that point finally arrives, so I asked Tursi to describe the most important thing people should understand about what he experienced during the Holocaust.
“I don’t know if I understood you correctly,” he said, “but you probably would ask what message a survivor of Auschwitz could give?”
I admitted that was actually a better question than the one I had asked. He responded:
“I’m sometimes asked what was the worst when you were in Auschwitz. And usually, people expect that I’ll answer that it was starvation. And they are right, because hunger was maybe the most hurting, the most exhausting—causing the most victims, the most tragedy, the largest mortality. This is true. But nevertheless, if you ask me I would say, no, hunger was not the worst. So what was it? Freezing. Cold. I think the last winter was minus 20 degrees centigrade. Also our so-called uniforms: the inmate’s vests, with the stripes. I remember once I cut out underwear from a cement bag, and the German supervisor noticed at once. He beat me up almost to death, shouting, ‘du hast Deutsche gshtolen!’ words that mean ‘you stole German property!” So was this worse? No.
“So maybe so-called accommodation. In the barracks, it was 1,100 people. … We were squashed like animals, so at least it was not cold. I remember when I was sent from one barracks to the other the old prisoners were advising whether it was better to be on a top or bottom bunk. Well of course, it’s best to be on the top bunk … your bladder couldn’t hold. And therefore it would leak. It was better to be up than down. But on the other hand, if they did a sudden roll-call, in German ‘ein appel’ you had to go as soon as possible. And you were weak, you didn’t have enough energy and power to get down, so you did it slowly so you could be also beaten up for this. So was this the worst? No.
“What was the worst? Humiliation: That you were treated as a cockroach, like a louse, like a bedbug. And what do you usually do with a cockroach or a louse? You should smash it. You should step on it. And they treated you not even like an animal or an insect. You were nothing for them. … Humiliation is something people keep in mind forever. … In Europe today, half of all the diseases, not only in Poland, in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Greece, in the United States, come from disregarding people, by making them feeling alienated, frustrated, excluded. So please, the message is not to exclude people, other people, whom you call a stranger.”