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What Shall We Tell Miriam?

by Rafael F. Scharf

Editor’s Note: Rafael F. Scharf was born in Krakow in 1914 and graduated from the Hebrew High School. He obtained a law degree from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He emigrated to England, served in the British Army during World War II and was a member of a War Crimes Investigation Unit. He was a co-founder of The Jewish Quarterly, a literary-political magazine, and one of the founders of the Institute of Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford. He is a recipient of the Commander’s Order of Merit of the Polish Republic. The following article appeared in his book, “Poland, What I Have to Do with Thee…”

I have given my little piece a title that might strike you as quaint. I call it “What shall we tell Miriam?” It is thus entitled on the assumption that there must be many Miriams and Sarahs and Samuels and Josephs and Daniels everywhere in the world where Jews have set foot (which means virtually everywhere) who are or very soon now will be asking their parents and grandparents questions to which hitherto they have seemed strangely indifferent: What was life really like in that country where you were born, in that incredibly distant past, before the Second, before the First World War? What were these people like, the grandparents and the great-grandparents, how did they live, what did they do, what did they think, what did the places look like, what did they smell of? In the words of the historian Ranke: “Wie es wirklich gewesen.” Posing such questions is part of a natural cyclical process: indifference—then curiosity.

I think it is important to tell them—for our sake and for their sake. Who will, if we won’t? Ours is the lost and vanishing generation of living witness. The point arises how to do it, as the young have little patience, their concentration span is short. Of course it would be simple enough to use the precept of the Sage Hillel—“tseh ul’mad”—go to the library, read and learn, there is no shortage of sources. But that, I fear, is a counsel of perfection, rarely followed.

There is another, more personal way, and I would like to give an example how this might be done, bringing it home through the story of one’s own family. I am somewhat reticent about introducing an autobiographical note—the personal pronoun is the most suspect part of speech—but I think in the event it is justified, since my family, in its mainstream and offshoots, serves as a not untypical illustration of the many aspects of Jewish life in Western Galicia, that is, the “Austrian” part of Poland, in and around Krakow at the end of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century.


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I am descended on my father’s side from a long line of rabbis or, the less snobbish would say, melameds—religious teachers—who would surely be horrified at what has happened to their issue. My father was the youngest of fifteen children. They did not all have the same mother and, of course, did not all survive to adulthood. To give a thumbnail sketch of the family, one would need a very large thumb indeed.

The grandfather, a white-bearded patriarch, by trade an innkeeper, in his youth reputedly an oak of a man, with proof of virility for all the world to see, as I remember him, was already a shadow of himself, bent in half, toothless, shrunken with incessant toil, worry and the blows of fortune. He died at what was then a good age, certainly less than “three score years and ten.” The saying at the time was “a yingerer zol nysh shtarben”—let never a man younger than him die—and this tells its own story.

The Scharfs were so thick on the ground in that part of the land, in the villages, townlets like Chrzanow (the headquarters), Kalwaria, Alwernia. Zwiec, Bochnia and the environs of Krakow, that it is a wonder there was room for anybody else. (Incidentally, if you are interested in statistics, the great majority of the Jewish population inhabited localities of less than 20,000 people.)

This vast clan was seething with activity and appeared to be in a state of perpetual motion, travelling with trunks, cases, parcels, by train or horse-drawn carts in feverish pursuit of their affairs big and small, and also to family gatherings—the weddings, the circumcisions, the funerals. I remember the colorful, noisy crowd passing at various times through our house in Krakow, en route to their next port of call, to rest awhile, to exchange family news, to seek advice from my mother or a loan from my father, and refreshing themselves with a cup of tea—but no more, as my mother’s kitchen was suspect to them, and rightly so. Even though the meat was kosher and ham was never eaten inside the house, the dessert after goose could well be wild strawberries and cream, in defiance of the ritual command.

The spectrum of religious orthodoxy, belief and practice, was wide. There was my oldest uncle, Motl, almost forty years my father’s senior, an ascetic and forbidding figure, a follower to distraction of the Rebbe of Belz and not on speaking terms with his younger brother Saul, who was not—God forbid—an anti-Hassid but, ridiculously, a follower of another “wonder rabbi,” not nearly as holy. As a boy, I firmly refused to visit him after the day when he pinched my cheek in a supposed sign of affection, but, as I well knew, in retribution for the fact that, as he discovered to his disgust, I was not wearing tsitsit—the four- cornered garment which a Jewish male is enjoined to wear through the waking hours.

Then there was Cousin Hymie, a dreamer and a schemer, frantically engaged in projects which, if successful, would shed enormous benefits on the whole family, but in the meantime required continuous injections of cash, a figure modeled to a T, in the way life imitates or rather parodies art, on Sholom Aleichem’s Menachem Mendl.

There was Aunt Rachel, an early widow, with as many children as there had been years in her happy marriage, making a living in an otherwise male preserve as a marriage-broker. Since that involved continuous travel in search of information, developing connections, soothing anxieties and supervising bekucks (the preview to which the couple was entitled)—a subtle and sophisticated pursuit—she was also a ministering angel to the sick in the family wherever she found them (and she found them aplenty), applying her uncanny knowledge of folk remedies and deep psychological insights. Long before the name was invented, she understood the nature of psychosomatic illness, which featured in her sources as anredinish is arger vi a krenk—meaning that you can talk yourself into an imaginary illness, worse than a real one.

There was, before my time, deeply secreted in the tribe’s common memory, the allegedly beautiful Auntie Rosa, her yellowing photograph buried in my mother’s knickknack drawer, safe—but not from my probing hands—who, I can only piece the story together, eloped with an “Austrian” officer, and after he had had enough of her (as he would), finished up in the gutter as a streetwalker. There is no evidence for this, but it was felt that the story could not have ended otherwise. Her parents, of course, cut her out and went through the ritual of mourning the dead and were until their dying day, which came all the sooner for it, consumed by grief and shame.

This motif, which with slight variations recurs frequently in Yiddish and also Polish literature until it becomes a stereotype, is proof enough that such skeletons rattled in many families’ cupboards. Traumas of this kind tore the guts out of the community; no worse thing was conceivable. Yet in the limited interaction of the group with the surrounding world, menacing yet alluring, an occasional crossing of the barrier was inevitable. Revulsion against what was seen as suffocating obscurantism also played its part. The convert remained in the eyes of his contemporaries an abhorrent and despised figure. No Jew could believe that the change of faith was genuine (a suspicion shared widely, I think, by the receiving side). How could it be? It was generally considered that, with minuscule exceptions, the convert—indifferent to the old religion and dissimulating the new—was in it merely for personal advantage of one sort or another.

A case less dramatic than that of Auntie Rosa, but probably no less typical, revolved around my Uncle Joshua. His, and my mother’s, stepmother decided that the parental home was no longer the place for him, and he was packed off, just like that, to go to America. This, as we know, was not an uncommon practice in those days, and that migration as a whole, proved to be the most timely and beneficial of all. But Joshua—what would he have been? fourteen, fifteen years of age?—was not concerned with History, other than his own—a lost, castaway boy. What were the mechanics of these journeys? I presume he had a Schiffskarte sewn into his pocket and was supposed to sail from Liverpool; how he was to get there in the first place I do not know. In the event, he didn’t make it—first time round. En route, it transpired, he met fellow travelers who knew the family and considered it wicked of them to send the boy away, thus depriving him of his “portion,” the inheritance (of which, no doubt, they had a vastly exaggerated notion). He turned back, and on his return journey, I gather, he must have been spotted by some members of a missionary society, in whose eyes (mistakenly I think) the conversion of the Jews must precede the Coming (Second Coming if one accepts their reckoning) of the Messiah and they decided that Joshua’s destiny was to speed Him on his way. Anyway, a hot meal and a few kind words could—then as now—do wonders. I can still sense the horror with which my mother related the story—half a century on—of how people, neighbors and friends, came rushing into the house utterly scandalized to tell his father and stepmother and the other children that Joshua was standing in the central square selling missionary tracts! There was heartbreak, remorse and dread of scandal. In the end—by bribery, persuasion or force—the boy was dispatched again, this time effectively, to reach the Other Shore. Virtually nothing was heard of him after that—until shortly before the last war some members of the family started digging for his address to write to him to plead for an “affidavit.” It was too late.

My father was an early rebel. Feeling constrained by the life in the shtetl he cut his jacket “short” and changed his hat from the round black velvety kind, part of the Orthodox uniform, for one of lighter color, fashionable but not very. This declaration probably required more courage than we imagine. He arrived in Krakow in search of wife and fortune—and soon succeeded in his first objective beyond his wildest dreams. The second became somehow less important. He retained of course, a total attachment to Judaism He knew nothing else, felt not the slightest need for anything else.

I see him on a Saturday afternoon reaching for a volume of the Talmud, and from the way he handled it, the caress, one knew the book was holy. Bending over an open folio he would slowly turn the pages, as if feeling his way through an embarrassment of riches, and then, with a familiarity that breeds contentment, he would settle down to the study of a chosen passage. He was no scholar—he had the mandatory few years of cheder behind him and was quite unable to make his own way through the undergrowth of commentaries, sprinkled with the poppy seed of glosses. But no matter, he was not looking for solutions to problems or rulings of law, but seeking to wash away the triviality and harshness of everyday existence in the waves of the eternal. He believed, simply, that the book contained the truth and that it was good to touch it.

He wished to persuade me to share his outlook but we did not know how to talk to each other, and he realized that an argument with a precocious know-all only led to an aggravation of spirit. Only once, I remember, he exploded when I asked him: “What is all this for?” “What is this for, fool? The whole of life is for this!”

He saw his role at home as that of the breadwinner, and even though he genuinely believed that all he had aspired to was for our sake, the bringing up of children would not have been part of his conscious concern. What little modicum of success he had as a merchant and small-time manufacturer was brought about by ceaseless hustle and total immersion in the task at hand. He would provide for all our needs—and be the sole judge of how these were defined. While spending money on

books was grudgingly approved, there was much pursing of lips and shaking of the head. Novels, in his eyes, were narishkeiten, foolishness and frivolity. How could adult men and women give serious attention to the imaginary misfortunes of nonexistent people! I argued that they nourish the sources of feeling and imagination, open the door to experience beyond one’s personal orbit and give a glimpse of the many facts of truth. Where else could knowledge of the ways of the world come from? Were not the scandalous infidelities of Mrs. G. next door made comprehensible through the reading of Madame Bovary?

My father understood perhaps more of these matters than he thought fit to concede. He and I maintained a brittle truce that lasted till just before the outbreak of war, when I left home and hearth for a foreign land. I never saw him again: he died in 1942, felling trees at the Arctic Circle, a task for which he was ill prepared.

There was, in those days, a yawning, unbridgeable “generation gap” by comparison with which our contemporary conflicts are puny. The rebellion against the old order was gathering momentum. The tribe was bursting at the seams and moving in all directions. It proliferated into a human landscape of great diversity. Some young members of the family became communists, card-carrying members. Now, that was serious business, illegal and dangerous. It could and often did end badly. Police searches at home, to the dreadful distress of parents; arrests, prison sentences. In spite of that, or rather because of that, this attracted some very good people indeed. The idea was irresistible—it was offering a solution not only to the Jewish question, which seemed trivial by comparison, but to all other questions of social injustice and exploitation, in the trail of its historically inevitable victory of the proletariat. The brotherhood of nations would come naturally, as a bonus. This idea deserved sacrifices—and there were many, including the ultimate, and massive, under Stalin’s execution wall. My favorite cousin Moishe, later Misha, a brilliant linguist and chess player, perished thus.

Some of the clan gave their allegiance to the Jewish Workers Movement, the Bund, but the large majority was swept by the liberating wind of Zionism, in all its hues. You could say that by the late twenties and early thirties the shtetl, the Jewish townlet, had been left behind, and most of the members of the family had migrated to larger towns, mainly Krakow, where they embraced and penetrated and intermingled with other families, to the extent that virtually everybody was or became a relative: the black- bearded Schwarzbarts and the red-bearded Rotbarts, the ubiquitous Landaus, Grosses and Kleins, Schusters and Schneiders, Wolfs and Schaffs, Sperlings and Spatzes, Spiras, Schapiras, Kohns and Kahans and Kohens (here also belong the Loewys), Sonntags, Montags, Freitags and Sonnabends, Zuckers and Pfeffers, Gruens and Brauns, Golds and Silvers, Nussbaums, Rosenbaums, all the other baums, and Aschkenase and Gumplowicz. I have named only those of whom I have direct knowledge of a bond with the Scharfs.

It was an interesting community, of a mixed profile. I was told a story that describes it nicely. A man goes to Krakow and on return tells his friend: “The Jews of Krakow are remarkable people. I saw a Jew who spends all his nights dreaming and all his days planning the revolution. I saw a Jew who spends all his time studying the Talmud. I saw a Jew who chases every skirt he sees. I saw a Jew who didn’t want anything to do with women. I saw a Jew who is full of schemes how to get rich quick.” The other man says: “I don’t know why you are astonished: Krakow is a big city and there are many Jews, all sorts of people.” “No,” says the first, “It was the same Jew.”

But I also want to draw another profile of a Jew of those days. It comes from a little verse called “Avi” (My Father) by Itzhak Katznelson, the author of what is possibly the greatest poem written during and about the Shoah: “The Song of the Murdered Jewish People.” He writes: “When did he [my father] learn the Bible by heart? The translations of Onkelos and Martin Luther? The Talmud, Codes, Midrash, Shakespeare and Heine? When did he read Gogol, Thucydides and Plutarch? When did he study the Holy Zohar? When did he sleep?”

If not for the fact that all these people lived, and soon after died, in apocalyptic times, some of that profusion of humanity would have overspilled into other streams, all over the map, and with their diverse talents, energy and purposefulness they would have enriched the world. As it is, from my closest family (and that, as has been said, included hundreds of individuals)—there was not a single survivor except, blissfully, my mother.

When talking about Polish Jewry before the War, before the Wars, it is important to steer a clear course between nostalgia and reality. In mourning the past it would be wrong to idealize it. The literature of that time, the only authentic descriptive record, in Yiddish and Hebrew, is sharply and mercilessly critical, even

though the criticism is tempered by compassion, as behooves the prophetic tradition. Mendele, Sholom Aleichem, Peretz, Opatoshu, portray the sordid conditions—the poverty, the powerlessness, the oppression, the obscurantism—and lash out against it, that is the function, or the mission, of literature. If you want to know, for instance, what the position of women was in that society, a short passage from the book Debora by Esther Kreitman, the sister of the Singer brothers (and brushed by the talent so prodigiously bestowed on them) will tell you more than a dozen learned tracts.

Once, when she overheard her father saying proudly of Joshua, “One day he will be a brilliant Talmudic scholar,” she asked, “And Father, what am I going to be one day?” Her father looked as if he didn’t quite understand the question. “What are you going to be one day? Nothing, of course!” Do you need to know any more?

It is true to say that poverty was dire and widespread. But it is well to remember that it was not a specifically Jewish poverty, which contrasted with non-Jewish well-being. On the contrary, urban squalor knew no boundaries and the gentile unemployed workman suffered the same, if not worse, hardship and degradation. The countryside could be harsher still: the small holder and landless peasant led, in a bad year, a pitiful existence.

On the other hand, the idea that Jewish life in Poland was always one of unredeemed gloom and oppression is ill founded. There were lights as well as shadows: the rich fabric of Jewish existence is woven of many strands, and some of its brightest and most life-enhancing manifestations took place on Polish soil. When faced with the bleakness of the picture one can well ask the question: if it was so bad, why was it so good?

The structure of what somebody has called “The Jewish Nation in Poland” was diverse. It had its urban proletariat with its industrial workers, tradesmen and craftsmen (mainly tailors and shoemakers) its Luftmenschen with no visible means of support, a large and amorphous middle class of shopkeepers and business people of all categories, its free professions—doctors, lawyers, scholars, and its plutocracy of manufacturers, bankers, big industrialists.

The community’s religious administration lay in the hands of the kahal, with considerable autonomy and a wide range of competence. There were Jewish and Hebrew schools of all grades: yeshivahs and high schools, scholarly institutes—among them the famous YIVO in Vilna and the Institute of Jewish Studies in Warsaw, which had university status. A Jewish press flourished, in Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew (in 1939, according to a recent study, there were thirty Jewish daily newspapers and 130 periodicals of all kinds). There were innumerable trade and professional associations, of writers, journalists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, merchants, homeowners (in the late thirties, forty percent of town property was in Jewish hands).

There was a network of charitable institutions, hospitals, orphanages, provident funds and summer camps to help the disadvantaged. There were sports clubs giving scope to aspiring and actual record- holders in all disciplines. Above all, there were the political parties, with their affiliated youth organizations, with a vision of a better future. Jewish deputies represented the whole spectrum of political life in both chambers of the Polish legislature.

The community was fragmented and torn by internal strife, but there was one unifying factor—a sense of sharing a common fate that transcended social and political differences. There was a marked spirituality, even among the non-religious, an instinctive allegiance and response to what was felt to be the Jewish ethos; a deeply ingrained, universal conviction that, beyond the mundane, man had to aspire to higher things, however defined.

It is also important to remember that there existed a considerable area where the division between the Polish and the Jewish world was blurred and the long cohabitation resulted in mutual acceptance, tolerance and harmony. This produced a cross-fertilization with an untold enrichment of both cultures. Polish literature of the time glitters with illustrious names— Lesmian, Tuwim, Slonimski, Wittlin, Bruno Schulz, to name but a few. A civilization flourished here with its traditions, language, folklore, literature and music, and with roots deeper than Polish civilization. Did it ever occur to a Pole that, in the neighboring town or for that matter on the very same street, something was happening that could engage his attention and deserved his interest? With a few notable exceptions, the answer is no. The Jewish population was commonly regarded as a “dark continent,” backward and primitive, evoking feelings of aversion and repugnance. The Poles automatically regarded themselves as infinitely superior—each Pole superior to each Jew, be he a rabbi, a writer, a merchant, a shoemaker. The Jews requited it with a shrug of their shoulders: what could you expect of “them”?

To complete the picture, here are three snapshots from memory that illustrate the pressures of growing up and living as a Jew in a country where Catholicism dominated and filled the atmosphere like ether.

Once, a very long time ago, our housemaid, out of affection for me and genuine concern for my soul, took me with her to church and confronted me with that huge human figure stretched on His Cross, nails piercing hands and legs, droplets of blood oozing from open wounds. She whispered urgently: “This is God Jesus and He loves you, though you are a Jew and your forefathers crucified Him—and you mustn’t tell your mother about it!” I was struck with terror and nausea. On coming home I sobbed inconsolably but would not let on why. (Perhaps this experience left me with my lifelong interest in theology. Many years and many learned books later, with the clock ticking ever faster, I remain an unregenerate agnostic, thank God. This serves me reasonably well by day, if not so well by night.)

When the street urchin from next door wanted to chase me and harm me, it was not with a stick or with a stone (that also, sometimes) but with what he felt was a much more potent weapon: he used to make his index fingers into a sign of the Cross—I was supposed to cower in the face of it and run. I did, too.

I think that in this image alone, there is enough food for thought to make one ponder what happened, no, what was bound to happen in the future to the generation of both boys—the one making the sign of the Cross and the one who was made to run away from it.

On returning to Krakow for the first time after the war, I avoided the street where we used to live. But in time, it seemed, the wounds partly healed and I was overcome by an irrepressible impulse to cast a glance over the place where we lived—was the old furniture there, my bookcase, the paintings on the walls?

The house stood facing the Planty, the park around the old city center, in a district which was then respectable, reasonably prosperous, and later fell into neglect, decay, nobody’s property.

I entered the familiar entrance hall. I struck a match to discover from the list of tenants the name of the owner of flat 4. As I was gathering courage and composing my thoughts on how to explain my ghostly visit, the doors opened on the ground floor, and a man—menacing, crass and angry, as is the habit of the land—came close to me: “What are you looking for? There is nothing here for you!” Indeed, I thought. How well he put it. There is nothing here for me.

Finally, a scene from my recent visit to Krakow. Usually, as dusk falls, I am in the habit of leaving my favorite seat in the Cafe Noworolski under the arcades of the Sukiennice, to stroll across the square, the Rynek, into the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, from whose tower, the taller of the two, there sounds the famous, hourly trumpet call. I spend there a quiet hour or so, contemplating the altarpiece by Wit Stwosz, a magnificent example of religious art. I also listen to the quiet evening service.

On my last visit some months ago, my neighbor in the pew happened to be a youngish man of fine face, who prayed silently with great concentration. At the end of the service, as we were leaving the church together, we got talking, with growing sympathy and

openness—two authentic Krakovians, spanning two generations. After complimenting me on my Polish, which oddly has not gone rusty after half-a-century away from the country, he confided in me thus: I am a believer, as you see, and a practicing Catholic. I am also a student of ancient history. I know, and it no longer causes me any difficulty to accept this, that Our Lord Jesus was a Jew. But in no way am I able to accept that Our Holy Virgin Mary, the Queen of the Crown of Poland, as we like to call her, was a Jewess.”

I didn’t know what to say. To understand these things, on a level that does justice to the depth and complexity of these predicaments, is too difficult for me, for most of us.


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