Archive for December, 2008

Oy vey, another hoax!

December 30, 2008

So, yet another “Holocaust memoir” has been exposed as a hoax. This time it’s the “love story” of Herman Rosenblat (who, it so happened, was sent from the ghetto of Piotrków to Buchenwald, as I was) and his wife Roma. For over a decade the fairy-tale story of the boy who was given apples through a concentration-camp fence by a girl whom he later met on a blind date and married, as implausible as it was, circulated in the American media, including appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Finally Herman Rosenblat has admitted that the tale was a fabrication.

Allow me to quote from an essay of mine, written in March 2005:

I have a rule of thumb that I have followed for sixty years: any Polish Jew’s account of his or her experiences during World War II must be taken with a grain of salt. So it is, for example, that the posthumous unraveling of the fraud that was Jerzy Kosinski’s autobiography only confirmed what I had already suspected. And when I saw the film Europa Europa I could only laugh at the subtitle “A True Story” that its poster bore; the filmmaker, intentionally or not, sabotages the film’s veracity with an epilogue in which the man whose tale is told is shown on a Tel Aviv beach, singing a Hebrew song and displaying a nose that was worthy of a caricature in Der Stürmer and would certainly make his passing as an Aryan less than plausible.

If any  literary agent, publisher, editor or screenwriter were to seek my advice, it would be this: if any purported Holocaust memoir from a Polish Jew sounds like fiction, it probably is.

On being “Polish”

December 10, 2008

In my last post I speculated that the fact that I pronounce H as /h/ and CH as /x/ when I speak Polish, contrary to everything written about Polish phonetics, may be due to my being raised in a Jewish environment where Polish was spoken alongside Yiddish, and that the phonetic distinction may be a carryover from Yiddish.

My recent trip to Poland brought up two more reasons why I, like most Polish Jews, cannot consider myself a Pole.

The national dish of Poland is bigos; I got to taste several versions of it. And while recipes for bigos vary greatly, ham, bacon and kielbasa (usually made with pork) are almost always present.

Obviously, bigos would not be a typical part of Polish Jewish cuisine. I often heard my mother use the word, but what she meant by it was “a delicacy” or “a delicious dish”; she had no idea that it was actually the name of a specific dish, even if not a uniform one. When I told her about it, she was surprised.

On a visit to the Warsaw Historical Museum I saw an original copy of the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, widely hailed as the first modern constitution in Europe (though the Corsican Constitution of 1755 antedates it considerably). And I read the first article (I’m taking the translation from

The dominant national religion is and shall be the sacred Roman Catholic faith with all its laws. Passage from the dominant religion to any other confession is forbidden under penalties of apostasy.

And things don’t seem to have changed very much. The identification of Polish nationality with Catholicism continues to be strong; references to the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Poland or to Pope John Paul II as a Polish national hero abound.

No wonder, then, that the Jewish and Catholic populations of Poland have traditionally been referred to as “Jews” and “Poles,” respectively.

I will give only one example, from a book that I’m currently reading. It’s about Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat of the Łódź ghetto (which the Poles prefer to call by its German name, Getto Litzmannstadt) during World War II, and is based on the memoirs of  Estera (Etka) Daum, who as a young woman worked as a secretary in Rumkowski’s administration. The title is Byłam sekretarką Rumkowskiego (“I was Rumkowski’s secretary”) and the subtitle is Dzienniki Etki Daum (“The diaries of Etka Daum”). The author, a journalist named Elżbieta Cherezińska, in fact rewrote the memoirs in the form of the diary that Etka supposedly kept during the war but which was lost.

The introduction is by Szewach (Shevah) Weiss,  a Polish-born Israeli political scientist, politician and diplomant (he was the Israeli ambassador in Poland from 2001 to 2003).  On on the first page, Weiss writes (my translation): “… this is not a story about Poles and Jews. The age-old Polish-Jewish questions never exist in it. This is a story about Jews and Jews.”

And so it is. Difficult as it may be to explain to Americans and other Westerners, though I was born in Poland and Polish is my native language, I am not and have never been a Pole. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

My H problem

December 5, 2008

I haven’t posted since August. I spent most of September traveling, and since coming home I’ve been busy with other things.

A part of my travels was in Poland, the land of my birth. My previous visit there was in 1997, and before that I hadn’t been back in over fifty years — since 1944, when I left at the age of nine.

After six years in Germany, my parents and I ended up in Los Angeles in 1950, and soon thereafter they asked me to speak English with them. I already knew the language, and they wanted to learn it. As Polish Jews who survived World War II, we had no great attachment to Poland or the Polish language, and so the change came easy. (I continued occasionally to speak Yiddish with my father.)

On my first return trip to Poland I was surprised at how quickly my fluency in Polish came back. Polish grammar is notoriously difficult, but even without knowing the rules very well I somehow managed to navigate its treacherous waters. Since then I’ve tried to speak a little Polish on occasion, and to learn it a little better by consulting textbooks, teaching aids and books about the language. On my last trip I spoke it well enough to be taken for a Pole.

But in the process of reading about Polish I discovered something strange: according to all the authorities, in Polish the letter H and the digraph CH are pronounced alike, as the voiceless velar fricative /x/ (more or less the way most continental Hispano-Americans — Argentines, Mexicans, Peruvians — pronounce J).

This is not at all how I remember learning the language. In my speech (and my mother’s — she still speaks Polish, and I often overhear her), the sound of H is what it is in English (as in hotel), and that of CH what it is in German in such words as Loch or lachen. Actually, I modeled my pronunciation in these languages (and in others, such as Hebrew and Spanish), as I learned them, on the way I used the sounds in Polish.

When I have listened to Polish-speakers, it has always seemed to be that, with some striking exceptions, their pronunciation of H and CH has been the same as mine. I am now wondering if making the distinction between H and CH is a peculiarity of Polish-speaking Jews, and perhaps a holdover from Yiddish.

Thinking about this problem led me to reflecting about the many roles that the letter H, by itself and in digraphs, plays in the various Roman alphabets, and I turned the reflections into an essay.