On being “Polish”

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 polishconstitution.org):

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.

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