“There is a plaque at the Gdansk Medical Institute,” he told me. “It says, ‘here the Nazis produced soap from humans.’ A year ago the German minority in Gdansk – there are still a few Germans here – they wrote the IPN, the Polish Institute of National Memory. They ask that this soap story once again be verified. They don’t like this plaque and they hope the story will be false, so the plaque can be removed. Now I hear about this and I get very angry, because people want to forget the story. I start to do research. There is a very famous book, Medaliony, by a woman called Nalkowska. In this book she writes about Dr. Spanner, and I read it again very carefully. Line by line. I went to Warsaw to look at files, photographs of body parts and bodies in the cellar. Documents also, three interrogations of Mazur by the Soviets, two from another man, also interrogation of two German professors who were at the Institute in 1945. Also testimony of English POWs. So not very many things but enough. Proof. I wrote about it and it was on front page of Gazeta Wyborcza, my newspaper.”
“And what did these Germans say then?”
“The same thing. That Germans not make soap in Gdansk, that Medaliony was fiction and Mazur was beaten by Soviets to say this for Communist propaganda. So now IPN is now doing a new investigation.”
Piotr drained his mug, then shrugged.
“That is my story of Dr. Spanner,” he said. “Now about you. I know you are a Jew and you are interested in Poland. This is what Slawek told me, that you heard bad things about Poland and read that they are not true.”
“Something like that.”
“My grandmother hid Jews in Gdansk during the war. She was a partisan. Somehow she found some gold, and made bribes for these Jews to get to the city, where she hid them.”
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say to this. Good for her? Thank you?
“In Poland, you know, Jews did bad things too,” Piotr said.
“Oh, God. Here we go.”
“Wait. Listen. You know many Jewish people were Communists. You know also about the UB? The Communist secret police? Well the UB also had many Jews. Maybe fifty percent. And many wanted to pay back for years before World War II, for anti-Semitism. In ’45 and ’46, in places like Jedwabne and Bialystok – where there were no more Jews – Jews from UB make a kind of business with empty homes. The UB had information about the homes and four or five Jews from the UB went to these homes and take the inhabitants away, sell the home, and take some money. The UB Jews have false witnesses to say they own house and everybody take some money. When authorities hear about this they are sacked.”
As I wrote all this down in my notebook, I was thinking, What a load of shit. And: Don’t lose your cool.
“I know also Catholic Poles did bad things,” Piotr said. “After Russians liberated Gdansk, Poles come from all over to live here. My friend’s grandfather had a nice house and a shop, and some Pole from another city wanted it. So he got the UB to put the grandfather in prison, where he died of typhus. And they took the house. They are living there now, today, the family that took the house. This is Polish jealousy: ‘I want what you have, maybe I can take it.’ Even today, we have a lot of problems because of jealousy. This is Poland.”
“And what is Gdansk?”
“Gdansk, well. You know Latin expression, genius loci? It means something like, ‘the spirit of a place.’ From the past, from the buildings. History ended here in 1945 and then it started again. Maybe after fifty years the spirit is coming back. I speak to many old Germans and they say that the spirit in Gdansk is much like it was before the war. Like the weather, gray and cold. Empty spaces, not too many people. A Calvinist atmosphere – a cold place. But with warm people. Gdansk people are different from other Poles. We’re hard working and open-minded and we don’t have blinders.”
“Because of the sea, maybe. During Communist times, when I was a child my father took me many times to the New Port. He wanted me to see the ships from all over the world. I was young, but I understood. It gave me some strength to see that there was another world.”
Another world outside of Poland. If you flip that around, if you yourself were from outside of Poland, then Poland was the other world.
I walked back to my pension along the Motlawa, which smelled of iron and decay. Across the canal the granaries were giant black squares against the dark sky.
I was in a disturbed mood. Headless bodies, trays of human fat: it is hard to listen to such stories. But there was also something personal that nagged at me. Now I understood why this meeting had been arranged: so I could learn that Poles had also suffered at German hands. Because I was a Jew and an American, Slawek and Piotr had assumed that I would know nothing about their country, about their own history of suffering. I came to Poland because I wanted to get beyond my own preconceptions of the place, but it had never occurred to me that people might have preconceptions about me.
And then there was this business about Jews in the secret police. Piotr had said that maybe half of the UB was Jewish. In postwar Poland? A country that had just lost over ninety percent of its Jewish population? I doubted there had been enough healthy Jewish men around to field a soccer team.
Piotr had also said that many Jews had joined the Polish secret police looking for revenge – which they had achieved through conspiracy and fraud. And that, I realized, was why I was so disturbed. I had sensed it while he was telling me the story, but I hadn’t put the pieces together until now. Instead, I just sat there and listened while someone told me that for Jews, even vengeance was about money.
Why it's cool to hate the Jews
Freedom and the Ordinary
In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart
Whatever it Takes
The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class
James Lee Byars & the number Ten
Two Incidents at the Café Kamienica
Jacob said to an angel, Tell me your Name
Our 610 Back Pages
The I-Thou Circus
February 10, 2005
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What the World is..