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Enigma

In response to:

Adders and Other Reptiles from the May 11, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

In his absorbing essay “Adders and Other Reptiles” [NYR, May 11] Czeslaw Milosz gravely misrepresents the nature of one of Poland’s leading prewar writers and co-founder of the wartime Council to Aid the Jews (Zegota), Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. Kossak-Szczucka was not just a “nationalist and a Catholic”; she was also a virulent anti-Semite. Yet her loathing for Jews clashed with her religious faith, which dictated mercy and compassion even for apostates. In September 1942, she authored a passionate appeal calling upon the Poles to help save Jews. “Whoever remains silent in the face of murder,” she wrote, “becomes an accomplice to that murder.” At the same time, she became active in the efforts to hide and help Jews who escaped from the ghettos and villages of Poland.

Many Polish books, including Righteous Among Nations, co-authored by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski (himself a member of Zegota and now Foreign Minister of Poland) and Zofia Lewin, have published the text of this leaflet, omitting, however, one crucial passage:

Our feeling towards the Jews has not changed. We continue to regard them as political, economic, and ideological enemies of Poland. Moreover, we realize they hate us more than they hate the Germans and that they make us responsible for their misfortune. Why, and on what basis, remains a mystery of the Jewish soul. Nevertheless, this is a fact. Awareness of this fact, however, does not release us from the duty of condemning the murder.1

The book by Professor Jan Blonski, which Milosz refers to, is one of the few Polish works on the Holocaust that reprints the whole text of Kossak’s appeal, including the offensive passage. Most of them, such as Ludzie z dzielnicy zamknietej (People from the Closed-off District), by Ruta Sadowska (Warsaw, 1994), leave out those lines. That the lines were not meant as a stratagem for reaching her over-whelmingly Catholic cum anti-Semitic readers can be ascertained from Kossak’s writings before the war. Here is a passage from an article by Kossak published in Warsaw in 1936, redolent of pathological racism:

Jews are so terribly alien to us, alien and unpleasant, that they are a race apart. They irritate us and all their traits grate against our sensibilities. Their oriental impetuosity, argumentativeness, specific mode of thought, the set of their eyes, the shape of their ears, the winking of their eyelids, the line of their lips, everything. In families of mixed blood we detect the traces of these features to the third or fourth generation and beyond.2

How Kossak-Szczucka reconciled her benign Catholic beliefs with malevolent Jew-hatred (and not, as Milosz would have it, simply with her “nationalist loyalties”) and how a woman of patently racist views could devote herself to rescuing the victims of racism are questions that do not lend themselves to easy explanations. What a pity that Czeslaw Milosz, with his unique sensitivity to the complexities of Eastern Europe, did not confront the troubling complexity of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka.

Abraham Brumberg
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Czeslaw Milosz replies:

Mr. Brumberg seems to reproach me for having limited myself, in my review, to saying: “National loyalties bound her to her ideological brethren who maintained that the Jews are enemies of Poland,” instead of stressing her personal anti-Semitic convictions. Personally I prefer to believe that an odious doctrine, including that of the nationalist, anti-Semitic right, does not always have power over deeper human motivations.

Professor Jan Blonski devotes an entire chapter of his book to Zofia Kossak-Szczucka’s anti-Semitism and her actions as a rescuer. He says: “I feel bound to state that Zofia Kossak-Szczucka did commit herself vigorously to helping her ‘enemies’ and that several dozen Jews—if not more—directly owed or owe their lives to her. Such courage and self-sacrifice make any kind of ad personam criticism improper.” Therefore Professor Blonski tries to explain, on a larger than purely personal level, the paradox by which anti-Semitism is combined with a willingness to risk one’s life to save Jews. He puts forward some historical explanations that are connected with the long history of cohabitation of Poles and Jews; but basically he is faced with an enigma. So am I, and Mr. Brumberg should not expect from me more than I can offer, since we are concerned here with a secret of the human conscience.

  1. 1

    For the full text, see The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1944, by Israel Gutman (Indiana University Press, 1985).

  2. 2

    Nie istnieja sytuacje bez wyjscia,” (There are no insolualbe situations) Kultura, Warsaw, September 27, cited by Anna Landau-Czajka, “Image of the Jew in the Catholic Press,” in Jews in Independent Poland 1918-1939, edited by Antony Polonsky et al., 1995, pp. 165-166.

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