Tag Archives: ghetto

Israel Joshua Singer, Podgórze Ghetto, Płaszów Camp

Israel Joshua Singer is Isaac Baschevis’s older brother. His book The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) blew me away. Written in Yiddish about the Jews of Łódź, Poland, it reads to me like a working out of demons — a deep and knowledgeable, very Marxist examination of capitalism and justice, yet the most chilling of conclusions about the power of hate.

All of these things find an equally chilling physical manifestion in the ghetto of Podgórze and the remains of Płaszów Camp.

The Brothers Ashkenazi begins, of course, in the Łódź ghetto, and contains the first of many things that struck me like blows, the similarities of segregation in Poland and that of African-Americans in the US:

At first, the Jews confined themselves to their own quarter. Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers converging upon Lodz from the surrounding areas…

Gradually the Jews began to spill out of their congested area in Wilki, which was officially closed to them. The first to stick a toe inside the restricted area were the more affluent, audacious Jews; presently the more timorous followed.

Then, like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to include them.

Here too is an examination of real estate, and strategies for overcoming racial and religious restrictions as seen through the wheelings and dealings over building a new residential suburb. A savvy character named Preiss sees the potential, and buys land from a heavily indebted noble family, pretending it is for a factory.

Forgetting the fact that a Polish nobleman was obliged to address a Jew by his first name only, the Kanarskis abjured protocol and were almost civil to their visitor.

They are furious when they find out it is to become a residential area for Jews rather than an industrial one, but too late — the new municipality of Baluty is built, swallowing up peasant huts and transforming the lives of the gentiles within them in a new cultural melding.

This is also a story of the lived experience of Hasidic Judaism, of the unique battles between tradition and modernity faced by those raised in such traditional households. It explores the many contradictions of religion and capitalism, as well as the complicated relationships between family through the complex relationship between the twin brothers Ashkenazi, Simha Meir (Max) and Jacob. Both become successful, though in very different ways, both leave Hasidic Judaism for the most part behind them. Both love the same woman. There are a host of characters that seem drawn directly from life in all of their quirks and hypocrisies. My favourite is perhaps Feival, who works to recruit young men away from the Hasidim and into the intellectual heresy of their choice.

In his large house, strewn with daughters, papers, promissory notes, and bedding, stood bookcases filled with books for which he had paid fortunes.

His wife and daughters hate him…I was impressed by how Singer exposes quite relentlessly the oppression of women, their limited possibilities, the ways that it twists and distorts their lives and dreams. Not so impressed at the consistently shallow figures of haridans running around the novel (with one exception), but no one in this is whole.

What most fascinated me, however, is how with all of this emotional complexity of life and religion as they are lived, this also manages to be a story of the industrial revolution. A story of the rise of capitalism. It describes the practice of Jews buying factories through gentile front men, and hiring only gentiles so their factories can run through the Sabbath ‘with impunity and a clean conscience.’ Simha Meir becomes Max in his quest to become the ‘King of Łódź’.

More than ever he spent sleepless nights, scheming how to squeeze even more profits out of the factory.

He cuts out middle men, reduces quality of the materials used, reduces the amount of material, improves technology from hand looms to steam, reduces wages, increases hours. It explains the whole process of piecework and subcontracting. It describes in detail manufacturing at the beginning of the 1900s, here is just  a sample:

A giant cloud of steam, moisture, and stench hovered over the dyeing rooms. the directors grimaced at the half-naked workers clattering in wooden clogs over the slippery stone floors. they laundered the goods, rinsed and dried them before huge ovens, steamed them, threw them into bins, and passed them through the press.

By now the visitors had had enough, but Ashkenazi wouldn’t let them go.

There are ongoing strikes and the organizers are complex and sympathetic characters appearing throughout the book. The strikes are mostly broken — it is Simha Meir who reports its organizers to the police. Thus the workers come to study Marx:

Ironically, there was no place in tsarist Russia that offered such splendid opportunity to study Marxism as prisons.

As the strike falls apart, religious violence is unleashed as Catholics rampage through Jewish streets. The fragile solidarity built between workers is nowhere near enough to contain the fury and violence.

As the Jewish community mourns its dead and rebuilds what has been destroyed, industry and business push forward into a new time of prosperity for the few and increased misery for the workers.

The contradictions of capitalism emerge, as the huge bubble of credit spurring prosperity eventually bursts. Fires break out across the city as factories, warehouses, spinneries burn for the insurance. Simha Meir stays ahead. Rebuilds.

More violence is unleashed as the Austrian army occupying Poland unravels, and war breaks out. Singer writes:

The only ones with no homeland to return to were the Jews. Hooligans of all persuasions daubed their homes and shops with obscene and threatening slogans. the sounds of nationalistic and religious songs were accompanied by the tinkle of shattered Jewish windowpanes.

This is eerie. Just as is the descriptions of the 1918 massacre/pogrom of Lviv (Ukrainian)–Lwów (Polish)–Lemberg (Austrian).

When the Crocuses arrived and drove off the Ukrainians, the Jewish quarter was offered to them as a prize. A mob of priests, clerks, streetwalkers, nuns, housewives, criminals, teachers, monks, nurses, and assorted civilians gathered to egg on the conquerors. “Get the sheenies!” they howled. “Hang them by their beards! Smoke them out like rats!”

The mob is everyone, it unites the city across all other barriers because who does not appear in this list? Legionnaires disarm the Jews, hang the leaders. The next morning they set up machine guns at all the strategic corners and open fire. Then they go from house to house stripping them of valuables, raping women and killing at whim babies and grandmothers and anyone who resists.

“Let no Jewish seed remain in Christian Poland!” the officers cried.

On the second night they do their best to burn the quarter down to the ground.

Singer’s despair weighs on you like a stone. This insanely violent and destructive anti-Jewish sentiment makes a mockery of Marx — not in terms of the functioning of capitalism and industry and the resulting desperation and misery of the workers, but in the hopes for the unity of the working class to overturn it. You arrive at this conclusion with Singer, and it fucking hurts.  Because he understands the plight of the workers all too well, and his sympathies are always with the agitators fighting for change:

Like flies caught in spider webs, the men, women, and children of Balut sat glued to their looms, working until they dropped. But all the millions they earned weren’t enough to prepare for the Sabbath.

Yet in a world where capitalism has intertwined with gentile power and hate, capitalism is impossible to overturn and attempts to do so will only bring another wave of Christian violence crashing down on the Jewish community. Another strategy is required.

Had Jews adopted the gentile’s ways, they would have already long since vanished from the face of the earth. But the Jews perceived that theirs had to be a different course, and it was this perception that had lent them the moral strength to endure and accumulate the only kind of force the gentiles respected — intellectual and economic power.

You can read this book perhaps as a commentary of the emptiness, the unhappiness of In Max Ashkenzai’s life, where he only finds a measure of fulfillment in reconciling with his family through mutual tragedy. Yet I don’t think Singer lets us off that easily. In the face of hatred he shows how Max’s life — despite its ruthless exploitation of his fellow Jews along with gentiles, its emptiness  and unhappiness — is perhaps the best Jews can achieve. It is a victory and a revenge against Polish society that needs celebration. Thus, at his funeral, Max is acknowledged the King of Lodz, and beloved of his people:

Piotrkow Street was black with people, droshkies, carriages, and cars. Wild-bearded Hasisdim walked next to top-hatted bankers, grimy vendors, clerks, brokers, herder students, beggars, thieves, workers. In Max Ashkenazi’s passing they say the demise of Lodz itself. His funeral was its funeral.

It was hard reading this to remember that it was published during the Nazi’s rise to power, that these conclusions were reached with such desperate sadness before anyone knew the unthinkable thing the Nazis planned. These conclusions seem even more apt in grappling with the meaning of the holocaust, and I have found a little more insight I think, into today’s politics and all the ugliness of Israel’s actions. I still hate them, and watch, with heart breaking, oppression beget oppression.

“Let no Palestinian seed remain in Jewish Israel!” the officers cried.

While Krakow’s museums and plaques and self-descriptions rightly celebrate the stories of those who stood against the Nazis — among them Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Catholic owner of the Eagle Pharmacy in Podgórze who continued operation and helped the resistance, or Schindler (with all his complications) whose factory also sits in Podgórze — they fail signally to engage with this longer history.

We did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau — the thought of visiting a place of such horror as an attraction, with a guided tour for tourists as you must, filled us with dread. Instead we spent a day exploring the remnants of the ghetto on our own.

Between 1941 and 1943, Nazis carried out mass murders of Jews here in Plac Bohaterów Getta/ Plac Zgody — the staging point for their deportation to other camps from the ghetto. The Nazis ordered all Jews to leave Krakow in 1940; 17,000 remained and all were forced into the ghetto. In 1942, the Nazis carried out a mass deportation of people to Bełżec death camp. Those remaining they divided into sections “A” and “B”, employed and unemployed, useful and not useful. I think it is this kind of organizational detail that I find most terrifying. Those in group “A” were later marched to Płaszów Camp just down the road, while the people of “B” were murdered on the spot or sent to Auschwitz.

This is also the square on which the Eagle Pharmacy sits.

Podgórze

A later picture I found: the plac in 1958, with an advertisement in the background for Nova Huta…the past invisible here, and only a looking forward to the future.

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We hunted down the remnants of Podgórze’s walls, built to contain and cage:

Ghet Krakow 2

Today, here is a view of the old ghetto framed by the remaining section of wall on the left:

Podgórze

Podgórze

A terrifying picture of the clearing out of the ghetto, pieces of the wall in the background, ‘normal’ life beyond them:

Ghetto

From Podgórze, we crossed the highway to climb a prehistoric  mound, mythologised as the resting place of King Krakus, Kraków’s founder. It is the oldest human-made structure in Krakow, and normally I would have been much more excited about that. Alongside it, as you can see, sits a huge quarry. Used by Spielberg in filming Schindler’s list, it was also a site of work for groups from Płaszów Camp:

Podgórze

bigplaszow2

 

We continued on along a fairly overgrown and narrow track alongside the quarry and with a Catholic cemetery on the other side. Finally we reached Płaszów Camp:

Podgórze

It was dusk, and I know some of the ruins still exist at the other end, where the main entrance sat. We did not go and find them. But we looked out over the site from above, eerie and empty. You want to be alone with your thoughts in such places, don’t you.

Podgórze

This is what sat here once:

PlaszowCampWe wandered back through Podgórze, and into Kazimierz, the older Jewish neighbourhood sitting just south of Wawel castle.

This history of violence and contradiction lingered. It is not something that should be, or even could be, reconciled, contained, fully understood, capped off, or put behind us. This issue of how not just to bridge what divides us — and there is the whole grab-bag to choose from such as race, religion, gender, sexuality and any other difference we choose to invest with such meanings — but to find strength and beauty in our diversity, remains the key challenge for liberatory praxis I think.

Kazimierz & Podgórze

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Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates - Between the World and MeI loved this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is definitely what I will be giving people for Christmas to help them understand #BlackLivesMatter and the experiences of those Americans labeled as such, as well as an understanding of America as it has rarely been taught, but which continues to shape our ongoing tragedy and all the hatred that exists.

…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.

Once you cross the line to really feel this history in your stomach, it is hard to work through it patiently and rationally with others who aren’t there yet, especially if they really don’t want to see it. Because this is terrifyingly true:

But all our phrasing–race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, break teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

And at the base of all of it? White Americans have always had a narrow and limited view of who other ‘Americans’ were, when they said ‘we the people’ they did not ever actually mean all the people. My thesis worked this out at length, but here it is short and eloquent:

The question is…what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.

Our race is culturally constructed to be white or black, despite how deeply intertwined we two are. And white has been constructed to be “the people,” to take the land, to run the country, to benefit from all it can offer.

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive powers to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

And on the other side of this privileged identity? There is so much in here that is deeply personal, deeply particular to a place and time, yet that rings true beyond it.

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.

***

When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Full 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not…

These Baltimore neighbourhoods, and neighbourhoods across the country, are part of the same process, formed and structured by the same forces of racism over many decades

And I knew that there were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, or our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. … A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and tradition, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.

And always the blame to be pushed away from policies and police, and onto Black people themselves:

Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson–not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is fro you countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined–with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words…and Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd…

Away from whiteness, and all of its privilege, because this is a truth and a seeing that threaten:

This is the foundation of the Dream–its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honour, and good works…This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

This isn’t a particularly hopeful book, but there are ways forward. I loved this, the heart of politicization and popular education:

My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers–even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. that is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”–as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.

This is the way forward, but also means there is no one answer, no one way:

I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.

There are lists of writers, lists of artists — I love lists:

List of writers: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown.  Later on Thavolia Glymph.

List of artists: Bubber Miley, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, C.K. Williams, Carolyn Forche, Ethelbert Miller, Kenneth Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Robert Hayden.

And reading through them comes this realisation, which I too have felt with immense force though in a very different way. Here is the role of the activist intellectual: to face everything full on, no shrinking, no comfortable truths:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.

***

My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

A round up of a few of the other small things that I loved here — with many others left out in a short(ish) blog.

The riposte by Ralph Wiley to Saul Bellow after he described a Black writer as the Tolstoy of the Zulus:

“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

That is such an obvious thing that someone else needed to say it I think, for me to see clearly.

It was also strange reading this written by someone my own age, someone who shared the same music and wider context, and whose fear of physical violence from others I also shared. These things show how connected class and geography are to race, and thus aspects of life are often shared more widely. He wrote:

This was the era of Bad Boy and Biggie. “One More Chance” and “Hypnotize”.

I have never seen those words on paper anywhere. And this too struck me:

I found that people would tell me things, that the same softness that once made me a target now compelled people to trust me with their stories. This was incredible.

I know too much about being a target, though never one at the other end of a gun. But likewise people have told me their stories. I am grateful for my growing up, for how it has given me that. But those still aren’t pretty scars.

I also loved the acknowledgment not just of the material foundations of pain and violence in segregation and policy, but the global context in which struggle happens, the larger forces beyond our control that help movements to victory or defeat. This is a key lesson I too stumbled across through reading, and it requires an adjustment in your driving forces.

You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow from the genocides of the Second World War. History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.

There is this on the one hand, faced full on:

And I have no God to hold me up. And I believe that when they shatter the body they shatter everything, and I know that all of us–Christians, Muslims, atheists–lived in this fear of this truth.

But I loved too the gentleness and the celebration of what is best in us, the rich cultures, the layered knowledges, the complexity of our world whose beauty we all can share

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds–the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched together into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then.

An uncompromising look at where we are, and the strength and beauty of those who have come before us and who fight alongside us to build the kind of world we want to see — this is where we need to start. Because our country must change inside and out, rather than continue to plunder the world and export its fears and horrors.