Mieczyslaw Weinryb's collection of pictures and stories provide us with a fascinating glimpse of Jewish life in Poland before the war. He grew up in one of the loveliest small towns in Poland, Zamosc, and through his memories and old pictures, Mieczyslaw takes us into his Zionist youth club, Hashomer Hazair. We also see and hear just how varied Jewish life was in Poland in the 1930s--from yiddishists to socialists, zionists to the orthodox.
Mieczyslaw, like nearly all of Centropa's Polish interviewees, fled into the Soviet Union when war came. Mieczyslaw survived the war in the Ural mountains, joined the Society of Polish Patriots, and returned home to Poland to find his entire family had been murdered (save for his two sisters who had already emigrated to Palestine).
In Mieczyslaw's biography, which you can access from the link on this page, he tells us what life was like for Jews in post-war Poland. He married a non-Jewish woman, Izabella, and their son, Eligiusz, graduated university in Warsaw and now teaches physics at Yale in the United States.
In the 1920s, Poland was an independent state known as “The Second Polish Republic” or the “Second Commonwealth of Poland” (1918-1939).
Poland has been historically subject to various partitions and influence from neighboring powers. The country has had a long history of territorial changes; Polish territory has been shared with, annexed by, and reclaimed from Russia, Prussia, Austria, Lithuania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and Germany.
Before the Second World War, the Polish landscape was dotted with Shtetls - small towns with a Yiddish-speaking Jewish population.
Prewar Poland is characterized by the struggle to determine the parameters of Polish national identity. After gaining independence in 1918, competing concepts of “Polishness” were constructed and debated. Two figures that were influential in interpreting Polish identity were Jozef Pilsudski and Roman Dmowski.
This essay, “A Poland for the Poles?” investigates how Polish national identity, as well as the idea of the nation itself, has been articulated through the differing viewpoints of Pilsudski and Dmowski.
Jozef Pilsudski was the commander-in-chief of a paramilitary organization during the First World War and is renowned as a proponent of a Polish nationalism that included the pre-partition territories.
Roman Dmowski was the founder of the conservative and openly anti-Semitic Endecja – the National Democratic Party.
Many definitions of Polish identity, primarily those constructed along ethnic lines, exclude Jews. Many Jews lived entirely separate from ethnically Polish communities and had no desire for interaction.
Before the outbreak of war, Mieczyslaw studied in Warsaw until he entered the army.
Poland once had the largest Jewish population in Europe. Before the outbreak of the Second World War it had the second largest Jewish population in the world: about 3.3 million Jews lived there. This was a culturally diverse community of varying religious beliefs. Both Hasidic and Haskalah movements developed here. Read about the Jewish history of Poland.
Because of the long history of Jewish life in Poland, relations between Poles and Jews have varied - displaying relative tolerance to outright hostility.
Mieczyslaw’s parents were active Zionists – a Jewish group advocating for Jewish sovereignty and a return to Israel, their homeland.
Austro-Hungarian Jew, Theodor Herzl, spearheaded the Zionist movement in Europe. Though he was student of the Jewish enlightenment and had embraced secular society, encounters with anti-Semitism prompted him to consider the question of Jewish sovereignty.
Two of Mieczyslaw’ sisters left in the mid-1920s for Palestine. “Aliyah” is a term that describes immigration to Israel – the holy land.
Mieczyslaw Weinryb's sisters were members of Hashomer Hatzair ("The Youth Guard"), a Socialist-Zionist youth movement founded in 1913 in Galicia.
He describes that his parents were Reform Jews – meaning they believed in an evolving Judaism, distinct from some of the more normative beliefs of Orthodox Judaism. His father would go to a reformist Shtibl and did not wear the traditional kippah (or yarmulke) or payot (side-locks).
Mieczyslaw eventually settled in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. Before the war the city had a large Jewish population – about 393,950 Jews in 1939.
Mieczyslaw was in the Polish Armed Forces when, on 1 September 1939, German troops invaded Poland signaling the start of the Second World War.
Because of the secret stipulations presented in the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed on 23 August 1939, Germany was able to invade Poland without Soviet intervention, allowing the Soviets to occupy and annex eastern Poland shortly thereafter. Poland is discussed in Article II of the Secret Additional Protocol.
For the remainder of the war (1939-1945) Poland remained occupied by German and Soviet forces.
Poland set up a government-in-exile in London, which was recognized by the Allies as the legitimate representative of the Polish people. In Poland, an underground resistance movement developed, known as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa).
It seems that by fighting with the Polish army, Mieczyslaw was protected from the fate met by so many Polish Jews. His family – with the exception of the two sisters in Palestine – were sent to Kovel (today in Ukraine). Mieczyslaw met them here and urged them to escape.
They did not; Mieczyslaw can only speculate about what happened to them. He presumes that they were interred in the Kovel ghetto, and that they were shot and buried in mass graves in the surrounding woods. Many Jews in the Soviet-occupied territories were killed in such a way by German Einsatzgruppen – Mobile Killing Units.
During his time with the army, Mieczyslaw was sent to Vladikavkaz in Soviet Caucasus.
Much of the Polish army had been brought under Soviet control and was eventually organized into the Polish People’s Army, stationed in the East. After the truth about the Katyn massacre, in which Soviet forces killed Polish officers, was exposed, the Soviet government broke off relations with the Polish government-in-exile. Polish communists created with Stalin the Society of Polish Patriots. Mieczyslaw became a member after his arrival in Bashkiria, or Bashkortostan, a federal subject of Russia (a republic) located between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains.
After the war, Mieczyslaw eventually returned to Warsaw where he took on a position as a construction engineer. Warsaw had been heavily bombed – 80% of the historic town center was reduced to rubble. An intensive reconstruction campaign was initiated to restore the town center, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After the Second World War, leaders of the victorious Allied powers met for the Yalta conference in 1945, named after the island Yalta. Among other political questions, the Allied leaders discussed the fate of Poland. The country underwent territorial changes and a communist government was installed.
Poland after the Second World War was a decidedly different country - geographically, politically, religiously, and economically - than it had been before.
Many Poles viewed the imposed Communist regime unfavorably. Read this New York Times article about Poland under Communism.
Even after the war, there were still instances of anti-Jewish violence, for example the 1946 pogrom of Kielce.
The Holocaust has been a very polemical topic in Poland. Many Poles do not wish to confront Polish anti-Semitism, tending to focus instead on the suffering of ethnic Poles. This reluctance to acknowledge Jewish suffering has, however, begun to change. Polish-American scholar, Jan Gross, sparked much controversy with his 2006 book, "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz," which showed how Poles had also been complicit in the persecution of the Jews.
Read more about Polish memory of the Second World War - and the tension between Polish and Jewish experience.
In 1989, the Communist government fell. In the film you can see the toppling of a monument in Warsaw. Felix Dzerzhinsky's monument in "Dzerzhinsky Square", in the center of Warsaw, was despised by the people of Warsaw as a symbol of Soviet oppression and was taken down when the Communist party started losing power. The name of the square was changed to its pre-war name, "Bank Square". Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926) was a Polish Communist revolutionary, and the founder of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka. The Cheka was known by many names throughout the history of the Soviet Union. It became the more widely known Committee for State Security (KGB).
Mieczyslaw remained an active member of the Jewish community, spending much of his time at the Warsaw Jewish Community Center. After Communism he was able to travel freely to visit family in Israel, and could spend Passover with them in Jerusalem. At the end of the film, Mieczyslaw Weinryb mentions the words "Next Year in Jerusalem", which are recited at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service and the Passover Seder.