The Jewish Life in Poland in the 20th Century

English Project

Submitted by Eden Degerzi and Yuval Ravid-Tal (11th Grade)

English Teacher and Project Designer: Sylvia Asher

Ironi "Tet" High- School, Tel-Aviv

The  Jewish Life in  Poland in  the  20TH Century as Presented in  Centropa’s Film about HAYA LEA-DETINKO and Amos Oz’s Book A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS

This project is based on a Centropa film about the life of Haya –Lea Detinko ( and

 Amos Oz’s book-A Tale of Love and Darkness.

Both the film and the movie describe the Jewish life in the town of Rovno in Poland, before and after the Second World War, and they complete each other and emphasize each other.

I) The Jewish Life in Rovno Before the Second World War

 ”But many ordinary Jews in Rovno in the twenties were keen that their children should learn Hebrew and go to Tarbuth,…..Meanwhile everyone read newspapers in Hebrew, argued, sang songs from the Land of Israel, recited Bialik and Tchernikhowsky,…there was a kind of tremendous excitement about everything national. It was very similar to what  you see here today with the Palestinians, only without their penchant for bloodshed. Among us, Jews, you can hardly see such nationalism nowadays.”

Amos Oz, p.185

1. Where do we see this nationalism  in the movie? Pay attention to the schools where Hava and Haya-Lea Detinko studied, the youth movement they belonged to, the celebration of the Jewish holidays in Rovno, etc.

Several domains of the Jewish life in Rovno are reflected in the movie. In the city of Rovno in Poland, Orthodox Jews lived alongside modern Jews. Haya's father, Nachman Abramovic Katz, was educated at a religious school and was even religiously ordained rabbi. There were Jewish activities in the Diasporas as well. Her family was traditional and religious, and her mother kept kosher at home. There was also a synagogue in Rovno, where many Jews used to pray, and Haya's father took part in the staff. The "culture" school in the city, combined the Hebrew language with the Polish language studies. The Jewish holidays were celebrated in schools : as stated in the film, Haya and her sister, Hava, dressed up in honor of Purim.

Rovno had a youth movement "Hashomer Hatzair", to which Haya and Hava belonged. The goal of the movement was to help build the State of Israel. "Hashomer Hatzair" children sang, studied as a big, unified group and worked hard, physical works as a kibbutz.

II) The Gentiles –Jews Relations in Poland Prior to the Second World War

A. Read pp. 183-184 in A Tale of Love and Darkness and answer the following questions:

1. What was the Poles’ attitude towards the Jews?

The Polish attitude toward the Jews was insincere and was based on ulterior motives Outwardly, they invested much effort at showing support for the Jews, by fostering Jewish education, strengthening the Jewish  roots and granting the option of observing the Jewish customs. But  the real attitude of Poles towards Jews was an attitude of disgust. However,  the Poles  did not show their real feelings  because they wanted to be considered noble and humane and make a good impression on Versailles and the UN.

2. Why did the Poles encourage Zionist education and Jewish schools?

Poles encouraged Zionist education because they had an ulterior motive.

The Poles' hidden motive was the removal of Jews from Poland to Palestine.  To do so, the Poles have strengthened the national consciousness of Jews and encouraged Jewish education by supporting the establishment of synagogues and schools that taught Zionism.

3. What was the hidden fear in every Jewish home?

The hidden fear in every Jewish home was the fear of getting hurt by the Poles. Jews had to change their behavior completely, so as not to irritate, annoy or cause conflicts with the Poles, all in order not to encourage anti-Semitic acts, the results of which could be terrible.

4. How were the Jewish children taught to behave with the Gentiles?

Jewish children learned to behave politely with the Gentiles, to be quiet and graceful, so that the Gentiles would not say that the Jews were too noisy and brash. In addition, the Jewish children were taught that they must look presentable at any given time in order to avoid the Gentiles' rage.

5. What does Amos Oz mean when he says: “Diaspora Jews became cats, in the bad sense…”

Amos Oz's quotation refers to the hypocritical behavior of Jews towards the Gentiles. Cats symbolize hypocrisy: on the one hand, cats fawn on their owners to please them, but, on the other hand, they may attack, scratch and hurt their owners.

B. How are the relations between the Jews and the Gentiles in Rovno presented in the film about Haya Lea Detinko?

The Polish attitude toward the Jews was supportive and allowed integration into the large Polish society.  The Jewish integration in the Polish society is reflected in the movie by the existence of integrated schools, where Jewish religious education combined with the Polish culture; it means that the Jewish children could learn the Hebrew language while also learning the Polish language. In addition to wearing the traditional Jewish outfit and being integrated in the Polish society, a synagogue was built in Rovno, which gave the Jews the option of keeping their precepts, while also having the option to work in order to make a living.

III) The Jews and the Arabs in Palestine

 “We thought that soon, in a few years, the Jews would be a majority here and as soon as that happened we’d show the whole world how to treat a minority, our minority, the Arabs. We, who had always been an oppressed minority, would treat our Arab minority justly, fairly, generously, we would share our homeland with them, share everything…”

Which part(s) of this prophesy about Jews and Arabs in  this country came true, and which did not?

There are parts of Amos Oz's prophecy that came true.

Most of the population in Israel is a Jewish majority. We share most things, such as the economy, education and territory, along with the Arab population; but, on the other hand, there are things that have not yet been fulfilled, for example no peace agreement between Jews and Arabs has been signed.

Many of the Jews' attempts to achieve peace between the two nations are doomed to failure due to the refusal of the Arabs. Amos Oz dreamed of a situation in which the Jews are the majority, and they act respectfully towards the  minority groups in the country.  Amos Oz's quotation expresses disappointment with the Jew's attitude towards the Arab minority. The Israeli Jews possess physical strength, but  Amos Oz expected the Jews, who had been a minority in Diaspora, not to use their strength  against another minority. Therefore, Oz's quotation indicates a partial failure of Amos Oz's prophecy.

IV)  The Journey to Rovno and to Oneself

“I now believe that all journeys are ridiculous: the only journey from which you don’t always come empty-handed is the journey inside yourself.”  (A. Oz)

The movie and the book are a journey to Poland at the beginning of the 20th century, but not only to Poland. Would you say that you learned something about yourself as a Jew, and as an Israeli. from the journey to Rovno? If yes, what?

The film and the book taught us about the inner strength of the Jews, deepened our understanding of   the Jews" difficulties in the Diaspora and of their relentless struggle for the establishment of the Jewish state.

We found ourselves proud of the Jewish people and nature, and more aware of the need to maintain the power and territory of the State of Israel. In addition, we realized that the Jews are a nation, and this nation has a right to its own territory and sovereignty. Therefore, the Zionist activity,  which began in the Diaspora, should be continued, in order to make sure that  the legacy of past generations is taught to future generations, strengthening the language and national symbol of our nations.

V) Reflection

1.   What impressed you most in the movie and in the book?

The things that impressed us in the film were Zionist activities carried out by Jews in the Diaspora, their strong desire to build the country and their willingness to invest all their lives for the cause. The other thing that impressed us was the difficulty of the Jewish life in the Diaspora, living in fear of the Germans, the need to change their character, behavior and physical appearance in order to appease the Gentiles around them.

An additional thing that impressed us in the book of Amos Oz  was the formulation of  statements, the use of sentences and phrases that are open to interpretation and do not constitute a definite meaning.

2. Which idea/s, conclusion/s from the movie and from the book are you taking with you in life?

We take with us the message of the book and the movie, the understanding that we must continue to fight and keep the areas of the Land of Israel, despite the opposition of other nations, in order to realize our rights as a nation. Quotations from the book of Amos Oz made us understand how Jews thought and behaved in the past , i.e., mainly to please other people.

We realize the importance of building up a different character now, no longer aimed at pleasing other people.