He arrived in Warsaw in 2011 from Netanya in Israel. As he says, his decision to move to Poland was motivated by personal reasons: the socio-political situation in his native country was not conducive to the kind of lifestyle he wanted to have. His move to Warsaw was not in any way dictated by grand ideology, such as the revival of Jewish life, although – he assures – he is aware of the importance of the city for his heritage as a member of a community that for many decades considered Warsaw the centre of the world and because of his own family history (before the war, Daniel's grandparents lived on Miła Street). Upon arrival he found himself pigeonholed as a Jewish newcomer, an immigrant, an Israeli. Those labels were not harmful, but they were always there: inevitably leading to questions about issues related to Judaism, which he was often unable to answer, because he does not practice any religion. Nonetheless, Daniel considers Warsaw one of the most fascinating places to visit.
Instead of great monuments and iconic sites, I decided to introduce inconspicuous places that we pass every day, but which despite their ordinariness are endowed with great historical, social or political significance. In a way, they bridge the divide between what is private and what is public, between who I want to be and who I am, between Daniel Slomka and the labels: Jew, Israeli, Warsaw resident.
A few steps from my home and workplace, in the middle of the Royal Route leading to the Old Town, is Three Crosses Square, the history of which is inseparably linked with the history of Warsaw. Established in the mid-18th century, it has since undergone several metamorphoses, but its characteristic landmarks, two columns with crosses on top, survived the changes. The square was an important part of the city and evolved with historical events, receiving the addition of the Church of St Alexander (the third cross), then a triumphal arch commemorating Polish soldiers. Later, the church was destroyed by the Nazis (the square served as a provisional, temporary cemetery during WWII), and although it was rebuilt in the PRL period, its original shape was lost. Its ties with Jewish history make it the perfect iconic landmark of Warsaw. Let me mention one story from the times of the Warsaw ghetto. During the war, a band of children sold cigarettes in the streets to earn a living. Some of the sellers were Jewish children who had escaped from the ghetto and survived thanks to their “Aryan” appearance and knowledge of the Polish language. They slept in ruined buildings in the area and engaged in trade, sometimes sending provisions to their families in the ghetto. The story is hard to believe when you realize that during the war the square was the centre of activity for the German military stationed in the area, and that most of the buyers were also Germans. Józef Ziemian, author of “The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square”, wrote: “This group of Jewish children, wandering around under the very noses of a thousand policemen, gendarmes, Gestapo men and ordinary spies, constituted an unexplained and inexplicable phenomenon”.
Perhaps due to the fact that the square is somewhat removed from the monumental memorials of World War II and the Holocaust, or because those dramatic events from history were only commemorated in one book, or perhaps because they were lost in the midst of the square's current associations with affluence and its central importance as a business centre with luxury shops, restaurants and impressive architecture – the stories of Perec Hochman, Jurek Polanski, Irving Milchberg and their friends are relatively unknown. Let us stop here for a moment, look around, imagine what the area used to look like, and remember the boys with the help of a few verses of the song “Papirosen”, which tells the story of cigarette sellers during World War I, but also applies to a similar phenomenon in Three Crosses Square twenty years later:
Cigarettes, buy my cigarettes
Buy them real cheap!
Buy and have pity on me
Save me from starvation.
The Bekef hummus bar at 40 Hoża Street is one of my favourite restaurants in the neighbourhood. Hummus bars have a growing presence on the culinary map of Warsaw; up until a few years ago hummus was only available at kebab stalls or trendy Mediterranean-style bistros, but in recent years Israeli newcomers have opened several places in the capital where they serve hummus prepared according to recipes from their country. These places have quickly become popular with Poles.
What does hummus have to do with Polish-Jewish relations? The question is a matter of international controversy. The problem is that the media presents the growing number of hummus bars in Warsaw as an aspect of the general trend of Jewish revival in Poland. The media frenzy reached its peak when one such joint opened on Żelazna Street, part of the Warsaw Ghetto during the war, and a major Israeli daily announced on the front page: “Hummus in the ghetto”. Meanwhile, hummus is by no means a traditional Jewish dish, much less Polish-Jewish. The Warsaw Jews of pre-war times probably never knew of falafel, pita or tehina. It is hard for me to imagine that they could have an emotional connection to places where such dishes are served.
For Israeli media, it is convenient to portray the popularity of hummus bars as an expression of the cultural revival of Jewish life in Poland, but this is risky ground from a cultural perspective: associating hummus with Polish Jews in fact erases their historical uniqueness and equates Jewishness with Israel and vice versa. The logic of such associations is simple: what is Israeli is automatically considered Jewish, and what is Jewish is considered Israeli, therefore if hummus is a typical Israeli dish, it must be Jewish, thus also Polish-Jewish. In Israeli society, this phenomenon is known as “negation of the Diaspora”, denial of the feasibility of Jewish emancipation in the Diaspora and an attempt to prove that the only authentic form of Jewishness can be found in Israel; the simplest way to achieve Jewish representation in Warsaw would be to open a hummus joint. Following this line of reasoning, an Israeli hummus bar in Warsaw would be more “Jewish” than a restaurant serving Jewish-style fish, a dish popular in Poland. This logic denies the immensely rich cultural heritage of Polish Jews and brings it down to the level of a plate of hummus. Is it complex? Perhaps, but it pinpoints the difference between “Jewishness” and “Israeliness”. Let us also consider Polish identity: after all, the popularity of hummus joints can also be regarded as a culinary reflection of the growing openness of Polish society to other cultures.
Whether Jewish, Polish, or Israeli, to me hummus is a piece of home. It is the memory of taking my sisters to lunch or meeting my friends for dinner on a Friday afternoon. It is no wonder that a hummus bar is where I invite my work colleagues on my birthdays. The complex history of hummus is also my own.
In the gray area between private experience and historical relevance, let us get on the tram running from Hoża to Miła Street. Thus we cross the border of what is usually defined as “Jewish Warsaw”, while Miła Street itself is filled with Jewish history. The remains of a bunker at the currently nonexistent address 18 Miła Street mark the place where the leadership of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was killed. The memorial is visited by all Israelis coming to Poland.
There is another reason my route leads this way: at 64 Miła Street, in a building which also no longer exists, lived Fajwel and Sara Slomka, my great-great-grandparents. They stayed there for a few years before immigrating to Brazil in 1927. My great-grandmother (born in South America) said to me once in a letter: “In Poland, you are no immigrant. You are a Slomka, returning to the country of your ancestry”. Now I often remember these words and think about my family, wondering if they would be happy with my moving to Poland, would they support my decision? On the other hand, I find it funny that whenever I meet a new Pole, I have the same conversation: “Wait a minute, they say, you look Polish, your name is Polish, but when you start speaking Polish, it's obvious you're not from here – so what's the story with you?”.
Let us walk a couple of blocks further north to Stawki Street, where we find the Department of Psychology of the University of Warsaw. I have classes there every Monday. Historically this was part of Umschlagplatz, where Jewish residents of Warsaw were put aboard trains that carried them to certain death in Treblinka, and the building itself housed the headquarters of the Gestapo and witnessed the deportations. This is the very same building I visit regularly and which holds my school.
I could never imagine a more bizarre connection of the everyday and the historical, the ordinary and the exceptional. Sometimes I wonder whether the decision to place a university department (especially psychology) in this building was deliberate, and whose idea it was. The appearance of this building, inside and out, could not possibly be more depressing, so that decision seems somewhat eccentric, to put it mildly.
Our fifth and last stop is final in many ways. A few hundred metres east of the university building is the Warszawa Gdańska railway station – a typical station building, boring and predictable, with no engaging aesthetic features. A small, inconspicuous plaque (I spent over 10 minutes looking for it the first time) on the eastern wall reads: “They left more than they had here”.
In 1968, after the anti-Semitic speech of Władysław Gomułka, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party (Polish: Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza), the remnants of the Jewish community left the country on a one-way ticket.
Although their decision can be considered in the broader context of the events that took place on both sides of the Iron Curtain in 1968 and the context of Gomułka's other anti-Semitic speeches in the course of the struggle for power within the party, I prefer to focus on the words of Henryk Grynberg engraved on the plaque: “They left more than they had here”.
What was it that they left?
For Jews, that might have been the last vestiges of the formerly cherished dream of Jewish life in Poland, a dream that the Holocaust had reduced to flickers of hope still burning in the hearts of some Polish-Jewish patriots, a dream finally shattered in 1968. It could be that they left behind a thousand years of shared life, taken away by an authoritarian regime that decided to deny its validity.
But what is the legacy of Warszawa Gdańska station for Poles and Poland? Poles also dreamed of a multicultural, multiethnic, shared life. They remembered times when their country was a fascinating meeting place of different religions, languages and traditions, replaced by a monolithic one-party state. They knew that the significant Jewish presence in Poland left its cultural traces even on Catholics. This is now imperceptible, the missing piece in the puzzle of Polish identity.
As I look at this plaque today, it seems to me that both Poles and Jews are seeking the remaining pieces, as if Warszawa Gdańska was a great lost-and-found counter at which we might recover all the shared memories, moments, meetings, and unforgettable experiences. In his book “Being and Time”, Martin Heidegger argues that history is the past, but a past that does not remain in the past, but is present in the future, changing the future. Current initiatives to commemorate Jewish history in Poland, including the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, are taken not just for the sake of preserving memories or gazing into the past – their aims lie in the present and future. They aim to change the face of Poland in the years to come; this is not the revival of Jewish culture in Poland, but Polish culture in Poland, in its inclusive and tolerant form.
For me, this is an important part of the identity of Warsaw, a city where the presence of the past is so strong that it follows you wherever you go, even if you try to ignore it; a city where every street corner says something about the past, revealing its identity through the hidden stories. This, to me, is the most thrilling characteristic of Warsaw and what I wanted to present in the course of this short walk.