I am Evan Kleinman, the producer of Punk Jews and a 3G (third generation) descendent of Holocaust survivors from Poland. I recently traveled to Poland, the cradle of Ashkenazi Judaism. The place from which two meanings are always derived: where Jewish culture thrived for a thousand years and where it was virtually destroyed in five years during the Holocaust. Happiness and misery, development and oppression, beauty and horror. This is an account of my second trip to Poland. I will describe what I saw through the diversity of opinions, the layers of complexity, and the Jewish and non-Jewish interactions that I experienced.
I traveled to Poland to screen Punk Jews at the Jewish Motifs International Film Festival in Warsaw and at the JCC Krakow. I also a screened my first film, We are still here, about my family traveling back to Poland to trace our family roots – the reason for my first trip four years earlier. During my first trip to Poland in 2009, I was filled with anxiety. Not only was I taking on the large and emotional task of making a film about my family, but I was in the epicenter of the Holocaust, where my family and my people were persecuted, murdered, tortured, starved, worked to death, and killed by disease. In Poland, they endured the worst that mankind can do. The trip was extremely daunting. What drew me to Poland in the first place was the desire to pay homage to my family. I wanted to walk the ground that they walked and breathe the air that they breathed. Admittedly though, I simultaneously had feelings of guilt and angst. Walking through the former Warsaw Ghetto – impossible to avoid since it took up a third of the city – I felt compelled to deprive myself of any type of pleasure, such as eating a nice meal or buying a nice gift. It was as if Poland was locked in a Holocaust time capsule and I was unable to experience it outside of all my emotional baggage. Also, the anti-Semitic graffiti I encountered around Poland certainly did not help. It was explained to me by a guide that the Jewish stars being “hanged” and the word “Jude” being painted on bus stops, train stations, and buildings were related to soccer fans insulting their rival teams. For example, if someone wanted to insult another soccer team they would be referred to as “Jews,” which I of course found horrifying. However, at the time I resigned myself to the fact that the 7,000-10,000 Jewish population of present day Poland was not large enough to take offense to something that seemed inherent in Polish soccer culture. When I returned home to New York, I did not know whether I would ever return to Poland again. However, in the back of my mind I always hoped I would get the opportunity to a screen a film there someday.
Over the four years that followed, I had done much soul searching and exploration around my 3G identity. So when the opportunity came to attend the Jewish Motifs Film Festival in Warsaw, I knew it was time to experience Poland in a different way – a way where I could enjoy the bustling atmosphere of Warsaw, try some new food, enjoy a beer, meet people, and finally feel empowered enough to claim my ancestry in Poland and find some kind of peace. I was finally ready.
This time I took my lovely wife Sara with me. She is also a descendent of Polish Jews but her ancestors immigrated to the USA in the late 1800’s, well before the Holocaust. I thought this would be a nice balance since she does not have the same emotional baggage with Poland that I do (she’s also amazing and an awesome travel buddy!). On this second trip, I came to find that I did experience a connection to Poland beyond the Holocaust. After all, this is where my roots are from. My ancestors were Ashkenazim. They spoke Polish, Yiddish, and German and lived that fabled Eastern European Jewish shtetl life that today only exists in Sholem Aleichem stories. Although established within Judaism is the yearning for Jerusalem and the ancient temple, I find myself also yearning for the bustling streets of pre-war Krakow and Warsaw and the culture of the shtetl. I don’t yearn to live it or re-create it necessarily, but simply to connect with it as closely as I can. Seeing synagogues and cemeteries from as far back as the 15th century being preserved, The Museum of the History of Polish Jews just completed right in the middle of Warsaw, and present-day Jewish life being fostered by places like the JCC Krakow and the Galicia Jewish Museum, made me feel a part of it all. As a descendent of Polish Jewry, I felt that I had the right to be there and was privileged to be a contributor through screening my films and working to build a bridge between Poland and NYC. The honor was all mine. Both of the screenings were incredible. In Warsaw, the theater was over-capacity with hundreds in the audience. The staff even had to set up additional folding chairs in the aisle to accommodate everyone. At the JCC Krakow, we had a beautiful, intimate event with an inter-generational audience from the local Jewish community. I immensely enjoyed engaging with people across the world that I share such a close common history with. After the Krakow screening, we went out with Ishbel, a really cool gal who works at the JCC. She shared with us what it was like for her to grow up Jewish in Poland, and introduced us to a delicious Polish lemon vodka called “Cytrynowka” (See-tree-noov-ka). We had a great time and she explained to us a more detailed meaning behind the anti-Semitic soccer graffiti, which I had been trying my best to ignore but it’s quite difficult for a 3G to ignore the word “Jude” spray-painted on public walls in Poland.
Before the war, the soccer team “Cracovia” was historically a Jewish team. Founded by Jews in 1906, it is the oldest Polish soccer club still in existence. Although there is not a single Jew on the team today, they still use Jewish symbolism unofficially to support and represent the team. So when you see the graffiti “Jude Gang” or “JG,” it is actually a term meant to express Jewish pride. Who would have thought that all those times I was seeing that phrase and feeling uncomfortable I was actually reading what is essentially a compliment. I found that hilarious and very reassuring. The rebuttal to “JG” is “JV” or “Jude Veg,” which means something like “down with the Jews.” Once I was aware of that fact, I noticed that I saw way more “JG” than “JV” graffiti. It all started to make more sense now and I realized that Cracovia supporters, who seemed to be the vast majority, were on some level paying respect to the Jewish roots of the Cracovia organization and by extension the Jewish roots of Krakow and Poland. Finally, my Polish Jewish identity was coming together and I was starting to feel a true sense of peace and empowerment that I had never thought was possible……….but that would all change as we traveled from Krakow to Warsaw by train.
As the train was pulling out of the station, I noticed the back of a building facing the train platform had been spray painted with the words “Jebac Zydow.” I knew “Zydow” in Polish meant “Jews” but I had no idea what “Jebac” meant. I had to wait until we got to our hotel to use the WiFi to look it up. My initial thought was that it was not related to the Cracovia soccer club this time because all of that graffiti used the German word “Jude” for Jew and never its Polish counterpart, “Zyd.” I felt that familiar uneasy feeling in my stomach that lasted the entire train ride to Warsaw. Thankfully, I had decided against asking the receptionist what “Jebac” meant because that word in Polish simply means, “Fuck,” according to Google Translate. So after an enlightening and uplifting couple of days during our stay in Krakow, as the train starts to roll down the tracks, in huge letters for everyone to see, it reads “Fuck the Jews.” It plunged me back to that dark place of angst and guilt from which I thought I had finally been freed. I felt robbed. We had met so many intelligent and friendly people. We were open about being Jewish and it never aroused any harsh sentiments whatsoever. As much as it infuriated me to see that graffiti at that particular moment, a part of me was not willing to relinquish all those beautiful experiences.…..so where does a 3G who has spent the past 6 days making peace and building bridges with Poland only to have them crushed in 6 seconds go from here?
I had to acknowledge that Poland today has over 30 million citizens with about 1 million in Krakow and what I was looking at was the work of one single individual. It could have been a neo-nazi, an anti-semitic Pole, a kid playing a prank, a drunken tourist, or an alien from outer space. Either way, I found it interesting that during the Q&A when I asked the younger members of the Jewish community in Krakow if they had ever experienced anti-Semitism in Poland during their lifetime, they all responded with a unanimous “no.” Ishbel said that the only time she had experienced anti-Semitism was when she was studying at university in Germany.
After everything my family had gone through in Poland, how could I allow the graffiti of one ignorant asshole scare me from claiming my roots?!?
I did not mention previously that one week before our trip to Poland my grandfather, Eli Kleinman, passed away, on what happened to be the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. He was 88 years old. My grandfather said he never lost faith in God during the Holocaust; he only lost faith in humanity. May his memory be a blessing.
So next time I come to Krakow, I will check to see if “Jebac Zydow” is still there on the wall facing the train platform at Krakow Glowny Station. If it is, I will cross out “Zydow” and write “Ignorancja” (Ignorance) instead. However, I probably won’t make it back to Poland for a while, so hopefully someone in Poland will take care of it before then. B’E’H.