A Conversation with Joanna Wiszniewicz

We live in the best country in the world. A free country where the rights of the individual are respected. When there is some question or doubt about these rights, there’s always an explanation, right?

Poles saved Jews during World War II. Today Poles can sleep peacefully, with a clean conscience. But then why does somebody always want to speak about Polish antisemitism? It’s always the same. Somebody always wants me to listen to the story of how someone, somewhere, sometime, said to him „You Jew”. Later this person says to me that he grew up in Poland as a Pole and that he had the same hopes and dreams as his Polish peers. He wanted to build Poland, to defend Poland, and he wanted to be a Pole. And his home was deeply patriotic.

It’s not an accident that the youth of my generation learned to love Warsaw from the texts of Polish Jews („I Sound the Alarm for the City of Warsaw”, „On the Corner of Ruins and Horror, On the Corner of Marszalkowska and Jerozolimska”). It’s not an accident that many other Polish Jews, besides Słonimski and Tuwim, taught us much about Polish patriotism. It wasn’t easy for them to be Poles and they longed for nothing else in life so much as the opportunity to show their devotion to Poland.

Joanna Wiszniewicz, a writer and researcher at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, has written a book based on her interviews with a Jew who was born and raised in interwar Poland. Today the hero of her book, „Alex”, lives in the United States. The title of the book is And Yet I Still Have Dreams: The History of a Certain Loneliness, as told to Joanna Wiszniewicz.

Sometimes all you need to do is listen. It seems to me that everyone who attended the recent conversation with Joanna Wiszniewicz at the Polish Cultural Center on the last Saturday in October listened carefully to this story of a Polish Jew with great respect.

Joanna had three meetings in Cleveland. The first was at Case Western Reserve University, where the author told students about Alex’s experiences during the Holocaust. She spoke of the effects of the concentration camps on his feeling that Jews were somehow worse than others and that it was bad to be a Jew. The second meeting was at a Jewish cultural center. The majority of those present had their own stories to tell, their own stories as emigrants from Europe, to some degree tied to the story of Alex. And each wanted to be heard. Each story was important.

At the third meeting, at the Polish Cultural Center, there were many questions. Sean Martin read excerpts from the book – the history of a certain loneliness. I got the impression that during this meeting, everyone in the audience felt the loneliness of the hero of the book. To some degree we were all present in his loneliness. I was personally very proud that the voice of Alex was accorded such dignity and respect.

But what about this best country in the world? It will be the best only when everyone can be heard and when nobody thinks that he knows the „entire” truth.

Richard Romaniuk
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 12/2004