In November 2001, Mark Kurlansky and Philip Gourevitch sat down to discuss A Chosen Few. Gourevitch, a staff writer at The New Yorker and formerly an editor at The Forward, is the author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda and A Cold Case.
Philip Gourevitch: It's nearly ten years now since you traveled through Central and Eastern Europe gathering the material for this book. At that time, the region was still just emerging from half a century behind the Iron Curtain. Today the Communist period already seems a much more remote memory--at least from over here. What is your sense of how the Jewish communities you immersed yourself in for this book have experienced the intervening decade?
Mark Kurlansky: I did the reporting for this book in '92 and '93. I've been back to most of these places since anyway, but I specifically went recently to write a new introduction. The communities have not greatly changed, in part because I did my original reporting after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was a huge event. It is remarkable that the East Germans and the West Germans, both Jews and non-Jews, are no closer together now than they were ten years ago. They are so distinct that you could just walk into a bar or restaurant and pick out who's an Ossie and who's a Wessie. In the Jewish communities in Western Europe, there's a slight difference in atmosphere now because they went through a period, mostly in the '80s, of constant attacks, bombings, and machine gunnings by Palestinian groups. Sometimes neo-Nazi groups claimed the attack, but most of them turned out to be the work of Palestinian groups. This is all clearly remembered but the attacks have become less frequent.
PG: What made them taper off?
MK: I don't think anybody is really sure, since so little was done to apprehend the terrorists. What do you want to bet that some of these people who were doing that then are still very active attacking other places? It is interesting to note that those terrorism networks were not nearly as urgent to uncover and stop when they were just killing Jews. The climate in those places has somewhat changed, although you can still go to any city in Western Europe on Rosh Hashanah, or even on a Friday night, and if you are looking for a synagogue just look for a place where the armed guards are out in the street, and there you will find a synagogue. That has become a way of life for European Jews, just as I suspect it is going to become for American Jews.
PG: When you wrote this book, you were writing in a time of transition, and the transition was a time of hope. There was a sense of emergence and reconnection with the rest of the world--and for Jews with their Jewishness and with international Jewish life more broadly. So when you say that things haven't changed all that much in the intervening decade, I wonder do the people you visited at the time still feel that hope, or has it faded into discouragement?
MK: I would have to say a lot of that hope came from America, or from the world Jewish community. Especially in Central Europe. The Jews there were always a little dubious, kind of dazzled by the interest that the Jews in the rest of the world were taking, and fascinated by what was available to them and what they were learning. And now a lot of these people, a lot of their children, have spent a year or two in Israel--something that was unimaginable before--but it hasn't translated into a flowering of Judaism in Central Europe, partly because the numbers aren't really there, and partly because of the irony that while Communism often repressed Jews it also repressed anti-Semites, or at least right-wing anti-Semites. So now Jews are much freer, but anti-Semites are much freer too. It's extraordinary the kinds of debates that are going on in Poland, that would have been unthinkable under Communism.
PG: Like what? Is the Nazi past being reckoned with or denied, or both?
MK: It was recently discovered in Poland that some Poles actually were involved in the Holocaust. This was not very surprising news to you and me, but when it was revealed by a Polish Jewish writer, Jan Gross, it launched a debate in all of the major newspapers, with hundreds of articles. Some responses have been positive. The government for the first time actually issued an apology. According to a survey, only about 30 percent of the Poles approved of the apology and there is a lot of talk about how this is just a Jewish conspiracy to defame the Polish people. Things get said in these debates that are the kinds of things that you and I would just be appalled by. You have to really extend your imagination to understand why these Jews are there and why they are staying there. After all of the history they have been through and their families have been through and the kinds of things that are still said, you'd say, "Why don't you leave?" They don't leave because it's their home.
PG: Yes, people on the outside often look at people in tough spots and say, "Oh, I would just get out of there," but that really shows a failure of imagination, a failure to understand what it means to have a home, and even more what it means to be displaced from that home as a refugee. There are places in the book where you address this, and suggest that the continuation of European Jewish life after the Holocaust means, in an important way, that Hitler failed. I'm not so sure--but do you continue to feel that?
MK: Yes, in a certain symbolic sense, although I recognize that it isn't very easy to live your life as a metaphor. I went to a regular Friday-night service last week, which happened to be the sixty-third anniversary of Kristallnacht, and the Rabbi commented on the statement it made that we were still all there, a crowded synagogue with hundreds of Jews. You can feel good about that. But it's one thing to go on a Friday night for an anniversary and another to make it your life's work. I don't think that these people were largely motivated by symbolism. It's a thought they may have from time to time and feel good about, but they by-and-large went back and stayed for other reasons, often very pragmatic reasons, and there are a lot of people who really intended to leave someday but just never got it together to go to Israel or wherever it was they were planning on going. Or they came back and got involved with family things--all the things that happen to people that stop them from doing things they are planning on doing.
PG: My experience has been very much that Jewish life in Europe is vestigial--that, yes, there are Jews in Europe but not European Jewry, as it was before the Nazis, and that this reflects the sad fact that non-Jewish Europeans, as a whole, got what they wanted, or anyway lost what they didn't much mind losing. They didn't much care to have Jews around, and when Nazism created the opportunity, they succeeded pretty much in getting rid of them. I don't mean that all Europeans are guilty of banishing Jews, but that in the event, whether it was silently and passively or loudly and aggressively expressed, this was, alas, the sentiment that prevailed. And nowadays, you can certainly find more European Jewish culture in Tel Aviv or in New York or in Melbourne or in L.A., than you can in most European cities, even if there are Jews there. Of course, there's also a new, post-War generation in Europe that tries to act differently from its parents, and--I don't want to generalize-- certainly in Germany and elsewhere that you find the post-War generation feeling guilty, there is a kind of intellectual fetishization of Jews and of antique Jewish culture, which is not entirely comfortable to behold. I wonder if you've encountered this, and if you feel as I do that there is a form of demonstrative philo-Semitism that can smell a lot like anti-Semitism on account of its fascination with Jews as exotic "others."
MK: I think it is basically a modern, politically correct way of being an anti-Semite: Really, we love the Jews. Poles began to crave kosher vodka because the Jews really make it well. Everything Jewish in Poland is very sought after. And there is something clearly anti-Semitic about that but, I think that while you are right about European Judaism existing in Melbourne and in New York and L.A., I don't think that it will remain European in these places. You and I were raised with Europeans in our families. But I have a daughter and it amazes me to realize that she has three American-born grandparents. When I was growing up, somebody with three American grandparents was a WASP. She is growing up without knowing any European Jews. If European Judaism as a culture is going to survive, it won't be here. Here, it will evolve into something else--American Judaism. Only Europe can keep European Judaism alive, and the level of survival of the European Jewish culture tremendously varies from country to country. I would say that--and I have Jewish friends in Poland who are going to be up-set with me for saying this--but I would say that it is really not surviving in Poland. There has to be a certain critical mass to have a Jewish community. That is the concept of a minyon. And really, it's not there in Poland. Plus the fact that people who grew up in a Communist society, just like the New York Jews who came from that kind of socialist background, are reflexively secular. Religion is alien. They encourage the religious rituals because they think they're nice, because of "culture," but they don't want to spend their weekend in schul. In Hungary, Budapest has a sizable Jewish community. Paris has a thriving Jewish community with a strong North African component to it. But a lot of the North African Jews were also of European culture.
PG: And do these thriving communities represent a Jewish renewal to you, rather than a vestigial manifestation of the presence of those who remained because they didn't want to or couldn't leave?
MK: I think that Judaism has been throughout its history, since A.D. 70, a diaspora culture that's all about being a minority. In fact, being a small minority. When I'm in Israel, I cannot get used to the notion that we're all Jewish. It doesn't seem to me that we're supposed to all be Jewish. I didn't grow up in a Jewish neighborhood. I'm just very used to the idea that Jews are a tiny group within a group, that functions in this larger country where things work well as part of a country, but it's never a huge force. So, I don't need to see huge Jewish communities throughout Europe to feel like European Judaism is surviving. If there is a Jewish community in most major cities, which there is, and if the Jew who chooses to live a Jewish life is able to, then there is.
PG: So what do you mean when you say Jewish life? When one speaks of a thriving Jewish presence in Europe before the war, it really falls into two categories. On the one hand there were the shtetls and ghettos, distinctively Jewish villages and neighborhoods, where Jews lived largely among themselves, where Yiddish was widely spoken, and religious tradition was strong. And then, on the other hand, there was the very cosmopolitan, assimilated form of Jewish interaction with the non-Jewish world, in the arts and culture, politics, intellectual life, and the sciences.
MK: And that is still there. It is very much there in France. It's there in the Czech Republic. It's there in Poland. I use to laugh at the fact that everybody I knew in Poland was Jewish because I used to go to Poland just to research this book. But subsequently I have gone to Poland researching other things and still almost everybody I know in Poland is Jewish. A lot of prominent people in intellectual life and cultural life and political life in Poland today are Jewish, which is incredible because there are only a few thousand Jews.
PG: Over the years, you've written a number of books about very different peoples and cultures around the world. But when you write, say, about the Basques, you are not a Basque, whereas you are a Jew, and it matters to you, and that comes through in this book. How do you feel that writing about your own people-- however distant their experience may be from your own--affected your approach, either as a writer or a reporter? Did your Jewish-ness make this project closer to you or harder to get close to?
MK: There are two things. As a reporter it made it easier. People ask me, "How did you find these people?" I went to places and said, "I'm a Jew. I want to talk to some Jews." It's not very difficult. But emotionally, I think it was the hardest book I ever did. It was very hard. I would never have set out to write a book about the Holocaust. But in fact I've spent hundreds of hours talking to Holocaust survivors about their experiences, experiences that aren't in the book. But it's what they want to talk about. You can't get to 1945 until you've done the stuff before it. I remember there was one point at which I had done some work in Amsterdam. I was living in Paris and I was going to swing through Antwerp on my way back to Paris and do some research there. I started dreaming at night that I was in Auschwitz and instead I just took a couple of weeks off. It really gets to you. I never had such dreams of identification or connection with the Basques or Caribbeans. I've talked to Basque survivors of Guernica and the Civil War . . . and I could feel their pain but was still able to maintain my position as the objective observer. If you are Jewish you can't objectively talk--I'm not sure anybody can--to Holocaust survivors.
PG: You said you never set out to write a Holocaust book, but did you end up feeling that this is a Holocaust book?
MK: That's a tough question. Because I so wanted it not to be.
PG: But then the Holocaust permeates the territory you chose, and it comes to permeate you when you immerse yourself in that territory.
MK: It does. One of the truly horrible things about the Holocaust is that it doesn't end in 1945. It keeps affecting our lives in the way we think, and it will affect the way our children see the world. Sixty years later. And so yes, it is a Holocaust book. It is a book about survivors and how they dealt with being survivors. It taught me things that I will always remember. Listening to that CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald after the World Trade Center attack, I knew what was getting to him was the fact that he had all these people who died and he didn't. He survived. In A Chosen Few I spent hours and hours listening to the pain of people of who had survived wondering why they survived and what their life means and what right do they have to survive. Yeah, this has to be a Holocaust book, because for it not to be a Holocaust book you would have to have survivors in 1945 saying, "Oh, thank God that is over, and now onto something else."
PG: You write that if you want to find Jews in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe you go to the graveyard, because that's where they go--the three or four surviving Jews in the town--to be with their people and meet visiting Jews from elsewhere. That is an extremely powerful image. So it's not a metaphor to call Europe a cemetery of Jews, even as Jews continue to live there. And I felt that the impetus for your book came from your desire to examine that tension: "How could any Jew want to live in Europe at this point? Let's find out. Let's see how they think about it." I wonder how you found attitudes toward the Holocaust past--and toward its continuing presence--to differ in the communities you visited from the attitudes one finds amongst American Jews, who have become so steeped in the legacy of the Holocaust that at times you almost feel like the extermination of European Jewry has come to be one of the cornerstones of Jewish identity.
MK: My big fear is that we will become--almost in a Christian way--a culture of martyrdom.
PG: Have you ever thought about writing another book on a subject that is as deeply personal to you?
MK: Personal issues, yes, but not necessarily so personal a setting. But I am working right now on a novel that is very Jewish. It's set in New York and as I write, it keeps getting more and more Jewish. In fact, in seven books from Cod, to my books about the Basques to the Caribbean, to Salt, I have never written a book that does not mention the Jews. It always comes up because it is part of my view of the world. I think when you are Jewish, your Jewish concerns have a life of their own and keep coming to the surface whether you want them to or not.
PG: At the same time, as you say, Jews have been a diasporic people for two thousand years, and the way that one's Jewish concerns surface and are expressed is distinctively colored by where you live. A French Jew and a Russian Jew may feel their common Jewish-ness strongly, and not only when Hitlerian push comes to Stalinist shove, but their national identities may exert at least an equal and opposite sense of difference between them. Consider how Primo Levi was acutely aware of and perceptive about the manifestations of national character among his fellow inmates at Auschwitz.
MK: A lot of Jews don't like to think about this, but the truth is that the nationalism is not an unimportant part of my book. That is why certain Jews wanted to go back to Germany--because they were Germans and they liked Germany. The Jews I know in Poland are a very special group of people not only because they came back but because they stayed through all the anti-Semitic campaigns. They were a small minority of the Jews who were there in 1945. After the pogrom in 1946, many left. Things kept happening and Jews kept leaving. These were the hardcore people who stayed. They stayed because Poland is their home and they love Poland. There is this tremendous tension between the Jews in Poland and Jews in the United States because Jews in the United States hate Poland, and they know it in Poland and both Jews and Poles there resent it.
PG: That makes sense, especially when you consider that among the Jews in Poland there must be a great many who were protected--or whose parents were protected--through the Holocaust and since by their Catholic neighbors. In fact, many who were hidden in this way as children are steeped in Polish Catholic culture, and a good many Jews have continued to live as Catholics, or at least as non-Jews. This is something one finds in the Czech republic and Hungary, unrecognized or unacknowledged Jews.
MK: Madeline Albright is a classic story.
PG: Yes, and it remains awfully hard to believe that she was as shocked as she claimed to be to learn of her Jewishness. I suspect that many Jews who were raised as Christians in Europe do know, at least vaguely, about their ancestry, and of course these days especially there are Jewish groups coming around seeking them out and trying to win them back.
MK: In a lot of these countries--Germany and Poland are two outstanding examples--it is practically a vocation to be a Jew. And not everyone wants to spend the rest of their lives in this vocation of being one of the 7,000 Jews in Poland. But in the time I was researching this book, the Jewish population of these places, especially in central Europe, was growing dramatically.
PG: You mean because Jews were coming out of the closet, so to speak?
MK: Yes, a lot of people, and this was very exciting.
PG: And now?
MK: I was back in Warsaw recently and some had gone much deeper into Judaism, but others say, "This was an interesting experience, but now I want to get on with my life." But sometimes their children have done a lot of Jewish studies there, and even in Israel, to the point where parents are getting concerned that perhaps they are doing too much.
PG: It's the eternal question for Jews: How Jewish--or assimilated--is it okay to be?