Polishness is a longing for purity [Interview of the Month]

Marci Shore in an interview with Jarosław Kuisz · 19 December 2014

Jarosław Kuisz: Would you consider yourself a dissident?

Marci Shore: Only a historian. I don’t have any dissident experiences.

But you went to Kiev in May.

Yes, but that was too late. Earlier- in February for instance, when it was especially important- I wasn’t in Ukraine. I wanted to go, but I have small children, and I felt I could not allow myself to go, because of them. I feel ashamed that I have seen Kiev only through the media. I saw the Orange Revolution a decade ago when I was in Europe, but it didn’t impress me that much. It didn’t get to me that much. This year, I felt that the events in Ukraine have had a much more existential significance that those ten years ago.

Have you become permeated with Polishness?

(laughing) I don’t know. It might be so. This time, however, I understand that what we have seen at Maidan, is something extraordinary, something that does not happen very often and something very fragile. It was a moment of breaking through the banality of everyday life.



Lets talk about the repercussions of another revolution. This year we have a 25th anniversary of the Third Republic in Poland. History comes back to Poles in a particularly powerful way

I was really interested with the famous interview with Marcin Król “We were stupid.” His self-critique seems to be perfectly understandable. Marcin’s generation have fought all the time, since their youth. He himself was among those imprisoned. And at some point they started to believe that they had finally won. But I remember Adam Michnik talking at a seminar at Yale few years ago, when he said that he was afraid that he will wake up some day and find out, that everything was a dream, that Poland still lives in communism. I think that most of the people from that generation- and most of the people from all adult generations at the time- did not believe that they would live up to the end of communism. For them, it is still a miracle. How do you face the fact that this wonderful victory did not bring perfection? That it even did not bring something close to perfection?

You want to say that it would be better for them, if communism was still alive?

No. That’s a misunderstanding. The crisis of values, the crisis of capitalism, crisis of Europe, do not mean that it would be better if communism had not fallen. I think there are very few people so disappointed with the present times that they would say such things.

Marcin Król also claimed that the costs of the transformation were too severe in an earlier interview with Kultura Liberalna.

Which does not mean that Marcin suggests that departing from communism was a mistake, even though he talks about there being ‘too severe costs.’ I sympathize with Marcin, because he speaks through a personal sense of guilt.

Why so? He is not guilty.

It’s not really about something specific, but rather about a sense of responsibility for the moral condition of the society, and he is a part of that society. I respect this feeling. Besides, Marcin belongs to a whole milieu – the March 68’ generation – to whom the idea of being a Polish intellectual meant- and probably, still means- a necessity to represent some universal values. From the very beginning the targets were set very high, expectations of oneself were also very high. That generation had a feeling that the stakes were high, that life is all about the most important values. Coming from such a perspective, it is really difficult to face the imperfection of everyday life.


Using the infamous communist distinction, we could say that the transformation was “objectively” more-or-less successful. But was this “subjectively” enough?

Marci Shore


Today we have a revolutionary moment east of Warsaw.

I was really moved, when I saw that so many people from that generation were mobilizing again, this time for Ukraine. They did that with affection. They are at their best, when the stakes are very high. In that interview with “Gazeta Wyborcza”, Marcin said: “We stopped to ask ourselves metaphysical questions. No one thinks these days, for instance, about the problem of evil.” A few years back, in a conversation with Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik talked in a similar way about the need for metaphysics. Maidan was a return of metaphysics.

I can see are some paradoxes in what you are saying. On the one hand, you can understand that generation. But on the other- you are suggesting that they are driven by an utopian crave for perfection, which cannot be achieved in this world.

I wouldn’t say they believe in some kind of utopia. It is more about a tendency to have very high demands of oneself, of your own society, of the world. Besides, I can understand that, because I want perfection as well. So do you. I feel satisfied very rarely. It’s not easy to live this way, not to mention the fact that this approach must be very exhausting to the people who have to deal with me all the time.

But not the whole of that generation speaks with one voice. Aleksander Smolar took a different stand, when the discussions about the 25th anniversary were the most intense. He pointed that the critical story of the last quarter century is not exactly true. During the political transformation of the early 1990s, protective measures were introduced whenever that was possible. The retirement age was lowered, or the unemployed benefits were introduced. They couldnt afford many things, because the state was very poor- but they tried! Empirical data doesnt support many of the critical voices that are now raised against the todays Poland. For instance, many people talk about increasing social inequalities as the proof of the transformations failure. However, neither the Eurostats, nor the GUSs data show that the inequalities are actually growing.

Using the infamous communist distinction, we could say that the transformation was “objectively” more-or-less successful. But is this “subjectively” enough? People have high expectations. Can we accept the fact that these expectations cannot be met? Marcin is right, pointing to the fact that more liberty was achieved at the cost of a sense of equality or security. It’s a classic problem – described by Leszek Kołakowski and Isaiah Berlin. I can’t see an easy solution. I can probably both admire the achievements and also feel compassionate about the dissatisfaction. I can’t accept many things in my own country- including social inequalities. Many kids go to awfully bad schools in poor neighbourhoods, where they fear for their lives because of the ubiquitous violence. Where the local police force has simply given up. Or another example: anyone can pop into a shop, where you can buy a toothpaste, or bed linens, or toys for kids, and you can buy a gun as well. These things are absolutely unacceptable, unforgivable. And they cannot be explained rationally.


Twenty years ago Warsaw terrified me. But it was very attractive at the same time- maybe it’s just a perversion on my side. It was a gloomy and dangerous city. But now it’s different.

Marci Shore


Yes, but I would like us to make a proper diagnosis. To find the right proportions. Meanwhile, if you function within the sphere of Polish culture and language, one is not really allowed to enjoy anything. And there is a more serious issue: stories about failures seem to be more credible in this country. The problem is that this tendency, which we got from previous generations, is very discouraging for us today. And in the longer perspective might be fatal for this countrys future development.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the right proportions, as I don’t live in Poland. The voices I am familiar with might not be representative for the rest of the country.

But you used to spend a lot of time in Poland. How much has changed from your perspective? You came to Warsaw for the first time in 1995. You wrote that anti-Semitic graffiti and violence on the streets were the most striking at the time

Warsaw terrified me then. But it was very attractive at the same time- maybe it’s just a perversion on my side. It was a gloomy and dangerous city. But now it’s different. It’s safer than New Haven, where I live. In Warsaw, the streets are full of people. You can walk alone, which is unimaginable in New Haven after dusk. Generally speaking, I feel very convenient in Warsaw.

And what changed in Poland, apart from that sense of safety?

A completely new generation appeared, which was not shaped by the communism at all.

You see it clearly?

 Very clearly. In the early 1990s, one could feel the difference between the West and the East. These different complexes of superiority and inferiority. One could almost touch it. I had a feeling that others envied me all the time- only because I’m an American. Or that they complained all the time. Or that they ignored me, looked down at me, etc. I knew I could never understand that fully, because I am not from here.

People gave you that impression as well?

 Yes, people suggested that they have experienced something which cannot be fully explained, that my understanding will always be superficial. That I will always lack some kind of depth. I am not saying they weren’t right. And I am not saying that I didn’t have some complexes myself. But I can’t see that in the younger generation. I have a feeling that the young people don’t have such a strong sense- or perhaps they don’t have that sense at all- of the wall between the world where I come from, and the world where they come from. The world is wide open for them. This is a generalisation, naturally.

So the sense of security, the young generation… Anything else?

 The Smolensk case. If there was no Smolensk, Poland would be different.

Would do you mean by that?

 On that day, 10th April 2010, I was in a hospital in Vienna, right after a labour. There were six other women in my room, one of them a Pole. She found out that I knew Polish. Her phone started to ring. After the conversation, she screamed to me at the other side of the room, that there was that terrible crash, that everyone died, that it was like an assassination attempt on Poland, that the opposition is to be blamed, that Russia, and so on. I’ve had my mobile phone with me, so I texted a friend in Warsaw: please, tell me, what happened in Smolensk. She called me back and kept asking questions: how was my labour, how is the baby, how do I feel. I knew she wanted to hide something. My husband came to the hospital soon after, and when I saw his face, I knew that one of our colleagues died as well. And then Tim told me reluctantly that Tomek Merta was in that plane.

You said that your friend wanted to hide something. Dou have any idea what was it?

 Kaśka didn’t want to tell me about the tragedy when I was still in hospital with a new-born child. She didn’t want to worry me. Later on, I understood, that it wasn’t only a personal tragedy that so many people were killed. There was something that Poles didn’t want to accept after that catastrophe.

What exactly?

 The truth. I read in “Gazeta Wyborcza” the flight recorder text in June of the same year. It was clear that the pilots were aware that there the conditions did not allow for a safe landing. They knew they should fly to Minsk. But there was something more in the discussion after Smolensk – some sense of longing for martyrdom. The Polish historical policy seems to be permeated by this longing. At some level, Polishness is a longing for purity.

So there is a need of some pure vision of oneself?

 Unfortunately, there is no purity in this world, but the fact that people long for it is understandable.

This crave for purity seems to be a part of post communism. I felt it in your book Taste of Ashes, in your descriptions of Romania, or in the visit in Kluż. But is there anything specifically Polish in this situation?

 I’m not an expert on Romania to be able to make such a comparison, but surely there is a difference between Poland and the former Czechoslovakia. Poland cultivates its martyrdom in a particularly intense way. Conspiracy theories about Smolensk seem to me to be madness. One has to accept, that the truth doesn’t have to be pleasant.


There was some sense of longing for martyrdom in the discussion after Smolensk. The Polish historical policy seems to be permeated by this longing.

Marci Shore


I would like now to change the topic and ask about the Polish-Jewish relations, and changes in this area in the recent years

We have made great progress in that matter.

Where do you see that?

I belong to the group which thinks that the Jedwabne debate was very impressive. That doesn’t mean that every voice agreed, but the general impression was truly special. Poles managed to ask themselves unpleasant, difficult questions. I belong to the small group of people which read the tones of articles and documents published by Leon Kieres, head of the IPN (Institute for National Remembrance) at the time. What Kieres did was a truly great achievement, even if it was painful. He not probably did not imagine that he would have to face a discussion as the president of IPN. Yet, how do you say in Polish? He rose to the occasion.

Stanął na wyskości zadania.

Exactly. Besides, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is impressive as well. It’s a huge project, and many great people are involved in it. The historian responsible for the main exhibition is Antony Polonsky, and Dariusz Stola is the director. In my view, these were the best possible choices in both cases. For me the museum is a symbol of maturation of the Polish historical consciousness. Poland- or at least a part of it- accepted the Jewish history as a part of its own history.

It was also a part of the Polish political transformation.

In some aspects, yes. The debates about the Polish-Jewish relations were very important. For historians. For myself. But were they important for everyone? You are in a better position to assess that than I am.

I wonder if these debates were actually heard by the Jewish community, or were they rather an internal Polish issue?

When Jan Gross’s “Fear” was published in Polish, Adam Michnik said that the debate over it should have a Polish-Polish, and not a Polish-Jewish character. I think it was the right point of view. For Jan, his Polishness is the most important thing, and the view that he must consider himself a Jew and attack Poland for that reason is absurd. Jan has always considered himself primarily a Polish intellectual. He wrote about his famous Oxford lecture about Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War in the émigré magazine “Aneks” in 1986. Some of his Polish friends said that “his text was an intellectual aberration.” That under the influence of the “Shoah” movie, “the blood of Maccabees” rose in him. What was his answer? “I would like to ensure the readers”- he wrote in Aneks- “that my article is a reaction to the urge of the Piasts’ blood, rather than the Maccabees’ blood”. This is another example of a Polish intellectual who has very high standards. And this is right, in my opinion.


Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a symbol of maturation of the Polish historical consciousness. Poland- or at least a part of it- accepted the Jewish history as a part of its own history.

Marci Shore


And how does that Polish debate relate to the Jewish discussion about the Holocaust?

If we talk about the Jewish debate- or rather Jewish debates- about the Holocaust, then Nathan Englander’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” was particularly important in recent years. It was published first in the “New Yorker”. It’s a story about two couples, where women used to be friends from an orthodox Jewish school in New York City. After they graduated, one of them married a man, whose parents were Holocaust-survivors and who became an ultra-orthodox Jew. The newlyweds moved to Israel and had a lot of kids. The other friend also married a Jew, but a secular one. They moved to Florida and had an average, uninteresting American life.

Both couples met after twenty years in Florida. They drunk, smoked marijuana and talked about the old days. At some point, the religious girl recalled a game from childhood, and they imagined that they were in Poland, or in another Nazi-occupied country during the Holocaust. They wondered, whether some non-Jewish people, perhaps a nice man from the local grocery, would have helped them. Now, they started to play the game drunk. The secular Jewish girl was supposed to imagine herself that her husband was not a Jew, and ask herself a question: would he have saved her. Looking straight at him, she said yes. And then the other one, the one from Israel, looks at her very religious husband, the father of her children, son of Holocaust-survivors, and says the same. But all four of them realised that she didn’t really believed it. What could not be said aloud became a source of terror in that room.

For me, that short story was a very important moment in the literature of the post-war generation. The conclusion is that the thing, which we are so horribly afraid of, is also in us, not only outside us. And for that reason there is no safe place, although we long for it so much. Nathan Englander expressed that in a brilliant way.

Its an awfully cruel game- you look deep into somebodys guts, thinking, what would he do in such a situation.

 Yes. The point about this story is not that the orthodox husband was a bad man. Most of the time- under ordinary conditions- he was a good husband. The horror lied in the uncertainty, which is a fundamental part of human condition. For me, as a historian, history is important exactly because it helps us to better understand the human condition. Looking back, we are able to understand something close to a whole. In real time that is impossible.

Do you join these questions about the Holocaust with the debate over the dissidents heritage, which has been your interest for many years?

 It’s a difficult question. The Holocaust is an inalienable element of the background for the whole experience of communism. You cannot think in depth about communism after 1968 without thinking about Stalinism, and you can’t think about Stalinism, without thinking about the war.

These two stories- Holocaust and the dissidents heritage- coexist in the region of Central-Eastern Europe, but they seem to function separately.

From my point of view, they form a kind of whole. History of the Polish dissidents would have been different, if there was no Holocaust. This was the basic background of their biographies. Many dissidents were Poles of Jewish origin, and very often these were the children of the Polish-Jewish Stalinists. In order to understand their biographies, and the decisions of their parents, they had to think about the Holocaust- even when others were silent about it. Besides, that prolonged silence had an importance as well. It was an integral part of the generational experience for the people, who had survived the war. The world looked very dramatic back then, as if the only possible choice was that between Nazism and communism.

Can you tell us something about your next book?

 I am working – albeit very slowly because I have small kids- on a book about meetings, in the sense that Józef Tischner understood “a meeting”, between the most important characters connected with the phenomenologist movement in the Central-Easter Europe. However, the Kiev revolution has distracted my attention a bit.

So why wont you write something about that?

 I’m afraid of writing about the present. I like to, and I prefer to, use the opportunity to look at things from the perspective of time. I would like to write about Ukraine, but I’m not sure if I have a right to do so. Could I manage to do that without that time perspective, and without staying in the place- in Kiev, in the East- for a longer time? All the same, it is difficult to turn back from these events.