The Generation cz. 3

Nadeslal Jacek Schatz

jacek schatz

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Looking back

After suffering their existential defeat, perplexed and disoriented they spread around the world, most going however to Sweden, Denmark and Israel.

At the beginning they were greatly bewildered. Stunned by their defeat and choked with bitterness, they could not find answers to the questions that were tormenting them. Had they been wrong all along, deaf and blind? Or had they been right, at least at the beginning? What went wrong, when and why? What had they done with their lives? Thus, in the first years after the defeat they were uncertain, violent and imprecise, their thoughts and emotions haunted by the ghosts of the distant and recent past. Torn between their past perceptions and situations, their uprooted present and the uncertain course of the future, they entered a painful process of reevaluation and reorientation, the ethnic and political compartments of their identities aching and fermenting in the search for new balance and content. In other words, they were in the process of internalizing and adapting to their new existential situation. Gradually, through the years, they accepted this outcome, drawing their conclusions from their biographies and from the historic events in which they had participated.

What happens at the end of a road is remembered best, and the burden of their defeat, its circumstances and the paths that led to it overshadow memories, coloring their interpretation and evaluation. The members of the generation eventually adjusted themselves in their new countries, but – especially those outside Israel – did not become wholly integrated into these new cultures. Thus, they continued to live in the present, much through their children and the grandchildren, but the peak of their lives lied far in the past. In a way, their lives became, as one put it, a post scriptum.

In retrospect, their Jewishness1 appeared to them as a factor which strongly influenced the course of their lives. Thus taught by experience, they have became more conscious and more affirmative, perceiving their Jewishness in terms of interdependence, of sharing the same „Jewish fate” and looking at the world through „Jewish eyes.” Still atheistic and having retained their materialistic view on the world, they did not perceive being a Jew in terms of religion, but rather as sharing a collective memory, a history and a heritage of ethics and culture.

They were former Communists and former Poles: thus, the Jewish compartment of their identity became, as a rule, its central core. Their Polish subidentity still existed but, being an open wound and a source of pain, lost its previously independent and central position. For those who were living outside Israel, the subidentity derived from their new countries was largely devoid of ethnic content, forming a civil framework of citizen’s rights and duties and a vessel for their Polish-Jewish ethnicity. Against this background, their Polish and the Jewish subidentities traversed: while previously their Jewishness marked the specific quality of their Polishness, today their Polishness functions as a closer specification of their Jewishness.

Reinforced by their life experience, the shadow of antisemitism played a central role in their current Jewish identity. Closely connected, their perception of Israel came to occupy a very important place in identity and concern. It is in view on the importance of Israel (and what they saw as the basically correct course of their Zionist peers and former rivals) that the most radical change in their identity has taken place.

Did they regret what they have done and been? Yes and no. Although in retrospect many would fully agree with the Yiddish phrase „Mir hobn getanz oyf a fremde hasene” (We have been dancing at a stranger’s wedding), most were not ashamed of the past course of their identity and action, understanding its determinants in the contemporary conditions, circumstances and perspectives. Such understanding aside, many grieved their past perceptions, attitudes and conduct. Also, knowing how it all ended, many regreted that they did not join (or remained in) the Zionist movement and some that they did not avoid politics altogether. Above all, they regreted that they did not see it through and did not depart at a much earlier stage: if not already at the time of the Moscow trials, then after the Soviet experience or in the mid-1950s.

As emigrants most of them came to express varying degrees of anti-Communism, in terms of an evaluation of the social, political and moral realities of the Soviet block. However, this should not be misunderstood: their lives have forced them to realize the impossibility of the Communist vision, not its moral falsity. In this light, these former millenialists have become resigned pragmatists. As such, they became strongly suspicious of all utopias. Still convinced that a life without dreams and visions would merely be vegetation, in the sphere of politics and society they gave prominence to patient step-by-step improvement and reform. In this perspective, they also stressed the fundamental, not only existential, importance of children, family and primary social setting: it is within the framework of such settings that one’s social pathos must first be examined.

Most thus appeared to be close to a liberal or softly social democratic view of society and politics. In their view of world politics, they were, as a rule, utterly suspicious of Soviet intentions (as well as fearful of the rise of terrorism and religious fundamentalism). In their new surroundings many missed the existence of a political party which would unite a liberal or moderately social democratic domestic program with a firmer defense of Western democratic values. However, even here there are gradations and exceptions: those few who still regarded themselves as spokesmen of a true, yet currently non-existent Communism were more positive towards the Communist block and more suspicious of the West than the others.

A few still held on to their former dreams. Looking back into the history of the Communist movement and analyzing the present political situation, they looked for crucial turning points, where the degeneration began, and for possibilities of a return to the right path. Most who hold this view, saw the beginning and the source of deviation in the Stalinization of the Soviet Union, i.e., in the rejection of Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the 1920s and the elimination of factions and free opinion within the party. Consequently, they still had hope, placing it in the changed political course of the USSR or, as they said, in the return to true Leninism. Although very few, this group proves not only the persistence of a Communist vision as the backbone of their personal existence, but also the deep existential significance this vision once had for them all. They prove, as one said, that „Communism is easy to swallow, but hard to spew up.”

The members of this generation were not the only Polish-Jewish radicals of their time. Differing in their strategies of emancipation, they shared a rejection of the contemporary world with their Zionist and Bundist peers. However, compared to their peers they were the most radical, the breadth and depth of their vision overreaching the alternatives. In that, they actualize and best exemplify the problematic of „Jewish radicalism” and „Jewish radicals.”

To begin with, it is necessary to clearly state what is meant by „radicalism” and „radical.” Being radical means to go against an established view of society, its order, social institutions and conditions of human existence. It means to provide a counter vision and, in the company of like-minded, to commit oneself to the struggle for its realization through fundamental sociopolitical change and reconstruction. In other words, it means to have the determination, courage and strength to fight to replace the prevailing social, political and moral paradigm with a new and essentially different one.

Political radicalism is frequently based on demands for social justice. However, these two concepts should not be confused: the former is an identity and praxis that aim at a deep social change, while the latter may be its goal or spirit. In regard to an existing reality radicalism implies its rejection and the will to change. Whether from the left or the right, by the definition all radicals are extremists and all extremists radical.

The question of „Jewish radicalism” and/ or „Jewish radicals” arose in response to the empirical fact of the large presence of Jews among revolutionaries and rebels. As previously hinted at, this question often has been mistreated. The most flagrant cases mystify the phenomenon by attributing some inherent radicalism to Judaism, or finding some inherently Jewish traits in radicalism. Moreover, this question is often treated in a reductionist or circular manner. In addition, the concepts of „Jewish radicalism” and „Jewish radicals” are frequently used in a way that implies an interchangeability, which results in an even greater confusion.

Focusing on its traits and causes, discussions of „Jewish radicalism” seem to presuppose the existence of this particular kind of „ism”, as a distinct and discernible entity. But, does it really exist? Do we not take for granted something that should be shown and proven before its characteristics and causes can be debated? In fact, on closer examination it appears that there is no particular „Jewish radicalism” in the sense of a special ideology or inclination, just as there is no particular Dutch, Russian or American radicalism. Instead of these alleged national „isms”, there exist radical ideologies rooted in, stimulated by, applied to or perceived through, the particular sets of conditions and traditions of these societies and cultures. Thus, there might be as many „Jewish radicalisms” as there are possibilities to mix the essential traits of Jewish culture, of particular Jewish predicaments and radical ideologies.

Similarly, there are no „Jewish radicals”, if by this is meant a homogeneous category of individuals who are similar to all other radical Jews and different from all other radical Gentiles. If there was such a category of „Jewish radicals”, it would have to comprise all Jews who are radical and all radicals who are Jewish: Trotsky, Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky and Meir Kahane (not to speak of Moses, the prophets and Jesus). Thus, if used in such wrongly phrased or dimly thought through manner, the concepts of „Jewish radicalism” and of „Jewish radicals” appear ahistorical, reductionist and, simply, empty of content.

What seems to be hidden behind these concepts are (1) different radical, specifically Jewish ideologies (i.e., ideologies concerned with a radical social change seen in the perspective of distinctly Jewish predicaments, problems and prospects), and (2) different categories of Jews inspired by and united in the same – particularistic or global – radical ideologies and corresponding political objectives. The former are not the subject of our present concern. As for the later, the question of radical Jews (as of radical Frenchmen, Poles, Germans or Swedes) should be viewed as one of becoming and one of being.

The question of becoming a radical Jew is fundamentally one of the general mechanisms of formation, functioning through the fabric of a specific Jewish social situation and culture. As shown in the case of this generation, its members became and stayed Polish-Jewish Communists through (1) the combined impact of their specific cultural heritage and social situation, which jointly produced a radical potential among peers and a scope of alternative options for identity and action; (2) through the mixture of conditions and decisive, non-coincidental contingencies which determined their initial choices (and which to a decreasing degree continued to influence their choices all along the way); and (3) through the reciprocative character of individual and collective formation, as well as through the consequential nature of the steps and stages within the process of becoming which, diminishing the role of contingency and increasing the role of consequential determinants, restricted the field of available „obvious” options within the path along which their social and moral career developed.

Thus, the mechanisms that formed these people were general: they apply to and have formed other individuals and other ethnopolitical generations as well. What made them and their generation distinctly characteristic was the joint impact of the particular content through and in the fabric of which these general mechanisms functioned: the concrete elements of their cultural heritage which they assimilated in a specific way, the particular traits of their social situation, their specific inclinations, reactions and perceptions, the particular sociopolitical events and processes, the special influences, conditions, contingencies and circumstances decisive to their choices and actions.

Once these people became committed Communists of their specific kind and time, they did not cease to evolve. However, although becoming is a continuous process, we speak also of being. We say „they are”, „they were” or „they have been” by which we mean a seemingly unchangeable location and continuity of individuals or collectives within a slice of time. Although being is a segment of becoming, an action or/ and a state of mind frozen in a slice of time and as such merely an analytical abstraction, it is indispensable for our communication. It describes discernible, prolonged stages in an ongoing process, periods during which an object does not go through dramatic, fundamental change, but rather retains its essential core. In this sense we speak of being radical Jews.

Being a radical is the result of having become one, i.e., of having assimilated a radical ideology and demonstrating this through radical political action. The term „radical Jews” denotes those radicals who had grown through, from and were influenced by a particular Jewish situation and culture. As we have seen in the case of this generation, the particular circumstances of their becoming Polish-Jewish Communists deeply influenced their being, coloring their political culture, mode of thinking, feeling and acting in ways that made them in several respects similar to each other and different from others. This quality of particularity and sameness was initially produced by the specific factors of their cultural and social background. In the course of their lives this particularity was counteracted by the uniform character of their ideological vision and political action, and by their desire to lessen or erase what distinguished them from others. At the same time, this was reinforced by the perception and action of those others who ascribed to them varying kinds of actual or imagined distinguishing traits, and by their own life experience which – due to all these factors – was in several respects different from that of others. Thus, they were like all other Communists, but also different from them: they were moved by additional dreams, perspectives, inclinations, anxieties and concerns.

In this sense of the mechanisms and content of becoming and being they not only exemplify the issue of radical Jews but also of ethnopolitical generations.

 

Although many of these people had great problems coming to terms with the balance of their lives and their new reality – some ending their lives in emptiness or despair – the collective defeat of the generation meant in another way the possibility for revival to many of the members. In every defeat there exist the seed of resurrection: in their collective defeat there were seeds of individual liberations from deeply rooted stereotypes, compulsive views and traditional perspectives. This is what happened to many of them: they survived, coming out of their defeat wiser and, in a way, strengthened.

However, did they survive as a generation? In its collective downfall the generation was shattered, spread around the world, the remains of its vision, shared present and common sociopolitical location stolen away from it. Are they, then, still a generation?

A sociological generation is formed by contemporaries inspired by a sharing of the same historical experience and the same „existential terms of reference”2 that, ensured by the same set of social institutions, produces and demonstrates the same typical identity. If a generation is formed by a flow of decisive and relevant experience „producing a collective mentality and morality”, resulting in that its members „feel themselves linked by a community of standpoints, beliefs and wishes”,3 it lasts until new experiences nullify the value of the earlier system of meanings. In addition, a common geographical and sociopolitical location, identity and action are essential for a generation to be an actuality. Also, a generation expresses itself in being perceived as such by its members and by others.

What today these people have still in common is a shared past location, identity and action, a consciousness of it, a largely common self-definition whose core is focused on the past, an identity that to a large degree has a root of commonality, and the outsider’s perception of their life career as shared and common. On the other hand, they do not share the same present location in terms of geography, society, political vision and action. In addition, they lack their previously shared future perspective. In short, they share a common past, but lack a shared present and common future, the lack of such commonality being the consequence of their defeat. Hence, it would appear that even if they still define themselves as members of a generation, they are, so to say, less so than before. Moreover, if the present state of their identity is primarily defined as having been, but no longer being Polish-Jewish Communists, then even this contemporary sense of sameness is defined in a negative manner, i.e., through a shared fate of not being what they once were. In other words, their sense of continuing to be members of a generation is defined through the end of a generation as an actuality. In this view, even if their defeat in one sense meant for many of them a subsequent rebirth as individuals, it also meant the definite, although incomplete, downfall of their collective.

 

Looked at in retrospect, their lives appear to be conditioned and in many ways determined. Yet, at the same time, they contained several potential turning points at which the alternation of a seemingly settled course of career was possible. Taken together, these two aspects generate many „ifs” and „what ifs”, as well as the question of bad or good luck.

The importance of luck as a crucial factor in the events of their lives parallels the degree of their helplessness at different points of time, of not being free to make decisions, of being, that is, objects. The more they were objects, the larger the significance of luck. However, regarding luck as a concept and examining it more closely, one discovers that a part of what is called luck can be translated into coincidence and another part into contingency. There is not much to be done about pure coincidence: it escapes our controll and the ability to forecast. However, it is different with contingency. If contingencies occur within a given system of conditions, then what is called good or bad luck becomes a question of a continuum of probabilities of encountering factors with an essential bearing on one’s life: within a given system of conditions some things are more likely to occur than others. Thus, even contingencies are broadly determined by conditions. This weight of conditions in determining the path of a career and a becoming is reinforced still more by its consequential character: as a rule, every step in this process falls within the field of options contained in the previous one. Taken together, these factors generate a picture of actors who, despite their individual dreams and desires, cannot overcome the ballast of determinants and whose careers are, at least in a statistical sense, largely predictable.

However, despite the weight of conditions and the consequential character of becoming which at every step and stage increases the probability of continuation on an already initiated path, radical reverses can and do happen. As we have seen, at certain points of their own and their society’s history, some of those who began the career as Communist stepped or could have stepped aside from a seemingly determined path. For some, this happened – for more it could have happened – at the time of the dissolution of the KPP, under the influence of their Soviet experience or the thaw and the events connected with it. Focusing attention on such reverses, it seems, in general terms at least, that what makes them possible is a combination, or any one, of three factors: (1) dramatic social or political events and their individual interpretations, (2) contingent encounters with new ideological significant others and (3) significant personal experiences of traumatic intensity. Under the influence of such factors there might occur conscious individual reevaluations of the past and a decision to radically change the future course of one’s life. Common in all such situations is that the decision to reverse or, really, take any consciously chosen existential option, must in the last instance be made by the individuals themselves. Thus, people are not necessarily doomed to be slaves in determined conditions. What is determined by social and political factors, as well as by the element of contingency is merely (1) a spectrum of alternative options for individual choice and (2) a continuum of probabilities for choosing one of the alternatives, as conditioned by the actors’ background and earlier experience. Having this margin of freedom, in no situation can the individual escape his or her existential responsibility for what he or she is and what he or she does or does not do.

The fact that the potentialities for human action which reside in every given situation are always conditioned, but seldom totally determined, also means that if the study of human beings and their society is to avoid the pitfall of simplification and reductionism – „the yes-or-no crude model treated as reality itself”4 – it should not only inquire into what has happened, but also attempt to explore what could have happened and why did it not happen.


Spread all over the world and over the years, the members of the generation died out. As the common history of Poland and Jews seemed to be over and as they, in their own way, were the last to carry it on, they were not only the last Jewish Communists of Poland but also among the last Polish Jews. Looking back on their lives and at the contemporary world, it appears that they were also the last genuine millenialists of their kind or, as they would prefer to say, the last true Communists.

 

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