Professor Uri Shmueli could not come to the exhibition devoted to the Jews of Wieliczka– a supplement to the materials by him contained in the „Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno”

Napisany 28/08/2014

P1010386 copyThroughout July this year an exhibition dedicated to the Jews of Wieliczka was open in the Stradomski Centre for Dialogue. Uri Shmueli and Nathan Kleinberger, who live in Israel, wanted this exhibition, supported it, our publishing house prepared it, the Centre provided its site, the Wieliczka and District authorities took honorary patronage and made a financial contribution, and Dziennik Polski was the media patron. Uri promised in 2013 that he would come to the opening of the exhibition and take part, just as he did in August 2012 during the celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the removal of all Jews from Wieliczka by the Germans, and then his speech turned out to be the most significant of all. This time he failed to arrive for a reason simultaneously objective and personal. It was not the first and not the last chance for Uri, born in 1928 in Poland, to appear here in public. It seems that the JagiellonianUniversity has a hitherto never given lecture from his scientific field.

Born in Kraków as Uriel Szmulewicz into a Zionist-minded intellectual Jewish family, with roots in Wieliczka on his mother’s side, from the beginning he learned Hebrew at home and later in schools, was raised in Krakow, often visited Wieliczka, and at the age of fourteen in the local Bogucice meadows he and his family were segregated into life and death. On that hot summer’s August day, his Polish colleagues from Wieliczka did not necessarily devote any attention to this event. The German murderers and their assistants made the teenage Uriel a Wieliczkan of the Shoah forever. Then, he lost his mother and some extended family members, after which he lived through the Krakow ghetto, labour and concentration camps, the death of his father, and immediately after the war he went to Israel and there began a normal life, started a family, which gave birth to three children, was a professor of chemistry and crystallography at Tel Aviv University and a respected scientist, became an Israeli, identified himself with the young country, its language, fate, and future.

His autobiography My memoirs is available online and at the website of our publishing house. In The Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno 1872-2012, developed by Urszula Żyznowska and Anna Krzeczkowska, he wrote a number of other texts.   

The first time I spoke with him was when he called me after he had learned from other Jews from Wieliczka with whom I had previously spoken that I was collecting materials about the Wieliczka Jews for my Wieliczka’s Inhabitants in Described Photographs, published in 2009. He immediately said that he would share photos and write an article independently in Polish, which he did. From the beginning, he gave me the impression of being one of those people who require a lot from themselves and from others, so that a profound liking for them, even though it takes some time, turns out to be very fruitful. Our acquaintance – first by telephone and email – began with his initiative towards me and our publishing house, and continues to this day, for more than five years. I had long been interested in how he looks and behaves. When I finally met him in person, he turned out to be not tall, an able-bodied man, and more intellectually humble in his habits and dress, with a European look and a hint of Semitic features. He is one of the best sorts of people, sturdy and efficient to the end, for whom a long and slow biological aging is not generally accompanied by aging and loss in mental activity, similar to a Rolls-Royce, which continuously drives the same and endlessly, if they just are. Uri impressed me as minutely respectful of relationships with others – with a little gallantry, more academic than pre-war. He is not someone who opens and trusts another after a short or even medium long friendship. He is rather someone who does not say the most important things – perhaps to anyone. In any case, does anyone tell others what is most important to him? As an academic, Uri attaches great importance to the quality of verbal communication, both oral and written. His ambition is to speak well in Hebrew, English, Polish, and maybe others. When Ula and I visited the apartment of Uri and his companion, Ms. Magda Leuchter, for the first time, the front door bore a temporary card with their names in the Latin alphabet, hiding the words in Hebrew, whose alphabet we had not had time to learn. When we were to take the train to another city together, Uri was waiting for us at the station with tickets bought in advance, even though Israelis virtually all speak English. Everywhere in Israel he tried to accompany us in person or arranged other people to assist. He responds to emails no later than the second day, always exhaustively, including the spoken and unspoken needs and wishes of the recipient. Uri behaves like pre-war Polish intelligentsia of the purest water – as I imagine this type, which is perhaps identical with the style being a member of the postwar Israeli intelligentsia.

My wife Urszula Żyznowska and I described his extensive help in the creation of The Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno 1872-2012. Texts and photographs in the introduction to the book in the following way:

Professor Uri Shmueli was an adolescent survivor of the Holocaust in Wieliczka. He lives and works in Israel. He is co-author and co-translator of this anthology. Throughout the work on it, he was in constant touch with our editors. He printed his own texts. He translated Hebrew texts he had chosen. He had an impact on the content of the book. He was our consultant on the importance of Hebrew words, culture and Jewish rites. He helped us to reach many people living in Israel and other countries, to whom he recommended our project and who contributed a lot to it. He found the granddaughters of Moshe Klinghofer and contacted them. He obtained scans of photos of Wieliczka Jews from 1902 and 1915. He did not give up at difficult moments. He encouraged us in a number of ways, for example, with the words „What you are doing is what we call in Hebrew „sacred work”. If I can be helpful in this, I will do so very willingly and selflessly!” He took on a number of essential technical and organisational activities whose conduct in Poland would have been difficult or impossible. He received us kindly in his country, patiently explained the twists and turns of Jewish-Polish relations, kindly showed us how the state of Israel functioned, showed us around it, and helped in very many different situations. He is one of the initiators of the commemoration on a plaque of the events in Wieliczka of 27 August 1942, which he personally endured.   

The official book launch, well received in Wieliczka, took place during the abovementioned seventieth anniversary. When the following day I asked Uri what next after the Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno, he philosophically gave the answer located in the question: „Next describe the Jews, this time nearby Wieliczka”. He replied rather in the spirit of „the harvest indeed is plenteous, but the labourers are few”, but I suspected him also of wishing our tiny niche publishing house well, which, to be frank, thanks to the Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno significantly augmented its circle of readers. Our constant editorial desire to expand the permanent history of Wieliczka is now mixed with gratitude to the living pre-war Jews of Wieliczka for their friendly response to our interest in them.

I spent some time in conversations with Uri Schmueli. In turn, he made me acquainted with selected elements of his biography which had left traces in his personality, which at first seemed to my eyes as if from another planet.

Uri talked about pre-war Krakow and Wieliczka, filled with Jews, from the perspective of a young Jew with a mind which enabled him to memorise many things. In his memoirs cited above, there dominates from the beginning the perspective of a man who identified himself as a youth to a relatively large extent with the place of his birth and life, in spite of the Zionism in the family and the anti-Semitism in the environment. As it is, the author entitles two chapters: The fool’s paradise, thus naming pre-war and wartime Poland, from which the Jews did not flee from their tragic fate, even those who were able to. But whether it was or not, the „fools’ paradise” is also a paradise of a particular – and perhaps even every – category. Written memories of pre-war Polish Jews are numerous, but unlike most of them, Uri is not anonymous for me. And from the perspective of a young Jew he remembers not only pre-war Krakow – inevitably remembered by many Jews – but also pre-war Wieliczka – and that is much rarer, and even closer to me because of my family origin. In Uri’s texts, and also in his ordinary, everyday utterances, there is no shortage of irony indicating distance, and this, as you know, „is the soul of beauty”. Among the six chapter titles of memories from this survivor of the Shoah, four bear ironic overtones.

Uri Shmueli, as a Jew who survived the Shoah, was in a sense among the other survivors at the peak of humanity. This has to satisfy anyone who associates with him; this is certainly true in my case. Unlike his eternal peers – Jews murdered in the Shoah – Uri Shmueli has taken a permanent place in the hierarchy of the survivors. In the book, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders. The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, in the chapter entitled „Survivors”, a world authority in the subject, Raul Hilberg writes:

After the war, there was no strict and irrefutable definition of the „surviving Jew”, since it had no clearly defined boundaries. Despite this, there is a clear hierarchy of Jews living under Nazi rule during the war. The place in the hierarchy was determined by the degree of risk and of suffering. Members of communities which were not affected by persecution, as well as those living to the end of the war in their own homes, are not considered survivors at all. At the other extreme, hiding in the woods and former prisoners were survivors par excellence.

The idea to put at the top of the hierarchy those people who previously found themselves at the bottom is more than just recompense. The reason for this kind of promotion is their specific expertise. This was often mentioned by survivors themselves, using terms such as „Planet Auschwitz” or sentences like: „He who was not there, cannot imagine how it was”. Of course, they were „there”, which distinguished them from those who did not experience that fate. People from outside are not able to overcome this barrier and will never be able to understand what those people endured.

I got to know the hierarchy of Wieliczka Jewish survivors from them themselves. I met people who have personally experienced the extremes of humanity – Jaspers would say, „limit-situations”. Getting to know these people and their unwritten hierarchy has been one of the larger spiritual experiences in my life. Uri Shmueli is high in this hierarchy, but not the highest. More can be read about in the aforementioned Introduction to The Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno. I consider my questions to Uri on planet Shoah childish. He finally told me on the train from Haifa to Tel Aviv: „That’s behind me now”. He gave me short shrift; he declared that he had overcome – but what, he testified to overcoming – what? Even if he wanted, no one would agree to his leaving the hierarchy of survivors, because no one wants it to be so pessimistic. If a man who, within their one life, had touched the extremes could free himself of them, he would have reached indifference as to whether they had happened or not, and this would probably mean his ability to achieve closure in all matters. And yet most people lean toward different meanings beyond the course of their lives, let alone meanings like these. Homeric shadows in the land of the dead remained the most important emotions of their earthly lives, and living people had contact with those emotions, however difficult.

When, as a Jew born in Poland Uriel Szmulewicz lived here with his family before the war, he was a Polish Jew, although I am not sure if they thought that about themselves then, if they called themselves that, and how he thinks about it now. Now it can no longer be said of Uri Shmueli that he is a Polish Jew, but rather a Jew born in Poland, a citizen of the State of Israel, an Israeli. I am comparing the statuses of one man which are split by almost 70 years, because that is how long Uri has not been resident in Poland and Europe, but in Palestine and Israel. I know that he looks on my contrived alternative histories about him and other people with similar life paths with a large grain of salt. He could not imagine that he would have remained in Poland. As a family man, honest citizen and scientist with achievements, Uri Shmueli has added in person to the solidification and development of the state of Israel. He is happy and proud of this, and I talked to him about it. He is convinced that the effort he and his generation have gifted to the new state and the next has value and meaning. Yet it is one of the post-war ways of life of Polish Jews – those who will never return from Israel to Poland, and nor will their families. As he has Polish roots, at most he remarks about a Polish passport, which is perhaps a positive contact with the old country. As he has Polish roots, at most he remarks about a Polish passport, which is already a positive contact with the old country. Another way of life was chosen by Polish Jews like Marek Edelman, who remained in Poland until the end of his life, in spite of the many unfavourable circumstances which this country provided him with. I do not know Edelman’s statements about what his motives were to stay in Poland, but he was definitely inclined towards the ideology of the Bund, which had this attitude in its programme. From Israel’s perspective, Uri Shmueli acted beneficially; it would seem that from his own – or similarly from Poland’s – probably not. Poland has lost a precious individual and his descendants, and has learned nothing from these cases – it is still losing talented people. And so if Uri Shmueli had endured conservatively in Poland, Poland would have benefitted, but would probably not have appreciated him, and perhaps not even have noticed. At this level, weighing the pros and cons of such survival cannot really be defended. Maybe it is different at deeper levels, but they have to be weighed by Uri himself, and maybe he does.

The head of the Stradomski Centre for Dialogue, Professor Aleksander Skotnicki, opening the abovementioned exhibition in early July 2014, half jokingly and half seriously mentioned that it should tour Warsaw, maybe Paris, and so on, to which I added also Tel Aviv. As the Żyznowski publishing house we pour the droplets of our array of testimony into the vast oceans of history and culture. And we see the meaning of this – the fascination with the oceans and the possibility (egocentric, if not narcissistic) of reflecting ourselves in their mirrors, usually wavy, rarely smooth. Uri Shmueli is among the close friends of our project. Without him, our job would be more barren and friable. And here justice appears – but of what origin? – in the world; we just help a little in providing the testimonies; we do not need to provide our own because our parents or grandparents stood on the safe side that day in August 1942. He knows that he must still bear witness, because then he stood on the deadly dangerous side.


May he never say his last word.


Wiesław Żyznowski

Siercza, August 4, 2014

(tłum. Robin Gill, ExLibro)





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