By Frankee Lyons, 2018 AJC Fellow
What can we learn about history from the story of one family?
The story of Salomon and Regina Kupperman is told through artifacts displayed at the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s (AJC) Jewish Museum in Oświęcim and through the museum’s online exhibition Nowe Życie (New Life). By placing these documents in historical context, we can see how one Oświęcim family’s experiences reflect the complexity of postwar Jewish life in Poland.
The end of the Second World War resulted in massive population displacement in Eastern Europe. Of those Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, the vast majority had done so by fleeing to the Soviet Union early in the war. Largely avoiding the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, these Polish Jews began to return to Polish lands in 19441. Of the Polish Jews who remained in Poland after 1945, around half emigrated following the 4 July 1946 pogrom in Kielce2. And yet still other Jewish survivors continued to live in Poland well after the war, building their lives there until the 1956 and 1968 antisemitic crises resulted in the mass emigration of Poland’s remaining Jewish population.
Salomon Kupperman and Regina Grünbaum lived in Poland through the 1950s. Before the war, they were active members of Zionist groups. Salomon fled to the Soviet Union during the war and returned to his hometown Oświęcim after the end of the war. Regina was deported from Oświęcim to Sosnowiec in 1941 and sent to Gross-Rosen and Mauthausen, among other camps, before liberation from Bergen-Belsen in 1945. After their return to Oświęcim, Salomon and Regina married in 1948 and lived at 1 Parkowa Street. In 1949, they had a daughter, Elina. The family lived in Oświęcim until 1962, when they moved to Israel3.
What did Jewish life look like in Poland in the 1950s? Holocaust survivors and repatriates did their best to make do with what little was available to their community after the war. In the immediate postwar period, Polish Jewish community organizations primarily centered around immediate recovery matters, such as emigration and locating family members. The first and chief among these was the Central Committee of Polish Jews (Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce), a state-sponsored body that served as political representation for Jews in Poland. In 1950, this organization merged with the Jewish Association for Art and Culture (Żydowskie Towarzystwo Kultury i Sztuki) and was renamed the Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ, Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce).4 This merger reflected the dwindling Polish Jewish population by 1950 as well as Stalinist-era centralization.
On the local level, Polish Jews worked to rebuild elements of Jewish life. In Oświęcim, Jewish survivors, though few in number, banded together to fulfill the necessary functions of a Jewish community. The Oświęcim Jewish Committee worked to record the names of Holocaust victims and to provide support to survivors. Polish Jews who chose to remain in Poland continued to participate in civic life and the local economy. In Oświęcim, for example, survivor Leon Schoenker joined the postwar town council.
Salomon found employment in production planning at the Chemical Works in Oświęcim, located at the site of the former IG Farben factory in Dwóry. The IG Farben factory was shut down after liberation of the Auschwitz complex and quickly reopened as a Polish chemical plant in September 1945. The plant was re-named the Chemical Works Oświęcim (Zakłady Chemiczne Oświęcim) in 19495. For Holocaust survivors, the mission to “rebuild” life and community often came into conflict with the recent traumatic past. Jewish life in postwar Poland was one of constant spiritual and spatial confrontation with the Holocaust, and this confrontation led many remaining Jews to leave Poland after the war and through the 1950s.
Following Josef Stalin’s death in 1953, political reforms began to sweep through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in a process known as “destalinization.” These political reforms translated to socio-cultural liberalization by 1955, in a period referred to as the “Thaw.” The “Thaw” ended in Poland by the close of the 1950s.6 During this time, the Polish government granted visas to Polish Jews to emigrate to Israel, leading to a mass wave of emigration called “Gomułka’s aliyah.”7 Historian Dariusz Stola claims that around 51,000 Jews, or half of the remaining Jewish population in Poland, emigrated from Poland between 1956 and 1960.8
Despite the “Gomułka aliyah” of 1956, the Kuppermans remained in Oświęcim until the early 1960s, staying active in the community. Regina was a member of the local branch of the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokrację, ZBoWiD), the only communist-era organization for war veterans and former concentration camp inmates.
ZBoWiD played a significant role in communist society, and some Jewish survivors, like Regina, joined their local chapters, though Jewish members were often alienated from the organization.9 Historian Joanna Wawrzyniak, who studies the union’s influence on memory politics during the communist period, claims that ZBoWiD leadership avoided questions of post-war reparations for Jewish members in fear of triggering “outrage” among non-Jewish members.10
In Oświęcim, ZBoWiD played an important role, from veterans’ support to commemorative events. The union organized annual International Day events coordinated on the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. According to ZBoWiD election records, the 1958 International Day at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was “seriously educational in terms of counteracting antisemitism in some backward environments and nationalist sentiments in some Jewish circles.”11 ZBoWiD seems to have used the commemorations as an opportunity to review – if not truly “counteract” – the presence of antisemitism in Poland.
Discussions of antisemitism in this period were often tied to the myth of Żydokommuna, or Judeo-Bolshevism. Judeo-Bolshevism is the antisemitic belief that Jews are responsible for the spread of communism. In Poland, this belief took on widespread popularity following the 1948 installation of the state socialist regime.12 Yet ZBoWiD leaders also equated antisemitism with Zionism, or Jewish “nationalist sentiment,” which was depicted as equally – or more – subversive or dangerous as antisemitism. The end of the “Thaw” saw a growing conflation of Jewishness and Zionism in public discourse and increasingly hostile attitudes toward Jews in Poland.
The 1956 “Gomułka aliyah” occurred amidst these processes, pressuring Polish Jews to leave Poland in the late 1950s. ZBoWiD would become less open to Jewish involvement by the time noted antisemitic communist figure Mieczysław Moczar, famous for his role in the 1968 anti-Zionist campaign, became chairman of the organization in 1964. It was in the midst of these political developments that the Kuppermans left Poland for Israel in 1962.
After the Kuppermans left Poland for Israel, they remained connected to Oświęcim. Elina stayed in contact with her teacher Jadwiga Marciniak through letters and cards. Jews who migrated from Poland to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s often retained connections to Poland through the communist period. In a May 1991 Jerusalem Post article, one woman, who left Poland for Israel in 1957, said she missed her friends in Poland and that they had “remained in contact for more than 30 years.”13
Since moving to Israel, Elina and her children have been active in preserving Jewish life and memory in Poland. In 2014, Elina and her son Shlomi Shaked attended the opening of the AJC’s Café Bergson in the 100-year-old Kluger Family House, which belonged to the last Jewish resident of Oświęcim, Szymon Kluger, after WWII. Shlomi helped affix the mezuzah to the café’s doorway.14 Elina and her family also participated in the AJC’s “Nowe Życie” exhibition, which highlights the stories of nineteen Holocaust survivors from Oświęcim who emigrated from Poland to Israel.15
The Kupperman family story contains within it many of the most important elements of postwar Polish Jewish life: communist-era rebuilding, immigration to Israel, and post-communist reconnection to Polish Jewish roots. These personal documents provide a small window into this family’s story and into the complexity of life for Polish Jews who remained in Poland after the Holocaust.
Frankee Lyons is a PhD candidate in Modern Eastern European history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She researches understandings of Jewish belonging in 1950s Poland. Frankee is currently in Warsaw, Poland, where she holds Fulbright and Title VIII research grants in affiliation with the Institute for Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
1Kaganovitch, Albert. “Stalin’s Great Power Politics, the Return of Jewish Refugees to Poland, and Continued Migration to Palestine, 1944-1946.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 26, no. 1 (2012): 59-94. Stola, Dariusz. “Opening a Non-exit State: The Passport Policy of Communist Poland, 1949-1980.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures. Vol 29, No. 1. February 2015. 96-119.
2After an eight-year-old Polish boy accused local Jewish Holocaust survivors of blood libel, Polish mobs attacked the city’s Jewish Committee center, massacring approximately 42 Jews and injuring dozens more. For many Polish Jews, this pogrom signaled the unlikelihood of a safe or comfortable life for Jews in postwar Poland. For more information, see Fear (2006) by Jan Tomasz Gross.
3For more information, see http://nowezycie.ajcf.pl/bio_shaked.html.
4Berendt, Grzegorz. Życie Żydowskie w Polsce w latach 1950-1956. Z dziejów Towarzystwa Społeczno- Kulturalnego Żydów w Polsce. Gdansk 2006.
5Prochowska, Magdalena i Wydział Promocji Miasta. “Zabytki Miasta.” Oświęcim Municipal Office, www.um.oswiecim.pl/pl_pliki_pm/pdfki/zabytki_EN_net.pdf. 7-8.
6The Thaw famously resulted in the Hungarian Revolution in October and November 1956, which was violently suppressed by Soviet forces on 10 November 1956. The Hungarian uprising in turn inspired workers’ riots in the Polish city of Poznań in October 1956. For more information on the Thaw in Poland and its place in international context, see Kochanowski, Jerzy. Rewolucja międzypaździernikowa. Warszawa: Znak. 2017.
7So named after then-leader of Poland Władysław Gomułka.
8Stola, Dariusz. Kraj bez wyjścia? Migracje z Polski 1949–1989. Warsaw: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej. 2012. See also Stola, Dariusz. “Jewish emigration from communist Poland: the decline of Polish Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust.” East European Jewish Affairs ,47:2-3, 169-188. 2017.
9Wawrzyniak, Joanna. ZBoWiD i pamięć drugiej wojny światowej: 1949-1969. Warszawa: Trio. 2009.
10Though the union did not pursue specific reparations for Jewish Holocaust survivors, ZBoWiD records from 1958 show that the union initiated a significant reparations campaign for survivors of the Auschwitz III – Monowitz camp. ZBoWiD’s records reveal a specific action “aimed at obtaining compensation from the German company IG Farben in Frankfurt am Main, for the former prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp, employed slavishly at the plant in Oświęcim,” the very plant where Salomon worked for decades after the war. In the 1950s the former IG Farben plant in Oświęcim became an important rallying symbol for the war reparations movement. (II Ogólnokrajowy Kongres Delegatów ZBoWiD, Instrukcja w sprawie akcji wyborczej, October 1958, 89/554/0/1/1, Page 18, Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokrację Zarząd Okręgu w Zielonej Górze, Archiwum Państwowe w Zielonej Górze.)
11Instrukcja w sprawie akcji wyborczej, II Ogólnokrajowy Kongres Delegatów ZBoWiD, October 1958, 89/554/0/1/1, Page 44, Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokrację Zarząd Okręgu w Zielonej Górze, Archiwum Państwowe w Zielonej Górze.
12This fear that Jews spread communism played no small role in the spread of pogroms across Poland in the immediate postwar period. For more information, see Jan Tomasz Gross’ Fear.
13Schrag, Car. “Polish-Israelis: Not Much Regret,” Jerusalem Post, May 24, 1991. Auschwitz Jewish Center. “2013-2014 Activity Report.”
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