In his short novel Holy Week A Novel of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, first published in Polish in 1945, Andrzejewski Jerzy tells the story of Jan and Anna Malecki’s attempt to shelter Jan’s Jewish friend Irena Lilien in Gentile Warsaw during the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1943.

The nature of Polish relations to the persecuted Jews of Poland during Nazi occupation, is a much debated and painful topic. The Poles’ response to their endangered Jewish neighbours was complex. Some  non-Jewish Poles sought to protect Jews, others tried to ignore their plight, while some actively participated in their persecution.

But, in Andrzejewski’s tale even the most charitable Polish attitude was never far from the prevalent antisemitism that afflicted so much of the world in the first half of the twentieth century.

Near the middle of the story the narrator probes the psyche of Jan’s young pregnant and devoutly Roman Catholic wife Anna, saying,

She wanted to add how important and essential to her was the faith in which she had been raised and in which she still believed, finding in it confirmation of the eternal sense and order of the world; and how for her, as a believing Catholic, the tragedy of the Jews, having already festered for so many centuries, was the most painful test of all for a Christian conscience. Who, if not Christians, ought to be moved by the cruel fate of that least fortunate of all peoples…. Who, if not a Christian, ought to do everything in his power to lighten the misfortune of these downtrodden people and to be with them, as they died alone and without hope? 53

If Anna’s thoughts had been confined to these one hundred plus words, she might have served as a noble embodiment of charity, generosity, and compassion. It appears in this description that Anna’s faith has produced in her a tender heart that grasps the moral imperative to stand by the Jewish people who were suffering such egregious injustice throughout all parts of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Sadly the ellipsis I have inserted in this paragraph before the final question, veils a dark side to even Anna’s gentle heart. I have removed from Andrzejewski’s account of Anna’s thoughts the description of “that least fortunate of all peoples” in which Anna views all Jews as

…a tribe that, having once rejected the truth, now bore the weight of that betrayal through unimaginable sufferings, humiliations, and wrongs.

Suddenly, the blame for the slaughter of the Jews is shifted. “Having once rejected the truth” all Jews now bear “the weight of that betrayal.” They are not suffering horrific injustice but rather reaping the consequences of their rejection of “the truth”.

Anna’s subtle antisemitism thinly disguised as compassion and kindness, is perhaps almost more dangerous than the overt antisemitism of the vicious Nazi persecution against the Jewish people. The problem is that, even after Nazism is defeated, Anna’s more subtle antisemitism will not go away.

The roots of race-hatred will only be cut out when we look deeply into our hearts and acknowledge the presence of discrimination and prejudice.  The journey away from bigotry begins with a profound self-awareness and honesty that no character in Andrzejewski’s novel seems able to realize.

Holy Week: A Novel of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising does not hold a lot of hope that the human community is likely to take the searing moral inventory that is necessary to expunge the source of bigotry and intolerance from our midst. But, perhaps for the reader willing to approach its painful story with openness and self-reflection, it might serve as motivation to live more authentically and honestly in relation to all peoples.

Andrzejewski, Jerzy. Holy Week: A Novel of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press,          2007.

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