In 1925, the year Teofila was born, Poland was an independent state known as “The Second Polish Republic” or the “Second Commonwealth of Poland” (1918-1939).
Poland has been historically subject to various partitions and influence from neighboring powers. The country has had a long history of territorial changes; Polish territory has been shared with, annexed by, and reclaimed from Russia, Prussia, Austria, Lithuania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and Germany.
Prewar Poland is characterized by the struggle to determine the parameters of Polish national identity. After gaining independence in 1918, competing concepts of “Polishness” were constructed and debated. Two figures that were influential in interpreting Polish identity were Jozef Pilsudski and Roman Dmowski.
This essay, “A Poland for the Poles?” investigates how Polish national identity, as well as the idea of the nation itself, has been articulated through the differing viewpoints of Pilsudski and Dmowski.
Jozef Pilsudski was the commander-in-chief of a paramilitary organization during the First World War and is renowned as a proponent of a Polish nationalism that included the pre-partition territories.
Roman Dmowski was the founder of the conservative and openly anti-Semitic Endecja – the National Democratic Party.
Many definitions of Polish identity, primarily those constructed along ethnic lines, exclude Jews. Many Jews lived entirely separate from ethnically Polish communities and had no desire for interaction.
Before the Second World War, the Polish landscape was dotted with Shtetls - small towns with a Yiddish-speaking Jewish population.
On 1 September 1939 Poland was invaded by German troops, which signaled the official declaration of The Second World War. Sixteen days later, Soviet troops entered the country from the east, which they viewed as a “disintegrated” Polish state. In accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Poland would now be partitioned between the two powers.
For the remainder of the war (1939-1945) Poland remained occupied by German and Soviet forces.
Poland set up a government-in-exile in London, which was recognized by the Allies as the legitimate representative of the Polish people. In Poland, an underground resistance movement developed, known as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa).
Polish Underground member, Jan Karski, delivered information regarding the atrocities being committed against Jews and ethnic Poles to the government-in-exile. He met also with politicians, such as Churchill and Roosevelt, as well as journalists and public figures to inform them about the massacre of the Jews. In 1982, Yad Vashem recognized him as "Righteous Among the Nations" - an honor bestowed upon gentiles who risked their life to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Teofila Silberring mentions that many non-Jewish Poles also suffered greatly under German occupation. Read about crimes against ethnic Poles commited by German troops.
After the Second World War, leaders of the victorious Allied powers met for the Yalta conference in 1945, named after the island Yalta. Among other political questions, the Allied leaders discussed the fate of Poland. The country underwent territorial changes and a communist government was installed.
Poland after the Second World War was a decidedly different country - geographically, politically, religiously, and economically - than it had been before.
Many Poles viewed the imposed Communist regime unfavorably. Read this New York Times article about Poland under Communism.
Even after the war, there were still instances of anti-Jewish violence, for example the 1946 pogrom of Kielce.
In 1968 Teofila's husband, Adam Silberring, was forced to quit his job during an anti-zionist campaign.
The Holocaust has been a very polemical topic in Poland. Many Poles do not wish to confront Polish anti-Semitism, tending to focus instead on the suffering of ethnic Poles. This reluctancy to acknoweldge Jewish suffering has, however, begun to change. Polish-American scholar, Jan Gross, sparked much controversy with his 2006 book, "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz," which showed how Poles had also been complicit in the persecution of the Jews.
Read this article about Polish memory of the Second World War and the tension between Polish and Jewish experience.
Teofila Silberring was raised in the Krakow neighborhood of Kazimierz – the historic Jewish quarter. Take a virtual tour of contemporary Kazimierz or read about the history of Kaziemierz. Teofila's family attended the Tempel Synagogue.
She states at the start of the film, that when many people think of "Polish Jews" they think immediately of Orthodox Jews, often signified by traditional dress. Though her family was more assimilated, there were many Orthodox Jews in Krakow.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, about 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. Read about the Jewish history of Poland.
Poland once had the largest Jewish population in Europe. Before the outbreak of the Second World War it had the second largest Jewish population in the world: about 3.3 million Jews lived there. This was a culturally diverse community of varying religious beliefs. Both Hasidic and Haskalah movements developed here.
Because of the long history of Jewish life in Poland, relations between Poles and Jews have varied - displaying relative tolerance to outright hostility.
As Teofila recounts, after the German occupation of Poland, Jews were forced to wear identifying armbands.
In 1941 Teofila was deported with her father and her brother to the Podgorze ghetto – located over the river from Kazimierz in Krakow. During their internment, Teofilla’s father and brother were subject to forced labor.
In 1943 the ghetto was liquidated. Teofila recalls that everyone had to assemble before the pharmacy, which is now a museum dedicated to the pharmacist who had helped and saved Jews. His name was Tadeusz Pankiewski, and in 1983 Yad Vashem recognized him as "Righteous Among the Nations". Claude Lanzmann interviewed Pankiewski for his world-renowned film, Shoah. You can see clips from the film (in German) and read a transcript translated into English.
From Auschwitz Teofila was forced to march to Leipzig, and from there to the women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Read more about the death marches in this article by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
Teofila was taken from the Podgorze ghetto to the Plaszow concentration camp, just outside of Krakow. She did not stay long in Plaszow, because she was then employed by Oskar Schindler in his enamel factory in Krakow. Read more about Oskar Schindler at the Jewish Virtual Library.
It was Steven Spielberg's 1993 film, "Schindler's List," which brought Schindler's story to public attention. Watch the official trailer. The film, which won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, is renowned for its role in changing how the Holocaust is represented and taught. It has received both high praise and deep criticsm for, among other things, its vivid portrayal of life in the ghettos and camps. Read the review from The New York Times and this critique from Rich Gibson, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University.
In 1993 Oskar Schindler and his wife, Emilie, were recognized by Yad Vashem as "Righteous Among the Nations." This honor goes to those individuals who risked their lives and well-being to help Jews during the Holocaust.
You can visit Oskar Schindler's former enamael factory in Krakow.