Eliza Rose

The Empty Stadium


Poster for a soccer match between Orkan and Makabi Warsaw, 1927

On Valentine’s Day of 1938, a critical game in a ping-pong tournament held in Poland was called off after an embarrassing show of poor sportsmanship. The Warsaw-based team representing Hapoel, a Zionist-socialist sports organization, stood up their opponents in a complex maneuver to bar their rivals, another Jewish athletic club called Morgnshtern, from the second-place title. Although the year of 1938 is charged with historical cataclysms that somewhat overshadow the event of a thwarted game of table tennis, the insult articulated here points to a schism in the maturation of a young movement. The friction between these sports clubs captures two opposing strains of the developing rhetoric of Muskeljudentum—muscular Judaism, at a decisive crossroads. The prewar chapter of muscular Judaism’s narrative lies somewhere in history’s blind spot, and with it, the issue at stake in this unplayed ping-pong game of ’38.

The offended party, Morgnshtern (Yiddish for “morning star”), was the offshoot of a political movement whose history spans from fin-de-siècle Russia to an abrupt vanishing point brought about by the Second World War. Morgnshtern was the athletic arm of the Polish Bund, a Jewish, socialist labor movement that is distinguished by its core tenet of doykait, or “hereness,” the principle that Jews are responsible for developing viable living conditions in their current environments—in this case, Poland and the former Russian Empire. Their program was stringently anti-Zionist, a fact that incited bitter hostility from Hapoel along with many other contemporary Jewish movements, both in the political and athletic arena.

In 1898, at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Max Nordau coined a term that became a sort of slogan for Jewish athletic movements emerging throughout Europe, including both Morgnshtern and its competitors. Nordau called for the patenting of a new prototype for the Jewish body under the banner of muscular Judaism. The muscle Jew is figured as an antithetical response to Martin Buber’s classification of the Ostjude, the “Eastern Jew,” who, like some kind of delicate species of butterfly native to the shtetl, can be recognized by his diminutive stature, hypersensitive nerves, and rapid analytical impulse. He’s an inveterate luftmensch, as Yiddish would have it, living in abstraction and inept when faced with the physical constraints of contingency and circumstance. Buber’s category lingers, even now, as an attractive metaphor. The mental and spiritual agility of the Ostjude is strangely confirmed or justified by his archetypal lack of physical sturdiness, making this portrait of the awkwardly endowed Jew a useful myth both for the Jew himself, and for anti-Semitic cartoonists seeking fodder for the Sunday gazette.

Nordau’s scheme is motivated: the national regeneration of the Jewish people was to be mapped onto the physical fitness of the individual body. Nordau sieves through biblical tropes to bolster his paradigm with carefully-chosen icons, cashing in on Simon bar Kokhba and the Maccabees as the forefathers of the modern Jew. Even Samson, the world’s original muscle man, comes in handy as a Nazarite devout from birth. This underexploited Biblical figure surfaces in Werner Herzog’s film Invincible, which follows the career of the historical Zishe Breitbart, the "Strongest Man in the World," who hailed from an Orthodox Jewish family of blacksmiths in Łódź. Although the real Breitbart died in 1925, Herzog scoots his lifetime a decade towards the present for the sake of his parable. He casts Breitbart as the superhuman guardian of the Jewish people at a time when he was most sorely needed and conspicuously absent. The film shows this blue-collar Samson grappling with the rising forces of Nazi mysticism in pre-war Germany, apotheosizing the vaudeville strongman into a Jewish folk hero. As elephants and tigers parade across a plank balanced on his chest, he peacefully picks up Samson’s vocation, this time directed against the Philistines of the twentieth century.

Writing new scenes for Samson into the drama of pre-war Poland boils down Nordau’s mission into a slapstick sketch. But this film reel featuring a swarthy Popeye, a feeble-minded hulk with a heart of gold, is out of step with our formula for picturing 20th century European Jews. After all, the historical Breitbart left his “shtetl” far behind, opting for American citizenship and making his fortune on mail-order muscle toning courses and a guide to fitness, Muscular Power. By fiddling with the facts, Herzog’s film makes it all the clearer how unaccustomed we are to the paradigm Breitbart embodies.

For Nordau, the able-bodied Jew is not the humble son of blacksmiths from Łódź; he’s a citizen of a new nation. And the project of muscular Judaism is at the service of the greater project of building a Jewish state in Palestine. But the rally to meet his challenge branches into two irreconcilable directions. Most historically legible is the vision of this archetype as a new species for a new territory, claiming Palestine as its stomping grounds. But the Bund’s attempt to actualize this ideal not in a future elsewhere but in its present-day Poland has been swallowed up by a historiography that has no use for it. The mobilization of a Jewish community, Yiddish-speaking but secular, that was not at all tempted by the promises of Palestine is incompatible with the history of Zionist thought. Yet it’s just as inconceivable to historians of Jewish Poland, who can’t quite squint through the screen of the Holocaust to make out the contours of a strong Jewish community that wouldn’t be looking for an exit sign.

Giving the Bund’s project the time of day doesn’t exactly come naturally in a Poland devoid of nearly the entirety of its pre-war Jewish population, a Poland sweeping the wreckage of socialism’s failures under the rug as quickly as possible. The Bund’s book is succinctly closed with the “suicide protest” of its representative in the Polish Government in Exile, Szmul Zygielbojm. In the early morning of May 12th, 1943, upon hearing of the final suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Zygielbojm took his life in a political gesture directed against the indifference of the Allied armies to the genocide of Poland’s Jewry. The Bund’s campaign is punctuated with his devastating suicide letter: “My life belongs to the Jewish people of Poland,” he writes, “and therefore I hand it over to them now.” But in spite of its implausibility in retrospect, the Bund and Morgnshtern’s attempt at building a muscular Judaism outside and against the rhetoric of Zionism is a rare phenomenon that screams for notice.

The pedagogical value of this lost episode of history would fill a huge crucial gap in the current state of Holocaust education. The visual database that first acquaints Polish children to the tricky category of Polish Jews—those people who lived here but don’t anymore—is a nightmarish collage of the terrified, animal eyes and shaved heads of children prisoners photographed upon their arrival to Auschwitz, snapshots of emaciated Jews found hiding in sewers, and heaps of dead bodies piled in front of gas chambers. For Polish schoolchildren, this catalog of harrowing images constitutes the first impression, and therefore reference point, of an absent Jewish community. This imagery can quickly congeal into a sort of paralysis of pity that precludes all possibilities of actual empathy, and boxes the nearly-millennium long history of Jewish life in Poland into a parenthetical footnote squeezed under the encyclopedic entry for “Auschwitz.”

I can’t help but think that the aesthetics of Morgnshtern are sorely missed from this picture. In hindsight, the giant human pyramids, the proud rows of figure skaters, and the spectacle of en masse eurythmics conjure unfortunate associations of fascist gymnastic expositions more readily than they speak to the future of Jewish prosperity in Poland. Met with a moment of patience, however, Morgnshtern fills out the visual trajectory of muscular Judaism. Todd Samuel Presner opens his book on Nordau’s archetype with an analysis of an iconic Life magazine cover depicting a triumphant Israeli soldier at the end of the Six Day War. This bronzed, broad-shouldered soldier basking in the sun and splashing in the newly-conquered waters of the Suez Canal is an essential snapshot of how the muscle Jew prototype circulates in the post-war imaginary. This posterboy of virility and health seems to suggest that the muscle Jew is an exclusively post-war phenomenon. Suddenly, the Samson pin-up who made an early escape is pitched against the mug shot of the malnourished Ostjude who stayed.

Unfortunately, fate doesn’t smile upon everyone so fondly as she does on this ruggedly handsome, gun-toting macho bobbing along his very own Suez. Samson himself never made his final exit, perishing instead together with his foes in the collapsed temple of the Philistines. The armed leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising lost their lives in a blown-up bunker, never making it beyond the parameters of the destroyed ghetto. Revisiting the Bund’s project with the optimism it calls for feels a little like penciling in an alternative ending to these stories that have no exit routes.

In his majestic though trying novel See Under: Love, David Grossman does exactly this. Grossman scrutinizes the death of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz with a red pen and the brutal scrutiny of an impossible editor. In the haze of his rapt devotion to this writer, who was shot on a street of the Jewish ghetto in his hometown of Drohobycz in 1942, Grossman follows after Harold in his assumption that all one needs to reverse the unsavory details of history is a trusty purple crayon. He writes his beloved Schulz a comic-book escape map, marked with dotted lines, trapdoors, and a big X denoting the final point of departure.

The central section of Grossman’s novel calls Schulz back from the cobwebbed corners of dusky libraries and the opaque depths of Drohobycz’s mass graves. In this epic thought experiment, Schulz transforms into a salmon and joins the ranks of a migrating school of fish. The formula for this rescue mission is fished out from the waters of Schulz’s own prose. In his most peculiarly boyish story, “Loneliness,” narrated by a stubbornly childlike old man, Schulz swears his allegiance to the virtue of trapdoors. For the bubbly old narrator, an easy exit strategy from the idleness of old age is to “imagine a door, a good old door.” He naively promises that “there is no walled-in room that could not be opened by such a trusted door, provided one were strong enough to suggest that such a door exists.”

Grossman takes him up on this proposal, and insinuates an escape route into the huge, walled-in room of the Drohobycz ghetto. He annotates Schulz’s biography with a new plotline, radically changing its ending. In summary, the new draft sounds absurd and off-color, but voiced in the trembling, pre-pubescent voice of Grossman’s childlike idiom, the unlikely getaway plan comes off without a hitch. Schulz, caught planting a wet kiss on Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” on display in a Danzig museum, is chased by a pack of sinister museum attendants, cops, and SS officers to the end of a dock on the Baltic Sea. Left with no other exit, Schulz hurls himself into the bay. Tagging along with a passing school of salmon, he begins the painful process of both mental and corporeal assimilation. In short, he turns into a fish.

Grossman’s claim that one of the millions of murders comprising the Holocaust can be revised with the stroke of a strong pen calls to mind Dora García’s 2009 installation “Lenny’s Paper,” now included in the collection of the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAK) in Kraków, Poland. The piece consists of 330 stacked copies of the International Herald Tribune, referencing a poorly-received comedy routine in which Lenny Bruce announced that the Jews murdered in the Holocaust are all, as it turns out, alive and well in Argentina. García’s front page features a photograph of Bruce’s stunt, under the original headline: “Six million Jews found alive in Argentina.” By reproducing Bruce’s routine in black and white print, García shoves his punch line into an embarrassing position of authority.

García’s piece is nested in a collection in which Holocaust issues are yanked to the foreground and writ large. This is made aggressively clear from the very beginning: to enter the gallery, visitors have no choice but to walk under Moscow Conceptualist Yuri Albert’s mock-up of the gate from Auschwitz, which spells out in a dreamy wash of neon, “kunst macht frei,” art will make you free. The museum shares a complex with the former factory of Oskar Schindler, today the seat of a year-old museum on the Nazi occupation of Kraków. Sensitive to this, and to the fact that the lion’s share of Kraków’s annual tourists is drawn by the city’s 70-kilometer proximity to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the museum accepts its responsibility to address these themes wholesale.

Wrapped in this context, the assertion that the staggering statistic of Holocaust victims can be reversed at the whim of a single newspaper heading might ring out as crude, cruel and cold. The piece is flanked, however, by an overall impressive collection that relentlessly (and as I see it, successfully) insists on the right to address Holocaust thematics with a measure of humor. I left the museum’s opening in May of this year with the curious impression that maybe what is missing from the dialogue about the Holocaust here in Poland is a sudden gust of balmy Argentine air. This is to say, somewhere between that vibrant image of Bruno Schulz running barefoot down a dock on the sun-dappled Baltic coast and the two-fold irony of García’s joke, I notice that an always-impossible subject has somehow lost its thick film of unapproachability. García’s two-tiered fraud becomes a double floor for the jailbreak, not of 6 million Jews, but of everyone trapped in the closed-circuit attitude towards Polish Jews that evolves from terror straight into boredom without ever passing through a threshold of empathy.

What is it about the smack of Schulz’s stride on a boardwalk and Grossman’s fable of a Jew’s transmutation into a muscular salmon that has more of a visceral effect than, dare I say, a respectful memorial at the site of Warsaw’s former ghetto? I can’t help but think it has something to do with Grossman’s vote of confidence in the physical fitness and, specifically, the elasticity of the Jewish body. Finding a way to reincorporate the Bund’s athletic campaign into Jewish history education in Poland might prove a creative tactic against this paralysis of pity that, for now, freezes all channels towards understanding.

Just across the gallery from “Lenny’s Paper,” visitors consistently linger in front of a video piece by Israeli artist Yael Bartana, entitled “Nightmares.” In the video, a Pole delivers a desperate speech, inviting back the three million Jews Poland lost during World War II. The speaker is Sławomir Sierakowski, founder and editor of the journal Krytyka Polityczna(“Political Critique”), an influential publication among Polish left-wing intellectuals. Sierakowski stands in Warsaw’s desolate 10th-Anniversary Stadium, a paradigmatic landmark of the architecture of Communist Poland, now completely defunct. “You think that the old lady sleeping under Rifke’s quilt doesn’t want to see you?” he wails. “You’re wrong. She dreams about you every night.” Sierakowski’s speech is a monologue addressed to today’s diaspora of Polish Jews, which, quite frankly, has no intention of planning a mass exodus back to a place it largely figures as a breeding ground for anti-Semites. His crisp voice clangs off the stadium’s weed-grown walls of empty bleachers, and in turn off the white walls of the spacious gallery. The only audience to soak up his speech is a thin row of scouts onscreen, and now and then a pair of chance spectators ambling through MOCAK’s collection.

In this colossal stadium fallen into disuse, the absence of the Morgnshtern’s collective dance routines and synchronized figure skating displays suddenly seems tragic. Even the steady thump of a ping-pong ball paddled back and forth might help to chip away at the stadium’s silence. If narratives of Jewish history currently figure Poland as a constellation of concentration camps, then to picture it instead as a skyline of empty sports stadiums seems like a step, albeit wobbly, in the right direction.

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