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In Chapter 1 of Tomasz Jedrowski's Swimming in the Dark, set in the late sixties or early seventies, the protagonist Ludwik describes his childhood crush on a friend, Beniek. The boys become close while attending the preparatory lessons for First Communion together. Each is nine years old at the time. They usually hang out at Ludwik's. During his only visit to Beniek's house, Ludwik notices the absence of crucifixes. Later, because he wants to be with Beniek all the time, he asks his mother if Beniek can move in with them. The following dialogue ensues:

"You know, Beniek is different from us," she said with a sneer. "He couldn't really be part of the family."

"What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled. Granny appeared by the kitchen door, holding a rag.

"Drop it, Gosia. Beniek is a good boy, and he is going to Communion. Now come, both of you, the food is getting cold." (p. 9)

A few days later, when the boys take a bath together, Ludwik notices that Beniek is circumcised:

His nipples were larger and darker than mine; his penis was bigger, longer. But most confusingly, it was naked at the tip, like the acorns we played with in autumn. I had never really seen anyone else's, and wondered whether there was something wrong with mine, whether this is what Mother meant when she said Beniek was different. (p. 9–10)

Beniek undergoes all the preparation for First Communion alongside Ludwik, but fails to show up at the rite itself. Confused, Ludwik later goes to Beniek's house to look for him. The woman who opens the door says, unkindly:

"Those Jews don't live here anymore. Understood?" (p. 15)

A kinder lady tells Ludwik that Beniek's family has moved to Israel. Beniek drops out entirely from the narrative after this chapter.

Since Beniek's parents don't have any crosses in the house, are known to be Jewish, and move to Israel, it doesn't seem likely that they are preparing for a conversion to Christianity. So then Why does Beniek attend catechism? Have I missed something in the narrative? Or does the social and cultural situation of Polish Jewry in the late 1960s explain why Beniek's parents send him to the preparatory classes for First Communion? What would that explanation be?

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    Would the close voter care to explain why they think this is opinion-based? I'm asking specifically for reasons in the text, or for historical context that would provide information about this. Neither relies on subjective opinion.
    – verbose
    Feb 1 at 11:13
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To "fit in" and hide that he is a Jew

While I haven't read the book and I don't know the exact circumstances, the OP in his own answer was right that since the late 1950s there was a steady grow of anti-Semitism in Poland, which indeed has culminated in the forced emigration of Polish citizens with Jewish roots after the events in the March of 1968.

Historical background:

In the 1950s, the Polish culture was very open towards the Jewish minority: Poland was one of the biggest source of Jewish books and the Cultural Society of Polish Jews was very active. The death of Stalin in 1953 and the events of "Polish October" (1956) was promising the democratic changes including greater autonomy from USSR and reduction of censorship. The promise didn't last long and the quickly gained freedoms were being reversed over the next few years.

Already in 1956, the Cultural Society sent a letter to the Party (the Polish United Workers Party) presenting their concerns that "there are elements within the Party that are trying to blame the Jews for the terror committed during Stalin's rule". Initially, the Party has responded by declaring that there is no place for such anti-Semitism since Poland is a home for many cultural minorities and none of them should be discriminated.

In 1960 a new, informal faction was created within the Party (called "The Partisans") made mainly from the ex-soldiers (both from the regular army as well as from the partisans fighting during WW II). They were pointing that while they were fighting the Nazis, lots of the "old Party members" (which included many Jews) were hiding in USSR and were later supporting Stalin's terror. The Partisans were controlling the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which included the secret police) and they have started invigilating Jewish organizations.

On the 5th of June 1967, Israel has started the Six-days war. In response, the Soviet Union has broken diplomatic relations with Israel and in Poland started organizing protests against the "Imperialistic Zionists". The First Secretary of the Party accused Polish Jews of working against Poland, comparing them to the infamous "Fifth Column", conspiring with Germany to reverse the post-war Polish western border changes (while Poland has lost large regions on the east, it has gained important previously German lands like Eastern Prussia and Lower Silesia). People with Jewish descent were getting removed from important positions within the army, police and universities.

On the 25th November 1967, the National Theatre presents a play based on probably most important Polish poem - Dziady Part III by Adam Mickiewicz, written in the XIX century and dedicated to the students persecuted after the failed 1830 Polish uprising against tsarist Russia. Polish government declares it as "anti-Soviet" (contrary to the initial positive reviews in the Russian Pravda) and started pressuring the theatre to reduce the number of plays, banning it finally on 30th January. Students and writers started protesting, demanding freedom of speech - those protests were violently attacked by "workers" (plainclothes police) and by the anti-riot police. In response, the Party has created its own "spontaneous workers demonstrations" which were demanding that "students should go back to schools and Zionists to Zion". According to the speech by the First Secretary, Jewish students and teachers were responsible for the protests - afraid that this will turn into another Prague Spring, the government decided to find the scapegoat and punish them harshly. Those with Jewish heritage were the perfect fit.

In the aftermath of the events (called often March 1968), the Party has forced between 13 to 20 thousand Poles with Jewish heritage first to quit their jobs, then, after stripping them from the Polish citizenship, to leave the country.

Now, what has this to do with the characters from the novel?

If Beniek was a Jewish boy growing in the increasingly anti-Semitic country, he would try to fit-in hiding his Jewish culture (the anti-Semitism has much more to do with the culture than with the religion). This would include going to the preparation for the First Communion - while Poland was indeed a Communist (so in theory - atheistic) country, the Party wasn't openly fighting with the Catholic Church, noticing its important cultural role. So while a prominent party member would be asked to "stop believing in the Church nonsense", the average citizen was free to go to church and send kids to First Communion/Confirmation etc.

There is a great poem/song called "The story of one emigrant" that describes a story of a Jew in post-war Poland

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmuJPYycX-A

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  • Thank you for this answer and the YouTube link to the song. I have upvoted some days ago, but the only reason I have yet to accept is that I was hoping to get a reference to at least one real-life example of a Jewish child attending first communion prep in late 1960s Poland. Even another fictional work that presents this phenomenon would be good evidence. Are you aware of any other fictional or real-life examples?
    – verbose
    Feb 11 at 5:57
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    @verbose Sorry, I really can't recall such an example, but going to the first communion 9especially in a rural community) would be a must, so a kid who doesn't go through the preparation would really stand out.
    – Yasskier
    Feb 21 at 8:55
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I can think of a few explanations, but none seems particularly likely:

  • Perhaps Beniek does want to convert due to peer pressure, and his parents indulge his wish to attend the preparatory classes, but when the actual sacrament of communion nears, they hastily move to Israel to head off the conversion. This isn't very satisfactory, as we are never told anything about Beniek's baptism, which would need to take place before the First Communion.
  • Poland was and remains a very conservative Catholic country. Perhaps it was just taken for granted that all children would attend catechism irrespective of their religious identity. But that too seems unlikely for a Communist country, where social pressure on non-believers to conform would be offset by an atheist political ideal.
  • Antisemitism was strong in postwar Poland. The few survivors of the Holocaust still faced hostility and discrimination after the war's end. Poland was a satellite state of the USSR, which had supported the Arab side during the Six Day War in 1967. Consequently, the Polish Communist Party moved in an anti-Jewish direction, which led to a mass migration of Jews from Poland to Israel in 1968–1969. Beniek's family's departure is evidently part of this migration. Perhaps Beniek's parents send him to catechism in the desperate hope that he will avoid the worst of antisemitic discrimination? This seems somewhat far-fetched as well, as the Polish government's actions made very clear that people of Jewish origin, even those who were secularized, were unwelcome. Assimilation was no longer a viable pathway to remain in Poland.

So I am hoping someone with a better understanding of Polish and/or Jewish history during this period, or who has picked up on something in the novel that I have missed, will be able to provide a convincing explanation for Beniek's attendance at the preparatory classes for First Communion.

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