A memorial candle for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
While Polish-Jewish relations were certainly not a primary issue in Poland’s presidential election on Sunday, the contest did bring into sharp relief the continuing debate over the former eastern bloc country’s treatment of its Jewish minority during the Holocaust.
On Sunday evening, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski conceded defeat to conservative opponent Andrzej Duda after exit polls showed he had won only 47 percent of the vote, to the challenger’s 53 percent.
Last week Duda excoriated Komorowski over remarks he had made regarding Polish complicity in the murder of Jews, calling it an “attempt to destroy Poland’s good name.”
Duda has been a frequent critic of the president’s apologies.
On Friday, Komorowski drew Duda’s ire when he commented during a televised debate that “the nation of victims was also the nation of perpetrators” and that “difficult and painful episodes in our history must not be hidden.”
He was apologizing for the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, in which dozens of Jews were burned alive by villagers who trapped them inside a barn.
Anti-Semitic incidents rose in Poland following the expulsion of German forces by the Red Army, with pogroms such as that in Kielce in 1946, in which 42 Jews were killed.
According to a report on the subject by Yad Vashem, “Jews had been subjected to deadly violence at Polish hands almost continuously” in the aftermath of the war.
Since the fall of communist rule and renewed independence from Moscow, Poles have been forced to grapple with their role in the Holocaust.
During the Soviet period, Jewish suffering was downplayed, as was the role of Poles in collaborating with Nazis.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post several months ago, shortly after the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, stated that during the communist period, “Auschwitz was exploited as a symbol of Polish wartime suffering, which meant a priori deemphasizing the Jewish identity of the victims.”
Nevertheless, “fearless Polish scholars are today confronting history in a way that would have been completely unthinkable 30 years ago.”
Not everyone in Poland agrees with such scholars and Komorowski, especially those on the far-right and those affiliated with more conservative elements within the Catholic Church.
Leaders of the Polish Jewish community thus far have not publicly commented on Duda’s win, as the election fell during the Jewish festival of Shavuot.
Holocaust memory is a contentious issue in eastern Europe, with attempts to equate the crimes of the Soviet and Nazi regimes in some countries. Last week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko angered some Jewish leaders when he signed a law granting official recognition to a Ukrainian nationalist faction that at one time collaborated with the Nazis. He also signed a bill banning Nazi symbols.JTA and Reuters contributed to this report.