A “Polish grandmother,” “savta polaniya” in Hebrew, is a much-loved but much-belittled stereotype. She is an overprotective matriarch, always fearful that the worst is about to happen. Anyone of any race or religion can have this kind of Polish grandmother, although she would be the first to say, “Go ahead and crack a few jokes at my expense.”
My maternal grandmother really was Polish-born, and although she died when I was too young to remember her, I thought of her this week. She arrived in England in 1920, when my grandfather’s family sponsored (and married) hers.
Every year at the Passover Seder, I heard how she hated the part of the service when traditionally the door is opened symbolically inviting Elijah to enter.
She didn’t fear a holy presence. She was scared that if you opened the door, a mob might storm in and carry out a pogrom.
This came to mind in view of the legislation in the Polish parliament which would make it a criminal offense to use terms such as “Polish death camp” or blame the Poles for crimes committed on their bloodsoaked soil during the Holocaust. Either through insensitivity or a particularly nasty form of cynicism, the first debate on the bill took place on January 26, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The bill speedily passed and now awaits presidential approval to go into force.
The reasoning behind the legislation is to ensure that the Nazis and not the Poles are blamed for the horrors that took place there.
My grandmother left Poland shortly after the First World War – long before the rise of Hitler – so her dread did not stem from any act perpetrated by Nazis but of Poles. Her fears were not irrational; that they were heightened at Passover was not a coincidence.
My uncle Herbert Haberberg this week noted that blood libels were always stronger at that time of year, with rumors of Jews killing children to use their blood in matzot. (Go argue that blood isn’t even kosher.) The Kielce Pogrom in which 42 Jews were massacred in a Polish village in July 1946, after the war, was also triggered by such a blood libel. There were many incidents of Poles attacking and killing Jewish former neighbors who had survived the war and dared to return.
Uncle Herbert also has an ambivalent relationship with Poland. He was born in Germany, where his family had lived and worked for years, like many other Polish citizens. At the end of October 1938, a change to the law relating to Polish passports issued abroad threatened the more than 30,000 Polish Jews in Germany with the loss of citizenship overnight. Germany decided to expel the Jews to Poland, Poland did not want them. My uncle, the day after his 14th birthday, was among those put on a train and deported. “It was very traumatic,” he tells me with more than a dose of British understatement.
The refugees were not met by Poles bearing tea and sympathy. They were dumped near the border in what became known as the Zbaszyn camp, without possessions or money; under threat of death in the Third Reich and refused entry by the Poles.
After a harrowing period in the camp, the authorities allowed them to resettle in Poland, but there was to be no refuge there.
My uncle and his brother managed to escape to England about a week before the outbreak of the war.
They never saw their parents again. Nearly all their many uncles, aunts and cousins perished. “I owe the Poles nothing,” my uncle says abruptly after telling me his story.
While agreeing that the concentration camps were operated by Germans and not by Poles, my uncle firmly notes that the “anti-Jewish” Nazi thinking (he doesn’t like the term “antisemitic”) fell on fertile Polish ground. Three million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust.
INTERESTED IN what Poles themselves think of the legislation, I contacted a husband-and-wife team who run a website called Listy z naszego sadu (“Letters from our orchard,” www.listyznaszegosadu.pl). It is dedicated, in their words, to trying “to debunk all sorts of irrationality, from pseudoscience to antisemitism and its new disguise, anti-Zionism.”
Malgorzata Koraszewska, a retired translator, whose whole family perished in the Shoah, thinks both Israel and Poland have overreacted to the proposed legislation, although given the uneasy history of Polish- Jewish relations, she understands why.
In her opinion, the law is very badly formulated. “I fully understand that Poles are outraged when people speak about ‘Polish camps’ (I’m outraged as well),” she tells me in an email correspondence, “but this law goes further and could be interpreted so that just speaking about Polish atrocities during WWII would be punishable.”
There is little likelihood that an accidental tourist would be arrested for mistakenly referring to a camp as “Polish,” as former US president Barack Obama did to much local outrage in 2012. But, she notes, there should be no space for such ambiguity in the law.
Discussion of the law and the reaction to it is giving antisemites in Poland “an opportunity to wallow in their hatred,” as Koraszewska puts it, but she adds: “Remember, though, this law is very, very sharply criticized in Poland by Poles. There are very sharp divisions in Poland and even inside current government.”
Both Koraszewska and her husband, Andrzej Koraszewski, a retired BBC journalist (who is not Jewish), completely reject the response by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who tweeted: “[The Holocaust] was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.”
“There were a few absolute heroes here who tried to save the Jews,” Koraszewska notes. “There were many more who denounced and killed them. And there was an indifferent majority who didn’t really feel anything when they saw the Jewish tragedy, busy with their own lives. But there was no official action against Jews from Polish authorities... Of course, individual Polish policemen helped Germans in rounding up Jews but it was their own initiative. As it was from their own initiative that other Polish policemen saved Jews. Nobody ever gave the order to the police to round up Jews, like French police did.”
PART OF the problem is today’s tendency to universalize victimhood. Many Poles see themselves as victims of the Germans and the Russians. And, indeed, there was tremendous suffering among the Poles during this time. But such victimhood doesn’t mean they don’t have to take responsibility for atrocities that were carried out in plain sight.
As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it is more important to hear their stories. Stories told truthfully, without fear of prosecution. For the sake of future generations, as well as commemorating the memories of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, we cannot let history be rewritten by political decree.
One Jerusalemite told me how “Righteous Gentiles” had risked a death sentence to hide her on their farm. As a four-year-old, she felt especially protected by the family’s dog, who always barked whenever German soldiers came.
The mother of a friend has a tattooed number she was given at Auschwitz still visible on her arm, an indelible sign of incomprehensible evil, as well as a badge of her incredible resilience. Today, she has a large family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all living in Israel.
When Haim Gouri, the quintessential fighter-writer of the “Generation of 1948,” died this week, I recalled something he told me in an interview in 1992. “Never forget,” he told me, “Israel was not born because
of the Holocaust but in spite