No symmetry between Austria and Poland

Whatever the extent of local collusion in the death and despoliation of Jews, Poland cannot be seen in the same light as Austria.

March 19, 2018 20:48
3 minute read.
No symmetry between Austria and Poland

PARTICIPANTS WALK in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz as thousands of people, mostly youth from all over the world, gather for the annual ‘March of the Living,’ during Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, in April last year. (Jakub Porzycki/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters). (photo credit: JAKUB PORZYCKI/AGENCJA GAZETA/REUTERS)

The Polish government’s decision to enact a contentious amendment to a bill on its Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) has aroused – and justifiably so – international indignation.

Intended, in part, to suppress disputation of the most excruciating chapter of Polish-Jewish history, and to obfuscate local complicity in the Holocaust, the misguided legislation blew up in the faces of those who spearheaded it and produced dizzying scrutiny of the period in question – and a torrent of commentary, the very opposite of what they had hoped.

Unfortunately, some of what has been written since has contributed to the perception of those Poles who contend that the intense critique of Poland is groundless, that their country’s good name has been besmirched, and that in Israel and Jewish circles in the Diaspora, there is a visceral “anti-Polonism.” An unfortunate, telling case in point is Herb Keinon’s article, “Poland should note Austrian Sebastian Kurz’s speech” (March 15).

Despite the profound disparity in the wartime history of Poland and Austria, Keinon implies symmetry. He writes, “Whereas Poland has hunkered down behind a new Holocaust law saying the country was a victim of the Nazis, not a Holocaust perpetrator, [Austrian Chancellor Sebastian] Kurz said in an extraordinary speech on Monday that, yes, Austria was a victim, but it was equally a perpetrator.”

It is troubling that a diplomatic correspondent needs to be reminded that Poland was a victim of Nazi aggression, while the Austrians, together with the Germans who absorbed them, were the masterminds and prime perpetrators of the Final Solution.

In 1939, Poles refused to acquiesce to Germany’s territorial demands and, all but abandoned by its allies, waged a titanic struggle to defend their country against its rapacious neighbors. After the conquest of Poland, they continued the fight both at home (through a vast underground) and in exile – in the skies in the Battle of Britain, at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic, and on the ground, at Narvik, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Normandy and Arnhem (to name but a few) as well as in the east, from Lenino to Berlin. For their tenacity, Poles ultimately paid a staggering price in blood and property.

Whatever the extent of local collusion in the death and despoliation of Jews, which was certainly more widespread and ghastly than many Poles would today care to acknowledge, Poland cannot be seen in the same light as Austria, which was an integral part of Nazi Germany and bears equal responsibility for its crimes.

Successive generations of Austrians have portrayed themselves (especially to the outside world) as hapless victims of Adolf Hitler – Austria’s most diabolical native son. The fact is that on Vienna’s Heldenplatz more than 200,000 ecstatic and adoring Austrians welcomed the Germans, and with blinding speed Viennese Jews were subjected to vicious repression by local Nazis, even exceeding that to which Jews in Germany had been subjected.

“Judging by the Austrian model, there is hope for Poland. That’s the good news. The bad news is that with the Austrian model as a gauge, it could take some 30 years before Poland comes around full circle,” opines Keinon.

The current situation in Poland, however lamentable, should not be compared with Austria’s much-belated Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with its past). Keinon should know that over the past three decades, dedicated Polish historians have been relentlessly deconstructing the wartime history of Polish-Jewish relations. Their contributions to our understanding of the Holocaust have received too few accolades in their native land, but they soldiered on and triggered, at least in certain quarters, genuine introspection and contrition.

There was and is no parallel to their efforts in any post-Communist country – or even in Austria, Equating Poland, despite its troubling lurch backward, with Austria does a great disservice to the heroism of Poles who fought the Germans (and Austrians) and also to the modern-day Polish scholars who have confronted the past with both courage and equanimity and drawn from it the appropriate conclusions.

The author is chief editor of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Together with Prof. Dariusz Libionka, he is the author of a book on the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) in the Warsaw Ghetto, Bohaterowie, Hochsztaplerzy, Opisywacze – Wokol Zydowskiego Zwiazku Wojskowego.

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