Thoughts on May 3

While history will always loom large over their relationship, no country in Europe now has better relations with Israel than Poland.

By LAURENCE WEINBAUM
May 2, 2009 22:20
Thoughts on May 3

Krakow 248.88. (photo credit: )

 
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It is not known for certain who coined the appeal "For Your Freedom and Ours!" during the 1831 Polish uprising against czarist Russia - in which not only Poles were repressed, but also Jews and people of many other nationalities, including the Russian masses. It is believed that the 19th-century Polish historian Joachim Lelewel was the author, but Poland's outstanding bard (with Jewish roots), Adam Mickiewicz, embedded it in Polish literature and consciousness. Irrespective of its provenance, that slogan became emblematic of the very best in Poland's liberal traditions, inspiring insurgents in the hopeless Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Sadly, Poland's traditions of mutual respect and progressive thought - exemplified in its constitution of May 3, 1791 - are not well known and have rarely triumphed. In modern times, Poland became almost synonymous with anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting. It ultimately became the killing fields of European Jewry, the epicenter of the Shoah, and its immediate post-war history was punctuated by spasms of murderous anti-Jewish violence in Kielce and elsewhere. The imposition of communist rule effectively prevented Polish society from ever coming to grips with the tragedy that had been played out on its soil and the extent to which Polish society had been complicit, whether by acts of commission or omission. The fact that in 1968/69 the communist authorities drove out most of the Jews and Poles of Jewish origin who had remained in the country only underscored the notion that Poles "ingested anti-Semitism with their mother's milk." Until the collapse of communism, Poland suppressed its rich Jewish history. Jewish victimhood was shamelessly appropriated ("dead Jews make good Poles"), and the material evidence of the 1,000-year Jewish presence in Poland was all but erased. Poland's ethno-nationalist communism had more in common with the virulent anti-Semitism of the notorious pre-war National Democrats (Endecja) led by Roman Dmowski than the traditions of socialist brotherhood. However, there was popular rejoicing in 1967 when Israel defeated the states bent on its destruction - "Our [Polish] Jews, thrashed their [Soviet Russia's] Arabs," it was said. To be sure, even among some nationalists who had no sympathy for Jews, there was a degree of admiration for the scrappy Jewish state that bloodied the nose of enemy behemoths. HAPPILY, IN RECENT years, the "new Poland" has confronted the ghosts in its closet with a degree of candor unique in post-communist Europe. Among Jews, there is ever-greater appreciation of the fact that the Polish-Jewish encounter did not begin and end at Treblinka; that prewar Poland was a hothouse of Jewish creativity; and that Poles and Jews had at times coexisted ("together but apart") in relative harmony. Jews have also come to understand that the Germans' choice of Poland for the death camps was not because they believed they could rely on the Poles to help eliminate the Jews. They now recognize that the Polish response to the Shoah ran the gamut from the murderous deeds of the townsfolk in Jedwabne, who slaughtered their Jewish neighbors, to the heroic rescue of Jews by individuals such as the late Irena Sendler, who risked their lives and those of their loved ones. To be sure, anti-Semitism has not disappeared and not all Poles have readily embraced the findings of local historians who have illuminated the stains on the Polish escutcheon. Still, it seems clear that future generations will see the Polish-Jewish symbiosis through a new prism, and have a more sophisticated, dispassionate and nuanced understanding of it. While history will always loom large over their relationship, no country in Europe now has better relations with Israel than Poland. This is manifested in innumerable cultural and scientific exchanges, extensive commercial ties and military cooperation at the highest level. Few countries anywhere have demonstrated greater solidarity with Israel, from the Polish media's relatively objective coverage of Middle Eastern affairs to the mayor of Lodz's invitation to more than a dozen Israeli children to spend the summer in Poland when the North was repeatedly bombarded during the 2006 Second Lebanon War The Polish Institute of International Affairs hosted a delegation from the Israel Council on Foreign Relations for a joint conference last month and the discussions included the two countries' relations with the United States and the European Union and the threat posed by Iran and Islamic terror. The reception we received brought to mind the Polish expression, "[When] a guest is in the home, God is in the home." This is so, not merely because Poles do not have to answer to a restive and disaffected community of Islamic immigrants-but because of the feeling that we Israelis, by virtue of our own roots (or at least those of so many of our compatriots), in Warsaw, Lwów, Kraków and hundreds of cities and towns across Poland (and territories that once belonged to Poland) are at home in that country in a way that other visitors could never hope to be. The meeting was opened by Prof. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, the grand old man of post-communist Polish diplomacy, who stressed the ties that bind our two peoples. We emphasized our pride in being able to claim him as "one of our own"--by virtue of his wartime efforts on behalf of Jews, Bartoszewski was awarded honorary citizenship of the State of Israel. Both Poles and Israelis recognized that Poland has acted as an advocate of Israel's interests in the EU, which is often critical of the Jewish state's attempts to defend itself. It was also recognized that for both Poles and Israelis, patriotism and the idea of liberty and national self-preservation are not unfashionable, as they are in much of Western Europe. That is not to say that there are no points of contention between our two countries. One of the most outstanding issues is that of the long-delayed restitution of Holocaust-era private property. That historic wrong has yet to be righted. Another is the Jekyll and Hyde-like behavior of Poland's state-sponsored Institute for National Remembrance, whose often-skewed picture of many of the tortured aspects of Polish-Jewish relations has been thoroughly rejected by the country's leading scholars. Poland proved its colors recently with a single stroke, joining the handful of countries led by Israel and Canada in boycotting the UN1s Durban II circus in Geneva. In so doing, it demonstrated the triumph of the very best in its traditions. Thus on Poland's National Day, this May 3, 218 years after it adopted its landmark constitution, we Israelis should be the first to toast those who have acted "For Your Freedom and for Ours!" The writer is the executive director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations which operates under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, and chief editor of the Israel Journal on Foreign Affairs.

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