Our gala event in New York City celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary will take place March 8 at the Plaza hotel and feature the awarding of the Elie Wiesel Defender of Israel Award posthumously to Yonatan Netanyahu for laying his life down for the Jewish state in modern history’s greatest military action against terrorism. The legendary leader of the Entebbe rescue mission was selected by Elie’s wife, Marion, and son, Elisha, and the award will be presented by them to a recipient that will be announced.
Up until the recent clash between Israel and Poland over the latter’s new and highly misguided law criminalizing discussion of Polish participation in the Holocaust, we were hoping that Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki would also be a guest at our gala. The law is an unfortunate reaction that allows the debate over what took place in Poland during World War II to be hijacked by extremists. The Israeli government, and Jews around the world, have rightly reacted with outrage to the apparent attempt to whitewash the anti-Jewish activities of some Poles during and after the war.
The discussion is spiraling out of control in the aftermath of the law’s passage. Relations between Israel and the Polish government are quickly deteriorating. In response to Israel’s reaction, the Poles have become defensive and made several unwise remarks, in particular when the Polish prime minister suggested that Jews were also perpetrators during the war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly called that comment “outrageous.”
The next day, swastikas were painted on the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv.
It is time to cool the rhetoric. My idea: if Elisha agrees – and I’ve asked him – a dialogue should take place at the gala between Elisha and Prime Minister Morawiecki to deescalate the current crisis.
As the only son of the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor, last year’s keynote speaker at the March of the Living in Poland and a young man of outstanding eloquence and moral commitment, Elisha Wiesel has unequaled credibility in representing the Jewish community, and is thus best suited to express to the prime minister why the law and his recent comments have caused so much Jewish pain.
Conversely, the prime minister would have the opportunity to be heard by the Jewish community as to why Poles feel so aggrieved in being asked to accept responsibility for participation in atrocities against Jews.
A few months ago my friend Jonny Daniels brought then Polish finance minister Morawiecki to my home.
The purpose was to advance Polish-Jewish dialogue and relations. I was extremely impressed with the future prime minister. I found him warm, authentic, knowledgeable and eloquent. He told me even then that the Polish people found it very unfair to be blamed for the Holocaust when it was Germany that was solely responsible.
The Nazis were to blame. He agreed, on the spot, to do a Facebook live discussion of this issue, which can be viewed on my Facebook page.
I told him we could not ignore that Poland has a history of antisemitism that dates back centuries. Yitzhak Shamir famously said, “Poles imbibe antisemitism together with their mother’s milk.” The prime minister took great exception to the comment and told me that Jewish life had also flourished in Poland for centuries. I was impressed with the prime minister’s willingness to speak off-the-cuff and with no notes on this very sensitive subject.
Now, just a few months later, I look at the deteriorating relationship between Prime Minister Morawiecki and the world Jewish community and I am saddened and shocked. I was convinced his premiership would bring about a renaissance of Jewish-Polish relations. He even told me at the time that Poland is Israel’s foremost ally in Europe. It would be hard to believe he has an antisemitic bone in his body. So why is this happening? The unfortunate reality is that Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka were all located in Poland. Those camps killed 90% of the Jewish population of Poland. They were built and run, however, by the Germans. Moreover, as the Polish government rightly notes, three million Poles were also killed during fighting and in the camps. At Auschwitz, an estimated 70,000 non-Jewish Poles were murdered along with 1.1 million Jews.
It is important to acknowledge Polish suffering during the war. Unlike many other Europeans, such as France, the Polish government did not ally or collaborate with Germany. A government-in-exile opposed the Germans throughout the war and partisans fought them inside Poland. The Polish underground helped the Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they fought together in the forests, and Yad Vashem has recognized nearly 7,000 Poles as “Righteous Among the Nations” for rescuing Jews.
But that does not change the fact that many Poles participated in the murder of Jews and historians estimate that up to 200,000 Jews were murdered directly or indirectly by Poles. Shamir’s family is a painful case in point.
The former prime minister of Israel’s father was murdered by childhood friends after he escaped a death train and sought their help. His sister, her husband and their children were also murdered when they tried to hide in the home of a Pole who had previously worked for them.
Many Poles turned Jews over to the Nazis. Some may have feared for their lives if they sheltered them, but others ratted them out, looted their possession and stole their homes. After the war, Poles massacred Jewish survivors who returned to towns such as Kielce.
“Of course Poles took part,” former Polish premier Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz told the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. He specifically mentioned the “tens of thousands” of Poles who informed on Jews or extorted their property. Cimoszewicz said that at least 60,000 Jews were denounced by Poles to the Gestapo.
This does not mean that the Poles as a nation participated in the Holocaust. They did not. The Poles were occupied by the Germans and suffered horribly.
They were bombed from the air and slaughtered on the ground. But many individual Poles collaborated, which is why the law criminalizing discussion is just plain wrong.
Back when I was the Chabad rabbi at Oxford University, my good friend Prof. Jonathan Webber took me on a tour of Poland. I had a somewhat negative attitude toward Polish-Jewish history. I was convinced it was rife with antisemitism and that Poles had brutalized the Jews before, during and after the war. Jonathan, however, helped me see that the situation was more nuanced.
He wrote a book called Traces of Memory, with pictures from cities, such as Krakow, Tarnow and Belz, where he found remnants of Jewish life. He also founded the Galicia Jewish Museum and has been living for many years now in Krakow with his wife, Connie, who heads the Littman Library of Jewish civilization. He argued that the Poles are friends of the Jews and Poland has done an admirable job of remembering the Holocaust and creating moving monuments.
Later, Jonathan brought Teresa Swiebocka to our Shabbat dinner at Oxford, on numerous occasions. Teresa was Catholic and was the chief curator of the Auschwitz Museum. I was impressed by this non-Jewish woman’s commitment to preserving the Nazi death camp and explaining the history of the Holocaust to visitors who came from around the world to learn about the horrors perpetrated by the Germans against the Jews.
I had other very positive experiences with the Poles when I visited with members of Knesset to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and when I had the privilege to attend US President Donald Trump’s powerful speech in Warsaw last summer when he acknowledged the suffering of the Jews and the Polish people in the Katyn forest massacre, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and the destruction of the capital city.
He recognized the “deaths of nearly one in five Polish people” and the “vibrant Jewish population” that “was reduced to almost nothing after the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Poland’s Jewish citizens, along with countless others, during that brutal occupation.”
Trump’s address took place in the middle of my family’s trip to visit sites in Eastern Europe where the Final Solution was planned and implemented. It was an incredibly powerful, but also depressing experience. In Poland, where so little of that once vibrant Jewish community remains, I was gratified by the extent to which the Poles have gone to preserve the German extermination camps, to memorialize the victims and to educate visitors about the Holocaust.
Paradoxically, while the Polish government now wants to make clear that the Germans were responsible for the death camps, this is not reflected in their monuments.
When I first visited Holocaust sites in Poland with Jonathan 28 years ago, most of the monuments said “Nazi Germans.” Today, the word “Germans” has been erased.
It is as if this alien civilization came and took over Germany and perpetrated the Holocaust on these poor Germans and everyone else and then returned to their planet.
I do sympathize with Poles who resent the association with the death camps. Today, we should acknowledge that the Germans were responsible for the death camps and the Holocaust. We should also acknowledge that millions of Poles suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis, that many Poles resisted the Nazis, that several thousand behaved righteously and rescued their Jewish neighbors and that thousands more were bystanders, collaborators and murderers. These are historical facts that cannot be erased by any law.
By all means, let us be more sensitive to the feelings of the Polish people when we describe the events of World War II, and assign responsibility for the administration of the death camps on Polish soil firmly to the Germans.
The Polish government, however, must also recognize that it cannot criminalize the conversation. The proper redress for its concerns is education, not legislation. The law should be repealed lest it put historians and scholars in legal jeopardy, ruin the progress made in Polish-Jewish relations and irreparably damage ties between Poland and Israel.
A conversation between Prime Minister Morawiecki and Elisha Wiesel would allow the Polish and Jewish communities to diminish the rhetoric and begin the healing. I hope Elisha and the prime minister will accept.
The celebration of Israel at 70 provides an unequaled opportunity to make it happen.
Mr. Prime Minister, please be our guest on March 8 and listen to what Mr. Wiesel has to say. We are all ready to listen.The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. For tickets to The Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala on 8 March, go to www.thisworldgala.com.
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