Shall we deny that the Poles are deniers?

The Poles want to rewrite another portion of Jewish history.

February 9, 2018 14:57
SURVIVORS AND guests walk past the barracks at Auschwitz, during the ceremonies marking the 73rd ann

SURVIVORS AND guests walk past the barracks at Auschwitz, during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 2018. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)


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‘You do realize that they despise us, right?” I asked my wife at the end of the day.

“You’re nuts,” she said. “No one’s done or said anything. You’re imagining it.”

We were in Poland, about a decade ago. My first time, her second. We’d gone mostly because of our kids. All of them had visited Poland with their high-school classes, and as my wife had been there, too, I was the only one who’d never seen the places they occasionally mentioned. At one Shabbat meal, one of our kids said, “Abba, makes no sense that you haven’t gone. You need to go see for yourself, so you’ll know what we’re talking about.”

We knew all sorts of people who wouldn’t – or couldn’t – go on principle. Some had parents who had survived concentration camps, who made their children swear that they would never step foot on Polish soil. Some parents we knew would not send their kids, because they would not be party to the Poles’ making money off the millions of people coming to see what was left of Auschwitz.

For others, the now ubiquitous ritual of the high-school trip to Poland bespoke a failure of Zionist education.

“It’s true that the kids come back deeply moved and even more committed to Israel,” they said. “But if the Jewish state needs to send its kids to death camps in order to imbue them with a commitment to Zionism, something is deeply wrong with this country,” they admonished.

Our kids did go. And so did we. The objections were legitimate, but we still felt the advantages of the experience would outweigh our concerns. But what if we had to make that decision again, today? Would we go, or send our kids? I’m no longer certain.

A much-discussed Polish bill, already approved by Poland’s lower house of parliament, seeks to make it a crime to blame the Polish nation for the genocidal atrocities that took place in Poland during the Shoah.

“Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich,” the bill says, “or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”

Ludicrous though the bill sounds, the sentiment is not without some justification. Poland was, in fact, occupied during the war, not once but twice, first by Germany and then by the USSR.

Thus, even German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said last week that Germany would support Poland’s efforts to condemn “distortions of history,” such as calling Nazi camps in occupied Poland “Polish concentration camps.”

Germany, though, in its (honorable) attempt to accept responsibility for Nazi genocide, is letting Poland off the hook too easily.

Defending the bill, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland’s ruling party, said that the proposed law is being misunderstood.

The purpose of the bill, he insisted, is to penalize those who accuse the Poles as a nation, but not “someone who says that somewhere, in some village, some place, a Jewish family, or one Jewish person was murdered.”

Yet the suggestion that what is being debated is whether in “some village, some place, a Jewish family, or one Jewish person was murdered” is what is ludicrous; that language, actually, is part of the very denial in which the Poles are engaged. Has Kaczynski read Anna Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence, the story of the 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne, who were burned alive in a barn? As Bikont demonstrates with painstaking journalistic care, it was Poles, not Germans, who committed the massacre. Perhaps even more tellingly, it is Poles, and not Germans, who in large measure persist to this very day in denying their role in the horror. Some 1,600 Jews being burned alive in a barn is hardly a matter of “some place, a Jewish family or one Jewish person was murdered.”

Jedwabne was hardly unique. There were countless attacks on Jews by Poles, and Bikont illustrates with horrifying clarity how it was often Polish clergy and deep-seated Polish culture that fueled them.

Was the Nazi genocide Polish policy? Not precisely. Yet were the Polish people mere pawns in the murder of millions of Jews? Not at all.

The Polish bill now awaiting its fate takes a complicated reality and oversimplifies it beyond historical recognition, whitewashing much of the responsibility that Poles still do not wish to claim as their own. The Poles are right that it is time to place blame where it belongs; they are wrong when they insist that the blame is not largely theirs.

By the end of our trip to Poland a number of years ago, part of our group had been roughed up in the streets of Krakow, and the disgust that many Poles had for a Jewish group exploring history was beyond denying. Even my wife eventually admitted that, yes, many of the Poles we’d encountered made no effort to conceal their disgust.

But Polish antipathy is hardly the main issue. The important question is what role the Jewish state will take in leading the fight for historical accuracy and nuance. As the world has twisted the story of Israel’s birth into one only of colonialism and dispossession, it has diminished its sense of Israel’s right to exist and of Arabs’ responsibility for a good portion of their plight.

Now the Poles want to rewrite another portion of Jewish history.

Can a Jewish state stand idly by? Israel has vested interests in good relations with Poland, but it must also stand for something, no? Hasn’t speaking truth to power long been what Judaism has been about? How Israel should respond is not at all obvious.

One thing, though, is clear to me. As individuals, we do have the option of standing for truth, of refusing to be party to the rewriting of history. If my wife and I still had a kid in high school and were summoned to a parent meeting prior to the class trip to Poland, I suspect it’s much more likely that we might be among those saying, “To that place, now, our kid is simply not going.” 

The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 Book of the Year. He is now writing a book on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

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