Poland marks 70th anniversary of Nazi invasion

Polish ambassador, local Polish Jews to commemorate event.

Lodz Ghetto anniversary 248.88 (photo credit: )
Lodz Ghetto anniversary 248.88
(photo credit: )
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be among the key foreign leaders participating in Poland's commemoration of the outbreak of World War II on Tuesday. The Poles also anticipate that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will join the dignitaries, who will gather in the historic Polish port city of Gdansk, which was annexed by Germany on September 2, 1939. Gdansk, which had been a free city, became a center for Nazi operations. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declined the invitation to attend the ceremony because, according to his spokesman, he had a full schedule on that date and could not break his commitments. Poland was invaded by Germany on September 1, 1939, and by the Soviet Union 16 days later. The country was split into two zones, with the eastern provinces occupied by the Soviets. After the war, the Poles were subjected to Communist rule until 1989, when the Solidarity Party won the elections, enabling Poland to join the world's democracies. The success of the Solidarity movement paved the way for the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe. Both the invasion of Poland by Germany and the birth of the Solidarity Movement at the Lenin shipyards in September 1980 took place in Gdansk. About 6.5 million Poles died during WWII, including some 3 million of its pre-war Jewish population of 3.3 million. The Nazi plan for the extermination of the Jewish people all but put an end to the thousand-year symbiotic relationship between Jews and Poles. In April of this year, leading demographer Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University estimated that had there not been a Holocaust, the world Jewish population today might stand as high as 32 million. In 1939, he said, that population was around 16.5 million. In 1945, it was estimated at 11 million. The current estimated figure is 13.5 million. In the 70 years since the outbreak of WWII and in the 64 years since its conclusion, notwithstanding the high birth rate in Orthodox families, Jewish demography has not recovered. The Nazis chose to make Poland the site of the largest killing fields and ultimately the largest Jewish graveyard in the world. It was in Poland that they established the notorious death camps of Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzek and Majdanek as well as forced labor camps adjoining the death camps. The Nazis murdered 11 million people, six million of whom were Jews. In pre-war Warsaw, every third person was Jewish. In some other Polish cities, towns and villages, the Jewish population ratio was even higher. The Nazis drenched Polish soil with Jewish blood, and because there was significant anti-Semitism in Poland, despite the fact that Jews were in parliament, fought in the Polish army, attended Polish universities and contributed greatly to many fields of Polish culture, in the Jewish post-war psyche, the Poles were considered to be as guilty as the Nazis. At the same time, tens of thousands of Poles risked their lives to save Jews, with Poles holding the most Yad Vashem awards for Righteous Among the Nations. Well over 6,000 of those noble people have been recognized, but this number represents only a fraction of those who put Jewish lives above their own. Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who turns 94 on October 15, was born in Ruzhany, Russia, later Poland. He harbored no affection for the Poles, and said that they imbibed anti-Semitism with their mother's milk. This opinion was shared by many Jews, some of whom swore that no matter what, they would never set foot in Poland. Others were willing to acknowledge that Poland may have changed after the fall of Communism. While there are still pockets of anti-Semitism, official policy is not anti-Semitic. Many Jews from around the world visit on root-discovery missions and there is impressive Israeli and other Jewish investment in Poland. The Jewish population in Poland is growing - not in leaps and bounds like that of Germany, which has attracted tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, whose presence has brought the community in Germany to more than 200,000. While it was once the largest Jewish community in Europe, today Polish Jewry is only a fraction of that of Germany's. Although Poland has not attracted much Jewish immigration, since the fall of Communist rule, Jews have been steadily emerging from the woodwork. Not all are halachicly Jewish - but they identify as Jews, attend synagogue services and Jewish cultural and social events and belong to Jewish organizations. Some undergo conversion so as to be fully accepted as Jews in the Jewish world. Polish Ambassador to Israel Agnieszka Magziak-Miszewska, who together with the Association of Polish Jews in Israel will mark the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Museum on Tuesday, notes that 120,000 Jewish soldiers served with the Polish army in its attempts to resist the Nazi onslaught. Some of those soldiers who survived the war later settled in Israel and in recent years have been awarded citations of valor by the Polish government. Magziak-Miszewska has awarded such citations and medals on behalf of the president of Poland, and three presidents of Poland who have come on state visits to Israel have presented such awards in person. This has generally been done at public ceremonies organized by the embassy, thus enabling the president or the ambassador to tell a large group of people about the heroism of the recipients, some of whom were high-ranking officers who faded into relative obscurity in Israel. "Without for one moment forgetting the Jewish victims and the manner in which they were murdered," says Magziak-Miszewska, "we must also acknowledge the courage of those Jews who joined the Polish army, or fought with the partisans or other resistance groups." The ambassador also underscores the bitter lessons of WWII, that the public should not place too much confidence in treaties between nations. Regardless of signed agreements in which Britain and France pledged to stand by Poland, they did nothing to come to Poland's aid in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Moreover, the Poles also had to contend with the Soviet invasion, which was in line with the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact that stated that the USSR and the German Reich would remain neutral if either was attacked by a third party. The agreement also included a protocol dividing parts of Europe between the two. The agreement was broken by Germany in June 1941, when it invaded the Soviet Union. Magziak-Miszewska also makes the point that although Polish soldiers fought and fell on different fronts of WWII, Poland was not invited to attend the Yalta Conference, a summit meeting that was held in February 1945 between Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss the post-war reorganization of Europe. Poland was high on the agenda - but Poland had no say in its future and remained under Soviet rule until Solidarity came to power. Quoting Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Magziak-Miszewska says that the attendance at the memorial ceremony in Gdansk by the Russian prime minister is a symbolic breakthrough in the evaluation of historic events. It is a matter of great significance to the Poles that both Merkel and Putin will be in Gdansk on Tuesday. Magziak-Miszewska is hopeful that Putin's presence in Gdansk will serve as food for thought for Russian historians. "The Communist narrative always omitted Jews. It was always acknowledged that Poles were the biggest victims of the Second World War, but the Communists never said that half of those victims were Jews."