Israel and Poland are partners with shared history - opinion

The 800 years of the common Jewish and Polish history and beyond.

 JEWISH YOUTH participating in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, in 2019. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
JEWISH YOUTH participating in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, in 2019.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)

The Jews and the Poles have many things in common, in spite of their differences. We both love our traditions. We can stand boldly for our identity and autonomy. We never forgot our homeland. We can recreate everything from ashes. Through focusing on our common history, values, interests and similarities, we can build a reliable and long-term partnership and a more secure future for both of us in the uncertain world.

The 800 years of the common Jewish and Polish history is a passionate subject. Poland, to which the Jews started to immigrate from around 1200 CE, was once regarded as an oasis of tolerance. The Jews were banished from England in 1230, from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1496, and from some German principalities around the same time. For many the new place of destination was Poland. The Statute of Kalisz issued in 1264 by prince Boleslaw the Pious, which was expanded by Casimir III in 1334 and ratified by subsequent Kings of Poland, has given the Jews rights that included the right to settle, to form communities according to the principles of Judaism, to engage in business activities and to decide on the Jewish matters by independent Jewish courts. These regulations that were protected by the country’s rulers attracted Jewish immigration and would enable Poland to become the center of the world’s Jewish community for centuries.

In the 18th century Poland was facing a great threat from Russia, Prussia and Austria; the three powers that in the years 1772, 1793 and 1795 divided the country among themselves. In that time of deteriorating political and economic conditions, social conflict and uncertain future, hassidic Judaism begun. It was founded by Israel Ben Eliezer around 1740 in Podolia, which was then an eastern part of the Polish Crown. The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which is regarded as the second modern constitution after the American, reaffirmed some of the former rights, especially the freedom of conscience, that would make the old Poland one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. But soon after it was declared came the second and then the third partition of the country and the last attempts to defend its independence. The Jews fought in the Polish Uprising of 1794 against the Russian Empire. There was a special Jewish cavalry unit, whose commander was colonel Berek Joselewicz.

At the beginning of the 19th century, in the area of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth there were about one million Jews, who constituted about 80% of world Jewry. While the fatherland was in Palestine, to the Jews the old Poland became a motherland. Their numbers would gradually increase because many migrated to that area from Russia, to escape prosecution and pogroms, especially in 1881 or 1891, and then in 1903-1906. But for the Poles, the 19th and early 20th century was a time of desperate attempts to regain the lost national freedom and to resist the intensive Germanization and Russification of the Polish population. It was also at that time that the Zionism nationalist movement was born. Leon Pinsker and other activists from Hovevei Zion and other groups, who at the 1897 Congress in Basel, Switzerland established the World Zionist Organization, were mostly the Polish Jews.

ONE OF THE main slogans of those Poles who fought for the country’s independence was: Za wolnosc nasza i wasza (For our freedom and yours). The idea that we should help others to live as independent nations had not been forgotten when on November 18, 1918 Poland regained her national freedom. It was this very idea that nations should live on their lands and the deep awareness of Poland’s historical ties with the Jewry that made the Polish government support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. As the result of the 1936 meeting in Warsaw of representatives of the Jewish freedom organizations, led by Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Jewish paramilitary organizations Hagana and Irgun started to receive Polish weapons and training. Until the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, as many as 3,000 rifles, 220 machine guns, 10,000 grenades and three million pieces of ammunition were smuggled to Jews through the British-controlled Palestinian border. Also about 10,000 members of Betar were trained in Poland.

 A portrait of Menachem Begin in the Begin Center. (credit: PAUL CALVERT) A portrait of Menachem Begin in the Begin Center. (credit: PAUL CALVERT)

During the war the help continued by allowing the Polish soldiers and officers of Jewish origin to desert the ranks of the Polish Anders’ Army that in 1943 passed through Palestine. The deserters would then join the Jewish freedom fighting units. The most famous of them was a future prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, known among his fellow Polish officers as Mieczyslaw Biegun. Even after the war, in 1947-48, in a special training camp in southern Poland, about 25,000 young Jews received military training and then joined combat units in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

In my article “Poland and the Jews: A few facts about Poland’s WW II history,” I wrote that during the war both the Jews and the Poles were subject to extinction. It was not we, the Poles, who built the concentration camps whether in Germany, such as Sachsenhausen or Dachau, or in occupied Poland, such as Auschwitz or Treblinka, but they were built by Nazi Germans for you and for us, and for others, whom the Nazi regime wanted to destroy. The first mass transport to Auschwitz occurred on June 14, 1940 and included a group of Jews and 728 Polish political prisoners. Our suffering mixed with yours. Could we, the Poles, do more during those darkest times to save you and us?

We fought against the Germans in 1939 and then on all fronts and had the strongest underground in Europe. For hiding the Jews, we faced the death penalty, and yet thousands were saved. Perhaps we could save a larger number but only if a proper assistance was given to us from our allies, but such assistance would not come.

When, in the act of despair, the uprising broke out in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, the Jewish resistance-fighters displayed Jewish and Polish flags. They were dying for themselves and for us because they loved Poland. They discovered in the Polish traditions what they also found in themselves: courage, honor and the will to fight. We are a vigilant nation, prepared and determined to defend our freedom and the freedom of those who stand with us. This has not changed.

The Jews and the Poles have rights to live in their independent countries, to cherish their different traditions, and to enjoy a secure and prosperous life, and I believe that we both shall never give up for what we stand for. We shall never forget our homelands, and if lost would rebuild them even from ashes. In addition, we are linked by a long common history. We are deeply concerned with our security. This is why we should actively cooperate, and Israel and Poland should become political and strategic partners. 

LET ME now explain this by referencing today’s context.

While Israel, having the Jewish population of about seven million and a very well trained army, is a major player in the Middle East, let us now consider that the Jewish state has a reliable strategic partner in Poland, a country which has the population of 38 million, and with which it has strong historical and cultural ties. Such a durable partnership is possible. However, to be a fully reliable partner Poland needs to become a powerful state, a substantial regional power, and this can be achieved with Israeli support; and our historical misunderstandings must be clarified, so that we develop strong and friendly relations at the personal level.

Poland was once one of the largest countries in Europe, fighting successful wars against Russia, the Ottoman Empire and other great powers of the past. We have still the charisma and stamina to become the regional leader in Central and Eastern Europe. In the European Union project we do not want to be a second rank member state hidden behind Germany. We prefer a freer rather than deeper Union. Our ultimate goal is to remain an independent nation, open to peaceful cooperation with others and to maintain peace in the region. In those aspirations for freedom that secures our identity and continuous existence as a nation, the Poles are very similar to the Jews.

Hence, if Israel and Poland want to remain free, if they want to survive as independent countries – as a Jewish state and a Polish state – the governments of both our countries should mutually recognize these needs.

The Jewish and the Polish youth should meet in Auschwitz, but also in the concert halls and at discos. Both sides should be prepared to listen sometimes to a painful truth, and yet learn to enjoy life together and be open to the radical improvement of the Jewish-Polish relations.

While other countries engage, so often, in some issues because of their ad-hoc interests, Poland undertook so many actions in history because it was right to do them. This has not changed. The Poles still think about life in terms of lasting values. This is why we can become a reliable, long-term partner to Israel. But to become partners, we must adopt a positive attitude to our common history, mutually recognize the value of our traditions and cultures and understand that we can be really helpful to each other.

W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz is one of Poland’s most renowned philosophers and political thinkers. Currently he is a professor in the Institute of Political Science at the University of Opole and Lady Davis visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the recipient of the Personality of the Year Poland 2020 Award in Science.