Old wrongs and unpleasant misunderstandings

The storm in Polish-Israeli relations has already begun.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw
There is no doubt that last month will go down in the history of bilateral Polish-Israeli relations. This stage is the crisis. However, one must remember that crisis is an opportunity for change. The only question is what type of change do we want? On January 26, 2018, the Polish Sejm voted to amend the bill on the Institute of National Remembrance. Six days later, on February 1, the draft amendment was approved by the Polish Senate (in Poland the parliament is bicameral – it includes the Sejm and the Senate). The document was signed by the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, who in a follow-up procedure referred it to the Constitutional Tribunal to examine the compliance of the provisions of this law with the Polish Constitution.
The storm in Polish-Israeli relations had already begun with the adoption of the amendment by the Polish Sejm, and is still ongoing.
What is the problem? Article 55a, paragraph 1, of the aforementioned amendment to the act, which penalizes any unjustified blaming of the Polish state and nation for the crimes committed by the Third German Reich.
The content is as follows: “Art. 55a. part 1. Whoever publicly and contrary to the facts attributes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich [...] or for any other offences constituting crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of these crimes, shall be liable to a fine or deprivation of liberty for up to 3 years. The judgment shall be communicated to the public.”
The legislator introduced an exception in paragraph 2 of article 55a excluding scientific research and artistic activity from penalization.
On January 26, a whole series of misunderstandings began. Yes, misunderstandings.
In the public debate, hardly anyone on either side of the conflict has drawn attention to a very important issue, the issue that perhaps caused the Polish president to refer this bill to the Constitutional Tribunal. In the amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, the Polish legislature nowhere specifies what research and artistic activity are. Lack of precision makes it difficult to recognize this law as a good law, because good law is precise.
There is no doubt that such a law is needed by Poland, or that Poland – like Israel – as a sovereign country has the complete right to establish its own law.
However, the current Act on the Institute of National Remembrance needs to be corrected, and the amendment to this Act requires listening to the voice of Israel, a nation that lost many of its sons and daughters during the war. Israel, in turn, should understand that Poland has the right to fight against false statements that slander the entire nation or attribute responsibility for specific crimes to all Poles, not to individual persons.
THE CURRENT crisis of Polish-Jewish relations may be connected to a serious misunderstanding by Poland of Israel’s intentions and remarks, and vice versa. Watching the political reactions in Israel, one comes to the conclusion that many in Israel failed to understand the intentions of Polish legislator, who in passing this law seek, above all, to combat untruths.
It is historical fact that from 1939 to 1945 there was no Polish state, Poland having been from September 1939 – that is, from the outbreak of Second World War – under occupation of the Third German Reich and then the Soviet Union. All death camps in the territory of occupied Poland were not “Polish camps.” Their functioning was regulated by the Nazi German authorities. This was acknowledged by the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon, and by Yad Vashem. What is more, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged this truth as well, during the visit by Polish prime minister Beata Szydło to Israel in 2016.
The Polish legislator does not seek to close the mouth of everyone who wants to talk about the murder of Jews by Poles during and after WWII, or about the collaboration of individual Poles with the Germans. Such situations actually happened and the legislator, I trust, is aware of that. It is worth paying attention to the part of the amendment to the act specifying what exactly is subject to penalization: those statements that are public and contrary to the facts.
In Poland, Israel’s intentions were not understood either. In many news websites, in the headlines and radio programs, appeared statements that Israel opposed the punishment of those claiming there were “Polish death camps.” Only in a few places, at least in the beginning, was it mentioned that Israel is simply afraid that the Polish legislator seeks to prohibit all discussion of the murder of Jews by Poles.
I have lived in Israel for some time. I here to write my doctoral dissertation in philosophy, in which I am trying to understand the consequences of the Holocaust to the post-war philosophy of God and humanity. In July last year, I received a scholarship from the Israeli government for a research and scientific internship at Tel Aviv University.
Because the tragedy of the Holocaust is important to me, for both personal and intellectual reasons, I pay close attention to all the nuance associated with it.
The conclusion I have reached is that there is a difference between Poland – and Europe in general – and Israel regarding the understanding of the Holocaust. The Old Continent understands the Holocaust as a horrifying genocide committed in a planned and systemic way by Nazi Germany.
However, I have the impression that this tragic historical fact is perceived differently in Israel. In Israel, the Holocaust represents the entire tragedy of the Jewish people during WWII on the continent that gave the world – ironically – Roman law, Greek democracy and Judeo-Christian tradition.
So where is the difference? In Israel the perpetrators of the Holocaust constitute a broader category than just Nazi Germany, and includes all those who contributed to the death of any Jew. According to this understanding it is permissible to talk about Poles contributing to the Holocaust more or less like Austrians, French, Russians, etc.
It must be noted that such a perception is definitely unknown in Europe. This is shown by the reaction of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who on February 16 said that only Germans bear moral responsibility for the Holocaust. The German head of the Foreign Ministry, Sigmar Gabriel, spoke similarly on February 3.
Please forgive the cliche, but I have no doubt that both sides – Polish and Israeli – are losing in this conflict. Why? Because this entire conflict is based on serious misunderstandings.
And this is what shows how much dialogue is needed – listening to each other’s points of view, with full respect for the other’s identity.
On February 12, Polish weekly Do Rzeczy published an interview with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, president of the Law and Justice Party, the current ruling party in Poland.
Kaczynski said that Polish-Israeli relations are good.
I question this belief. I have the impression that many Polish-Jewish issues, connected in particular with tragic history, have been silenced. In fact, only from the moment of positive legislation of this problematic amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance has a loud discussion begun in Poland, thanks to the reaction of Israel, about the cooperation of some Poles with the Nazis during the war. Earlier, this fact was not so commonly present in the Polish collective consciousness.
It is true that in Polish culture, especially in cinematography, such historical topics appeared. As an example, Agnieszka Holland’s film In the Darkness, or Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida. Pawlikowski’s film depicts the murder of a Jewish family by Poles, for property. Another example is the film Aftermath, directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski.
(By the way, Ida received an Oscar in 2015 for best foreign language film.) Nobody in their right mind in Poland denies the murder of Jews by individual Poles, or the cooperation by individual Poles with the Nazis. The motives for these crimes are varied, and are to be judged by history. In Poland, as the only occupied country during WWII, helping Jews carried the death penalty, and despite this more than 6,000 medals have awarded by Yad Vashem to Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” – the largest national group that helped Jews. This is also mentioned by Hannah Arendt in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, based on the testimony of witnesses at the trial of Adolf Eichmann: “surprisingly, [the situation had] been better in [occupied] Poland than in any other Eastern European country.
[...] A Jew, now married to a Polish woman and living in Israel, testified how his wife had hidden him and twelve other Jews throughout the war; another had a Christian friend from before the war to whom he had escaped from a camp and who had helped him, and who was later executed because of the help he had given to Jews. One witness claimed that the Polish underground had supplied many Jews with weapons and had saved thousands of Jewish children by placing them with Polish families. The risks were prohibitive; there was the story of an entire Polish family who had been executed in the most brutal manner because they had adopted a six-year-old Jewish girl.”
It seems that in Poland, there has to date been too little discussion about Poles collaborating with the Nazis, or themselves murdering Jews. This fact does not support the idea that Polish-Israeli relations are “good.”
There is another, little known fact: in communist Poland, which until 1989 was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, and especially during the Stalinist period, in the communist Polish courts judges of Jewish origin condemned many Poles, who had fought for independent Poland, to death. Their names are in the public domain.
The number of such Stalinist legal criminals is of course lower than the number of some Poles who contributed during the war to the death of Jews. Still, I am opposed to numerical comparisons in such matters. One such crime is too many. This is another unhealed wound in Polish- Jewish relations, a wound on which the veil of silence has been lowered. Again, in this context it is difficult to agree with the theory about exemplary Polish-Jewish relations.
AS A MEMBER of the young generation of Poles, I am sorry to observe the current crisis in Polish-Jewish relations.
I’m sorry that in Poland only now is the subject of the murder of Jews by Poles during the war being openly discussed. I am sorry that it has been forgotten that some citizens of the country on the Vistula River in the Stalinist era, with Jewish roots, condemned many of the sons and daughters of the Polish independence movement to death. However, I believe, honestly and strongly, that the current crisis is a good opportunity for change.
I am sorry when I see from time to time antisemitic reactions in Poland. I am also sorry that I have recently heard sometimes anti-Polish comments and insults in Israel. I am sorry, as a young Pole, when I see that some of my countrymen cannot look critically at their history.
I am also sorry when some Israelis attribute responsibility to all my people for crimes committed during the war.
I believe, however, that we can understand each other.
I come from Lodz, which since its inception has been a multicultural melting pot. Jews, Poles, Germans and Russians lived next to each other. Before the war, almost 32% of the inhabitants of Lodz were Jews. I believe pluralism is valuable. Even if we differ in our opinions, or have common tragic experiences, we need to talk about it. Out of respect for history and for future generations.