Only talking will bring understanding in the Israel-Poland rift - opinion

Jews are right to want their Polish property back, but they need to understand that Poland as a nation did not collaborate with Nazis.

 A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds a Torah as he arrives at the entrance to Auschwitz for the annual March of the Living marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in May. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds a Torah as he arrives at the entrance to Auschwitz for the annual March of the Living marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in May.

Polish-Jewish relations are a mess, the worst they’ve been in decades. Israel expressed its disgust over Poland’s passage of a law that effectively bars Holocaust survivors and the families of murdered victims from reclaiming Nazi-looted property in Poland during the war. Poland says the law is vastly misunderstood. Diplomacy is in meltdown mode.

Israel recalled its ambassador from Warsaw and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the law is “antisemitic and immoral.”

Poland responded by recalling its ambassador from Jerusalem. I recently heard from someone in Warsaw that all the senior Israeli staff have left the embassy and it’s now being run by a very young staffer.

On the other hand, some officials in Poland reportedly threatened to stop the March of the Living visits that brings tens of thousands of Jewish teenagers to Poland every year. I’ve participated in a few, especially when Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel, was the keynote speaker. They are moving and amazing beyond description.

What has led to this sudden collapse? The latest round of Polish-Israel fighting started when Poland’s president signed a new law that would set limits on the Jewish ability to reclaim property originally seized by the Nazi German occupiers which was later retained by Poland’s post-war Communist leaders.

 German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. (credit: FLICKR) German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. (credit: FLICKR)

Lapid said, “The negative impact on our ties began the moment that Poland chose to begin passing laws aimed at harming the memory of the Holocaust and the Jewish people in 2018.

“Gone are the days when Poles harmed Jews without consequence. Today, Jews have a proud and strong country of their own. We do not fear antisemitic threats, and have no intention of turning a blind eye to the shameful conduct of the anti-democratic Polish government.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki responded on Facebook: “Israel’s decision to lower the rank of the diplomatic representation in Warsaw is groundless and irresponsible, and the words of Yair Lapid… raise the outrage of every honest person.”

As a rabbi who is extremely active in Holocaust memory and whose latest book, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Holocaust Memory Hell, charts my visits with my young children to the Nazi death camps over three summers and all that Poland has done to preserve them, I am very upset at this Polish-Jewish rupture.

Israel has every right – indeed a need – to insist on factual Holocaust historical memory and on restitution for Hitler’s victims. And Poland has every right to feel the gratitude of the world Jewish community for their extraordinary efforts to honor the memory of the millions of Jews murdered by the Germans on their soil, as well as honor the suffering and sacrifice of the Polish people themselves who were invaded by the Germans on September 1, 1939.

The Polish law that bars restitution is unacceptable, but Jewish objections should be voiced amid general gratitude to the Polish people for all they do for the preservation of the camps and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country. Most of all, Poland must recognize Jewish property claims and never-ending Jewish trauma over the Holocaust, and the Jewish community must similarly recognize immeasurable Polish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Both premises seem logical but you’d be amazed at how hard it has been to achieve this simple consensus.

I met during Sukkot with Polish President Andrzej Duda in New Jersey. The president and I had met on several previous occasions. I pleaded with him to take action to end the impasse. I thanked him for everything his country and government do to restore Jewish cemeteries, preserve the Nazi-German murder camps, and tell the story of the Holocaust. I told him I am genuinely grateful.

I also shared that the Jewish community has legitimate grievances, especially as it relates to the immoral anti-restitution law, and the Polish people have legitimate grievances of their own, especially against those who stupidly equate Poland with Nazi Germany, which is itself a moral outrage.

But why no dialogue? How did it come to this? The president committed to trying to resolve the situation.

But why is no one talking? Why are Israel and Poland simply now ignoring each other instead of trying to work this out?

The Second World War started when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Holocaust was perpetrated not by Poland but by Germany. Anyone who says otherwise, and who speaks of Poland being just as responsible as Germany, is guilty of reprehensible Holocaust denial and historical revisionism.

Poland as a nation and as a government-in-exile never collaborated with the Nazis and fought them vigorously throughout the nearly six years of occupation. I can understand why Poles, who suffered unspeakably under the Nazi tyranny, would go ballistic at any equation between them and the Nazis.

Conversely, any suggestion that there were no Polish collaborators with the invading Germans is as big a whitewash of history as would be the denial of the fact that Poland has more “Righteous Among the Nations” identified by Yad Vashem than any other nationality. Many Poles collaborated. Poland as a nation never did.

It also follows that Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust and lost their property, or Jews who were deported but survived, should absolutely have their property returned to them and their heirs.

So how do we resolve this impasse? It starts with dialogue.

I know Yair Lapid and his wife, Lihi. She, like me, is a relationships expert and we have done public lectures together. Yair is himself the son of a legendary Holocaust survivor and I understand his deep feelings about the genocide of our people. But Yair is also Israel’s chief diplomat. A man of great eloquence and charisma, surely he can take the lead in engaging Poland with talks that might resolve the situation.

We are now three months away from the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, which took place on January 20, 1942. The meeting, convened by Reinhard Heydrich, the third most evil man that ever lived, and Adolf Eichmann, the fourth most evil, planned the complete coordination of the Holocaust and the use of poison gas for the “Final Solution” of European Jewry.

Surely a righteous God who was all too silent during the Holocaust is today ensuring that these two monsters are roasting in hell. The work they did, however, is undoable.

Our organization, The World Values Network, will be hosting our Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala on the 80th Anniversary, especially in light of how rapidly the Holocaust is being forgotten. In April of 2018, The New York Times reported, “Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was.” 

That’s terrifying and all the more reason for Israel and the Jewish community to understand the centrality of Poland and its government to Holocaust memory, not to mention serving as reliable allies of Israel at the European Union.

Last week I attended the ceremony for the unveiling of the Elie Wiesel sculpture at the Washington National Cathedral along with Elie’s wife, Marion, and his son, Elisha, who delivered a masterful defense of Israel at America’s foremost house of worship.

Some complained that the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor should not have been sculpted at a church. Little do they realize that “Never Again” only has meaning if people actually “Never Forget” our six million martyrs. And sometimes you have to push your comfort zone to ensure that the Holocaust does not fade from memory.

It’s a lesson that Israel and American-Jewish communal leaders should bear in mind as they mistakenly allow the relationship with Poland to rapidly deteriorate.

The author, “America’s Rabbi,” is the best-selling author of 30 books, including most recently Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.