Talking to Poland’s PM about the Holocaust

Why stifle a vital conversation that is long overdue? We need more interaction between Poles and Jews, not less.

POLAND’S PRIME Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (photo credit: REUTERS/MICHAELA REHLE)
POLAND’S PRIME Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
I had a kosher dinner with Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at his official residence in Warsaw on Monday night.
I had first met the prime minister last summer, when he was finance minister, when he visited me at home through my friend Jonny Daniels of the From the Depths Foundation in Poland. After Poland’s “Holocaust law,” criminalizing both the mention of “Polish Death Camps” and the attribution of blame for Nazi crimes to Poland, I penned a column criticizing the law and calling on the prime minister to rise to the occasion of setting Polish-Jewish relations on a new footing.
The prime minister responded in a moving letter where he spoke of his pain at Polish-Jewish tensions and asserted his strong belief that “no Jewish family, none of our Jewish brothers and sisters, could be saved during the Shoah without some form of help from Polish families, from Polish neighbors.” The prime minister invited me to sit down and discuss the issue with him and I took him up on his gracious offer.
Mateusz Morawiecki is a warm, highly intelligent and scholarly man of 49. A father of four who is always impeccably dressed and endlessly courteous, he evinces an earthiness and accessibility that is immediately endearing. He listens carefully and is deeply thoughtful in his responses. Our dinner, which stretched out over several hours, underscored to me how seriously he takes the tensions created by the Holocaust law and his deep pain at being at odds with the Jewish community and Israel.
The day before our dinner, Bashar Assad of Syria had gassed and slaughtered his people again, and I told the prime minister that genocide and mass murder remain global problems that are never sufficiently addressed. There existed the possibility that Poland, which witnessed the greatest genocide of all time take place on its soil, could become a leading voice in fighting genocide and condemning the use of poison gas. I told the prime minister that a leader of his eloquence could be that voice. But the Holocaust law, I asserted, undermined Polish credibility on the issue since it was viewed as an attempt by Poland to avoid discussion of its own culpability during the Holocaust, even if that culpability pertained to nonofficial collaboration on the part of large numbers of individual poles.
The prime minister expressed his people’s pain whenever they were bunched together with the Nazis. He gently conveyed the unjustness of lobbing together victim and culprit. He said that Poland had lost 200,000 citizens in the autumn 1944 uprising alone. Poland had been the first to fight the Germans, had never collaborated as a people, had never collaborated as a government, had been brutally suppressed by the Germans, and scores of Poles had helped to save many Jews. And while he did not add this, I am aware that nearly two million Polish civilians died during World War II.
The prime minister said that his government was Israel’s strongest ally in Europe. He shared how he comes under repeated pressure from EU countries to join in various condemnations of Israel, from which he always abstains because of his genuine friendship with Israel and the Jewish people. He shared with me how his own children had attended a school in Poland run under Jewish auspices and that his family has Jewish friends so close that he was raised calling them uncles and aunts.
THE PURPOSE of the law was to lay blame for the Holocaust squarely where it belonged, with the German Nazis and not the Polish people. The prime minister shared that there was deep hurt on the part of the Polish people when their own suffering under the Nazis was not only not recognized, but are unjustly accused of having acted with the Germans.
But what of well-documented atrocities against Jews where Poles were directly involved? Jedwabne was mentioned at the dinner. There is, of course, also the Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946, in which 42 Jews were murdered by Poles after the war was over. The prime minister was adamant that the law would never contravene fact and would never dispute the historical record. He said that he read widely on the war, had served as an academic, and would always respect the findings of academic research.
But why in that case was the law important at all? Poland is a democracy whose constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Let the historical facts decide. The prime minister maintained that the Polish people was hurt and angered by repeated use of expressions of “Polish death camps.” The law was attempt at righting a historical wrong. Indeed, president Obama used the expression in May 2012, for which the White House later apologized.
But, I countered, the law was counterproductive and only increased accusations of Polish insensitivity to Jews.
What was clear from the conversation was that this controversial law, to which I am irrevocably opposed and hope will be struck down by the Polish courts that are currently reviewing it, might present an opportunity.
A great many Jews, including myself, are of Polish descent. My grandfather was born in Lomza, which I visited with my children last summer. But the story being passed through many Jewish families is that Poland was a place of irrevocable hostility to Jews and endless antisemitism.
Is that the whole story? Obviously not. Jews lived in Poland for 800 years. In that time they produced some of their greatest rabbis, works of scholarship, and synagogues of awe-inspiring beauty. Was there antisemitism? Undoubtedly so. Poland was deeply Catholic and the Church held the Jews accountable for killing Christ.
But Poland was also the place that the Jews began to immigrate to in the 12th century because of the tolerant policies of Boleslaw III, and the Polish Jewish community would become the largest and most developed in the world. Jews suffered in Poland, but they also thrived and flourished.
Are the Poles responsible for the Holocaust? Most definitely not. Any equation of Poles and Nazis is a historical abomination. The Poles fought the Germans and died under their brutal hand. The Germans built the gas chambers and murdered three million Polish Jews.
Did large numbers of individual Poles collaborate with the Germans? Were many Poles happy to see the Jews gone? Historical fact would definitely suggest this was the case and certainly, after the war, when many Jews tried to reclaim property they were met with a strong rebuff and many cases even violence. Poland cannot deny these historical truths.
BUT THAT does not change the fact that the Polish government never collaborated with the Nazis, and Polish partisans fought them throughout the war.
I shared with the prime minister that this was the reason I felt the Holocaust law was so tragic. The history of Jews in Poland is undoubtedly more complex than what has been discussed up to this point. So why stifle a vital conversation that is long overdue? We need more interaction between Poles and Jews, not less. And the Polish government has done an absolutely admirable job in maintaining the Nazi death camps and memorializing the memory of the millions of Jews who died there. While I agree about the utter unfairness in using the term “Polish Death Camps,” the law is an unfair and unjust attempt to criminalize a conversation that should be decided by historians and experts.
I do not believe there is any antisemitism in Mateusz Morawiecki. In fact, I believe he seeks to be a friend of the Jewish people and truly wishes for Poland to have a closer relationship with the Jewish community and Israel. And that is another tragedy of this law, to which the Jewish community is justly opposed. It fosters misunderstanding, with both sides digging in when we should be joined in common cause for Holocaust memory and genocide prevention.
The prime minister also feels that the Jews have to better understand the extent of Polish suffering under the Nazis, even as it did not of course reach mass extinction as with the Jews. He is right. But the law has hindered those efforts.
What’s needed is the abolition of this law so that misunderstandings can be addressed honestly and forthrightly and a new era of Polish-Jewish relations can ensue.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.