The coalition of people of good will to battle racism and anti-Semitism in Poland was significantly strengthened recently when Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk, director of ultra conservative Radio Maryja, hosted a Polish-Israeli dialogue commemorating victims of the Holocaust and those who gave their lives for sheltering Jews. He gave a clear sign that today’s Poland, even the most nationalistic part of it, views the latter as heroes.
Several years ago the same Catholic priest was often labelled an anti-Semite who believed there was a Jewish conspiracy. Such ideas have not been heard for a long time on his private Catholic and ultra conservative radio station. Instead he’s now a converted pro-Israeli Zionist who treats Jews exactly as a Catholic should: as older brothers and the forebears of his religion. The people who helped change his views were most likely Israel’s ambassador, Anna Azari, and a British-Israeli activist Jonny Daniels, previously unknown in Poland, who emerged as head of a new foundation with close ties to the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party.
But quite unexpectedly, the idea of holding a meeting between Polish and Israeli officials – including Holocaust survivors, their rescuers and a well-known rabbi from Israel – came under harsh criticism, including from my good friend, Laurence Weinbaum (In Poland, an anti-Semite, a conman and a useful idiot). I have read his article several times and still can’t understand what Larry’s objective is: to promote a Polish-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation or to tell the Poles that they are anti-Semites and they should remain ones.
Without weighing in on what appears to be a private dispute between Laurence Weinbaum and Mr. Daniels, and in the interest of fighting anti-Semitism, I wish to offer my response to criticism of the conference organized several weeks ago by Radio Maryja and Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk.
That same week, Larry and I, as directors, respectively, of the Israel Council of Foreign Relations and Polish Institute of International Affairs, had co-organized another Polish-Israeli conference on foreign policy challenges for the security of Poland and Israel. There, Poland’s deputy prime minister and minister of culture and national heritage Prof. Piotr Glinski pronounced words previously unheard from any other European leaders: “Israel,” he said, “is the only Jewish enclave in the world. Aggressive anti-Israelism is a new form of anti-Semitism which should be opposed.”
Larry Weinbaum, who sat with me in the first row, applauded as did I. This came just three days after half of the Polish cabinet, including recently appointed Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki as well as Glinski’s deputy, had attended the Torun conference together with Rev. Rydzyk and Rabbi Lipman. They stood up for what they believe is right: building bridges between Poles and Jews, Poland and Israel. Why should we think it’s wrong policy?
Let’s assume that Rydzyk is indeed a reformed anti-Semite, who understood that Poland – not without the reason – supports Israel, and has started preaching in favor of Zionism. So? If one considers this situation objectively, those behind this change have achieved a great victory – the modification of Rydzyk’s position towards Jews. As a result, the Torun conference was attended by representatives of the Israeli embassy, as well as by officials of Israel’s foreign ministry, and ultimately established a new platform for dialogue.
As a matter of fact, its creation was not difficult. If one looks into the matter more deeply, anti-Semitism in Poland and anti-Polonism in Israel are fuelled today by uninformed assumptions that “Jews hate Poland” or that “Poles are anti-Semites.” In general, both prejudices vanish when a real Pole and a real Jew first meet. Usually, they somehow find a common language and understand how close they are. Polish tourists feel welcome in Israel. The Israelis who work in Poland are frequently the staunchest defenders of my country. In this regard, those behind Torun’s conference did not discover anything new – they just reflected the existing reality. They live in Poland and know that the legendary Polish anti-Semitism is today more myth than reality.
On the other hand, by pursuing their agenda, they have challenged the monopoly. On both sides of the Polish-Jewish and Polish-Israeli dialogue there are those who claim the exclusive right to conduct dialogue. They jealously screen every new participant in this discourse and don’t tolerate any independent successes. I don’t know how maintaining a monopoly on fighting anti-Semitism can be effective and really helpful. It should be obvious to everyone that the more people who join the fight the better.
It must be clearly stated that such monopoly does not contribute to building good relations between our societies, which are – after all – diverse: in Israel, we find a whole range of attitudes towards Poland – just like in Poland towards Israel.
People of good will want some of these attitudes -– hateful or just idiotic – to disappear from Polish-Jewish dialogue. The critics of the Torun conference did not catch this nuance: instead of shouting “Hallelujah and forward!” (Rev. Rydzyk’s oft-used catchphrase), they are now wondering whether pro-government Jews in Poland are dignified enough to fight against anti-Semitism. This is absurd.
Some critics of the policy of memory of the current Polish government also accuse Poland of talking too much about its wartime heroes and too little about its villains. In my opinion, however, Polish conservatives are on the right track. They are trying to build on what is positive and commendable. Is it really so difficult to see that promoting those who saved Jews means condemning those others who handled them to Germans for death? I see nothing wrong in commemorating the Polish Righteous, or Poles who were murdered by the Germans for hiding Jews. Each country, Poland included, worships its heroes.
On the other hand, Poles who handed Jews over to the Germans during the Holocaust are treated with the disgust and contempt reserved for the traitors. A typical Pole would despise them, just as Jews have despised their own collaborators from the ghettos. Plenty of literature has been written in Israel on this issue as well. Contrary to some beliefs, Polish historiography has always admitted the existence of individual traitors and collaborators. We are talking, after all, about an occupied country in which hundreds of thousands of Poles declared themselves to be loyal German in an effort to escape their oppressed nation, join ranks with the victors, and then – in many cases – persecute their own former compatriots.
Another line of criticism considers it appropriate to diminish the myth of righteous Poles. In doing so, critics are not playing fair. They go back for example to a stale argument and declares that the Holocaust was seen by a Polish society as a ‘great benefit’. There is not enough proof to support this thesis. The alleged ‘joy’ at the deaths of Jews is not really recorded by letters from that era, nor by literature, nor by the illegal underground press. The basic feeling among Poles, Jews and Gentiles alike, who lived under occupation, was fear. It overwhelmed people both in the ghettos and beyond – images of Polish bodies hanging on gallows or executed in street executions were common. It has to be underscored that German-occupied Poland outside the ghetto walls, was also like a gargantuan ghetto and concentration camp. Death was omnipresent. And the aim of the Germans was to murder Jews, but also many Poles, and to create Lebensraum for their ‘master race.’ We were dying too, sometimes in the same death camps!
But we were also fighting. For the an ordinary Pole, our homeland during World War II is not associated with traitors from Jedwabne, who, numbering in the several dozen, cowardly dealt with 340 Jewish residents of the city. We know about this crime and despise its perpetrators. The country of Poland can be held to account for what its legal exiled government in London did. This government represented Poland. The murderers and traitors from Jedwabne did not!
When I say Poland I refer to Jan Karski, the Polish Resistance fighter or Irena Sendler, who helped rescue thousands of Jewish children. I also think about another Polish official: Aleksander Lados, Polish ambassador in Switzerland, who bought from corrupt Latin American consuls blank passport samples and then ordered his diplomats to fill them with the names of Jews trapped in the ghettos. He then gave these passports to Jewish organizations with the aim of smuggling them into Warsaw and Bedzin. He and his Polish and Jewish colleagues, especially his consul Konstanty Rokicki (who died in poverty and oblivion), created thousands of “Paraguayan” citizens hence saving these people from being sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka.
When the Polish Foreign Ministry learned about the scheme, not only did it not reprimand Polish diplomats – it ordered them to intensify their efforts. Thanks to them, many survivors and their descendants are alive today – and there is extensive documentary evidence of this rescue effort. Had Poles really rejoiced over the murder of Jews, Lados would have been fired, not urged to do more! Other embassies in Bern somehow did not care as much as his did. This does not really support the paradigm of ‘Polish joy.’
All these people, spanning from Karski to Rokicki, acted as officials of the Polish government, the same government that, alone, tried to warn the world about the Holocaust from the very beginning. The same government that turned a blind eye to the “disappearance” of some of its soldiers stationed in Palestine (including one Menachem Begin), allowing them to form the backbone of the Jewish insurgency. Poles believe – and this opinion is consistent – that nations must have their own states. Jews too.
I am not pretending to argue that all Poles are angels and have always loved Jews. Quite the opposite – the interwar period was marked by ethnic conflicts of nearly the same intensity that we saw later in the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon and South Africa and which you know very well from Israel too. The Second Republic mistreated minorities, as did many other European states. We do not conceal the sins of our forefathers and we apologize for those who make us feel ashamed. However today we are wiser. People like Daniels, Rydzyk, and Rabbi Lipman have developed a good strategy – they want a genuine Polish-Jewish reconciliation, to put down our weapons, and sit down to talk. This is the spirit of reconciliation. So let’s stick to the old rule: If your enemy lays down his arms – stop shooting.
Sławomir Dębski is Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
[Editor’s Note: Laurence Weinbaum has published a response to this post.]