At the age of seventeen I was part of a large delegation of Israeli scouts to Poland. During our ten day visit, we traced the history of the country’s Jewish population from the middle ages and up to its annihilation in Nazi death camps. Before being admitted to the delegation, each member had to be interviewed by an adult. During my interview I was asked if seventeen year old youngsters could cope with visiting concentration camps. As soon as we departed from our bus in the entrance to Auschwitz, I understood the question as no prior experience can prepare you for walking under the words “Arbeit Macht Frei”.
Cynicism and humor evaporate; shock and horror take their place.
To me, Poland has always been synonymous with the Holocaust as it is the birthplace of my forefathers. For generations both sides of my family lived and thrived in Polish cities such as Lodge and Kiltze. Some were religious Jews who dedicated their life to studying the Torah, others were secular businessman who took part in Poland’s industrial expansion. While both my grandmothers were able to leave or escape Poland in time, none of their relatives survived.
I associate Poland with the Holocaust for other reasons as well. In school we learned in detail of the horrid Pogrom that took place in Kiltze after the war when some of the city’s Jews dared to return. Poland was also home to the largest Nazi concentration camps and less than 10% of Poland’s three million Jews survived, fewer than any other country. Even Hollywood has taken part in cementing my association between Poland and the Holocaust in a string of films ranging from Jakob the Liar to The Pianist and Schindler’s List.
Yet when it comes to the Poles themselves I feel somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, I was taught that anti-Semitism was common in Poland long before World War Two. In the eyes of many of my friends, Poles were Hitler’s willing accomplices. During our delegation’s visit, security guards warned us that anti-Semitism is still prevalent in Poland. On the other hand, the majority of Righteous Gentiles are Polish and more Jews were saved by Poles than any other nationality.
Recently I have learned that I am not the only one attempting to understand Poland’s treatment of its Jewish population during the Holocaust. Modern Poland is also engulfed in this task. Holocaust education, for example, is mandatory in all Polish secondary schools. According to the Polish Ministry of Education, each year more than 100,000 Polish high school students visit Nazi death camps. Academic centers for the study of the Holocaust have been established in Warsaw and Krakow along with the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
In the past month, another branch of the Polish government has been addressing this issue, the Polish foreign ministry. On the 13th of December the following tweet appeared on the foreign ministry’s twitter channel
Thank you @VancouverSun for printing the Consul General’s letter, titling “Poles were victims of Nazis”.
— PL KonsulatVancouver (@PLinVancouver) December 13, 2013
In the aforementioned letter, the Polish Consul General to Vancouver objects to the terms “Hitler’s Poland”, “Polish killing fields” and “Polish horrors” that were used in a newspaper article. The Polish diplomat further states that one has to bear in mind that Poland was the first victim of the Nazis, that it lost some six million citizens during the war(half of them non Jews) and that the Nazi death camps were conceived, build and run by the Nazis on occupied Polish territory. The Consul General adds that terms such as Polish killing fields could lead to harmful stereotypes.
Three days later, on the 16th, the following tweet appeared on the same twitter channel
Stop to historical lies on “Polish death camps”! These were German Nazi camps in occupied Poland! http://t.co/uCix3S74fi
— PLinNederland (@PLinNederland) December 16, 2013
This outraged tweet links to an article dealing with a resolution to be passed by the Israeli Knesset which shall call on the world media to stop using the term “Polish death camps” when describing Auschwitz and instead use “German Nazi camps located on Polish territory”.
Poland, it appears, has decided to distance itself from the atrocities of the Nazis. But I believe these tweets are also part of a greater endeavor. If one was to follow Poland’s official digital channels, such as its Twitter account and Facebook profile, he would learns that Poland is in the process of re-branding itself as the financial gateway to Eastern Europe and an important member of the European Union. This necessitates, first and foremost, breaking the association many have between Poland, the Poles and the Nazis.
One can only hope that Poland is as committed to fully exploring the role Poles may have played in the Holocaust and stemming the tide of Antisemitism in Europe as it is to the Polska brand whose worth is now estimated at 497 Billion dollars.