“Look at the floor,” I told my students. We were standing in Treblinka. An exposed area, freezing cold, surrounded by dark forests. They looked down. “Under your feet,” I said to them, “there is a city of the dead. It’s a city twice the size of Tel Aviv. 880,000 dead. They died for only reason — they were Jews.”
The extermination at Treblinka was overseen by fewer than 30 Germans. Most of the atrocities were committed by a Ukrainian squadron. The prisoners who tried to escape from the trains which led to the camp were caught and returned by Polish neighbors. Everyone was complicit.
My father’s grandmother, Hermione, was arrested by the Germans in Serbia. She was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in the gas chambers. Why did she make that long journey to her death? Why were most of the camps set up in Poland? The Germans knew that at least some of the local population would cooperate.
Hundreds of Jewish residents of the town of Jedwabne were murdered by Poles. In June 1941, they were caught by their Polish neighbors, locked in a barn and burned alive. After the war, the Poles tried to claim that the Germans had carried out the massacre, but the Jews who had managed to survive the massacre bore witness to the truth.
The new law that the Polish government is trying to pass denies all this. So that we’ll know that “fake news” has reached Poland, they spun the law with a false headline. “There is no such thing,” they said, “as Polish extermination camps. The camps were German.” It’s an absurd statement. No one ever says the death camps were built by the Poles. The Germans built them. But they built them on Polish land, with Polish help, in the face of Polish silence.
In Poland, the opposite also happened. 6,706 righteous among the nations have been recognized by Yad Vashem, more than any other country. Most of them were normal people whose conscience wouldn’t allow them to be bystanders. They hid Jews, smuggled Jews away, saved Jewish lives. Israel honors each and every one of them, but the fact that there were thousands only proves the extent of the annihilation. Jews weren’t hidden only from the Germans; the Germans didn’t patrol every town and village. The Jews were hidden from Poles; Polish informers, Polish murderers. Three million Polish Jews were murdered (and another three million Jews from other countries). The Germans managed the extermination and bear ultimate responsibility but they could not have done it alone.
The anti-Semitism that existed before the rise of Nazis was rife across all of Europe, including in Poland. The Kielce pogrom of 1946, carried out by Polish soldiers, police officers and civilians, is proof that it didn’t disappear with the fall of Nazism. The response on social media to the criticism of the law these past few days has been laced with vile anti-Semitism, showing that it has yet to disappear today.
We have not forgotten and not forgiven. No nation can be expected to forgive and forget the murder of millions of its sons and daughters, including a million and a half children. The announcement by the prime minister that we are entering into negotiations is something I cannot accept. We do not negotiate about the memory of the Holocaust. Today, we have friendly relations and positive cooperation with Poland, but when this law reaches the Senate, Polish leaders need to know that they are putting that friendship at risk. We will not accept the re-writing of history. We will not accept the attempt to avoid responsibility. The city of the dead in Treblinka calls us from the ground.