A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal by the Polish ambassador to the US Marek Magierowski is critical of those who have been vocal about Poland’s waning support of Ukraine in the face of ongoing Russian aggression. In it he writes, “You cannot erase the past and you can’t obfuscate the present either.”
Mr. Ambassador you speak words of truth, but your nation continues to hide behind a veil of lies.
In early 2018 the Polish Senate approved a bill making it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. Contravention of this law meets with stiff fines and potentially up to three years in prison.
It is a historical statement of fact that all the Nazi death camps (as distinct from concentration camps and slave labor camps) were placed on Polish soil because the Nazis correctly read the barometer of antisemitic sentiment in Poland and thus felt that local opposition to their barbaric actions would be non-existent. They were certainly right about that though some Poles did complain about the air quality in the vicinity of the various sites of hell on earth. Toxicity in this case being represented by the smells and ashes of the gassed and burned Jewish victims of the greatest atrocity inflicted by man upon man in the history of mankind.
The dark, shameful shadows of Auschwitz- Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Majdanek will loom forever over the entire Polish landscape. More than half of the six million Jewish victims (inclusive of 1.5 million children) of the Holocaust perished in these industrialized extermination centers where they were dispatched not to work- but to die. The bulk of those were Polish citizens part of a proud Jewish presence and heritage in Poland for 800 years. Their only crime- being Jewish.
While this dastardly plan was playing out Polish non-Jewish neighbors were betraying their Jewish neighbors with the promise of a spoonful of sugar or jam from the Germans. By revealing the whereabouts of their fellow Jewish residents to the Nazis they assuredly and knowingly sentenced those Jews to death while looting their property and assets. In some areas the local Polish citizenry took matters in their own hands to give the Nazis a helping hand. A famous example of that breed of complicity is the town of Jedwabne as shockingly depicted in the extraordinarily well researched book ‘Neighbors’ by Jan T. Gross.
In post war Poland pogroms continued against the Jews most notably in Kielce in 1946 where Polish soldiers, Polish police and Polish citizens killed and injured dozens of Jews.
After being incarcerated in various slave labor and concentration camps my own father returned briefly to Warsaw after liberation to seek out surviving family members. Not only was his search in vain but he was told by ‘friends’ from before the war that they were shocked at seeing a ghost. Moreover, he was advised to leave immediately otherwise they would complete Hitler’s work.
In my first visit to Poland in the 1980’s I was physically threatened by a group of local residents who mistakenly thought I had come back to reclaim my family’s property. I had just come to view where my grandparents, father, uncle, and aunts had resided before the whirlwind of death and destruction.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once stated, “Every Pole suckled antisemitism in his mother’s milk.” He was roundly condemned for this comment at that time, but would he be today? We live in an era within which even Germany and Austria- from where the Nazi perpetrators arose- are openly coming to terms with their own guilt. No amount of confession or contrition can bring back one Jewish soul much less six million of them but facing up to historical truth is a valuable step in the long and rocky road towards taking ultimate responsibility for the aforementioned crimes and thus ensuring no repetition of them.
While nobody has the power to forgive certainly nobody has the right to forget and that includes Poland. Despite her best efforts to do so-
“You cannot erase the past and you can’t obfuscate the present either.”
Freelance writer and photographer.