The recent remarks of Prime Minister Netanyahu during his recent visit in Poland has set the fumes larger on fire in Poland. It is less a question of revisionism of the Holocaust tragedies but more so a review of Polish –Jewish relations in the pre-war years of 1918-1939.
I write this as a proud Jew and citizen of Israel, not to accuse but rather to state facts of history.
First of all, it must be remembered that Poland ceased to exist since 1795. For 123 years there was no Polish nation. It had been divided up by partitioning the country between Germany, Austria and Russia.
Jews together with other minorities such as Ukrainians suffered most in the partitions. It was only after subjugation for 123 years and the end of the first World War that the reborn Polish State came into existence.
At its head as Chief of Independent Poland was the leading Polish statesman and military hero, Marshall Jozef Klemens Pilsudski who served from 1918-1922. Pilsudski was a dedicated leader and did not have any anti-Semitic feelings in a post-war country that was now rife with anti-Semites.
Polish Jews trusted Pilsudski and respected, even revered, him and Jews in Poland mourned his death in 1935.
As Field Marshall and leader of the Second Polish Republic and as Minister of Military Affairs, Pilsudski appointed the world- acclaimed concert pianist, Ignace Jan Paderewski, to be the second Prime Minister of the Polish Republic in 1919.
Paderewski, unlike Pilsudski, did not like Jews and preferred that there were no Jews in Poland. He longed for a once-upon-a-time of sending Polish Jews to Madagascar.
After Poland was invaded in 1939 by Nazi Germany, the Polish Republic officially no longer existed.
In 1941 Paderewski was appointed Head of the National Council of Poland in exile in London, a post he held until his death.
At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 the American President Woodrow Wilson required Poland to sign a treaty on June 28, 1919 which guaranteed minority rights in the newly independent Polish State. Poland protested signing because it did not wish to grant equality to Germans. But Poland was forced to sign the treaty in spite of its protest.
The Polish regime did not enforce the rights of the German, Jewish and Ukrainian minorities and the Minorities treaty was renounced in September 1934.
In his well-documented book, “The Civil Rights of the Jews in Poland Between 1918-1939”, Jerzy Tomaszewski detailed some of the facts pertaining to Jewish citizens in Poland where they consisted of more than 10% of the population. This figure was documented by Poland’s 1931 census where 10% of the population were recorded as “people of the Mosaic faith”.
76.4% of Poland’s Jews lived in towns and cities. 20% of them lived in shtetl communities. One-quarter of all Polish Jews lived in four of the biggest cities: Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Lwow where they consisted of 30.6% of the total population. In Wolyn, for example, Jews were 49.1% of the population.
During the interwar period from 1918-1939 Poland experienced many attacks upon Jews, both verbal and physical abuse. It must be noted that these anti-Semitic activities were not sanctioned by the leadership of the official Polish government.
They were mainly the anti-Jewish work of Poland’s large Roman Catholic Church. In the interwar years the Catholic church in Poland published 199 newspapers whose articles and editorials condemned Jews.
It was the head of the Catholic church in Poland, Cardinal Augustus Hlond, who publicly demanded that Jews leave Poland in his infamous cry, “Zydzie do Palestyna”…. Jews, go to Palestine.
While he encouraged Poles to boycott all Jewish shops, to refrain from consulting Jewish doctors and lawyers and to avoid all contacts with Jews, he did not support any physical violence toward Jews.
Between the first and the second world wars, it was the Catholic church and not the official government which advocated anti-Semitic activities and attacks.
The Polish government, from its side, placed restrictions on the numbers of Jews entering the professions and the numbers of Jewish students who could be admitted to Polish universities sitting as “back-benchers”. Menachem Begin, our former beloved Prime Minister, often told his experiences as a “back-bencher” in Warsaw University’s school of law.
My late wife had frequently shared a personal family story. Her family was born in Poland. In 1932, her Orthodox grandfather’s mother died in Dzialoszyce and he hastened to take the train from Warsaw to be at the funeral of his mother.
Dressed in his long black coat and hat, full beard and payot, he was a very visible Jew. A group of young Polish Catholic boys approached him, knocked off his hat, pulled his beard, and beat him while shouting “psiekrew zyd” (Jewish son of a bitch).
He had to return to his home on ulica Panska in Warsaw, unable to attend his mother’s funeral, and he made the decision to leave Poland together with his wife and married children and they arrived in Palestine in 1934 and settled in the Montefiore quarter of Tel-Aviv where he established one of the very first textile factories in the country. It is recorded in the Palestine encyclopedia of 1936.
Regarding Netanyahu’s remarks about Polish violence against Jews during the second world war, it must be clearly stated that the official Polish government did not sanction any of it. Yet there were many thousands of Poles who aided the Nazis in persecution of the Jews, of informing the SS and Gestapo where Jews were in hiding, and even resorting to the murder of more than one hundred Jews in Jedwabne and 42 in the massacre of Kielce in 1945 as Jews returned from the death camps in search of family and homes.
At the same time, it must also be remembered that more than 6,000 Catholic Poles risked their lives in order to save the lives of their Jewish neighbors and friends.
Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Center in Jerusalem, states that more Poles saved Jews than any other nationality and nation did.
In summary, it was not the Polish nation which was complicit in the deaths of thousands of Jews. It was the inhuman work of individual Jew-hating Polish citizens.
Put the blame where it really belongs.