Michael Chighel
Dean of the Ashkenazium

Brave New Poland

There is something satisfying about the Polish Parliament’s brave new law criminalizing the usage of phrases like “Polish death camp,” a certain satisfying coherence to Polish history.

For the last 73 years, since the Nazi concentration camp in the Duchy of Oświęcim was liberated by the Russian army in 27 January 1945, there was reason to suppose that the Polish government implicitly accepted something like the tormented responsibility for Auschwitz felt by the non-Jewish Polish survivor Tadeusz Borowski, who documented his tragic, passive complicity in his 1959 account, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. To expect such a troubled conscience from the Polish population was perhaps too much. But at least the parliament of the people could be expected to embody such a conscience. At the very least, it could be expected to do so in a strictly formal manner, for the sake of appearances.

Instead, on the 1st of February, the Parliament of Poland openly opted for “protecting the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation.” This being the bravest step thus far in the historical revisionism of the post-Communist program of polityka historyczna, “historical policy,” of which a notable effort was the Against “Polish Camps” Campaign launched in 2004.

So long as the program of historical revisionism was not official and a matter of criminal legislation, it was possible for a Jew to have some appreciation for the official silence regarding Auschwitz, as if the parliament representing the Polish people had had the dignity to recognize the responsibility of its people’s crimes. Such a dignified silence, after all, served as a fittingly austere background for the celebration of great acts of heroism on the part of a good number of Poles who endangered their lives in order to save Jewish lives. (To date, more than six thousand Christian Poles have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem.)

This 73-year silent dignity was not coherent with the long and well-known narrative of Polish Anti-Semitism. It broke free from the narrative. It rose above the narrative and put the narrative in question. With the new legislative gesture on the part of the Polish parliament, the coherence of the narrative is restored. Poland washes its hands.

Now one might well ask: Is the desire for a clean conscience such a bad thing? Should the young Poles of today and of tomorrow really be expected to inherit the sins of their fathers and the burden of a national history that enjoys a less than exemplary reputation?

A few years ago, when I lived in Vienna, I was once approached by a very friendly young tourist just outside the Hofburg in the city’s center. With a charming ebullience, she explained to me that she was Polish and wanted to know whether I am Jewish (as I am indeed, by virtue of dress and facial coiffure, a conspicuously visible Jew) and that she was so excited to finally meet a Jew for the first time in her young life and would I mind terribly if she asked someone to take a picture of us. Naturally, I obliged the photo opp, and I answered her excited questions as best I could. It was something of a Twilight Zone moment for me. And, while I certainly did not and do not pass judgment on that young woman, I did and do wonder what it was about her education that fueled her great excitement. Was I a photo-worthy celebrity in her mind because she had heard so many wonderful things about the three million members of my extended family who had been murdered in her country? Or was there an altogether blithe ignorance and therefore curiosity about my peculiar species because, on the contrary, there was not much talk, at least not much thoughtful talk, about how we went extinct in her land?

In my mind, this memory sits juxtaposed with another, older memory from my undergraduate year of study at the University of Freiburg, Germany. I was sitting on a large balcony with a group of students drinking Swabian beer and shooting the breeze. Without any prelude, and for reasons it took my a while to grasp, a heated conversation sprung up in the corner of the balcony in which one of the students gave vent to his agony of being raised by a generation of Germans who had lived through and participated in the war. It was many years later I realized that this young man was a product of the general Denazification program of the Potsdam Agreement that accompanied the Marshall Plan initiative to restore Germany after 1945. He was made to feel guilty for crimes committed before he was born. He was angry at the guilt-mongers. And no less angry at his criminal generation of his progenitors, the very guilty ones who had furnished the guilt-mongers with their business. He was angry. And this loud fireworks of anger ignited on the lazy afternoon balcony of a student residence in southern Germany was his awkward, tortured, implicit way of asking me, a young Jew from Canada, to offer his heartbroken, guiltless atonement some kind of expiation. Sadly, I was unable to say anything at the time. Perhaps because my German was so poor. Perhaps because I was too immature to grasp his entreaty, his calling out to me. I do pray that he has found his atonement by now. I pray for him and others liek him because the sincerity of his moral torment has stayed with me all these years as an admirable example of a conscience of a non-Jew, a perfectly innocent non-Jew, who made an extraordinary effort to come to terms with the moral culpability of a Volk in whose unclean substance he was immersed and implicated by sheer accident of birth.

What, then, is so satisfying about the Polish Parliament’s newfound clean conscience vis-à-vis the Polish death camps? What positive value do I find in the “coherence” in the narrative that happily reconnects a brave new Poland with the brave old Poland?

A terribly subtle satisfaction, to be sure. So long as the Polish government endured the blemish of its past with a more or less dignified silence, it was possible for me to question the value of “remembering Auschwitz.” It was possible for me to wonder whether the “Holocaust Industry” (as Norman Finkelstein calls it) has really not gone too far in flogging a horse that died many years ago and in insisting that the citizens of the Duchy of Oświęcim suffer the endless influx of Jewish pilgrims streaming into their streets wrapped in Israeli flags and chanting Am Israel Ḥai. It was possible for me to feel a certain remorse, a guilt for making feel guilty.

It is satisfying, consequently, to be able to finally exhale, and take a deep breath, and pick up the burden of the knowledge that the fantastical accounts of Polish antysemityzm were not exaggerated, as the coherence of the narrative clearly demonstrates. It is the same old hatred, less violent, because, after all, there are no more Jews in Poland to hate; but also more gratuitous because, after all, there are no more Jews in Poland to hate. And so the satisfaction is the admittedly odd one of realizing that recess is over and it’s time to go back in to history class.

About the Author
Michael Chighel earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto for his dissertation on the Book of Job. In Canada he taught in the departments of philosophy and of Jewish studies at the universities of York, Queen’s and Waterloo. There he also produced and hosted "Passages" and "Messages" for eleven seasons on Canadian television (CTS). From 2008-2015 he held the Rohr Chair of Jewish Studies at the Lauder Business School in Vienna. From 2015-2020 he produced video series for, including "Your Backstory" and "Parsha Perks." Among various publications, his most significant to date is "Kabale. Das Geheimnis des Hebräischen Humanismus im Lichte von Heideggers Denken" (Klostermann, 2020). Presently he is the dean of the Ashkenazium in Budapest.
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