Can Poles and Jews Find Common Ground?

The Polish legislation criminalizing the characterization of the people and state of Poland as being complicit in the mass murder of the Jews during WWII, has renewed interest and discussion about Polish – Jewish relations before, during and after the Shoah.

I have been teaching about the Shoah and guiding Jewish groups in Poland for nearly 20 years.

Many Jews and Poles object to the “Holocaust Tourism Industry” (in which I take an active role) which brings Jewish groups to Poland. Jewish objections are often expressed via statements like “Poland is one big Jewish cemetery” “the Poles were just as bad as – or worse than – the Germans” and “I refuse to give one penny to those Polish anti-Semites”. Many Poles object to the fact that many Jewish tours focus on the murder of the Jews rather than on the 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland, that many Jewish groups remain in a “Holocaust bubble” and never see Poland as a real country and Poles as real people, that Poland and Poles are being blamed for the crimes of the German and that Jews fail to acknowledge Polish suffering during WWII.

Poland has a long and rich tradition of Jew hatred, much of it rooted in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Jews have lived in Poland for about 1,000 years and anti-Semitic discrimination, pogroms and massacres (along with periods of relative freedom, toleration, security and amazing creativity) have been a constant in the history of the Jews of Poland.

Polish anti-Semitism can generally be characterized as traditional anti-Semitism, common to just about every country and society in Europe. Rooted in the deep animus of the church towards Jews and Judaism, it was characterized by efforts to keep the Jews marginalized, with a ghetto here, an expulsion there, a massacre here, a pogrom there – but not by mass murder. The mass murder of the Jews of Poland and Europe (the Shoah, the Holocaust) was a German project, organized and perpetrated by the organs of the Germans State and Military. The mass murder of the Jews of Poland and Europe was not a Polish project and the Poles are quite right to object to places like Treblinka or Auschwitz being called “Polish Concentration/Death Camps”. These were German slave labor camps and mass murder centers set up on Polish soil.

Many Jews take it as a given that the German decision to build the “Death Camps” (Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Auschwitz Birkenau) on Polish soil was made because the Germans knew that they could count on the people of anti-Semitic Poland not to object to the mass murder of the Jews. I have not come across documentary evidence of such German reasoning and the German policy of forcibly removing most Poles from the villages near the death camps would seem to indicate that the Germans did not believe that they could count on the Poles to stand by or assist in the mass murder of the Jews.

I have had the privilege of working with many Holocaust survivors and helping them to tell their stories. Many of the survivors that I have encountered – while acknowledging deep seated Polish anti-Semitism – object strenuously to characterizing the Polish people as Nazis or Nazi collaborators.” After all – I was saved by Poles” I have heard over and over again. (Of course many other survivors have nothing good to say about the behavior of their Polish neighbors during the war).

It should go without saying that not every anti-Semite is a Nazi and not every Pole is an anti-Semite.

Yad Vashem has recognized more Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” who saved Jews during the war than from any other country. We know about incredible Polish heroes like Irena Sendler in Warsaw, Tadeusz Pankiewicz in Krakow, Jozef & Wictoria Ulma in Markova, Jan & Antonina Zabinska at the Warsaw Zoo, the Zegota organization and thousands of other Poles – including Christian priests and nuns- who risked their own lives and the lives of their families to save Jews. They are a source of great inspiration and have earned the gratitude of the Jewish people and of humanity as a whole.

Holocaust scholar Professor Gunnar S. Paulsson, in his meticulously researched booked “Secret City – The Hidden Jews of Warsaw” makes a convincing case that as many as 70 – 90,000 non Jewish Poles in Warsaw were involved in one way or another in hiding Jews and trying to save them from the Germans. That is a far larger number than previously thought and far exceeds what most Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto believed about their Polish neighbors.

And yet – Professor Jan Grabowski estimates that of the 3,000,000 Polish Jews murdered in the Shoah, as many as 200,000 Polish Jews were murdered by fellow Poles – not by the Germans. It is now clear that the Jews of Jedwabne were murdered – burnt alive – by their Polish neighbors and not by the Germans as previously claimed. Polish Jewish writer Jan Gross was instrumental in bringing this to light in his book “Neighbors”. (Some in the current more nationalist Polish government have backed away from earlier Polish government acknowledgement of the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors and are actively attempting to discredit Gross). Gross’s later book “Fear – Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz” is a damming indictment of Polish Jew hatred that persisted even after most of the Jews of Poland had been murdered. And of course, the post war pogroms in Kielce and elsewhere in Poland in which Jewish survivors of the Shoah were brutally murdered by their Polish neighbors (with the poor and anti-Semitic justification that the Jews were responsible for Communism) is a stain on Polish society as a whole.

So where does the truth lie? How are we Jews to see Poles and Poland in relation to the Shoa? What are we to make of the new amendment to the law in Poland?

Consider the following dialogue from the book Holocaust Kingdom by Alexander Donat (Michael Berg). He relates a discussion that he had with another Jewish prisoner at the Radom Labor Camp to where he had been sent from Majdanek in June 1943 as to why Jews have not had more help from non- Jewish Poles. This is a discussion taking place amongst Jews while they are caught up in the Shoa, and can perhaps help us to frame our understanding.

“For years the Poles have been dreaming of getting rid of the Jews and now…Hitler does it for them…At bottom they’re delighted however horrified by the inhuman cruelty…In Poland there has not been a single guerilla attack on a concentration camp for Jews, not a single attempt to stop a train carrying Jews to the gas chambers….To them, Jews have never been a part of the Polish nation – patriotic solidarity doesn’t apply to them and they don’t fall under the commandment to love they neighbor…”

“A Pole who shelters or helps a Jew is subject to the death penalty. They themselves are terrorized and there aren’t many heroes. If the shoes had been on the other foot would we have acted differently? Would we have risked our lives to save theirs? “

“I admit the Poles are terrorized, but…they…were threatened with death not only for sheltering Jews but for many other things: smuggling, slaughtering their cattle…trading in foreign currencies, reading underground literature, listening to foreign broadcasts…and they kept right on doing them. Why was it that only helping Jews scared them?”

“I don’t blame the individual Pole for this, but their leaders…who have failed to create the proper climate. A Pole didn’t hesitate to slaughter a pig because that was praised as a patriotic virtue, but saving a Jews was a sin and a disgrace. Even while the (Warsaw) Ghetto was going up in smoke Poles watched but made no attempt to offer armed help. By its passivity, the underground leadership condoned the Nazi’s actions…”

We have no right to ask others to be heroes on our behalf. We dare not ask ourselves if we would risk our own lives and the lives of our children and family to save others. But we do have the right to demand that people not participate in our murder.

While most Europeans under Nazi German occupation just did nothing regarding the Jews, too many Europeans (not just Poles) supported the mass murder of the Jews by the Germans. There are too many stories of Jews on the trains to the Nazi death centers stretching their hands out begging for food and water only be showered with urine and feces. It was war time and easy to understand that people were starving – not just Jews – and didn’t have anything to give. But urine and feces? It is easy to understand that most people would be too frightened to hide Jews – but that doesn’t excuse the thousands of European Christians who actively denounced, betrayed and murdered Jews. Europe has yet to give a full accounting of their atrocious, inhuman behaviour towards Jews over the centuries and during the war.

There has long been an undertone of competition between Jews and Poles as to whose suffering should be remembered more strongly. The current Polish legislation is certainly related to this competition. Jews have tended to downplay Polish suffering as insignificant compared to Jewish suffering and dismissed Polish statements that “6 million Poles were killed during WWII” as absurd since 3 million of those were Jews who were not generally regarded as fellow Poles. Poles for their part remind Jews that they too were victimized by the Germans who saw them primarily as labor fodder and that many – if not most – of those incarcerated and murdered at sites like Auschwitz I and at Majdanek were Poles and not Jews.

While this is in my view quite legitimate, some Poles go too far and equate their very real suffering with the mass murder of the Jews. Take the example of a poster that I saw a few years ago at the parking lot at the site of Birkenau (Auschwitz II) which (legitimately) reminds visitors that the Polish civilians were forcibly removed from the area by the Germans and cannot be held accountable for what the Germans did at Auschwitz – but then goes on to illegitimately and absurdly claim that they are “the real victims of the Third Reich”. (See sign below – many of us guides (Israeli and Polish) complained and it was removed)

Jews and Poles do not need to be enemies and do not need to be in competition. In the international arena, Poland has become one of Israel’s best friends in Europe. There is room for much common ground between Jews and Poles in understanding our shared history, and in recent decades much progress has been made in this regard. Unfortunately, this current legislation will likely set back such efforts.

Jews and Poles alike should be able to agree that the Holocaust, the mass murder sites and the concentration camps were German Nazi and not Polish. Jews and Poles alike should be able to acknowledge that while there was no official Polish collaboration with the mass murder of Jews (unlike other countries in Europe including Hungary and Vichy France) there were many individual Poles, Polish officials and Polish groups who did actively participate in the mass murder of the Jews. Jews and Poles should be able to agree that even if most Poles were at best indifferent to the plight of the Jews, there were Polish heroes whose role in saving Jews should be recognized and celebrated. Jews and Poles should be able to agree that Poland needs to confront its anti-Semitic legacy and uproot it from contemporary Polish society. Jews and Poles should be able to acknowledge the very real Polish suffering during WWII without giving credence to a false (and anti-Semitic) equivalence with the mass murder of the Jews. As it was put so well by Polish witness to the Holocaust, Jan Karski (who was sent by the Polish government in-exile to London and Washington in an unsuccessful effort to get the allies to do something to stop the murder of the Jews of Poland) “For us Poles, this was war and occupation. For them – the Jews – the end of the world”.

About the Author
Daniel Ehrlich is the Educational Director at Keshet: Educational Journeys In the USA he was the founding director of the Tehilla Aliyah Movement a Director of Yeshiva University’s Communal Services Division and Executive Director of the Bnei Akiva Religious Zionist Youth Movement After making Aliyah in 1996 with his wife Batya and their three children, he worked for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as Coordinator of Diaspora Affairs, was the Program Director for the Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, served as Editor of the Rabbi Amiel Publications Project of the Religious Zionists of America and was a regional coordinator for Christian Friends of Israeli Communities. He also served as the high holiday Cantor of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Curacao (Netherlands Antilles) for nearly 20 years. Mr. Ehrlich earned Masters Degrees from Yeshiva University in Community Social Work and in Jewish History and is a graduate of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism Tour Guides Course. His special areas of expertise include the development of early Christianity, Christian-Jewish relations, Holocaust Education and Contemporary Jewish and Israeli Identity.He has served as “Israel Educator” for a wide variety of Jewish, Interfaith and Christian groups. Mr. Ehrlich is the Director of Keshet’s Jewish Roots Journeys to Europe. He has been a scholar in residence and guest lecturer at churches and synagogues in the United Sates, Canada and Israel.
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