Laurence Weinbaum
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When history clashes with politics in Poland

Don't rush to credit righteous Poles; the local resistance was indifferent (at best!) to the elimination of Jews
Human remains that had been removed from an old Jewish cemetery were dumped in huge mounds in Siemiatycze, Poland, from December. 5, 2017. (Aleksander Schwarz/The Union of Jewish Communities in Poland via AP)
Human remains that had been removed from an old Jewish cemetery were dumped in huge mounds in Siemiatycze, Poland, from December. 5, 2017. (Aleksander Schwarz/The Union of Jewish Communities in Poland via AP)

My good friend Dr. Sławomir “Sławek” Debski is an honorable and intelligent man who has made significant contributions to the cause of Polish diplomacy and to deepening ties between Poland and Israel. At the end of November, the Polish Institute for International Affairs (PISM), over which he so ably presides, hosted a delegation of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) for our third bilateral conference. We were especially honored to have had Deputy Prime Minister/Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński with us to deliver the keynote speech at the opening session. His strong expression of support for Israel and condemnation of anti-Semitism were well received. The event in Warsaw was held just a month after the Polish Air Force took part in an international exercise in the skies over the Negev, itself telling evidence of the state of relations between our two countries. We are looking forward to the pleasure of welcoming our Polish colleagues and friends next year in Jerusalem.

That Sławek felt compelled to wade into the debate on Polish–Israeli/Jewish relations does not surprise me. He is doing his job as he understands it. The thrust of his article however, concerns not the historical facts themselves (to which we will shall return in a moment), but rather the place of memory and history in the burgeoning ties between Warsaw and Jerusalem. Poland is one of Israel’s staunchest friends in Europe. That relationship is manifested in myriad fields, and can fairly be called “unique.” It exists in the shadow of a 1000-year story of cohabitation, when Jews and Poles lived on the same soil, “together but apart.” Polish-Jewish history is punctuated by moments of uplifting triumph, and inspiring acts of heroism and brotherhood, but also of agonizing tragedy and acts of appalling violence and depravity. For many centuries, Poland, the “Polin” of lore, was the mighty citadel of the Jewish Diaspora and the epicenter Jewish creativity and spirituality. Though Poland was home to many of the Jewish people’s most outstanding luminaries, and the birthplace of a disproportionate share of the heroes of the Zionist pantheon, there is no denying that in Jewish minds, the totality of that history is all too often reduced to its most calamitous chapter — World War II and the Shoah — as well as to the pathology of local anti-Semitism.

Sławek suggests that those who speak and write of Polish society’s wartime acts of commission or omission are diminishing the “myth” (his word) of Polish rescuers. “In doing so,” he opines, “critics are not playing fair. They go back for example to a stale argument and declare that the Holocaust was seen by a Polish society as a ‘great benefit’. There is not enough proof to support this thesis. The alleged ‘joy’ at the deaths of Jews is not really recorded by letters from that era, nor by literature, nor by the illegal underground press.”

Permit me to politely, yet forcefully, disagree, and to ask Sławek to kindly identify the “critics” to whom he is referring. It is a fact that during the German occupation, Poland’s spirited underground press was heavily infected by anti-Semitism and displayed little sympathy for Jews. Numerous Polish testimonies paint a picture of widespread indifference to the elimination of local Jews, and often great satisfaction.

On January 29, 1943 Wincenty Sobolewski, a physician from Sandomierz, wrote in his diary: “The Germans finish off the last remaining Jews in Poland. I have no pity for them, because they deserve it, because they were so ungrateful to us, Poles. Most of us are shocked, however, how a whole nation is murdered in such a way. So, finally justice has been done. Jesus gave the Jews two thousand years to mend their ways but seeing their obstinate refusal, he decided to punish them.”

I could furnish many other eyewitness accounts that point to the same thing. Sławek references Jan Karski — today, posthumously, an exalted figure in Poland. However, he fails to acknowledge, as I pointed out in the article to which he is responding, that the intrepid courier reported to the Polish Government-in-Exile that “anti-Semitism is something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a… large part of Polish society is finding agreement.” Is Karski’s contemporaneous description to be dismissed as “stale” and lacking credibility? Now we may choose to highlight or to downplay his testimony, and that of many other eyewitnesses, but we certainly cannot deny its existence or wish it away.

One can make the case that history belongs to the past and should not be allowed to disturb a flourishing, mutually beneficial relationship. But as William Faulkner wrote of his native Mississippi — and he might just as well have been writing about Poles and Jews — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The memory of Poland’s Righteous among the Nations can and should be a source of pride for Polish society. Those individuals, drawn from many walks of life, wrote an inspiring page in the gloomiest chapter of our common history. They were, as Nechama Tec called them, “lights that pierced the darkness,” and can serve as a rallying point uniting Poles and Israelis who together commemorate their nobility of spirit. But politics and history are a combustible brew, and if we reduce the story of the Righteous to a “kumbaya” branding exercise, we should not be surprised when bona fide scholars protest — and protest loudly — especially when some priests, PR men, politicians and diplomats play fast and loose with the facts. In other words, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. That is why what Sławek has written, particularly as it relates to the Jewish experience in wartime Poland, is so disquieting, yet also so symptomatic of the prevailing ambiance in Warsaw. It is readily evident that in certain circles, the memory of the Righteous is being used as a battering ram to suppress research on the Holocaust and as it contradicts the notion that the actions of the Righteous were somehow representative of the attitude of Polish society at large.

Over the past 25 years, a voluminous body of literature has emerged on the destruction of the Jews of Poland, most of it in Polish, the work of outstanding scholars affiliated with the Polish Center for Holocaust Research. The Center, located in a threadbare room in the Staszic Palace (home of the Polish Academy of Sciences, under whose auspices it operates), is but a 300-meter — 4-minute — walk from the institute on Warceka Street, headed by Sławek. I would be very glad to introduce him to some of my distinguished colleagues and friends there, such as Prof. Jacek Leociak, Prof Barbara Engelking, Prof. Jan Grabowski, and my own co-author, Prof. Dariusz Libionka. However, before that meeting, it might behoove Sławek to acquaint himself with some of their books, or at least a few of the articles published in their scholarly journal Zagłada. To be sure, these meticulously documented texts are not for the faint of heart, revealing as they do, in great detail, a chilling picture of widespread indifference to Jewish suffering and death, and on occasion, the enthusiastic participation of locals in the destruction, whether as enablers or executioners. Those scholars have also made clear that most Poles sheltering Jews were more afraid of blackmail and denunciation by their own neighbors than the random inspection of Germans.

Perhaps the most puzzling (and to me personally hurtful) assertion is Sławek’s suggestion that I am party to some kind of jealously guarded “monopoly” that seeks to stifle debate on Polish–Jewish relations, and which “claim[s] the exclusive right to conduct dialogue.” I would like to assure him that there is no such sinister cabal, at least not to my knowledge. If anyone seems to be claiming exclusivity in dealing with these issues, it is those who have pushed for the adoption of legislation that would criminalize the publication of historical findings not to the liking of certain members of Polish officialdom and others who worry that it might besmirch Poland’s good name.

It is especially striking that in this newly concocted narrative there is no place for the late, great Władysław Bartoszewski, the “grand old man of Polish diplomacy,” one of the first Poles to be recognized by Yad Vashem for saving Jews. Bartoszewski, whose commitment to democracy and decency in Poland was second to none, was relentlessly excoriated by Radio Maryja and others who share its views. Once, when discussing some nonsense that had crept into the political discourse, he declared that he had gone to jail to protect the right of others to express such stupidity. Perhaps it is for that reason that a move to name a traffic circle in his honor in Opole was rejected as being “too controversial.” Meantime, in Łódź, once home to some 200,000 Jews (1/3 of the total population), it was just reported that plans are afoot to name a street for Kazimierz Kowalski. In 1938, Kowalski’s friend Bogdan Gajewicz called the nationalist activist “the symbol of Polish anti-Semitism — Enemy No 1 of the Jews.”

Sławek claims that the notorious Father Rydzyk has put down his arms. Has he? Or has the Radio Maryja czar simply found a more devious way of advancing his agenda and of gaining respectability? Jews deeply believe in the idea of Tshuva [repentance]. But absolution is contingent upon the confession of one’s of sins to God and to those who have been wronged.

While we cannot know whether Father Rydzyk has expressed contrition to our common Maker, we mortals are still awaiting a public mea culpa for his having poisoned the minds of an entire generation with his vile anti-Jewish invective. How many acts of thuggish behavior were inspired by Father Rydzyk and his minions? How many Jewish cemeteries were desecrated? How many hateful words were uttered and penned? How many Poles were seduced by the broadcasts of Holocaust deniers such as Prof. Ryszard Bender and Dr. Dariusz Ratajczyk, who were invited to spread their bile on the airwaves of Radio Maryja? We shall never know.

Another question entirely is whether the precious memory of Righteous Poles should be entrusted to the likes of someone who repeatedly preached a shrill message of hate. I do not think so, and I cannot imagine that Prof. Bartoszewski would have either, but evidently others disagree.

Sławek has suggested that I am embroiled in a “private dispute” with Jonny Daniels. For the record, I have never met Mr. Daniels, and have no desire to do so. I know enough about him from the opprobrious interviews he gives to the Polish media, which he proudly posts on Facebook. Rather than combat anti-Semitism, he unabashedly propagates some of its worst tropes. In one recent interview, Mr. Daniels dismissed those who take issue with the feel-good narrative he peddles as being “leftists” who make money from defaming Poland. In another, he took pains to stress that in Poland anti-Semitism and xenophobia are entirely marginal phenomena. Recently, for the sake of appearances, he has acknowledged the latest egregious acts of anti-Semitism, presumably while winking at those upon whose support he is dependent.

It takes a whopping measure of hubris for Mr. Daniels, who first set foot in Poland just a few years ago, has no academic credentials whatsoever, and by his own admission speaks no Polish at all, to suddenly present himself as an expert on Polish affairs. His most outstanding characteristics, aside of course from his obsequious fawning, seem to be an oversized ego and a truly dazzling ability to promote himself. Have his efforts benefited the struggle against anti-Semitism or the cause of Polish–Jewish relations? The answer to that question very much depends on the beholder. Lamentably, influential people in Poland and Israel claim that it has, presumably each for their own reasons.

Lest there be no doubt, my own passion for Poland is undiminished. I feel inexorably tied to the land of my forebears and have spent a considerable chunk of my adult life working to overcome the gap that divides Pole and Jews and to help jettison our respective stereotypes. As part of that process, over the years, I have organized dozens of lectures by Righteous Poles for Israeli high school students visiting Poland and for other Jewish and non-Jewish visitors of all ages. I have never papered over the bitter aspects of our common history or distorted them, even if that has ruffled both Jewish and Polish feathers. I can hope that the Poles and Jews of goodwill who know me well, Sławek among them, do not question my sincerity or respect me any less for it.

I shudder to think of what Prof. Karski — for whom my younger son Adam Jan is named — would say about all this. I doubt that he would have been pleased to see his legacy — and that of others like him — so shamelessly exploited to advance an agenda he would have found utterly contemptible.

About the Author
Dr. Laurence Weinbaum is the founding chief editor of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. He is the co-author, together with Prof. Dariusz Libionka, of a book on the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW) in the Warsaw Ghetto Bohaterowie, Hochsztaplerzy, Opisywacze – Wokol Żydowskiego Związku Wojskowego In May 2008, President Lech Kaczyński decorated Dr. Weinbaum with the Złoty Krzyż Zasługi [Gold Cross of Merit] for his ongoing contributions in fostering Polish–Jewish dialogue.
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