Tom Sawicki

Is History Repeating Itself?

Mass anti-Israel rallies on campuses and in big cities, anti-Israel petitions and Hamas-sympathetic letters signed by thousands of academics and public figures, calls to boycott Jewish businesses, major media outlets refusing to call Hamas terrorists, antisemitism in the Tik-Tok generation running rampant. Is history repeating itself? In pre-World War Two Poland, my grandparents saw mass anti-Jewish demonstrations, they heard calls to boycott Jewish businesses, they saw their college-age children at the Lwów University – including my mother – told to sit in the “Jewish benches” (my mother and other Jews chose to stand in the back of the lecture halls rather than sit in the “bench ghetto”). My grandparents also read virulent anti-Jewish columns in a number of local newspapers. So again, is history repeating itself?

I am a grandfather now, at an age when my grandparents were herded into the Lwów Ghetto and eventually perished. What did they think when witnessing what was happening around them before the war began? Did they think that history was repeating itself? Did they think that it too shall pass and that as long as the family stays together they would be all alright? Did they think that cooler heads would prevail? I never got a chance to ask.

With these thoughts in mind, I decided to take a closer look at what my grandparents saw then and what I am witnessing today. Lwów (pronounced L’vouv; today Lviv, in Ukraine) was in Poland before the Soviets moved the borders westward after World War Two ended. Lwów was Poland’s fourth largest city and its major cultural center. By the 1930s, about 40 percent of the city’s population were Polish Jews (some 100,000-strong), another 40 percent were non-Jewish Poles, and the rest of the population was mostly ethnic Ukrainian. The language of the city was Polish. And this was the language in which many Polish intellectuals, academics and journalists wrote anti-Jewish propaganda and made antisemitic speeches, many of which were broadcast on Polish Radio.

But compared with what we are seeing happening in the United States and in the West, I see one huge difference. Those spreading antisemitism in pre-war Poland (I am not even mentioning Germany) were in great measure supported by antisemitic political parties and were close to the country’s political power. Many politicians were able to make their names known to the general public by their anti-Jewish positions. The National Democracy Movement, the largest political movement in Poland in the 1930s, argued that its main duty (and this is a direct quote) “is to remove the Jews from all spheres of social, economic, and cultural life in Poland.” The government picked up from there and drafted some dozen “theses” on the “Jewish question” – modeling itself on the ideas in Germany’s Nuremberg Laws – defined Jews as a “foreign element” who should be ultimately expelled from Poland.

Do we see today the governments and the political powers in the United States and in the West in any way echoing such ideas? Not only the President of the United States has come here in our hour of need to show his support, so have the leaders of France, Great Britain, Italy come to visit Israel in the last two weeks. Even the German chancellor came over to show support. What major political party in the U.S. and in the West has come out in support of the anti-Israel demonstration? None. Besides some fringe groups and the misguided academics at major universities, no serious politician or academic – and I stress serious – has supported anti-Israel rallies. In fact, a handful of Members of Congress who expressed little sympathy for Israel are now facing primary challenges. (As to other countries, do you remember the antisemitic British Labor Party head Jeremy Corbin? He is gone.)

Life for Jews in Poland by the late 1930s became very difficult. And it became clear that life for Jews in Germany became untenable. Much of the world was aware of this. In the summer of 1938, 32 countries gathered in the French city of Evian to discuss what could they do about the Jews. The end result was that no country wanted to take in Jewish refugees. Even the gates of the British-controlled Palestine were shut tight. It is perhaps telling that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt sent a friend to the Evian Conference, rather than anyone with official standing.

Today, the State of Israel will accept any and all Jews. The Israel Defense Forces will protect them (no, I am not ignoring the horrors of October 7). There are some, purporting to be sympathetic to Israel’s will to eradicate Hamas, who say that if you remove one evil, another one will come in its place and therefore Israel should agree to a ceasefire and try to negotiate for the release of its captives. Well, the Nazis were defeated seventy-eight year ago. Three generations went by before another evil force was able to murder Jewish children.  I will take another three generations of relative safety. So to go back to the original question, is history repeating itself? I think that the answer is definitely no. Life would be too simple if we could so easily predict the future.

About the Author
Tom Sawicki retired from AIPAC's Israel Office at the end of 2020 where he was its director of Programming.