Selina Nevills
Polish-American Zionist

Jews and Poles: A New Perspective

Polish and Israeli flags outside of Auschwitz Concentration Camp (Courtesy: AJC)

I’ve sat and tried thinking of why our people are reputed as the enemies of each other. It is true that history proves injustices and harm, but we must look at it thoroughly. I’ve read stories of how Poles betrayed Jews to the Nazis and I’ve read about Jewish communists partitioning Polish land to the USSR. Unfortunately for Poland, during the war when they were already weak and fighting Germany, the Soviets invaded in an attempt to rid other occupying forces of the land they would later capture. By the end of the war 1/5 of Polish citizens were murdered, including 3 million of the country’s Jews. That’s exactly half of the total six million slaughtered by the Nazis from Poland alone. I also know the painful details of the treatment of Jews by the Nazis and their allies, even by Poland, the country who should have done more to protect them.

But just as history proves bad, it proves good as well.

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII were both Polish saints who protected Jews from the Nazis and from antisemitic propaganda. John XXIII was so fed up with Jew-hatred that he removed the antisemitic rhetoric from Catholic prayers and prayed to God that he was sorry it was ever written and spoken. He also established a teaching in the church that the Jewish people were not responsible for the death of Jesus and should not be burdened with guilt because of it. He preached love for Jews and showed it with his actions, greeting Jewish delegations with the Biblical verse “I am Joseph your brother,” and comparing Jews to Abel and Christians to Cain, recognizing: “For centuries, our brother Abel was slain in blood which we drew.” John Paul II lived through Hitlers Europe and used his power to get a young Jewish girl off the street. He prayed in Auschwitz and showed his respect for millions of innocent Jews, and in Rome’s Synagogue with the city’s Jewish community where he spoke highly of them: “You are our beloved elder brothers of the Ancient Covenant never broken and never to be broken by God.” In 2000 he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and stuck a prayer in the Kotel that crowned the lifelong commitment to Jewish-Christian friendship, reading: “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who have caused Your children to suffer and in asking Your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were Polish farmers from Markowa, a village in south-eastern Poland, now with a population of only 4,000 people. Together the Ulma’s had six children and another on the way, but they made space to hide two more Jewish families on their farm during the Holocaust. Eventually pregnant Wiktoria, Jozef, and all their children were executed when German police surrounded the farm and found that eight Jews had been living there. Within minutes 16 people and an unborn baby were murdered. The Ulma’s were used as an example for neighbors, not to hide or aid Jews, but they were not afraid and ultimately 21 Jews from Markowa were saved by these Polish villagers.

Not only do Poles and Jews share a bloody history, they share a rich and beautiful culture too.

Food is just one of the ways that Jews have influenced Polish culture. Everyone’s favorite, bagels, actually originated in Poland by Jews. While in Poland you can grab a paczki, a fried and filled donut exactly like sufganiyot, and eat placki, literally latkes, with cream cheese or sour cream and even apple sauce. We also both have a similar pickled fish dish that we love to hate; in Poland they’re called “rollmops,” pickled herring filets similar to gefilte fish, that you stuff with green olives opposed to carrot.

Even the traditional Jewish Hora dance has a twin in Poland called Goscie Jada, the Polish circle dance.

At one time Poland was full of Jews, more than any other country in Europe. Being that we lived together for a thousand years, we have rubbed off on each other. Sad to see that most Jews have left Poland, but I don’t blame them. Though through their suffering did come one of the world’s greatest democracies– Israel.

Everywhere Jews have landed they’ve taken a piece of us with them and left a piece of themselves with us. We should all be very proud of that. My belief is that if given the chance Jews and Poles could create a meaningful friendship. I don’t understand why we can’t accept our shared history and create a shared future, even more I can’t piece together why two people with an array of commonalities should be enemies of each other. As an example, throughout history neither the Nazis or the Soviets saw the difference between us when they picked us for labor or slaughter, or when they oppressed us, beat and raped us. So I pray for the day we no longer see the difference between ourselves either. I know that in my heart a single Jewish person has more in common with me than a lot of other people, and that’s what will never turn me against them. The saying goes, “You must not hate your brother in your heart.”

About the Author
Anglo-Polish American Zionist from Lansing, MI blogging about Jews and the Middle East.
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