Jack Mendel
Online Editor at Jewish News

Poland: A friend of Israel crushed by its Jewish past

Poland is arguably Israel’s closes European ally, but underneath the surface, there is huge insecurity about its Jewish past placing a crushing weight on its future.

It was astounding. I was standing in Warsaw, 70 years after the Nazis walked the streets, and thousands were standing in front of the ghetto uprising memorial, listening to the President of Israel.

The resounding message was that Israel and Poland have a shared history and a shared future. There is so much in common.

President Rueven Rivlin speaking at the opening of the Polin Museum (Taken by author at event)

In front, the licking flames of a menorah, lay a glistening new museum for Polish-Jewish history, the Polin museum.

Both Jews and Poles suffered under the German occupation of Poland in the war.

Both have historically needed a homeland to be safe.

Both now have homelands of Israel and Poland, secure and strong.

However, upon closer inspection, this insistence that Israel and Poland are the best of friends is part of a wider agenda to shape the perception of its role during the war.

There were an estimated three million poles before the war, and many were slaughtered and evicted by the Nazis.

Those who survived had a choice: Stay, or go.

When the Nazis had been removed, the communists moved in, and many Jews that stayed had to mute their identity.

For decades, Polish Jewry suffered under totalitarianism that suppressed religious freedom, which destroyed both Jewish culture and decimated Polish-Jewish identity.

Having been severed and mutilated, the long history leaves its remnants across Poland, and is slowly being rediscovered.

The question that everyone is burning to ask is, how much responsibility is attributed to Poland, how much to the Nazis, how much to the Russians etc.

Not wishing to imply anything that might detract from the undeniable truth that many Poles were killed by both Nazis and Communists, the decimation of European Jewry was much more systematic and wide-ranging.

It is undeniable, that in pre war Poland 1300 cemeteries existed, which is more than in the USA today, but now, only a hundred exist.

In pre war Poland, around 3 million Polish Jews existed, and now there are around 20 000.

It would be fruitless to make any allegations without evidence though, and this isn’t making any allegations anyway. It is probing the the official line though. That states Poland’s role in the war, and post war situation, was one of a victim to both Nazism and communism, just like the Jews.

The Polish President stood side by side with the Israeli President and echoed these views.

After spending time in Poland, it is apparent to me that there exists an astoundingly murky alternative.

Poland is hellbent on avoiding any form of blame at all, which creates a cloud of suspicion.

When you visit Poland, you realise that in population centres buildings are made from gravestones. Warsaw Zoo was built in part from gravestones. People’s gardens are made of gravestones. Former Jewish towns and cities, are now exclusively non-Jewish but have Jewish gravestones scattered everywhere, like a of a ghost town.

Wherever you go, there is a Jewish history.

Poles are becoming acutely more aware of this Jewish history. They are aware that they may be living in homes formerly owned by Jews. They know that when they walk walk down the street and see Jewish gravestones, that their town used to be inhabited by Jews.

As a result of the perpetual reminders, issues like restitution of Jewish property lost in the war, reclamation of land and houses, and delving into records to investigate what happened to ones family, means uncovering potential blame.

People are petrified that they may somehow be implicated in what happened, and be forced to return their property, that as far as they know; they have owned quite legitimately.

Upon visiting Wasaw’s Bródno Jewish cemetery, which had nearly 300 000 gravestones at one point, and now has just 3000, it was clear something was up.

Many had been removed, and more are continuing to be removed.

Who had removed them? Why? And why is it continuing?

Okopowa cemetery is one of the largest in Europe.
Bródno cemetery is one of the largest in Europe (Taken by author)

With an organisation called From the Depths, I saw with my own eyes, there were 134 crates of Jewish gravestones which had been broken up into pieces and were going to be either destroyed as ‘rubble’ according to the Polish authorities, or used as building material, or to meet an unknown ending.

Truth be told, I saw stones being turned into all sorts of things. From building bricks and paving stones, to grinding stones for corn.

There is a simple lack of appreciation for what these stones are.

Infact, not just a lack of appreciation, but a fundamental rejection of what they are. Acknowledgement would be an acceptance of responsibility for what they represent.

Jewish history in Poland that was used to rebuild.

Taken by author

On closer inspection, they clearly are Jewish gravestones.

There is Hebrew and Yiddish engraved in every single one.

Go and see it for yourself.

Over 130 crates of Jewish gravestones, referred to as ‘rubble’ by the Polish Government.

But of course, it is just rubble?

After visiting this cemetery, we visited Warsaw Zoo.

At the Zoo, an agreement was signed between From The Depths and the director of the Zoo, to return all Jewish gravestones.

Agreement being signed (Taken by author)
Agreement being signed (Taken by author)

They had been used, after the war, for building material.

Clearly, Poland’s Government is still a little insecure, as it is continuing to remove these stones, and deny they are stones of deceased relatives altogether.

On the one hand, Poland is celebrating its relationship with the Jewish state and looking to the future. On the other hand, it simply refuses to acknowledge the state of its Jewish history, in a desperate attempt to maintain the narrative.

It wasn’t us that did it, even though it’s still being done in front of everyone’s eyes.

About the Author
Jack Mendel is Online Editor at Jewish News UK
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