Poland-Israel: Old wrongs and unpleasant misunderstandings

I have no doubt that the end of last month will go down in the history of bilateral Polish-Israeli relations as the period that opened a new phase of mutual relations. This stage is the crisis. However, we should remember that the crisis is an opportunity for change. For explanations and for introduction of new, better quality. The only question is: do we want it?

Summary of facts

On January 26, 2018, the Polish Sejm voted to amend the bill on the Institute of National Remembrance. Six days later, on February 1, the draft amendment was approved by the Polish Senate (in Poland the Parliament is bicameral – it includes the Sejm and the Senate), and five days after the Senate has approved the amendment. The document was signed by the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, who in a follow-up procedure, referred it to the Constitutional Tribunal to examine the compliance of the provisions of this law with the Polish Constitution. The storm in Polish-Israeli relations has already begun with the adoption of this amendment by the Polish Sejm and still exist.

What is the problem? The article 55a, paragraph 1, of the aforementioned amendment to the Act, which penalizes any unjustified blaming of the Polish State and the Polish Nation for the crimes committed by the Third German Reich proved to be problematic. The content is as follows:

Art. 55a. §1. Whoever publicly and contrary to the facts attributes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich (…) or for any other offences constituting crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of these crimes, shall be liable to a fine or deprivation of liberty for up to 3 years. The judgment shall be communicated to the public.

The legislator introduced an exception in the paragraph 2 of mentioned article 55a – excluding scientific research and artistic activity from the penalization. On January 26 this year, a whole series of misunderstandings began. Yes, misunderstandings. And I use the word “misunderstanding” with full awareness of its meaning.

In the public debate, hardly anyone on both sides of the conflict draws attention to a very important issue. And perhaps this issue caused the Polish President to refer this bill to the Constitutional Tribunal. In the amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, the Polish legislature nowhere specifies what research and artistic activity are. Lack of precision makes it difficult to recognize this law as a good law, because good law is precise. It allows the citizens to be sure about the correctness of their actions. However, I have no doubt that such a law is needed by Poland. Poland – like Israel – as a sovereign country has the complete right to sovereign establishing its own law. However, I have no doubt that the current Act on the Institute of National Remembrance needs to be corrected. I also have no doubt that the amendment to this Act requires listening to the voice of a Nation that lost many of its Sons and Daughters during the war – the voice of Israel. Israel, in turn, should understand that Poland has the right to fight with false statements that slander the entire Polish Nation or attribute responsibility for the specific crimes to all Poles, not to individual persons.

The first misunderstanding

I am afraid that the current crisis of Polish-Jewish relations is connected with Poland’s serious misunderstanding of Israel’s intentions and remarks and vice versa. When I watch the political reactions in Israel, I come to the conclusion that the Israeli side did not understand the intentions of the Polish legislator, which by establishing mentioned law wants to fight with the terms “Polish death camps”. There is no doubt that since 1939 till 1945 there was no Polish State, which from September 1939 – that is from the outbreak of Second World War – was under occupation of the Third German Reich and of the Soviet Union. All death camps in the territory of occupied Poland were not Polish camps. Their functioning was regulated by the Nazi Germany authorities. This was also acknowledged by the spokesman of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon, and by the the Yad Vashem Institute. Moreover, it was admitted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – during the Polish Prime Minister’s visit to Israel in 2016, Beata Szydło – in a mutual statement. The Polish legislator is not closing the mouth to everyone who wants to talk about Jews who were murdered by some Poles during Second World War or because of their collaboration with the Germans. Such situations actually happened and the legislator – as I trust – is aware of that. The Polish legislator would like to penalize just speaking about Polish Nation any things which are not truthful (it is worth paying attention to a part of the amendment to the Act, which at the beginning specifies what wordings will be penalized: those that are public and – most importantly – which they are contrary to the facts).

In Poland, the intentions of the Israeli side were not understood either. In many news websites, in the press headlines and radio programs, appeared statements that Israel opposed the punishment of the “Polish death camps” – which was inconsistent with historical facts. In the few media, at least at the beginning, was mentioned that Israel is simply afraid that the Polish legislator wants to prohibit talking about Jewish which were murdered due to the criminal activity of some Poles.

Israel did not understand the intentions of the Polish legislator, and the Polish media and politicians understood the Israeli reaction in such a way that Israel disagreed with the idea to punish for the use of the false term “Polish death camps”. This is the first misunderstanding.

The second misunderstanding

Currently, I live in Israel. I am writing here my doctorate in philosophy, in which I am trying to understand the consequences of the Holocaust in the post-war philosophy of God and human being. In July last year, I received a scholarship from the Government of the State of Israel for a research and scientific internship at the Tel Aviv University. Because the issue of the tragedy of the Holocaust is important to me – for personal and intellectual reasons –  I pay attention to all the nuances associated with it.

I come to the conclusion that there is a difference in the understanding of the Holocaust in Poland – and in Europe in general, and in Israel. The Old Continent through the Holocaust understands the horrifying crime of genocide committed in a planned and systemic way by Nazi Germany. However, I have the impression that this tragic historical fact in Israel is perceived differently. I come to the conclusion that  in Israel through the Holocaust is meant the entire tragedy of the Jewish People that occurred during the Second World War on the continent that gave the world. This understanding is also present in Europe. Where is the difference? I noticed that in Israel the perpetrators of the Holocaust are perceived a bit broader – not only Nazi Germany, but all those who have contributed to the death of any representative of the Chosen People. Therefore, in this narrative, it is permissible to talk about some Poles who have contributed to the Holocaust more or less like some Austrians, some French, some Russians, etc. I must note that such perception is less known in Europe. It was shown by the reaction of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who on February 16 said that only Germans bear moral responsibility for the Holocaust. The German head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, similarly spoke on February 3.

Please forgive me for this truism, but I have no doubt that both sides – Polish and Israeli – are losing on this conflict. Why? Because all this conflict is based on some understatements and consequently – serious misunderstandings. And it shows how much dialogue is needed – listening to each other’s points of view and with full respect for the other’s identity.

“Good relations” despite tragic understatements?

On February 12, the Polish weekly Do Rzeczy published an interview with Jarosław Kaczyński, the president of the Law and Justice party, main political party in Poland. Kaczyński said that Polish-Israeli relations are – sic! – good. Thus, he inscribed himself in the trend of other opinions, according to which, since 1989, the bilateral relations between the Country On the Vistula River and Israel are exemplary. I would like to question this belief. I have the impression that many Polish-Jewish issues, connected in particular with the tragic historical meanders, have been silenced. In fact, only from the moment of legislation of this problematic amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland started to loudly speak about the cooperation of some Poles with the Nazis during the Second World War. Earlier, this fact was not so commonly present in collective consciousness. It is true that in Polish culture, especially in cinematography, such historical topics appeared. As an example, let Agnieszka Holland’s film In the Darkness show off Polish blackmailers or Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida. Pawlikowski’s film depicts the murder of the Jewish family by Poles on the property background. Another example is the film Aftermath directed by Władysław Pasikowski. By the way, the Polish film Ida received the Oscar award in 2015 as the best foreign language film. Nobody in Poland – in their right minds – denies the contribution of some Poles to murdering some Jews or cooperating with the Nazis. The motives of this were different and let history judge it. Perhaps the intention for this kind of disgraceful behavior was the fear of death, but I think that nothing can justify the crime. In Poland, as the only occupied country during the Second World War, there was a death penalty for helping Jews; despite this, more than 6,000 medals awarded by the Yad Vashem Institute to the Righteous Among the Nations were granted to Poles and it is the largest national group that helped Jews – despite the risk of death. This is also mentioned by the world-famous American intellectualist of Jewish roots, philosopher prof. Hannah Arendt. In the book published in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem, based on the testimony of witnesses at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she mentioned:

(…) surprisingly, [situation] been better in [occupied] Poland than in any other Eastern European country. (…) A Jew, now married to a Polish woman and living in Israel, testified how his wife had hidden him and twelve other Jews throughout the war; another had a Christian friend from before the war to whom he had escaped from a camp and who had helped him, and who was later executed because of the help he had given to Jews. One witness claimed that the Polish underground had supplied many Jews with weapons and had saved thousands of Jewish children by placing them with Polish families. The risks were prohibitive; there was the story of an entire Polish family who had been executed in the most brutal manner because they had adopted a six-year-old Jewish girl[1].

In Poland too little was commonly talked about some Poles collaborating with the Nazis in the process of the Final Solution. This fact does not allow me to formulate the thesis about good Polish-Jewish relations.

There is another, little known thing. In communist Poland, which until 1989 was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, especially during the Stalinist period, in the communist Polish courts, judges of Jewish origin condemned many Poles from an underground state, fighting for independent Poland, to death under the so-called “a court murder”. Their names function in the public space. Naturally, I am aware that the number of some Stalinist legal criminals of Jewish origin is lower than the number of some Poles who contributed during the war to the death of many Jews. Still, I am opposed to any numerical comparison in a decisive manner. One crime is one crime too many. This is another unhealed wound in Polish-Jewish relations. The wound on which the veil of silence was lowered. In the context of this again, I find it difficult to agree with the thesis about exemplary Polish-Jewish relations. Examples can be given more. Moral courage is required to admit to the wrongs done in the past by some members of own nation. This mention applies to both sides. Nobody is innocent.

Crisis as an opportunity for change for the better

As a member of the young generation of Poles, I am sorry to observe the current crisis in Polish-Jewish relations. I’m sorry, that in Poland just now we are talking loudly about some Poles who during the war contributed to the death of some Jews. I am sorry that is forgotten that some citizens of the Country on the Vistula River in the Stalinist era, with Jewish roots, condemned many of the Sons and Daughters of the Polish Nation to death. However, I believe, honestly and strongly, that the current crisis is a good opportunity to change.

I am sorry when I see from time to time anti-Semitic reactions that are sometimes present in Poland – just like anywhere in the world. I am also sorry that I have recently heard a lot of anti-Polish comments and insults in Israel. I am sorry, as a young Pole, when I see that some of my countrymen can not look critically at their history. I am also sorry when some Israelis attribute responsibility to all my Nation, not individual units, for crimes during Second World War. I believe, however, that we can understand each other in dialogue. I come from the city of Lodz, which since its inception has been a multicultural melting pot. Jews, Poles, Germans and Russians lived next to each other. I come from the city where before the last war almost 32% of the inhabitants were Jews. I believe that pluralism is something valuable. Even if we differ in our opinions, or if we have common tragic experiences, I have no doubt that we need to talk about it. Not only because of self-respect. Also from respect for history and for future generations.

Jerusalem, 20 February 2018

[1] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Penguin Books, New York 2006, p. 321.

About the Author
Artur Kolodziejczyk: philosopher, theologian; PhD candidate at the Department of Contemporary Philosophy of the University of Lodz; in 2017 he received a scholarship from the Government of the State of Israel for a scientific and research internship for PhD candidates in the academic year 2017/2018 at the Faculty of Humanities of the Tel Aviv University; now lives in Israel. Is a member of Collegium Invisibile.
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