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In March 2019, thousands of Polish nationalists marched on the United States embassy in Warsaw, to protest U.S. pressure on Poland to compensate Jews whose families lost property during the Shoah.
In April 2019 at a Good Friday ceremony in the town of Pruchnik, again in Poland, townspeople beat and then burned an effigy of a Jew. It is a local custom – an extreme example, of which there are many throughout an almost Juden-Frei Europe, where Jewish symbols are derided, abused or destroyed for profit, local entertainment and the anti-Jewish education of the next generation of European bigots. Parade floats in Belgium, figures of ridicule in Spain and the Czech Republic; ‘anti-Zionist’ debating circuses in the councils of political power within the EU and the United Nations, all share one thing in common – the Jew as object of hate, fun or dehumanisation. This harps back to the environment of the pre-Second World War period. It prepares the ground for the next era of bestiality and decline; the next pogrom.
In 2018 Poland criminalized debate about the extent to which Poles and Poland were complicit in the Shoah and it later amended the law to make it a civil offense, but only because of the firestorm of anger and indignation that the original legislation provoked.
Post-Soviet Poland was among the signatories of the Terezin declaration (2009) on compensation for confiscated assets in the Holocaust era. “All East European countries besides Poland agreed to pay a symbolic sum in compensation. Jews did not become rich from it and these countries did not become poor”. It simply recognised a difficult and uncomfortable conversation.
The Shoah was a German crime of the Nazi era, but it could not have taken place without the open indifference and almost everywhere, the active complicity of European society. It was this collaboration that squashed any hope that victims of persecution may have had and without hope there can be no resistance. Jan Tomasz Gross, in his book on the plunder of the Jews of Europe (“Golden Harvest”) calls the Jewish victims ‘the deceased on leave.’ The despair of disempowerment made killing Jews, frankly, no more than a pedestrian activity. Plodding, banal; like going to work and then coming home again. But wearing someone else’s clothes and with their property greedily stuffed into your pockets.
Like many Europeans, the Poles have a gigantic chip on their shoulder. Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany at the very beginning of WW II and it lost six million of its citizens (between 17% and 19% of its pre-War population). I once wrote about Russia and why, (despite its nuclear arsenal) it feared the porous nature of its impossibly long border (which it shares with 16 other countries). The Ukrainian reaction was one of outrage. Ukraine, “had suffered more”.
To even attempt to make a comparison is obscene. In the USSR, some 14% of the total population (or twenty-seven million people) died either from direct military action or starvation. The issue is that once you begin to look at the available statistics – all numbers become meaningless.
To put this into perspective, the U.K lost 451,000 civilian and military deaths or under one per cent of its pre-war population during the same period of 1939-1945. While Estonia was part of the U.S.S.R. Estonia “only” lost 7.6% of its population, while Belarus lost 25.3% of its population
It cannot make individual loss any less painful, but the level of national trauma will be greater as the losses climb exponentially higher. All the statistics are notoriously unreliable because they are conditioned by either the time they were first compiled, just after the end of the war, or because they are subject to political considerations. So, Russia’s total war losses (it suffered 14 million of the 27 million dead mentioned earlier as part of the total for the USSR) differs in being estimated at between 14 million people and upwards of twenty million dead.
Poland like much of Europe, was both victim and victimiser. Jews were never viewed as being citizens of the motherland. To many in Poland, Jews were barely viewed as being human. And today the position is not much different. I have known highly educated Christian Poles (professionals up to and including PhD’s) who were incapable of understanding a simple statement that ‘Jews are Poles’. Jews cannot be Poles, even if they have lived for over one thousand years in Poland, because they are eternally tainted by not being Roman Catholic. This may be no different to other regions of the world (for instance a non-Arab in the Arab world will always be disposable for their non-Arab identity), but we are here discussing a Polish issue with Jewish identity.
Like their Christian neighbours, most Jews lived in relentless and grinding poverty. But the Polish peasant as well as the Polish aristocrat shared at least two beliefs. The first was in the sanctity of the mother church and the second, more sinister perhaps, that all Jews had both a pot of gold buried in their garden and a cornucopia overflowing with jewels on the mantelpiece of their hovel. So, of course they would torture their former neighbours – men, women and children to death. First to reveal where the ‘Jew treasure’ was buried and second, when they realised there was none, just for the heck of it. But there was always absolution if absolution was necessary because the Church viewed this as no more than divine intervention; it rid the Polish nation of an unwelcome guest.
If something is socially sanctioned, then all members of the community may and will participate. Those that do not, will be viewed with suspicion. Jan Tomasz Gross, in the same book, wrote that in the hierarchy of Poland’s most important institution throughout its history [the Roman Catholic Church] – to this day there is no trace of compassion or concern. This is terrifying. The Polish church was the only church in all of Europe that refused to allow its clergy to engage in any rescue attempts that enabled Jews to escape divine retribution. In an official underground report written by the Church it stated that “it must have been an intervention of ‘divine providence’ to bring Germany to cleanse Poland of its Jews.” The prejudice and hatred of the Church guaranteed a terrible and painful death to any Jew who fell into the hands of their Polish neighbours.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen writes that If cruelty is an absence of empathy then acts of extreme cruelty are played out by people whose reservoirs of empathy are empty. A denial of empathy on a group level may be equal to a nation embracing a selective psychosis which in turn allows the group to compartmentalise their empathy depending on their situation. Such an extreme of cultural adaptation may explain the psychological divergence that justifies extreme opposites (going home to their loving family while they torture their former neighbours to death).
What we might like to think of as a ‘national psychosis’ may in fact be no more than extreme psychical compartmentalization; a normal human adaptation.
And yet, does this justify excusing, denying or failing to ever consider remediation? Sanitising the past does not help a nation to be better. Serbia and Croatia have hated each other for a thousand years and its all because of a single defeat in battle a millennium ago. Recognising the truth is the first step towards reconciliation. Without it, it is difficult, almost impossible to appreciate this, but people are not that different today than they were in 1939.
All that is not to say that Europeans are worse than or better than our brothers and sisters across the globe. When we look at our world, at the crimes against humanity that homo sapiens have committed, with joy in their hearts, the list of killings that humanity has committed since the Second World War ended, is almost unbearable to consider. To name just a few of them:
The Iran – Iraq War – one million dead
The Rwanda Genocide – eight hundred thousand to one million dead
The Burundi Civil War – three hundred thousand dead
The Syrian Civil War – half a million dead
The Cambodian Genocide – eight hundred thousand to one million dead
The Darfur Genocide – three hundred thousand dead
The Bangladesh Genocide – From three hundred thousand to three million dead
And, there are so many more. The Second Congo War between 1998 and 2011 may have killed up to five million four hundred thousand people.
Again, none of this excuses Poland’s attempts at sanitising its past. Murder is murder, not politics. And those that sanitise the past do so, so that they may profit from it. No nation may learn from its past if it denies it. It was never the case that Poland’s shame was no more than a handful of isolated incidents at the periphery of society. Poland’s criminal elements were but a very small percentage of the populace that bayed at any opportunity to engage in a Jew hunt and a bloodbath. Even as three million Christian Poles were dying at the hands of the Nazi war machine, the Polish viewed the deaths of their Jewish ‘cousins’ as little more than a profitable means of gaining property and goods, with a bit of sport during a difficult time, thrown in for good measure.
Our past not only informs our present but also our future behaviour.
Unless Poles are willing to confront the behaviours and moral deficiencies that were openly celebrated across the nation and at every level of society, prejudice will remain one of Poland’s salient national characteristics. Will this smug indifference to the past make a difference?
Probably not. Except that it means the war has not ended and Poland can never be viewed as a trustworthy ally, in any endeavour.