The Polish Paradox

I’m sure many of you have heard about the extreme new bill that was approved by the Polish senate a few months back.

Interestingly, this occurred on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and just over a couple of months after the notorious white supremacist march held by 60,000 Polish nationalists on Poland’s independence day. Basically, the new law would prohibit reference to “Polish death camps”, punishable with either a fine or up to 3 years imprisonment.

Then towards the end of June, following outrage from the international community, and the obvious risk of fracturing diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel, Poland amended the law to remove criminal penalties for speech implicating Poland as eager cogs in the wheel of Nazi Germany’s aspirations. Furthermore, both Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Binyamin Netanyahu signed a joint declaration on behalf of their respective countries, endorsing the amendment. Critics have pointed out that Netanyahu trivialised the Holocaust by reducing it to simple diplomatic agreements (and let’s be real here, capitulation is kind of Netanyahu’s thing). Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid party, slammed the endorsement as a farce and an insult to the memories of those that perished in the Holocaust. Also, the removal of the criminalisation clauses from the law does not preclude civil action against “offenders”.

As far as I’m concerned though, this is just nitpicking and politicking. Sentiments don’t change, and the fact Poland even attempted to criminalise people over semantics, says plenty.

I want to stress how important it is to be factual, and I have no issue with striving for accuracy in historical research and education. And it is absolutely true that while many death camps were located on Polish soil, it was Hitler’s Germany that had occupied Poland, and masterminded and enacted the extermination of 6 million Jews, not to mention countless others including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, brave individuals and families who were caught hiding Jews, political dissidents, the disabled and anyone else that the Nazi regime deemed undesirable to their idea of a “master race”.

Among those killed by the Germans were at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Poles, with at least 1.5 million sent to labour camps. In fact, the first victims were the Polish intelligentsia, including the elite classes, teachers, professors, writers, priests, social workers and judges, as part of the German “AB Aktion” (“Extraordinary Pacification Action campaign“). It is estimated that between 1939 and 1940, 30,000 of the intelligentsia were arrested under this operation, with around 7,000 executed and the remaining 23,000 sent to concentration camps. This was an effort to “dumb down” the Polish people, so that they could control and subsume them, with the end game being to “Germanise” Poland. Furthermore, the Germans destroyed or closed schools, universities, libraries, museums and other bastions of Polish culture, learning and research.

At least 100,000 Polish non Jews were murdered in Auschwitz alone, even before they started exterminating the Jews, and Poles were also the first target at the later established sub-camp of Birkenau. The infamous Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, saw quite a number of inmates either executed or tortured to death, and an estimated 60,000 were sent to concentration camps. Polish prisoners who had taken ill and Soviet prisoners of war were the first to be exterminated in the Auschwitz gassing experiments.

In short, there is no question that the Poles suffered harsh conditions, forced labour, starvation, torture and executions at the hands of Germany during the Third Reich.

Furthermore, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, lists Poland as having the highest number of “Righteous Among the Nations” in excess of 6,000.

Conversely, there is absolutely no denial that collaboration with the Nazis occurred in other parts of Europe and was even more formal, organised and active than Poland. The Arrow Cross in Hungary adopted Nazi ideology and actively collaborated with the Third Reich by incorporating a couple of their army divisions into the German Waffen SS, deported hundreds of thousands of Jews to German concentration camps, or enlisted them in forced military labour. The Croatian Ustashe, a bloodthirsty terrorist movement that was formed prior to World War II and was based on religious as well as racial supremacy, was comparable to ISIS in its violent brutality against Jews, Serbs, Roma and anti-Fascists. Police in the Ukraine assisted in the notorious Babi Yar massacre of 1941 where almost 34,000 Jews were gunned down in a ravine over a period of two days. In Latvia, there were volunteers for the Latvian Waffen SS and auxiliary police who were involved in the massacre of about 67,000 Jews in 1941-42 even before the Latvian Legion was formally created, and there were also pogroms committed by the Arājs Kommando, led by Latvian collaborator Viktors Arājs.

Nevertheless, just as you may have been thinking “Dayenu”, following the Polish government’s little hissy fit, along comes the news that Mark Zuckerberg will not ban people from posting Holocaust denial, with the lame attempt at justification being that he didn’t “think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong”, followed by an even lamer attempt at back-pedalling, faffing on about how he sometimes makes mistakes himself.

Is anyone else reminded of the idiom “Don’t pee on my boots and tell me it’s raining”?

More importantly, Zuckerberg’s ostensible comfort with turning Facebook into the Luna Park of historical revisionism is tantamount to the above mentioned dumbing down of society, seeing that his team also won’t ban conspiracy sites like InfoWars, once again attempting to bamboozle us with convoluted and contradictory spin, for example information that is false doesn’t necessarily violate community standards, or that it’s too hard to set the parameters of what is acceptable, all the while claiming some kind of mission to fight false information on Facebook, a mission that seems about as existent as the mythical “community standards”, except less useful than the usual matter that passes through a bull’s digestive system.

Furthermore, despite Facebook not having the genocidal ambitions of the Nazis, and have more to do with what I would imagine Zuckerberg salivating like a pornography addict at his hopefully rising (no pun intended) stocks, the fact that he is putting his feet up and witnessing the spectacle of the memories of those who perished in the Holocaust being mocked, is egregious. No matter how secular he claims to be, these are still his people, regardless of whether or not his own family were affected, just like the Jews driven out of Arab countries following the establishment of the state of Israel, or those who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century, dating as far back as our ancestors who were deported from ancient Israel by the Assyrians, are his people. And my people.

Does he really need to be reminded that we won’t have the last generation of survivors, living eyewitnesses to this chapter of history, for much longer, and there is a very real danger that when the very last survivor leaves this earth, the truth, which is already getting caught up in a vortex of revisionism, downright lies and misappropriation to serve others’ political agendas, will be permanently sucked into quicksand?

My observation of attitudes towards Jews by today’s Poles, when the legislation was first proposed this year – and even before – has been an eye opener, particularly the online comments I witnessed in reaction to this law. Unsurprisingly, it was the downright anti-Jewish bigotry that really triggered me.

And this is why I would like to share my personal perspective on the Jewish experience with you.

A bit of background: my maternal grandparents, of blessed memory, were both Polish born Holocaust survivors. My grandfather never spoke about the war. My grandmother found it distressing to talk about her experiences, and it always reduced her to tears, so we never tried to push it out of her, however sometimes she would volunteer her memories, triggered by something she’d read, or seen on TV, or just happened to pop into her head.

Furthermore, I had no known living relatives from that side of the family, both my maternal grandparents’ families perished save for a cousin of my grandfather’s, who moved to Israel (via Argentina) after World War II. I think they may have kept in sporadic touch, judging by the occasional letter that I vaguely remember from childhood, but that must have petered out, and they clearly had never been close. On my grandmother’s side, the only living relative was an uncle by marriage, who had migrated to Australia prior to the war in the hope of building a life here and then bringing the rest of his family out. Sadly by the time he was able to do so, the war was well under way, the borders were closed to Jews who wanted to escape Hitler’s Final Solution, and his wife and children perished in the camps. This uncle desperately contacted the Red Cross after the war seeking surviving relatives, and when he was miraculously put in touch with my grandparents, he expedited my grandparents’ and toddler Mum’s immigration to Australia, by arranging their landing permits and being their sponsor. Sadly, this beautiful and kindhearted soul – known affectionately as “The Red Cross” himself due to his generosity in opening his home as a place to stay for newly arrived Holocaust survivors – passed away when my mother was still a kid.

In other words, my grandmother’s recollections, as told to myself, my sister and my parents are all I have. But they are first hand, and it is clear from speaking to so many other descendants of survivors, who retold stories that paralleled my grandmother’s own, that it’s a reasonable assumption that her experiences in pre-WWII Poland were not exactly an exception to the norm.

My grandmother was born in the town of Skierniewice, in central Poland, my grandfather in the southern town of Opatow. My grandmother moved to Lodz with her family when she was a small child (while we don’t know exactly when, it is assumed that my grandfather and his family also moved to Lodz prior to the war as apparently he knew my grandmother’s family from back then). Poland was known for its antisemitism prior to World War II, and this was institutionalised as well as cultural.

For example, there were restrictions on Jewish numbers in Polish public schools and universities, high status positions in certain professions, and owning businesses that served the Polish public. My great grandfather got certain “privileges”, not afforded to many Jews, as compensation for having served in the Polish army and sustaining a permanent injury during World War I. He was given the choice to open either a tavern or a tobacconist’s shop (he chose the latter), and my grandmother was allowed to attend a public school. Nevertheless as time went on and the Final Solution drew nearer, she started staying home frequently due to the antisemitic bullying she endured daily.

Polish antisemitism was also largely rooted in the Catholic church. My grandmother (who lived not far from one of the largest churches in Lodz) recalls that people would go to church on Sunday, and apparently having been told by the priests that we killed Jesus, would come out after the morning service and smash the windows of Jewish owned shops.

Naturally not all of the Catholic clergy shared this sentiment. By contrast, as we are all aware, there were many Jewish children who owe their lives to countless nuns, priests and monks who risked being sent away to death camps themselves, hiding and taking care of these children in convents and monasteries. Several priests were regular customers in my great grandfather’s tobacco shop. He enjoyed many good conversations with one of these regulars. One day, this priest ominously stated to my great grandfather, “there will come a time where a lot of people will be searching for each other”. How chillingly prescient this was.

The Germans had Polish collaborators who were only too happy to turn in Jews to the Nazis, no doubt motivated by anti-Semitism as well as for financial gain. There was the Jedwabne pogrom in 1941, motivated by the belief that the Jews had sided with the Soviets during the USSR’S occupation of the region. In July of that year, following a mass slaughter of local Jewish men and boys, a barn was filled with hundreds of women and children and set it on fire. In fact, once Germany occupied the town, the local Poles actually asked permission of the Nazis to slaughter their Jews. For the next 60 years, they claimed that this pogrom was executed by the German Nazis, but in 2001, following documented testimonies from survivors who had witnessed not only the massacre, but other atrocities committed against Jews in the region, it was formally recognised in 2001 by way of rededicating a monument in Jedwabne’s town square. However, even in the current decade, Poles are reluctant to admit their part in the pogrom, in fact none of the Jedwabne locals showed up to the pogrom’s 75th memorial just over two years ago.

Even the Polish resistance movement during the war had its share of antisemites. My grandparents had friends who they’d met in Poland after the war (for whom they would later be sponsors for their immigration to Australia) who’d joined the Polish resistance movement in Warsaw and had to hide their Jewishness for fear of being killed. This couple were also relatively assimilated, the wife had relatives who had had the privilege of being able to attend Polish universities and even a relative who was a high court judge in Poland. So if people who were more assimilated and able to somewhat conceal their Jewishness still felt fear, is it really so inconceivable that anti-Jewish sentiment was not a mere aberration?

Then there was the Kielce pogrom that took place in 1946, after the war. The trigger was every parent’s nightmare – in July 1946, a nine year old boy decided to wander off for a couple of days without telling his parents. Not wishing to get into trouble for the fright he gave them, he told them, and the local police that he had been kidnapped and hidden by someone who lived at the local Jewish Committee building, which provided shelter for around 180 Jewish Holocaust survivors. Although the authorities could see that the boy’s story held no water, it didn’t stop a mob of soldiers, police and local steel workers from raiding the premises on July 4, shooting, beating people with rifles and iron bars and stoning residents. Around 42 Jews were killed that day. Unfortunately, once again, this information something that is only recently coming out of the shadows. Michal Jaskulski, who co-directed the documentary “Bogdan’s Journey“, says that Polish education about the Holocaust and its aftermath was very “basic and informal”, and that there was no access to records on the pogrom until the 1980’s, when archives were briefly opened and research on the pogrom commenced. Jaskulski also referred to conspiracy theories that emerged from this knowledge gap, that there was a communist plot aided and abetted by the Jews, and long held indeed were these canards, known as the Żydokomuna, Polish for “Judeo Bolshevism”, which were based on conspiracy theories that began long before WW11.

So back to my own personal views in 2018, what do I make of all this? Even now, I hear the same things over and over again from other descendants of survivors. The most popular one that I also heard at home growing up was “their hatred for Jews was passed through their mother’s milk”. Another one is “the Poles were worse than the Germans”. When I juxtapose these anecdotes with the defensiveness, resentfulness and the deflection (“whatabouttery”) shown by so many modern day Poles, I am compelled to ask: does this mean that nothing’s changed? Was it underlying this whole time? Is it mere indifference? Is there more antisemitism in Poland than anywhere else? It’s gone over and over in my head so many times. And my most worrying thought is this: is my perception, and that of others’ in relation to contemporary Polish antisemitism filtered through the prism of what we have learned from our survivor relatives? Are those experiences, as recounted by those relatives, distorting the levels of Polish antisemitism to appear higher than the rest of Europe? Believe me, that in itself is a high bar to exceed.

To be fair, I’ve tried to imagine it from the point of view of the average Polish person today. Up until recently, I always thought that the post Holocaust guilt would have been part of their fabric of their lives as it would with the rest of Europe. To what extent this affected their morale, was unclear. I don’t think any reasonable person would expect them to wear the blame for what happened. But like other countries who have had a history of injustices, discrimination, and oppression of others, one would expect they would accept this history and be eager to pass it on the future generations so that it doesn’t repeat itself.

Yet, like the rumblings of antisemitism that were apparent in Poland prior to WWII, there has been a palpable undercurrent of resentment and denial that pre-dated Poland’s “death camp” bill.

The firm favourite definitely revolves around the various “collaboration” canards. Polish bloggers and writers gleefully find examples of “Jewish collaboration” with the Nazis, they engage in frantic and smug “splaining” of how the Jews were the ones that formed the Judenrat (Jewish administrative and Nazi law enforcement agencies, mandated by the Nazi regime to be formed by each Jewish community in German-occupied Poland). They also joyfully remind us all that that many Jews later became kapos and sonderkommandos within the concentration camps as if participation in many of these activities was not only optional, but that the Jews did it with great relish and malevolence, as opposed to doing it out of fear for their lives or possibly getting a scrap more food or slightly less unbearable “living” conditions.

The Haarava Agreement is another straw man that they’ve been desperately pouncing on, savouring and throwing around like a dog’s chew toy. Again, completely disingenuous and ahistorical (and if you recall, something British Labour MP Ken Livingstone thought appropriate to bring up last year, completely tone deaf to how it might sound in light of growing accusations of the antisemitism in the British Labour Party).

In any case, how can anyone in good conscience believe there was a cynical agenda behind the Jews’ desire to have a homeland of their own, in the face of blatant discrimination and hostility towards them, a “Jewish Problem” that began taking shape in the form of rumblings through Europe, and while the extent of the horrific Final Solution was something that was probably inconceivable to them at the time, they were more than aware that they were no longer welcome in their countries of birth, Poland included.

And if it’s not pure blind prejudice, then how many brain cells does it take to realise that a people who made up a measly 1.7% of the total population of Europe, did not engineer their own genocide in order to one day get a nation of their own?

But wait……there’s more!

Why didn’t you leave Poland in the 1930’s if things were so bad, and go to other countries that would accept you?

Brilliant, just brilliant. Those silly Jews, why didn’t they just think of that? After all, it was a world without borders, the Great Depression never happened, no such thing as xenophobic attitudes or exploitation of new immigrants, and every other country in the world was just handing out visas like candy!

Why didn’t the Jews just get together and revolt against the Nazi regime? Why didn’t you join the resistance movement like other brave Polish people?

Again….what were those Jews thinking? They should not have let the fact that they only comprised around 9.5% of the total Polish population, that they were generally neither trained warriors nor militants, and that many were from ultra Orthodox families whose lives revolved around learning, earning a living, and supporting families, get in the way of them staging the Grand Final of revolutions?

Oh, and remember all the earlier mentioned Jews who joined the Polish resistance movement while keeping their Jewish identities underground as well? Or the famous Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, where most of the fighters lost their lives, along with those who chose to be burned to death in the ghetto fires rather than be deported to their deaths in the concentration camps? Not to mention the uprisings in the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor camps by inmates who despite having endured torture, starvation and illness, decided they had nothing to lose by gathering makeshift weaponry, and what was left of their spirits, in one last act of resistance. Hey, I guess those little nuggets of history must have slipped the good Polish people’s minds. After all, it’s much easier to sleep at night when you are reassured that the Jews were too cowardly to fight for themselves, isn’t it?

Oh and what was that again – oh duh, that’s right! People don’t like it when Jews fight for themselves, remember? Speaking of which…

Israelis are treating Palestinians the same way as the Jews were treated by the Nazis

Yep, that old chestnut. And of course, this in no way makes the Polish people any different than anyone else who piles on with this refrain as a defence against antisemitism accusations. But in context, not only is it classic “whatabouttery” deflection, it sounds odd coming from people who don’t generally claim to have an in depth knowledge about Israel.

Also, is it just me, or is this silent endorsement for some kind of logical S-bend that basically claims that the Shoah genocide of Polish (and other) Jews was some kind of pre-emptive strike following some kind of clairvoyant prediction about these “evil Jewish oppressors”? (Yes, haters, I see your straw man, and I raise you a reductio ad absurdum).

It’s all about money for you Jews in the end, isn’t it?

Well, well, who didn’t see that one coming in 3….2…..1….?

“Why didn’t your Rothschild relatives come and rescue you from the Holocaust?”, “The Israeli government just wants to take money from the Polish government, that’s why they’re coming after us” “You (Jews) just want to oppress Poles to give your friends money”. (That last one was verbatim, I kid you not).

Disturbing, isn’t it?

So if one keeps all of these canards in mind, descendants of Jews from Poland could be forgiven for thinking there are still some deeper, darker sentiments behind the Polish government’s proposal to get law enforcement involved in stomping out historical inaccuracies and misleading semantics.

Furthermore, in their defensiveness while under the microscope, Polish people argue that their ancestors, who were under occupation themselves, should not have been expected to risk their lives to help save Jews from deportation to the camps. And hey, it’s not a totally unreasonable consideration, since the Polish people too had families to protect. Yet, with that in mind, when they now lecture us on how “aggressive” Israeli Jews are towards Palestinians, firstly, they tell us we were not brave enough to fight our own battles (but like everyone else these days, they don’t like it when we do). Secondly, they want consideration for their own human fears and flaws in specific circumstances, yet are quick to take a partisan stance towards another country whose people face fear and terror in this day and age, and are just as human and flawed, and ultimately want to protect themselves and their kids from danger.

So yes, it frustrates me to see these same Polish people take the intellectually lazy route and think of Israelis, no doubt some of whom are descendants of those Polish Jews, as the aggressors. “Phew, I don’t have to feel so bad now”.

My point is, while a nation’s citizens can’t be blamed for a knowledge gap in their own history, they can be blamed for their prejudices that would skewer Jews at both ends, and if they choose to defend their predecessors’ lack of courage to physically save Jews back then, the least they can do is grow enough backbone to take ownership of their nation’s past mistakes, rather than try to defend their own honour by casting stones at Jews and Israel.

So where do we go from here?

It should be clear that the pushback against this insane legislation, including its amendments, does not come from a place of wanting to single out the Polish people for demonisation or to imply that they were the actual instigators of the Shoah.

Another obvious thing that Poland might want to consider, is that do they want to take steps toward becoming like the totalitarian oppressors that they once lived under, by legislating against rhetoric that makes them uncomfortable?

And in the long run, wouldn’t it be more stressful for the Polish people, in their defensiveness, to have to resort to all kinds of paradoxical rhetoric and logical contortions, than it would be to simply face some unpleasant truths about their country’s past, head on?

As for Mark Zuckerberg’s ostensible sangfroid towards the proliferation of conspiracy theories and historical distortions, when will he finally see beyond those dollar signs? Because right now, he’s creating a few paradoxes of his own with Facebook’s selective protection of certain groups by arbitrarily banning users for making comments that are considered even perceived slights against them, while not only making it ok for other groups of people to not only be maligned but have their own complaints about genuine harassment, hate speech, racism and threatening language be dismissed. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that his fellow Jews just happen to be among the latter group.

Yes, it’s all very nice that Zuckerberg has been known to make the occasional perfunctory pretence at embracing his Jewish roots, such publishing a few photos having Shabbat and giving his daughter a kiddush cup to hold. But what he is actually teaching his kids is that their connection to their heritage is limited to a couple of superficial traditions, and that the history of their people doesn’t matter, because it’s now allowed to be up for debate.

Whose history will be next in line for shredding and rewriting, I wonder? “First they came for the Jews…..”.

About the Author
Kooky vegan, Zionist, liberal minded, animal loving, non conformist but very congenial soul from Sydney who left the insurance industry to work as a nanny and self employed pet sitter, when she realised her "inner socialist" was incompatible with denying insurance claims. Defies Jewish stereotypes by enjoying a few wines after work, but compensates for this by cooking enough food on chagim to make even her mother tear her hair out!
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