David-Seth Kirshner
Author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness

Who owns the Shoah?

A Hungarian member of our synagogue who survived the Holocaust, chose to memorialize his family and loved ones that did not share his fate. He sought to erect a monument to their memory in his hometown that read:

In memory of the Jews killed by the Nazis in Budapest during the Holocaust.

The Hungarian government objected to the verbiage of the monument. They recommended the following:

In memory of the Hungarians killed by the Nazis in Budapest during World War II.

My rhetorical question to the reader, to the survivor and to the Hungarian official is: What is the difference between the two statements above?

Before I continue any further, allow me to state that I would never intend to dishonor the Holocaust, to shame survivors or to denigrate the memory of the 6 Million who were killed. If any word I write in the next paragraphs come across disrespectfully, I am expressing myself incorrectly and I sincerely apologize.

I do, however, want to challenge us to ask some tough questions and to begin to explore if we can look at the Holocaust through a lens we have not before?  Not a lens that changes facts or figures, God forbid. Rather a lens that can empathize with other victims that were not Jewish and a way to see the Jewish victims as more than the loss of people or a religion but, also the loss of a population of a country.

I pose this question now, in light of the recent Polish law seeking to censor those who claim Poles were complicit in the Nazi killing machine, known as the Shoah. This law would in essence make it illegal throughout Poland to proclaim publically, in a classroom, in a public arena or square, or even in the press, that the Poles were responsible or even complicit in the Holocaust.

I imagine this new law stems from a few deep seeded places.

There were six death camps during the Holocaust. Death camps were solely meant to systematically exterminate Jews, and quickly. They were called Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek and Birkenau. All of these camps were built on Polish soil, most decidedly by Nazi design.

Since the fall of communism in the late 80’s, Jews have made mass pilgrimages, almost like a hajj, to Poland to pay respects at the world’s largest Jewish cemeteries. The country has taken on a sense of holy-sadness in our quest to honor the memory of those that perished, to recall the vibrancy of Jewish life that was lost and to take an oath of sorts through testimony, Never Again.

During these Marches of the Living – and the hundreds of variations of this trip –  visitors are overwrought with emotion, remnants of unfathomable torture and deep geographical confusion. Allow me to explain through analogy.

I studied and later worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, the academic center of the Conservative Movement. Its campus also housed many other arteries of the Movement like, Ramah Camps and the Rabbinical Assembly, though they had no direct connection with JTS outside of the space they shared. When someone had meetings or dealings at one of those arteries, they would often confuse the connection with JTS, all because of location and lack of clarity on organizational roles. I call this ‘institutional confusion.’

Many with poor historical knowledge commonly call these death camps, “Polish Death Camps” merely because they were in Poland. But the creation and implementation of the final solution that aimed to rid the world of Jews was devised and carried out exclusively by the Nazis. These facts matter.

The new Polish law does not look to erase history, rather to clarify it.  It does not seek to exonerate the partners in the six years of evil, like many from the Ukraine who were complicit in crimes against humanity. It also does not seek to excuse the years of anti-Semitism that existed in Poland, before, during and after the war. One can look at the events of in Katowice, Jedwabne or Kielce to prove this point beyond any doubt. But, anti-Semitism cannot be blanket-ly equated to the systematic and calculated atrocities of the Holocaust. That level of conflation is treasonous. Additionally, there are rows of trees planted in Yad Vashem in honor of  the many Polish people that risked their own life to hide and save Jewish people during the war. Many were righteous souls.

The flip side of this law creates a reason for us to worry. Perhaps educators on all levels and in all places of edcuation might now hesitate teaching about the holocaust. It also might inhibit politicians of reminding people of our past to change our future. And, most frighteningly, it might provide cover for other countries to re-write history encourage the distortion of pertinent facts about the Holocaust. It could lead to the slippery slope of vindicating all peoples for the fate of the Jews during and after the war. When that happens, we have created a ripe environment for another Holocaust to occur.

The Polish President, Krzysztof Lapinski, proclaimed to his citizens: “6 Million Poles died during World War II. 3 Million of those Poles were Jews.”  His statistics are accurate. 3 Million other Jews from around Eastern Europe totaled the infamous number of 6 Million that we know.  (Please read his full statement, http://www.president.pl/en/news/art,669,president-decides-to-sign-anti-defamation-bill.html,  especially if you plan on writing something nasty or divisive in the comments section).

Lapinski was suggesting that those killed were Poles who were Jewish. He was taking ownership, in a proud way, of the citizenship of the victims. They did, after all, hold Polish passports. They paid taxes to Poland. Many Polish Jews even fought in the Polish army. Why would we only recognize them as Jews and not Poles too, Lapinski wants to know? In essence, this is the question the Hungarian leadership was asking about the monument to have been erected in memory of the Jewish victims of Budapest. Were they not Jewish Hungarians? Not only Jews?

The first time I visited Poland was shortly after the release of the acclaimed movie, Schindler’s List. Then, the Schindler factory was still up and running in Krakow, though not owned by Schindler and no longer making pots and pans. A touch more than 20 years later, the factory was turned into a museum.

Interestingly, the museum offers practically no homage to Oskar Schindler and his heroism. Only his office remains as it was with an art installation of the names of all of those people he saved. The balance of the museum, more than 10 times the size of that one space dedicated to Schindler, is a museum to life in Krakow before the war and the obliteration of life and the irreparable destruction that happened by the hands of the Nazis during and after the war. The museum where the factory is did not focus on Polish Jewry. It focused on Poles of Krakow, many of whom were Jews.

That small nuance is the pivot point in the narrative of many Polish citizens today. It has morphed from a sense of shame and silence that blood was soaked into their soil, to a sense of victimhood for Poles, many of whom were Jewish.

Visit Auschwitz today, the place where the haunting Arbeit Macht Frei sign looms over the entryway, and you will see scores of Christian Poles come to light candles, lay wreaths and shed tears in memory of their loved ones that died there. Most of these people were not Jewish. They were killed for political beliefs, sexual orientation, rank in society or other reasons. Less than 5 kilometers away is Birkeanu that is larger than the eye can see. Birkenau is a graveyard for 1.3 Million Jews who were imprisoned and then killed, simply for the faith they were born into. For those mourning their family in Auschwitz and those in Birkenau, whose tears are saltier? The numbers of loss are not the same, of course. But, can we quantify one’s pain versus another?

I have had countless Israelis challenge me on my views on our shared homeland of Israel, (some saying I am too right and others saying I am too left). They regularly pull a trump card on me during these conversations, something to the effect of, ‘my kid is on the front lines every day, so I have more of a say than you do on this matter.’

That fact is irrefutable. But, does me living in the Diaspora squelch my opinion on Israel? Is my check worthy but my opinion not? Of course, my child is not on the front lines. I dread a different knock on the door than parents with kids in the Israeli army. But, I still dread their knock on the door for them and for me. Israel is theirs, but not only theirs.

Perhaps it is the same with the Holocaust. It is our saddest chapter, but the tears and anger and history do not belong solely to the Jews. They belong to all of humanity.

This new Polish law leaves us with much to be worried about. Jewish history in Europe is thick with chapters of hate and punishment that did not end well for us. We should be vigilant and have our antennae up. At the same time, we should be empathetic, as should our Polish brothers and sisters. Our shoulders should make space for one another to lean on for resting our head and to weep, like Jacob did with Esau. A moment when division turns to unification. We can all strive for more moments like that today.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC and an adjunct faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJR). He is the author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness, featured in The NY Times Book Review (Feb '24) and has over 11,000 copies in circulation in its first three months since publication. He has spoken on his book and topics connected to Judaism and Zionism across the world.