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POLAND, TRYING TO WHITEWASH ITS PAST, IS, INSTEAD FOCUSING ATTENTION ON ITS COMPLEX RELATIONSHIP WITH ANTISEMITISM
by Allan C. Brownfeld
POLAND has been a victim of history. It has been invaded by Nazi Germany and by the Soviet Union. Its people have suffered under the oppression of both of the 20th Century's oppressive totalitarian ideologies. The Nazis killed six million Poles -- three million of whom were Jews.
Until the recent election of the rightwing Law and Justice Party, Poland has tried to confront its past, particularly the widespread antisemitism to be found in Poland before, during, and in the aftermath of World War ll.
In 2016, the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews received the award as the best museum in Europe. It was a joint government and private initiative that cost more than $100 million. As Poland became part of NATO and the European Union, it began to confront the Holocaust. In many Polish cities and towns, younger Poles began to research their own local Jewish history. In many of these places, Jews had formed a majority of the population. Yet there was often no monument to their existence or their demise. Now, many Polish schoolteachers and others have started to create memorial plaques and clean up devastated Jewish cemeteries.
At the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, the Jewish Studies Department has steadily grown and now has its own impressive building in the formerly Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz. The students, who are largely non-Jewish, are learning Yiddish, Hebrew, and Jewish literature and history.
NOW, Poland's new president seems to want to whitewash Poland's complex history and show only the heroic Polish rescuers of Jews and to downplay the brutal anti-Semitism which also manifested itself. He has proposed legislation that will make it illegal to invoke Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities. Some critics have called this the equivelant of "Holocaust denial." EU President Donald Tusk, a former Polish premier, warned Poland against "anti-Semitic excesses" and other behavior ruining Warsaw's global standing. At a recent EU summit in Brussels, Tusk told Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that negative opinions about Warsaw were turning into a "tsunami."
What is it in Polish history that its current government would like to suppress? Consider what happened in Jedwabne, Poland, on July 10, 1941. The Germans had just retaken the area from the Soviets -- but it was not the Germans who murdered 300 Jews by burning them alive in a barn on the outskirts of town. It was Poles who bolted the doors, poured the gasoline, and lit the fire.
The new "Holocaust law," says the historian Jan Gross (whose 2000 book on the Jedwabne massacre, Neighbors, triggered an intense debate about Poland's past), represents a "crucial difference." He notes that, "You have now empowered a regime that is openly drawing on xenophobic nationalism in Polish society as a means of legitimizing its power. And the main pull of this xenophobic nationalism is anti-Semitism."
This, historians argue, is the root of the law -- it falsely equates the suffering of Polish Jews and non-Jews. "Every Jew who was born a Jew was doomed to die. That wasn't the case with the Poles," said Paweł Śpiewak, the director of the Warsaw-based Jewish Historic Institute.
By the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, antisemitism there had reached its peak. In postwar Poland, anti-Jewish riots broke out. In 1946, 37 Jews returning to their homes in Kielce were murdered. Between 1945 and 1948, between 100,000 and 120,000 surviving Jews left Poland.
YET antisemitism, Jedwabne, Kielce, and similar events only tell part of the Polish story. There is another, far more positive and hopeful, story as well.
From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant nation in Europe, known as "Paradisus Judaeorum" (Paradise of the Jews). Some sources say that about three quarters of the world's Jews lived in Poland by the end of the 16th Century.
Poles represent, by far, the largest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Nearly 7,000 Christian Poles have been awarded the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem. The Polish Underground operated special units dedicated to helping Jews. The most notable was the Zegota Council, based in Warsaw, with branches in Kraków, Wilno (Vilnius, Vilna), and Lwow (Lvov).
Any help provided to Jews was punishable by death to the helper and their entire family. It is estimated that 30,000-50,000 Poles were executed as a penalty for saving Jews. The stories are dramatic. Beatified Sister Marta Wołowska of Slonim was executed for rescuing Jews from the Slonim ghetto and hiding them in her monastery. Dr. Eugene Lazowski "saved 8,000 Jews from deportation to death camps by faking an epidemic of typhus in the town of Rozwadów." We could fill pages with such heroic stories.
By trying to limit free and open discussion of Poland's role in World War II, its current government (which has said that there were indeed Polish "collaborators," but felt it necessary to point to "Jewish collaborators" as well -- although it did not name any) is acting as if Poland did indeed share guilt for the Holocaust and that if it was made illegal to say so, that would be the end of the story.
It seems as if Poland's current government is in the process of historical revisionism. Anna Zalewska, Poland's Minister of National Education, has developed a new high school curriculum. It devotes 15 lessons to World War ll -- but only one deals with the Holocaust. Sławomir Broniarz, the president of the Polish teachers union, which has formally condemned the new law, says, "When we read the curriculum, what we see is either that we were brave and good or that we lost everything in dramatic circumstances -- that's the picture of Poles we get. There's no grayness. Suddenly we're back to Communist times and everything is ideology."
Jan Wróbel, a popular journalist who also teaches history, told the Washington Post that the current government's World War ll obsession reminds him of his own schooldays: "I'm 54. In my school, which was a normal Polish school, I generally thought that in Auschwitz most of the victims were Polish. I can't remember the moment anyone told me that, but it was never clear that it was predominantly Jews."
Some teachers said they would continue discussing Jedwabne and other examples of antisemitism. Artur Sierawski, a high school history teacher in Warsaw, told the paper: "I just tell [the students] that the Poles were there, and that they committed this crime -- and that this is all based on facts, on sources. Usually, they're surprised and silent for a while."
If Poland wants to be a member of the EU and NATO, it would do well to recognize that a commitment to academic freedom and free speech is an important element of such membership. Poland's history has involved much tragedy and complexity. As with its neighbors, it has had its highs and lows. As have we. But trying to silence open discussion, an effort which has been accompanied by expressions of intolerance, will isolate Poland from the West. After its experience with Nazism and Communism, one would hope that Poland would be immune to the attractions of authoritarian government and xenophobia. Sadly, this seems not to be the case.
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and is editor of ISSUES, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.