Poles, Jews and the shadows of the Holocaust

Many Poles helped Germans, many helped Jews. Poles were involved in the Holocaust but the Holocaust was (is) also Polish tragedy.

This article, touching the sensitive issue of the memory of the Holocaust, written in 2005 in Jerusalem, reflected my frustration connected to the Polish-Jewish relationships. It is not new but in a way it is fresh, regarding the ongoing crisis. Please read it as a voice of a Polish-Jewish intellectual, loving his country and emotionally tied to Israel at the same time. Poles and Jews has done a lot of good job since 1989. They has done a lot of bad job either. This time, in 2018, the shame is more on us. However also Israelis should be more aware how easy it may be to let prejudices flourish while our nations have a hard time again.

The March of the Living in Auschwitz, commemorating the victims of the Holocuast, gathers every year thousands of Jews and Poles, going together, hand in hand, through the ground of mourning. However many Polish Jews and non-Jews wonder each year: to go or not to go? Do they, from Israel, have a grudge against us, the Poles? Does the March have another meaning? I think it does not, yet the worries and distrust felt by a Polish Jew or just a Pole while being among Jews are not unknown to me.

The Polishness of our Jews has not met with sufficient recognition and appreciation, either among the Poles, or among the Jews. For that very reason our ancestors who were killed in camps have been “wrongly classified” by historic memory and public discourse. They are remembered exclusively as Jews, whereas so many of them were Poles to the same extent. As a Polish Jew, I demand that it be remembered that the Holocaust of the Jews was also a Polish tragedy, as hundreds of thousands of its victims felt themselves to be and were Polish, just like me and my murdered ancestors. Ignoring this fact goes hand in hand with the bad opinion that many Jews have about Poland and Poles. I am full of rancour against my compatriot Jews for the fact that they believed so easily that Poland is an especially anti-Semitic country and that so many of them spread such unfair opinions about Poles. I hope it will change in time. Maybe it is already changing.

Who we are

Jews have special reasons for condemning xenophobia and prejudices, also among themselves. Thus, I think that discussion about the attitude of contemporary Jews towards Poles is necessary, similar to the one, ongoing for years in Poland, about Polish anti-Semitism. What especially needs denying is the stereotype of a Pole as an “ordinary man”, an indifferent witness of the genocide, and in fact an accomplice due to his assenting indifference.

In Poland, as in many Western countries, from the 18th century on there were strata of more or less assimilated Jews, patriots of the countries they lived in, but who kept the feeling of belonging to the Jewish nation. Also today there are millions of such double-national Jews around the world. In the case of, let us say, the USA, this is natural for everybody. It is not so natural in the case of Poland. What plays a decisive role here is the prejudice which very often we encounter. Every Polish Jew has frequently been asked: „what are you doing in this country?!”, “how can you live in the shadow of the crematoriums of Auschwitz?!”. These questions suggest that Poland and Polish society is an unfriendly environment for a Jew. That it is a bad place for a Jew. That is not true and I, being a one hundred percent Pole, and a one hundred percent Jew, do not want to live anywhere else and it is hurts me to see the distrust that many of my compatriot Jews have against my nation-Poles. What also hurts is that many Jews, aware of the fact that I am a Pole, deny my fully Jewish identity, as if I were some kind of unhealthy hybrid. Why, I ask, can one be a Jew and a Frenchman, a Jew and an American, but cannot be a Jew and a Pole, a “Jew-Pole”? One can. I am a living proof of that like dozens of my ancestors, including those murdered by Nazis, of whom I know that they thought and felt as I do.

The war

The refusal to understand that many Polish Jews are and were Poles leads to a distortion of the picture of the war on Polish territory. Jews see the war through the prism of the Holocaust and the difference in the situation of Poles and Jews in the face of German aggression. The Germans closed the Jews within the walls of ghettos, and from that time on, also in the minds of the Jews of the world, Polish Jews started to be presented as a completely separate society, a society of non-Poles on the territory of Poland. Still, this kind of thinking has been imposed by the behaviour of the Germans. Let us not succumb to it. The truth is entirely different. Numerous Polish Jews were Poles in the same sense in which French Jews were Frenchmen, and even German Jews were Germans. The latter perhaps finally stopped being Germans, when the German state renounced them, but surely this cannot be said about the Polish Jews. In Poland, there were many anti-Semitic excesses and instances of administrative discrimination – more than in some other European countries, but less than in many others. However, it would be utterly absurd to suppose that those excesses excluded 3.5 million Jews from the society and enclosed them in a ghetto, that such an enormous Jewish society ceased to be part of the Polish society, living in one political whole together with ethnic Poles and other groups. Between two wars free Poland was a relatively decent country to such an extent that the minorities living here were simply parts of the social and political whole of that multicultural country, just as it is in most of the countries where Jews lived. Realising this fact helps to understand something that many still cannot grasp: the Holocaust is an unspeakable Jewish tragedy, but it is also a tragedy of the Poles.

The Holocaust exterminated three million Polish Jews. Most of these people considered themselves to be rightful members of Polish society, many spoke Polish very well (or even only Polish) and loved Poland. A large part of them, like me, were Jews and Poles. This is why their death is also a Polish tragedy.

Three millions of Jews are not the only people whom we lost during the war. The enemy killed another three million, and I am not going to expatiate upon how many of them were ethnic Poles, and how many representatives of various minorities. Let us remember that despite the difference between the fate of an ethnic Pole and a Polish Jew during the war (after all, the former one had a 90% chance of survival, and the latter 10%), the fate of “Aryans” was also terrible. Let us remember the soldiers and guerrillas, as well as the hundreds of thousands of civilians tortured to death in the camps or killed during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which itself ravaged almost 200.000 human beings.

If some find it difficult to agree with such a perception of the Holocaust, they should think about September 11. Many Jews died under the ruins of the WTC. Do we separate them from the American victims of the tragedy? Of course not, since it is clear to us that the Jews were Americans at the same time. Why does somebody find it repulsive to think that hundreds of thousands of Jews-Poles died in the Holocaust, which makes the tragedy also a Polish one? Perhaps only because he or she is convinced that Poles were enemies of Jews and that Jews were not at home in Poland. As a matter of fact, most Poles were not enemies Jews, and most of Jews did feel at home in Poland. That is just the same kind of sociological fact as that there was strong anti-Semitism in Poland and other Western countries before the war.

Each year, when the March of the Living goes through the town of Oswiecim to the Auschwitz camp, there are people standing on the sidewalks and watching. These people look somewhat strange and unfriendly. But what in fact should they be doing? They have to wait until we pass to cross the street themselves or they just watch an extraordinary street scene. It requires a little imagination to understand, that they are not doing anything wrong by standing and watching, and only from our perspective, of the walking, do they seem alien and cold. Making an accusation from the fact that people lived where they lived, lived as it was possible to live though nearby the Germans were killing Jews, is absurd and is proof of a complete lack of imagination. Jews also were trying to live normally until the last moment, even when the ghettos were being wiped out. How could it have been any different?

Many ethnic Poles collaborated with the Germans during the war, giving away the Jews. There were also many pogroms. This must not be forgotten and we, Poles, ought to bear remembrance of it. Educated people are aware of this. We also wish it to be remembered that it was in the same Poland where Jews received heroic help on the greatest scale in the whole of Europe. This is symbolised by 6500 trees in Yad-Vashem. Although the number of Polish trees is the biggest one, too few Jews associate the Polish nation with acts of heroic solidarity, and too many with enmity and collaboration with the Germans. That is unjust and one-sided. It is painful that the heroes rescuing Jews who were not Polish are incomparably better known than the heroes of Polish nationality. Everyone knows, and should know, the name of Wallenberg or Schindler, few know the names of Henryk Sławik and Irena Sendler – the people who saved many thousands of Jews from death and deserve the same public recognition. Yet, when it comes to remembering the deeds of the malefactors (and they should be remembered), the Polish nationality of some of them is eagerly stressed. Even Germans are called “Nazis” or “Hitlerites” in many publications, to underline the fact that not all Germans were malefactors, whereas when the discussion is about “trackers” or “ordinary people” – indifferent witnesses of  the Holocaust, the term “Poles” is often used without hesitation. Let`s call Germans – Germans, and Poles – Poles, but when we avoid these names, let us avoid them consistently and justly.

Anti-Semitism today

The reason for the broad scope of anti-Jewish acts on the part of native Polish co-citizens is the same as that for the great number of heroic acts. It is simply that there was the greatest number of Jews in our country and it was our country that the Germans turned into the scene of the Holocaust. In general, all phenomena connected with the “Jewish issue” in Poland were manifested more strongly than in many other countries for simply quantitative reasons. The remains of that reality are still visible today, for example in the form of some remnants of the myth of the Jewish threat and the demonising of Jews. Paradoxically, the almost total lack of Jews (there are, maybe, around twenty thousand of us) in our country contributes to this kind of anti-Semitism – it is easier to demonise an abstract than living people.

Polish anti-Semitism is underpinned with fear and envy, spreading among people who wanted to see others guilty of their poverty. The same people who say that the authorities are all thieves usually also say that the Jews are to be blamed for everything. However, taking such primitive people as the model of Polish society is nonsense. Saying on such a basis that Poles are mostly anti-Semitic, bears as much truth as saying that they usually hate their country and abuse its authorities.

I do not belittle the fact that there are inscriptions like „Jews to the chambers” and swastikas scribbled on walls in Poland, and hateful anti-Jewish papers available in many kiosks. Few Jews have the courage to walk with a  kipa on their head through a Polish neighbourhood. What is more, saying “I am a Jew” in public happens to be viewed as a kind of provocation or pretentious ostentation. Yes, Poland is marked with anti-Semitism – usually primitive, sometimes more sophisticated. That is true. Yet there is no reason whatsoever to believe that, in general, anti-Semitism is greater here than anywhere else in Europe. It is usually expressed in such a primitive way, because it characterises primitive people. One fool can make a hundred inscriptions, which stay on the walls for years, and those who should cover it with paint do not do it because they think it will not help. How many such fools are there? Judging by the tiny sales of the above-mentioned papers, not many at all. And still, most of us, Jews from Poland, have not encountered since the seventies any significant unpleasantness because of our ethnic origin in independent Poland. That is also of importance. Just like the fact that Poland is free of mass anti-Israeli hysteria, which affects many Western societies.

The average Pole is probably indifferent to Jews, although he or she is likely to suppose that the Jews disregard and dislike the Poles and consider them to be anti-Semitic. And then Poles really start to dislike Jews. So we have a typical feedback loop: Jews often dislike Poles because they think them to be anti-Semitic, and Poles do not like Jews because they think the Jews perceive them as anti-Semitic or as “indifferent witnesses of the Holocaust.” This is paranoia, which must be stopped eventually.

Today`s Poland [2005] is a descent, democratic and not very poor a country, really worth of interest and worth visiting. So many Israelis go to Europe, including Germany, to enjoy flavours of Europe and spend some good time. However they do not come to Poland with these purposes. Why not? Is Poland only a burned land of the concentration camps, indeed? Is it not as good a place for socializing and holiday, as France, Italy or Germany? Of course it is, with its beautiful mountains, lakes and coasts, with its charming cities and towns, sometimes plenty of Jewish monuments. Do Israeli realize that? Do they realize that Poland is a country where all foreigners, including Jews, are warmly welcome and safe? That prices are decent there and services good? Rather not. Perhaps the time came to re-evaluate Jewish image of Poland and to become acquainted with Poland and Poles again. I, a Polish-Jew, warmly invite you to do so.

Tekst powstał w 2005 roku – nigdy nie został opublikowany w wersji angielskiej. Sądzę, że jest „na czasie”, więc postanowiłem opublikować go u siebie. Byłbym bardzo wdzięczny osobom mającym kontakty w Izraelu za podesłanie znajomym linka.