The Polish-Jewish Impasse: Responding to Joseph Puder

Why does the single act of evil find a stronger place in our memory than many acts of good?

The article below is the continuation of a dialogue/debate Frontpage is hosting on the question of Polish Culpability in the Holocaust? -- the title of Joseph Puder's Frontpage article that sparked this exchange. We have also run Danusha Goska's, Poland's New Law Criminalizing Speech about the Holocaust. Below, John Radzilowski counters Joseph Puder's recent critique of his viewpoint. Frontpage continues to welcome contributions to this dialogue and debate. 

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
—Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

I thank Joseph Puder for his commentary on the tortured history of Poles and Jews and the spirit in which it was offered.

Every family that experienced the war, Polish and Jewish, has harrowing tales of loss, betrayal, and survival. Mr. Puder’s story of his cousin’s betrayal and death at the hands of a Polish neighbor remains one of many open wounds from that time. Yet for each tale of perfidy and murder, one can find a countervailing tale of heroism in the face of evil.

Polish-Jewish discussions often end up as exchanges of such anecdotes with interlocutors seeking to cancel out a story of evil with a story of good and vice versa. Such individual stories are a vital part of the historical record—I myself use them to teach the Holocaust—but for all their undeniable emotional power, they fail to explain the aggregate experiences of Poles or Jews during that hellish time. Remembered stories often record what is extraordinary rather than what is typical.

There is no evidence to demonstrate that the majority or even an appreciable percentage of Poles collaborated with the Nazis. Few collaborated. A somewhat larger (though still small) number of Poles resisted. Most people did neither and could do neither. Yet, as noted before, a single collaborator could do immense damage, proving only that it is easier to destroy than to build. An act of a single moment could condemn a Jew in hiding to death, while hiding a Jew took the daily actions of dozens of people over 4 or 5 years. Any action that aided the Nazis increased the “barbarity and inhumanity of the Holocaust,” yet why does the single act of evil seem more apt to find a place in our memory than many acts of good?

Collaboration deserves serious study, but restricting it to only one set of interactions—Poles betraying Jews—distorts the historical record. Polish collaborators betrayed fellow Poles, causing huge losses to the resistance. Jewish collaborators betrayed fellow Jews. The Gestapo often used Jewish agents to track down Jews in hiding. Under the Soviet occupations, when Catholic Poles faced greater peril than did Jewish Poles, some Jews did indeed betray their neighbors to the NKVD. There is no limit to human perfidy and while no act of evil should be excused nor any act of good forgotten, such actions were hardly normative for either Poles or Jews.

Anti-Semitism was as normal in pre-war Poland as it was throughout Europe. Yet, Polish Jews had a rich cultural life with hundreds of periodicals, music, theater and even a Yiddish film industry. Around half of Poland’s doctors and lawyers were Jewish. Poland was one of Europe’s poorest countries with much of its population living at subsistence level, and the relative success of Jews - especially during the hard years of the 1930s - fed the resentment of anti-Semites. One result, restrictions on Jews in universities - an early form of affirmative action with all its malign implications - was resisted by Jews but also opposed by many Poles. As Mr. Puder notes, Menachem Begin experienced the lash of such discrimination. Yet, like many young Betar leaders, Begin also received secret military training from the Polish Army designed to create leaders for the army of a future Israel. A clear-eyed view of this period defies easy categories.

Mr. Puder’s affirmation that the German Nazi regime was the sole author and executor of the Holocaust is most welcome. Alas, in the past two decades an entire school of postmodern history based in “cultural Marxism” has emerged, seeking to re-write the Holocaust with Poles as perpetrators. Led by Princeton professor Jan Gross - the Howard Zinn of Polish history - this school has sought to ruthlessly suppress dissent and blacklist any who question their conclusions or methodology. This school dismisses all Polish resistance as irrelevant and belittles Polish losses. One scholar even stated that while Jewish deaths were an existential tragedy, the deaths of Poles were a merely a cessation of biological functions - implying Poles are little different than farm animals. This postmodern approach dominates the discourse in North America and has many adherents in Europe including Poland and especially Germany. Frustration over such efforts to re-write history led the Polish Sejm to pass a law last year that sought to ban blaming Poles for the Holocaust. The disastrous law not only gave more publicity to the neo-Stalinist school, it initiated a chain of events that led to the insults hurled by the Israeli foreign minister Katz in February and the current rupture in Polish-Israeli relations. (Let it never be said the academy’s postmodern dreck has no real world consequences.)

Mr. Puder calls for greater efforts at education to help overcome the divide between Poles and Jews. This noble idea, however, is likely to be counterproductive in the current academic and political environment where education more often resembles indoctrination. Past efforts at Polish-Jewish rapprochement failed because neither side could honestly face the past and—most important—could not treat the other with respect as an equal partner. After 1989, there was real interest among Poles in learning about the history and culture of Polish Jewry and a modest but hopeful revival of Judaism. Yet there was little reciprocation. The Polish Left’s use of identity politics and the work of Prof. Gross and his followers, have set back the cause of Polish-Jewish relations so far as to cause even the most patient and good-hearted people to despair. So while education is important, it begins with stepping back from the torrent of insults in the press and social media. Education must also be a two way street. Even many well-meaning Jews in Israel and the U.S. appear often oblivious to the basic facts of Polish history, and, just as significantly, to the centuries of Jewish history in Poland.

The immensity of Jewish losses during the Holocaust dwarfs that of all other victims of the Nazis, even the deaths of Poles. Yet, our humanity cannot be so cramped and narrow that we forget that Poles experienced more than just some “suffering.” During the war Polish gentile losses were comparable to Cambodian losses under the Khmer Rouge. It is unreasonable to expect Poles to consign the deaths of their loved ones to a historical footnote or serve as modern stand-ins for Amalek.

As a frightened teenager my great uncle hid in the woods near his home and watched two German officers and their Ukrainian auxiliaries shoot thousands of his Jewish neighbors in a pit. The two Germans drank beer and ate sandwiches in between bouts of murder. Along with his sisters, he survived the Nazi occupation, two Soviet occupations, ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian nationalists, and post-war deportation to western Poland to testify at the trial of one of the German officers he saw that afternoon, but the memory of those hours in the forest haunted him until his last day. He would have been amazed at the current conflicts and at the failure of political leaders and intellectuals to speak truthfully to each other as humans, and disheartened that the poisonous evil he witnessed that day continues to divide two nations who should be allies rather than foes.

John Radzilowski is associate professor at University of Alaska Southeast and the author of numerous works on the history of the United States and east-central Europe.

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