Whether by coincidence or intentionally, the Polish Parliament in Warsaw decided to use the week of the Annual International Holocaust Commemoration to act on a draft bill that issues a fine or a prison term to anyone who suggests that Poles are responsible for Nazi crimes committed in Poland. The bill was approved last week in the lower house of the Polish Parliament, and it is expected to be passed by the Senate before being signed into law by Poland’s president. The draft proposes fines or a three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi death camps as being Polish.
While it is true that Germans, not Poles, created and operated the death camps, and likewise true that thousands of Catholic Poles risked their lives and their families in protecting and saving their Jewish neighbors, many more anti-Semitic Catholic Poles were complicit in the murder of the Jews.
No one would argue with the fact that Nazi Germany is responsible for the murder of Six Million Jews, among them over three million Polish Jews (my own relatives included). History however, cannot ignore the collaboration of Catholic Poles in the murder of their fellow Polish-Jewish citizens. Polish journalist Anna Bikont describes in her book “The Crime and the Silence,” what happened on July 10, 1941 in Jedwabne, a town of 3,000 residents in northeastern Poland. A mob of Catholic Poles murdered most of their Jewish neighbors that day. “Using axes, clubs, and knifes, the mob first killed some 40 Jewish men. The remaining Jews – men, women and children, many of them infants – were herded into a wooden barn on the outskirts of the town. Then, as the jeering mob watched, the murderers barred the doors, poured gasoline on the structure and lit the fire. Everyone inside died.” 1,600 Jewish men, women and children perished in the fire, while the mob of peasants plundered the Jewish homes of their victims. At a monument for the burned Jewish victims erected in later years, the inscription read: “The site of the martyrdom of the Jewish population. Gestapo and Hitler’s gendarmerie burned alive 1,600 people, July 10, 1941.” No mention of the fact that Catholic Poles perpetrated this heinous murder.
A book by Jan T. Gross, a Polish-American academic of Jewish decent, titled “Neighbors,” dealt with the role Catholic Poles played, including many of its church leaders, in the collaboration and murder of their Jewish neighbors. Gross exposed the enormous efforts the Polish perpetrators have made, along with their families and the Church leadership in denying Polish responsibilities. As a result, the Polish authorities would seek to prosecute him under the newly proposed law. The historical truth cannot be denied however, in spite of efforts to silence witnesses and researchers.
Critics of the proposed law are concerned that it would have a chilling effect on debating history and restricting freedom of expression. It would also stifle debate on topics that are an anathema to Poland’s current nationalistic leadership. The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland has a particular interest in portraying Poland as a victim of the Nazis rather than admit the painful truth that many Catholic Poles blackmailed Jews, denounced them to the Nazis, or killed them during WWII.
In 1998, this reporter visited the site of the Kielce pogrom in central Poland. On July 4, 1946, Polish Catholic anti-Semites murdered in cold blood 42 survivors of the concentration camps who returned to their hometown in search of family and friends. I was shown the place by a Polish-Catholic medical student who related to me that this medieval pogrom was committed by hate-filled anti-Semites. He organized a school children exhibit that commemorated the names and lives of the 42 martyred Jews.
On a visit to Israel last January, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, in a meeting with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, acknowledged Polish complicity in the Kielce pogrom. He said that, “The members of my people who took part in the pogrom in Kielce after the end of WWII expelled themselves from the Polish people. That is my deep personal conviction.” He added, “Anyone who expresses anti-Semitic ideas in Poland is like a person who steps on a grave, a despicable act in Polish culture.”
Israel’s President Rivlin respectfully refrained from mentioning President Duda’s part in denying Polish culpability in the murder of an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Polish Jews as revealed in an interview with author and academic researcher Jan Gross, including the pogrom at Jedwabne by Polish Catholics. Among those thousands murdered by Poles was a cousin of this reporter, 10-year Zvi-Leib. He was placed in the hands of a Polish farmer for safekeeping who was given an appreciable sum of money for his deed, while Zvi-Leib’s mother and two sisters were deported and murdered at the Belzec Death camp. The farmer murdered Zvi-Leib in cold blood…
Rivlin did point out however, at a dinner in honor of his Polish counterpart that “he has always believed that statesmen have an obligation to shape the future, and to shape history, whereas historians have an obligation to describe the past and study history. It’s preferable that one not intrude on the other’s turf.” Rivlin spoke of the close historic ties between Poland and Israel, and the need to deal courageously with the rich and painful past.
The Polish government, in its attempt to uphold its status as a victim of the Nazi occupation, has deliberately and willfully ignored Polish anti-Semitism during WWII and afterward, as well as the betrayal and murder of their Jewish neighbors. Yet, Poland today is one of the few EU states that is strongly supportive of Israel, and Jewish culture in Poland has been rediscovered and celebrated. On a 1996 visit to Poland, I was seated at a table with a young Polish-Catholic medical student at a Warsaw Pizza Hut restaurant. Without knowing my background, the conversation touched on Jews. He then made the point with outmost sincerity that “Poland is poorer without its Jews.” He added, “The Jews enriched our culture.”
A few days later, encountering a high school group along the Vistula River park in Cracow, I was stunned to hear a common anti-Semitic canard that the Jews “cheated them” according to his father. When asked if he or his father met with Jews or dealt with them, the response was “no.” The saving grace in this encounter was that his friends in the group ridiculed his ignorance.
At a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last Sunday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel “Has no tolerance for the distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history, and the denial of the Holocaust.” This was a clear reference to the proposed Polish Parliament draft bill. PM Netanyahu also stated that Israel and Poland have agreed to hold talks seeking to resolve the uproar over the proposed Polish legislation that would outlaw blaming Poland for any crimes committed during the holocaust.
What is abundantly clear to Israelis in general and Holocaust survivors and their families in particular, is that close relations between Israel and Poland and the latter support for Israel in international forums, cannot come at the expense of the memory of martyred Jews.