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We need a broader understanding of the past

Poland was occupied by both the Nazis and Soviets. Miriam Shaviv asks if we could, as Jews, be more understanding?

    The Royal Castle in Warsaw after the German bombing of the city, September 1939
    The Royal Castle in Warsaw after the German bombing of the city, September 1939 (Unknown - Apoloniusz Zawilski (1972) "Bitwy Polskiego Września" ("Battles of Polish September"), Warsaw: Nasza Księgarnia ISBN 83-218-0817-4 via Wikipedia)

    At the recent Limmud Festival, I found myself watching a documentary called Bogdan’s Journey. It didn’t sound promising but the movie I really wanted to see, about Baghdad’s Jews, was so packed I couldn’t even get through the doors. So I resentfully made my way to my second choice.

    It turned out to be the highlight of my week.

    Bogdan’s Journey tells the story of Kielce, the Polish town where 40 Holocaust survivors were massacred after the war by locals. Nearly 70 years later, Bogdan Bialek, a Christian resident, is determined to get his neighbours to acknowledge what really happened.

    Many are in deep denial.

    Bogdan manages to co-ordinate regular, well-attended commemorations of the pogrom. He organises a Shabbat event in Kielce’s old synagogue, and visits survivors of the massacre in Israel. In the building where the killing started, he establishes a centre for tolerance.

    What makes this so incredibly moving is the constant, exhausting battle he must wage against his neighbours’ insistence that the Polish people cannot be perpetrators. They are victims! The secret police were responsible for the Kielce massacre.

    In the movie, those who hold this position are portrayed as racist fanatics (although they are the majority).

    And yet — without in any way excusing the falsification of history — I wonder whether we might be just a little more understanding of where they come from. This past week, Polish-Jewish-Israeli relations exploded in acrimony, over a proposed Polish bill that would make it an offence to suggest that “the Polish nation” committed crimes during the Holocaust, or to use the term, “Polish death camp”. They were German camps established on Polish soil.

    The motivation is, again, a deep belief that the Poles were victims during the war. In this account, the full responsibility for the Holocaust belongs to the German occupiers (although the Polish Prime Minister acknowledged that individual Poles took “wicked” actions against Jews).

    For Jews, this is difficult to swallow. Many of us grew up believing that Poles were “worse than the Germans”. When, in 1989, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir declared that Poles “drink in [antisemitism] with their mother’s milk”, he was feeding into a commonly accepted narrative that Poles were perpetrators — not victims.

    Our own wound is so deep that we can’t see that they were both.

    Poland was occupied by both the Nazis and Soviets. We forget that Warsaw was almost completely destroyed and that the Polish intelligentsia, political class, and Catholic priesthood were systematically wiped out.

    “The great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task,” said Heinrich Himmler. With a fifth of the Polish population dead, they nearly succeeded. Unlike other countries occupied by the Nazis, the Poles were ruled directly, and had no semblance of their own government.

    After the war, the Communists kept the country impoverished. West Germans had decades of freedom to deal with their past. Not so the Poles. No wonder the narrative of victimhood runs deep.

    But, according to Omer Bartov, a leading Holocaust scholar from Brown University, ethnic strife was already deeply embedded in Eastern Europe before the war. As a result, the Ukrainians, Poles and Jews all saw themselves as victims of the two other groups.

    When the Germans invaded, this longstanding “discourse of victimhood” made it easier for the Ukrainians and Poles to act violently both against each other and against the Jews.

    In Bartov’s acclaimed new book, Anatomy of a Genocide (Simon & Schuster), which documents the wartime fate of the town of Buczacz, it was not only the Nazis who massacred. Many Poles, Ukrainians and Jews were killed or turned in by former friends or neighbours. It felt like stark betrayal.

    When the war ended, he notes, the perpetrators almost never seemed to express regret or shame.

    People rewrote history to exculpate themselves (including some Jews, such as the Jewish “policemen”).

    Under such solipsistic conditions, “other people’s victimhood doesn’t figure.”

    The behaviour of the Poles this week certainly suggests that to be true for them. But has the Jewish attitude to the Poles been any different?

    We should always strive for a full and honest historical reckoning. But perhaps, more than 70 years after the war, it is time to give more thoughtful space to the other’s sensitivities. Bogdan can teach us all a lesson.

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