When the dust clears from the current crisis in Polish–Jewish relations and the inevitable post-mortem is carried out, several inescapable conclusions will be reached. One of the most obvious is that Polish officialdom’s attempts to legislate history have backfired, blowing up in the faces of those who masterminded it.
The cost to Poland’s reputation has already been staggering. Instead of defending the country's good name and deflecting discussion away from painful truths in its wartime history, the “anti-defamation” legislation enacted in January cast a penetrating spotlight on parts of Polish society’s complicity in the Shoah, whether through acts of commission or omission.
Along with the transparent effort to whitewash inglorious history and quash objective research, Warsaw’s new policy raises serious doubts about its commitment to free speech, civil rights and democracy.
Another equally troubling by-product of this episode has been a torrent of antisemitic invective in the Polish media and on the Polish streets, evoking the bitter days of the 1968 Communist witch hunt. Ironically, it was exactly fifty years ago, that the last Jews of Poland were publicly debased and nearly all of them ignominiously driven out of the country.
The question at the heart of the matter—the extent of local collusion in the annihilation of the Jews of German occupied Poland—defies simple characterisation.
It can only be answered by scholars acting sine ira et studio—without bitterness or zealousness—as Tacitus cautioned. Alas, it was both bitterness and zealousness that typified the frenzied discourse in Poland and Israel in the wake of the Polish Sejm and Senate’s passage of the law.
On the Jewish/Israeli side of the fence, two categories of participants in this episode must be identified for their own contribution to the pall that has descended over Polish-Jewish/Israeli relations.
Group 1: The Enablers
We can call the first group the “enablers”.
These are the “useful idiots” – to quote Lenin – such as one Jonny Daniels. That shadowy Anglo-Israeli public relations man first showed up in Poland a few years ago, and for reasons that have yet to be satisfactorily explained, joined the cause of Polish nationalism.
Lending credence to traditional antisemitic tropes, he warned his new Polish friends that the “leftist Jewish media” was responsible for delegitimising and degrading Poland and that Poles should be especially leery of Jewish claims for restitution.
Avaricious Jews seeking the return of property, he said, should be told to “back off” – thus reminding us of the story of Shylock. He told them that he could and would shatter the “monopoly” of those who for years had been engaged in Polish-Jewish dialogue—and had slandered Poland.
Indeed, it seems that his most important mission was to eclipse the truly praiseworthy research of a dauntless group of Polish scholars who for some 25 years have been relentlessly working to chronicle the complex story of Polish-Jewish relations during the German occupation.
At the core of their research was a nuanced deconstruction of the reaction of Polish society to the German policies aimed at the annihilation of the Jews of Poland and of Europe generally.
It was not an assignment for the faint of heart. In painstaking detail, they described and documented the local elements who took part in the Judenjagd (the hunt for Jews).
These included the so-called Polish Blue Police, who collaborated with the Germans; village and township heads nominated or retained by the Germans, fire brigades and ordinary citizens on every socio-economic level.
The Polish scholars reported that among broad sections of the Polish public there was no stigma attached to involvement in the destruction and despoliation of the Jews—even as other Poles displayed extraordinary heroism and risked their lives and those of their loved ones, in seeking to rescue their Jewish neighbours.
The vast Polish underground state enjoys an almost sacrosanct place in Poland's wartime narrative. Both its military arm and its civilian-political institutions mounted stiff resistance to the German oppressors.
However, after extensive analysis of its clandestine press and other documentation, the same scholars – together with researchers from outside Poland – made it known that antisemitism was rife in the ranks of the underground. This found expression in both word and deed.
Across most of the Polish political spectrum, there was determined opposition to the idea of legal or social equality for Jews who would survive the war.
Many Poles, including not a few in the underground, believed that the Polish nation had two enemies: an external one—the Germans—and an internal one—the Jews. Waging war against one did not preclude lending a hand in the destruction of the other. Thus, some Poles, themselves victims, could also be and indeed were perpetrators.
More than two million Poles lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis, who sought to degrade and enslave the Polish nation. That suffering and German terror did not necessarily translate into empathy for Jews.
In the winter of 1940, before mass killing of Jews began, the intrepid Polish courier Jan Karski delivered his first report to the government-in-exile in London.
He described the Polish attitude toward Jews as “ruthless, often without pity. A large part avails itself of the prerogatives that they have in the new situation… to some extent this brings the Poles closer to the Germans.”
Antisemitism, he wrote, “is something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a… large part of Polish society is finding agreement.”
It was Karski who later, in October 1942, brought news to the West of the unimaginable slaughter taking place in his native land.
Beginning in December 1942, a special underground unit called Żegota was established to aid Jews in hiding. It assisted several thousand escapees who made it to the “Aryan” side.
The findings of Polish historians undermined the self-perception of Poles as an entirely heroic nation that never collaborated with the German occupants. Therefore, the evidence of such scholars had to be repressed and those responsible for it vilified.
What replaced it was a narrative in which the uplifting story of the righteous Polish rescuers was magnified beyond all proportion. That approach completely obfuscates the true context of widespread indifference and antipathy in which gallant Polish rescuers found themselves operating.
Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, founder of the notoriously antisemitic Radio Maryja media empire, became the high priest of this undertaking—aimed at presenting the whole of the Polish population as selfless rescuers. This endeavour was seen as a matter of national importance and received generous official funding.
Rydzyk and Daniels called on Jews to confess their “belated” recognition of the valour of Polish rescuers and persuaded some Israelis (none of them scholars. of course) to endorse their distorted narrative.
Ignoring or misrepresenting the fact that Yad Vashem had recognized 6706 Polish Righteous, and is continuing its research to verify other applications, Rydzyk and Daniels convened a conference in November 2017, devoted to "Remembrance and Hope."
At a shrine in Torun ostensibly dedicated to the memory of Poles who had lost their lives saving Jews, speaker after speaker—including an Israeli minister, a member of Knesset, and rabbis—arose to laud their Polish hosts.
Nowhere was it even intimated that the greatest threat to both the rescued and the rescuers was not posed only by the Gestapo, but by rapacious neighbours who saw the horrific plight of the helpless Jews as an almost unparalleled opportunity for larceny, self-gratification, and settling scores, at no risk of punishment.
Jewish women and girls were raped and Jews alive and dead were robbed of their possessions.
This spectacle served to embolden those desirous of paving a clear path for obfuscation. It strengthened the notion that the contentious bill limiting free speech and stifling historical inquiry could be adopted without any blowback.
Not surprisingly, these “useful idiots” have been mostly silent since the negationist Polish legislation was promulgated. Perhaps during the viduy (confession) on Yom Kippur they will be heard to whisper their own al chet (mea culpa) to the Almighty and to all those whom they have wronged—but especially to the unflinching Polish historians who have made it their life's work to excise the demons in the Polish closet.
They will also need to stand with heads bowed before the memory of the authentic Polish Righteous, some of whom would have been mortified to see the way their deeds had been demeaned and politicized. A few such surviving heroes and their children have actually said as much.
For example, Teresa Zawadzka, daughter of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, whose valour is described in the new film The Zookeeper’s Wife, decried the flagrant manipulation of her parents’ legacy and attempts to downplay the existence of antisemitism in Poland.
Disturbed by this grotesque charade, she refused to have anything to do with Rydzyk or Daniels. One suspects that had Jan Karski or other giants in the Polish pantheon lived to witness this farce they would have reacted similarly.
Group 2: Politicians and ordinary citizens
Then there is the second group of Israelis who should be “outed” for their own negative role in this affair.
These are the politicians and ordinary citizens who let their emotions get the best of them and further inflamed passions with intemperate and utterly unfounded assertions about Polish guilt for the Holocaust and overdrawn statements about antisemitism in Poland.
Some went so far as to accuse Poles of responsibility for Auschwitz and other German murder factories.
To be sure, certain elements in Poland were delighted to receive this ammunition from those misguided Israelis, as it only reinforced their twisted theories about some visceral Jewish “anti-Polonism” and could be used in their own anti-Jewish screeds.
There is, of course, nothing very new in this.
In 1968, while unceremoniously ejecting Jews or Poles with partial Jewish ancestry, Communist leaders had peddled an almost identical message of “Polish heroism” in the face of “Jewish hatred of Poland.” Then, like now, “methinks the lady doth protest too much…”
Still, it must be stated clearly—this is no time for equivocation—that whatever the role of elements of the local population in Poland (and elsewhere), the ultimate responsibility for the Holocaust lies with Nazi Germany.
All the death, forced labour, and concentration camps on Polish soil were established and run by the Germans who ruthlessly invaded and occupied Poland.
Moreover, it must be made clear that to point to local collaboration in Poland or elsewhere in no way diminishes the culpability of Germans (and Austrians) for the destruction of European Jewry and should certainly not be interpreted in that way. Whoever engages in such conflation is engaging in Holocaust obfuscation.
The new Polish legislation criminalises anyone who falsifies “facts.” It is, of course, left to the Polish authorities or institutions controlled by them to decide just what the "facts" are.
People outside of Poland who are similarly “guilty” of uttering what the government decides are mistruths are also threatened with the same punishment, if they dare step off a plane in Warsaw or Krakow.
“Legitimate” historians and artists are supposedly exempt from these strictures, but one wonders who will determine just what constitutes a legitimate academic or artistic expression?
What about journalists, tour guides, Polish BA and MA students studying the period? And what to do with Holocaust survivors and their descendants describing their own experiences? Shall they too be charged?
On February 17, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki weighed in with a clumsily worded explanation that would suggest that Jews should be seen as among the perpetrators of the Holocaust—as if there could be any equivalence between the murder of Jews by Polish peasants and members of the Blue Police and the tortured, forced yielding of Jewish community leaders to the overwhelming brutality of Germans and their local accomplices.
The prime minister also chose to lay a wreath on the grave of members of a semi-Fascist underground formation — the NSZ — that collaborated with the Nazis and murdered Jews.
Early on, students who aspire to practice the historians’ craft are taught that even-handedness and equanimity are essential to credible scholarship. This can be especially daunting when chilling acts of cruelty and perceived stains on national honour and identity are concerned.
To their everlasting credit, unwavering Polish scholars rose to that challenge. Theirs has truly been and remains a struggle "For your freedom and ours"—to quote the stirring slogan that inspired generations of patriots in Poland’s plucky history of independence lost and regained.
One hopes that the day will come when they receive the recognition that they deserve.
In the meantime, the clumsy digging by Polish politicians continues and the hole keeps getting deeper.
Once the diggers get tired and lay down their shovels it will be left to the historians, sane politicians and others of goodwill to sort out the mess and get on with their thankless jobs.
They understand better than anyone else what Georg Eliot observed long ago, “Our deeds still travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are.”
Professor Yehuda Bauer and Dr Laurence Weinbaum are Israeli historians