Were Poles Right­eous Gen­tiles Or Col­lab­o­ra­tors?

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Jane Eis­ner

Only a few years ago it seemed that the fraught nar­ra­tive of Poland and its Jews was evolv­ing from un­easy sus­pi­cion to ten­ta­tive em­brace. The 2014 open­ing of the core ex­hi­bi­tion of the Museum of the His­tory of Pol­ish Jews, in War­saw, was the joy­ful epit­ome of this de­vel­op­ing story; lauded by politi­cians and cel­e­brated by the pub­lic, it rep­re­sented the resur­gence of Jewish in­vest­ment and op­ti­mism in a land too of­ten as­so­ci­ated with only the shed­ding of Jewish blood.

Now, Poland and Is­rael are en­gaged in a bit­ter diplo­matic rift over a new defama­tion law mak­ing it a crime to blame the Pol­ish na­tion for Nazi crimes against the Jews dur­ing World War II. Jewish lead­ers in War­saw and Krakow say they are fear­ful that this will in­crease anti-Semitism. Poles who con­tend that they, too, were bru­tally oc­cu­pied by the Ger­mans are an­gry and de­fen­sive.

Against the back­drop of a far-right, na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment that came to power in 2015, this dis­pute has be­come locked into com­pet­ing vic­ti­molo­gies. Ei­ther Poles be­trayed the Jews or Poles saved them. Ei­ther Poles were col­lab­o­ra­tors and en­ablers — in the words of Is­raeli jour­nal­ist Ro­nen Bergman, “worse than the Nazis” — or they were re­sisters whose virtues and suf­fer­ing have been long over­looked.

This is an ar­gu­ment nei­ther side can win out­right, be­cause both sides are cor­rect. Many Poles risked their lives to har­bor and help their Jewish neigh­bors. Ac­cord­ing to Yad Vashem, 6,706 Pol­ish men and women are counted as Right­eous Among the Na­tions, the high­est num­ber of any coun­try in the world.

But those heroic acts saved only about

1% of Pol­ish Jewry, and there are equally sear­ing sto­ries of Pol­ish col­lab­o­ra­tors and be­tray­ers, dur­ing and af­ter the war. When some­one like Bergman re­counts his mother’s damn­ing ob­ser­va­tion that the Poles were worse than the Nazis, he is his­tor­i­cally wrong but emo­tion­ally cor­rect, as the Holo­caust his­to­rian Michael Beren­baum told me. The Ger­mans were in­vad­ing for­eign­ers. The Poles were neigh­bors, busi­ness as­so­ciates, friends. The in­ti­macy of those re­la­tion­ships made the be­tray­als that much more hurt­ful.

The choice in Holo­caust nar­ra­tives is not a bi­nary one — not ei­ther/or; it is both/and. Aca­demics know this, re­spon­si­ble com­mu­nal lead­ers have said this, but in the strug­gle over com­pet­ing Holo­caust nar­ra­tives, too many Pol­ish politi­cians and their Is­raeli and Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts have pan­dered to their re­spec­tive do­mes­tic bases in­stead of ac­knowl­edg­ing nu­anced, com­pli­cated his­tor­i­cal truths.

There is another rea­son that this is not a bi­nary choice. What many Poles do not ap­pre­ci­ate is one of the cen­tral les­sons of the Holo­caust — that, from a Jewish point of view, there was a third cat­e­gory of be­hav­ior beyond per­pe­tra­tors and sav­iors: the by­standers, the on­look­ers, the ones who stood idly by and there­fore were in­di­rectly com­plicit in the crimes against hu­man­ity around them.

“We must take sides,” the late Elie Wiesel said in his 1986 No­bel Prize ac­cep­tance speech. “Neu­tral­ity helps the op­pres­sor, never the vic­tim. Si­lence en­cour­ages the tor­men­tor, never the tor­mented. Some­times we must in­ter­fere.”

But too many Poles did not in­ter­fere, ei­ther be­fore the Ger­mans in­vaded and

What many Poles do not ap­pre­ci­ate is one of the cen­tral les­sons of the Holo­caust — that there was a third cat­e­gory of be­hav­ior beyond per­pe­tra­tors and sav­iors: the on­look­ers.

oc­cu­pied their land, or af­ter, when the air was foul with smoke from the cre­ma­to­ria, roundups oc­curred in plain sight, ghet­tos im­pris­oned Jews in hun­dreds of cities and towns, and fields and mead­ows be­came heav­ing dump­ing grounds for the Jewish dead.

Few in to­day’s heated mo­ment are will­ing to reckon with this si­lence, but I don’t see how this roil­ing de­bate on Holo­caust suf­fer­ing can be re­solved un­less this reck­on­ing oc­curs.

Judg­ing si­lence, in­ac­tion and ac­qui­es­cence is morally dif­fi­cult in ret­ro­spect, of course. The pres­sure to con­form to the Nazi regime was enor­mous. Poles will say that their re­sis­tance was more wide­spread than they have been given credit for — the Pol­ish un­der­ground, for ex­am­ple, ex­e­cuted those who col­lab­o­rated with the Ger­mans. Un­like other na­tions ruled by the Ger­mans, Poland never had a col­lab­o­ra­tionist gov­ern­ment. Many Poles hated the Nazis as much as the Jews did.

By the 1930s anti-Semitism had be­come a fix­ture of rad­i­cal right-wing na­tion­al­ists and the hi­er­ar­chy of the Catholic Church, as Adam Mich­nik, the Pol­ish his­to­rian and jour­nal­ist, has writ­ten. “Though his­tor­i­cally Poland had been a rel­a­tively safe haven for them, Jews be­gan to feel in­creas­ingly dis­crim­i­nated against

‘The Ger­mans will throw stones at Hitler’s death, be­cause he brought about the down­fall of the Ger­man peo­ple, but the Poles will bring flow­ers to his grave as a to­ken of grat­i­tude for his free­ing Poland from the Jews.’

and un­safe — and they were, with noisy an­tiSemitic groups, seg­re­gated seat­ing at uni­ver­si­ties and calls for pogroms,” he wrote.

It is this deep-seated anti-Semitism baked into Pol­ish at­ti­tudes to­ward Jews that en­abled some to re­spond to the Nazi in­va­sion with no more than a shrug. They may not have col­lab­o­rated, but many knew what was go­ing on and did not act to stop it. Beren­baum shared with me some­thing that Adam Polewka, a Pol­ish re­sis­tance fighter, said dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion: “The Ger­mans will throw stones at Hitler’s death, be­cause he brought about the down­fall of the Ger­man peo­ple, but the Poles will bring flow­ers to his grave as a to­ken of grat­i­tude for his free­ing Poland from the Jews.”

Still to­day, there re­mains in Poland a stub­born, wide­spread streak of anti-Semitism, ex­pressed in leg­is­la­tion, pub­lic opin­ion sur­veys and the me­dia more than in vi­o­lent acts, since there are so few Jews there, any­how. It is an odd form of anti-Semitism — one with­out Jews, a ha­tred with­out the source of the ha­tred present.

The Cen­ter for Re­search on Prej­u­dice, an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary re­search unit at the Univer­sity of War­saw, sur­veys anti-Semitic at­ti­tudes

the same ten­den­cies — in our will­ing­ness to over­look Pales­tinian suf­fer­ing or, closer to home, to tol­er­ate sys­temic racism in Amer­ica.

This is why Wiesel’s ad­mo­ni­tions are so es­sen­tial. He gave elo­quent voice to a cen­tral bi­b­li­cal teach­ing: “Do not stand idly by while your neigh­bor’s blood is shed.”

If I could im­press one thing upon all the Pol­ish peo­ple who do not want to con­tinue this use­less bit­ter­ness, it would be this: Ex­am­ine, with us, the way in which your in­dif­fer­ence and your si­lence en­abled the Holo­caust to go on and on. Even if you be­lieved you were only pro­tect­ing your­selves, you en­dan­gered mil­lions of oth­ers, and robbed your coun­try of a peo­ple who con­trib­uted so much.

And I’d read them this quote that Emanuel Ringe­blum, a Jewish his­to­rian, wrote be­fore he was mur­dered in 1944: “The Pol­ish peo­ple and the gov­ern­ment of the Repub­lic of Poland were in­ca­pable of de­flect­ing the Nazi steam­roller from its anti-Jewish course. But the ques­tion is per­mis­si­ble, whether the at­ti­tude of the Pol­ish peo­ple be­fit­ted the enor­mity of the calamity…. Was it in­evitable that the Jews look­ing their last on this world as they rode in the death trains… should have seen in­dif­fer­ence and even glad­ness on the faces of their neigh­bors?” among Poles reg­u­larly in a smart way — by rec­og­niz­ing that there is tra­di­tional anti-Semitism (blood li­bels, Christkiller, etc.) and other forms that po­si­tion Jews at the cen­ter of a global con­spir­acy. The 2017 re­sults show that while only about a quar­ter of Poles still be­lieve in tra­di­tional an­ti­Semitism, a far greater num­ber share the more “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect” be­liefs that Jews are schem­ing against Poles and for them­selves. So 43% agreed that Jews strive to rule the world. And 46% agreed that Jews op­er­ate covertly, be­hind the scenes.

And 53.5% agreed that Jews strive to ex­pand their in­flu­ence on the world econ­omy.

These are la­tent prej­u­dices, be­cause, again, there is only a sprin­kling of Jews left in all of Poland. But it’s not hard to imag­ine how, un­der the right cir­cum­stances, they can come alive.

Here’s a case in point: Last Septem­ber, the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment fi­nally sought to pro­vide some com­pen­sa­tion for prop­erty con­fis­cated by the Com­mu­nist regime af­ter World War II. But the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion as writ­ten would have dis­crim­i­nated against Jews in sev­eral ways, Gideon Tay­lor, chair of op­er­a­tions of the World Jewish Resti­tu­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion, told me. To re­ceive resti­tu­tion, the prop­erty owner would have had to be a res­i­dent of Poland when the Com­mu­nists na­tion­al­ized the prop­erty, but many Jews had fled by then; they would have to be a cit­i­zen of Poland to­day, which very few Jews are, and they would have only a di­rect line as heirs, even though many Jewish prop­erty own­ers lost chil­dren in the war.

Jewish groups lob­bied to amend the leg­is­la­tion, en­list­ing Is­raeli and Amer­i­can of­fi­cials in their ef­fort. Af­ter some pub­lic de­bate, the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment re­ferred the leg­is­la­tion back to the Min­istry of Jus­tice for fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion.

Now, in the raw tu­mult over the Holo­caust defama­tion law, this pro­posal on prop­erty resti­tu­tion has resur­faced. But whereas the dis­cus­sion last fall re­mained civil, this time far-right voices are bray­ing that the Jews want changes in the law be­cause all they want is money — when, in fact, all the Jews want is treat­ment equal to that of non-Jews.

And why would such out­landish claims res­onate right now? Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 Cen­ter for Re­search on Prej­u­dice sur­vey, more than half the Pol­ish pub­lic — 56% — agreed with the state­ment: “The Jews want to get com­pen­sa­tion from the Poles for the things that in fact were done to them by the Ger­mans.”

This is why I am so haunted by Pol­ish in­dif­fer­ence, then and now. It presents as neu­tral­ity, but in fact it can be ac­ti­vated and turned into hate and prej­u­dice by, say, a gov­ern­ment with a rad­i­cal na­tion­al­ist agenda that sees Poland as an ag­grieved Chris­tian na­tion. “There’s a deep link­age in re­cent Pol­ish tra­di­tion be­tween na­tion­al­ism and anti-Semitism,” the con­tro­ver­sial his­to­rian Jan T. Gross said at a pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Jewish His­tory. “The as­pect of an un­wanted Jewish pres­ence is a cen­tral ele­ment of Pol­ish na­tion­al­is­tic pol­icy. You can see how that sen­ti­ment is very much alive.”

In this, the Poles are no dif­fer­ent from other peo­ples who har­bor deep prej­u­dices that linger be­neath the sur­face un­til they are called out and ex­ploited. We Jews can be blamed for

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