When the Polish government passed a bill on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in an effort to criminalize attributing responsibility for the Holocaust to Poles, many Israeli leaders and Jews became furious considering the move tantamount to a form of Holocaust denial.
The proposed legislation reads: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.”
If the act is committed unintentionally, “the perpetrator shall be liable to a fine or a restriction of liberty” and, “No offence is committed if the criminal act specified in clauses 1 and 2 is committed in the course of the one’s artistic or academic activity.”
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and opposition member Yair Lapid blasted Poland’s leadership for the new legislation, with the latter tweeting “Poland was complicit in the Holocaust” and firing back at the Polish embassy, “I don’t need Holocaust education from you.” Meanwhile, the Facebook page “German Death Camps” has 36,000 “likes” demonstrating the popularity of the Polish initiative aimed at setting the record straight that the death camps were Nazi German and that Poles were victims, too. Still today, Poles are struggling to assert their sovereignty through commemorating World War II and the Holocaust after decades of ideologically motivated and historically misconstrued “memorializing” by the Soviets.
The Enmity Between Jews and Poles
There is indeed a long history of tension between Poles and Jews, and it persists. Consider that, in 1998, Polish Catholics erected hundreds of crosses along the periphery of Auschwitz and a Polish man named Kazimierz Switon set up a tent beside them as a self-appointed guard who claimed to be defending Polish soil against the Jews: ”We do not tell the Jews what to do in their country, and they have no right to tell us what to do on our Polish soil.” Roughly a decade earlier, when Lech Wałęsa became the first Polish leader to visit Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, then Israeli prime minister, remarked, “every Pole sucked anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk.”
The antagonism between Poles and Jews is not the same as base racism; there is enmity on the level of rival religious truth claims, adding layers of complexity. It is impossible to understand the conflict between Israel and Poland without understanding the religious tension between Judaism and Christianity.
I’m a Jewish Catholic. My Polish-Jewish grandfather fled the country because of anti-Semitic economic policies of the Polish government in the 1930s. If ever I mention to Jews that I chose to go to graduate school in Poland, this is often met with a searching, “How could you?” In those moments, I recall the times I visited some small Polish town. I would read the Wikipedia description of it and, standing in that very place, learn the date during the Second World War that the town had been pronounced free of Jews. I thought to myself solemnly, “And yet, here I stand.”
But Poland is also a country of saints, heroes, and martyrs. I did not move there, though, because of patriotism for the flag but rather out of love for John Paul II, Janusz Korczak, and Maximilian Kolbe. In fact, I love Poland and Israel so deeply that asking me to choose loyalties between the two is like asking me to say whether I love my mother or father more.
Poles Were Not Complicit in the Holocaust En Masse
Now, I completely oppose the Polish bill. There should not be laws against speech. However, saying in some general sense that Poles were complicit in Holocaust crimes is as inappropriate as saying that Jews were complicit. Generally, Poles and Jews were both victims of the Nazis. Poles should never dare to say, “We did enough” no matter the heroism of many of their citizens, which is of course commendable. And Jews, so keen to preserve the memory of those who perished and the accuracy of historical truth, should never dare to minimize the suffering of the Poles with whom they have so much in common as both a suffering and triumphant people.
I spent the past summer in Israel and visited Yad Vashem for my second time. On this visit, our Israeli guide Assaf told us a story about his grandfather.
His grandfather, who had fled Poland and made it to Israel via the Soviet Union, thought it his mission, after the Second World War, to return to Poland to help survivors get to Israel illegally. So in 1946 he was on a train from Warsaw to Białystok, in a train car with two Polish women — one elderly and the other a teenager. Between stations, armed men entered the train and announced, “All the Jews on the train, identify yourselves!”
Assaf’s grandfather froze. It was 1946. Having survived the war for five years, his life was now threatened and he was terrified. The younger woman sneered at him, “I can see that you are a Jew and that you are scared. When they come to our car, I’m going to tell them about you.” At this moment, the elderly woman scolded the younger one, “You won’t dare tarnish the honor of the Polish people, or I’ll kill you!” Seventeen Jews were removed from the train and shot by Poles. Assaf’s grandfather survived because of the older Polish woman’s firm and courageous words, her refusal to be a bystander, and the noblest understanding of true patriotism.
But what about the 17 Jews on that single train murdered that day? What about all of the passengers on the train who stayed silent?
‘Above All, Be Not a Bystander’
When I was 18, I participated in a Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland with 60 students and two survivors. The backs of our T-shirts said, “Be not a victim, be not a perpetrator, but above all be not a bystander.” This was the moral of the trip, and I hope to never forget it as long as I live. Good men who do nothing are not morally good after all. Evil triumphs and the good men have sins of omission.
Like Solzhenitsyn said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” While nations can be spoken of in a general sense and the spirit of a people is somewhat real, what matters morally are the actions of individual persons. As the Pole who would become pope explained, “The concept of social morality is, of course, something very real and continually evolving, but it in no way represents an attempt to substitute society for the human person as the substantial subject of moral values and the proper center of morality.” It remains, therefore, the task of every person in every generation to recover and affirm the dignity and humanity of others.
The Polish law purports to “protect the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation… on the protection of personal rights.” But the “Republic” and the “Nation” are not a person. By contrast, Yad Vashem confers on behalf of the State of Israel the title of Righteous Among the Nations (honoring heroic non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews) only to individuals and not to groups. In this respect, Israel justly affirms the primacy and precision of personal responsibility while Poland surprisingly veers toward the collectivism they are usually apt to resist.
According to Yad Vashem: “Poles constitute the largest national group within the Righteous Among the Nations recognized by Yad Vashem. Considering the harsh punishment that threatened rescuers, this is a most impressive number. On the other hand, when evaluating the role of Poles in the rescue of Jews, one also has to take into consideration that Poland’s Jewish community was by far the largest in Europe and that only about 10% of its Jews survived.” How can we fail to mourn the lives of all who perished with anything but humility and profound sadness?
Let us remember that John Paul II, the greatest son of Poland, always sought to call people to more activity, more resistance against injustice, and more responsibility for our neighbor. It was not at the site of any of the countless invaded, occupied, and besieged places in Poland that John Paul II said, “I have come and I kneel on this Golgotha of the modern world.” He said that at Auschwitz.
In these tense times, what is truly being sought? What do we stand to gain and to lose? How do we honor the victims who perished and, a fortiori, how do we honor the Righteous Among the Nations, who should be our truest exemplars of how to live together and defend one another more valiantly?