[photo: Home of the President, Warsaw, Poland]
He signed it.
The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, signed legislation making it a crime to say that Poles played an active role in the murder of Jews who died on Polish soil or to say the phrase “Polish Death Camp.” Much ink has been spilled about this legislation. but alas, I shall spill a bit more.
I get it – the death camps were built and run by the Germans. Poles suffered terribly during World War II. First, they were attacked from two sides, by the Germans and the Soviets. Bombs fell everywhere, people died, soldiers were taken as prisoners, Polish intelligencia, professionals and clergy were imprisoned and murdered at an alarming rate. When I met Brother Ludwig on the plane from Italy to Poland, he told me of his Uncle, a priest, that was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where he died.
Then a mere two years after the initial attack and occupation, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and took control of the other half of Poland. Germany’s goal was European domination and the Poles were in the middle of the world they wanted to dominate.
The Germans controlled every city and hamlet in Poland, gathering the Jews for death, but while making the lives of the Poles miserable. In Poland, a whole year after the Warsaw Ghetto was beaten to a pulp and burned like kindling, the rest of Warsaw rebelled against the Nazi occupiers. They too were crushed by the German war machine.
There is resentment in the Poland of today. Resentment that blame for the Holocaust gets laid at their feet as they retort – “it wasn’t our fault.” They are angered by the thousands of High School students and other “Holocaust tourists” who swarm into Poland each year to see the human ashes from which the State of Israel arose (though their tourist industry makes a ton on these tours). This is not new. A decade ago, these feelings were expressed by the then President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, when he visited Israel. Yuli Tamir, Minister of Education in 2008, wrote an article that appeared in yesterday’s Haaretz. In 2008, she was schooled by President Kaczynski:
I understand the terrible pain and powerful urge not to forget what happened, Kaczynski said, but you forgave the Germans. You forgave because they had money to pay you; they bought their forgiveness with money. We were poor. We were under the Soviet juggernaut, so we couldn’t offer you a thing, and you cynically made a decision to divert your fire to us. You send your high school students to Poland, they march in our streets, waving Israeli flags, exuding hatred and fear; they look at us as though they’re seeing Satan, and then they go to Berlin to have a good time. And they have it good in Berlin, they sit in the cafes next to Gestapo headquarters and feel good. In Germany, they see culture and art; in Poland they see only bodies.
You are rewriting history – he raised his voice and suddenly looked worn out and angry. You are deliberately blurring the difference between the horrific testimonies about Poles who murdered and massacred Jews, and the fact that the Polish people and its government never declared a war of annihilation on the Jews – the annihilation policy was official German policy. I respect and understand the pain of the victims, but we too were victims. Our whole history is a history of defeats: Poland was conquered, divided, united, passed from hand to hand. Now it is independent and will write its history anew, as befits a free nation.
In the past ten years, the chorus of Polish voices on both sides of this debate has risen to a deafening scream. Some Poles bemoan their victimhood, others focus on the righteous Gentiles who saved Jews, while others research and write about the not-so righteous and the downright evil, laying bare the truth for the world to see. Jan Gross’s book Neighbors about how the Poles forced the Jews of the town of Jedwabne into a barn and burned them to death.
The post-war years (1945-1989) put Poland in a deep freeze under Soviet control. This led to a strange convergence. One the one hand, under Soviet control, Jews were citizens with full rights, but antisemitism bubbled under the surface of “equality”, leading to an eruption, forcing 20,00 Jews to leave the country in 1968. Under these difficult Soviet years, there was little reflection about what happened to the Jews in their towns and neighborhoods.
Since the fall of communism in 1989, the Poles have been looking in the mirror and asking what kind of people are we and who do we want to be? How can we make sense of what happened here? There are many reactions. One reaction is anger and a competition of victimhood. Another reaction is an exploration of the lost culture of the Jews, as they come by the thousands to the Krakow Jewish Festival held in June of each year, volunteer at the Krakow JCC, and restore old Jewish cemeteries. Then there are those Polish citizens discovering that a parent or a grandparent is or was Jewish and they never knew it, or they knew, but it was a secret. The Czyzewski family is one example of this struggle and Jewish renewal. When I visited, I sensed positive energy among both Jews and non-Jews about what the future will bring as they all explore what Judaism is and how it can be, once again, part of the Polish fabric of life.
Perhaps when we travel to Poland, we should listen more carefully and with sensitivity to the Poles who wish to express their victimhood. I feel I could do a better job of that. But the Poles must be sensitive to the truth that the Nazi’s success at implementing the Final Solution couldn’t have occurred without the help, and in some cases, active involvement, of the non-Jewish Poles.
 Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash on April 10, 2010, when his plane carrying his wife Maria and top pubic and military figures as it flew to Russia to commemorate the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviet secret police organization NKVD carried out a series of mass executions of Polish people in April and May of 1940.