“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” These words, from George Orwell’s famous novel 1984 were often called upon during the Cold War as a pithy explanation of the principles on which Communist propaganda operations were based. Sadly, they are becoming equally pertinent in today’s post-Communist, democratic Poland.
In an extensive interview last week with the private broadcaster Polsat, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was questioned about reducing the tax burden on the under-26-year-olds and on pensioners; about the relative health of Poland’s deficit, about his government’s views on the future of the European Union; about the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party’s plans for the upcoming European elections; and about a July 1941 massacre of more than 300 Jews in the Polish town of Jedwabne that was executed not by the German occupiers, but by their Polish neighbors.
The sudden appearance of this terrible atrocity in what was otherwise a routine discussion of government policy was jarring. Make no mistake though—in some ways, the subject of Jedwabne is more important to Poland’s leaders than all those others.
Most countries have been impacted in recent years by the rise in identity politics, and Poland is no exception. In the United States, we tend to think of identity politics as the domain of progressives and as the source of voguish theories about “intersectionality.” But in Poland, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, identity politics has been seized by nationalists and conservatives as a means of recovering the national dignity buried by successive Nazi and Soviet occupations. While Morawiecki has demonstrated a pragmatic side in the past in dealing with the febrile question of Polish attitudes to Jews under the Nazi occupation, his comments during the Polsat interview suggest a dangerous willingness on his part to escalate the Polish state’s ongoing conflict with Jewish organizations around the world about the Holocaust in that land.
For 20 years, the dispute over what happened at Jedwabne has roiled a growing numbers of Poles who angrily deny that their compatriots collaborated with the Nazi German authorities in any way. The pogrom in Jedwabne is a particularly harrowing example of why that belief is both false and malicious.
A small town in the northeast of Poland, Jedwabne was seized by the Nazis from the retreating Soviet Red Army in June 1941. As documented by the Polish-American historian Jan Gross (whose book about Jedwabne, Neighbors, turned him into public enemy No. 1 for Polish ultranationalists), on July 10, with the approval of the Germans, Polish collaborators gathered the town’s Jews in the central square. There, they were subjected to the most savage humiliation by the mob, forced to wear their religious garments, and dance and sing while being brutally beaten, kicked, whipped, spat upon and verbally abused.
Once this barbaric festival of anti-Semitic violence was over, the approximately 300 surviving Jews—men, women and children—were herded into a nearby barn. Its doors were locked as gasoline was poured on the ground. All of the Jews inside the barn were incinerated by fire, their remains buried in two mass graves.
The post-war controversy in Poland over Jedwabne stems from the issue of responsibility for this vile crime. In essence, Morawiecki and other Polish nationalists insist that every Jew who was murdered in Poland during World War II died at the hands of the Germans, while Poles suffered nearly as much as the Jews, yet did everything in their power to save them. Put simply, Jedwabne—where the one Polish farming family that did bravely save the lives of seven Jews, the Wyrzykowskis, were beaten and harassed by their neighbors for their pains—gets in the way of this interpretation of history.
Less than a month after he intemperately pulled out of a summit in Israel because of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that “Poles cooperated with Nazis,” Morawiecki is now proposing to reopen the Jedwabne debate that many believed had been closed in 2001. Back then, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski formally apologized for the crime, while a government investigation the following year concluded that not less than 340 Jews in Jedwabne had been murdered by about 40 Poles. Morawiecki wants to turn back the clock on both of those things.
Asked by Polsat whether he was in favor of carrying out exhumations of the mass graves at Jedwabne in order to shed more light on the issue of responsibility, Morawiecki responded that “the most important thing is that the historical truth should be emphasized.” That “truth,” according to the prime minister, is that “the fate of Poles during World War II is extremely sad for us, on the one hand, but it also testifies to how great, great a nation we are, and who is solely responsible [i.e., Germany] for the Holocaust, occupation and terror of World War II.”
In addition to announcing the conclusion of the proposed new investigation before it actually gets underway—an eerily Soviet strategy—Marowiecki is also apparently willing to violate the sanctity of the Jewish mass graves in Jedwabne as part of the process. Initial exhumations that took place there were stopped in 2001, after Jewish organizations pointed out that Jewish religious law forbids the disturbing of graves.
As Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich pointed out to the Associated Press last week, that law has not changed. Exhumations now “would desecrate the memory of those who were buried there,” he said.
“It makes moral sense that we should follow the religious traditions of those who were buried there,” asserted Schudrich. “Jewish law hasn’t changed in 2,000 years, and what we said in 2001 remains the same now.”
The looming conflict over new exhumations—a task that Poland’s official Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) has confirmed it will undertake if granted permission by the Justice Ministry—neatly illustrates the parameters of the present Polish-Jewish divide. For Schudrich, as for nearly all Jews, these are the graves of Jews slaughtered because they were Jews. For Morawiecki, these are the graves of Polish citizens who happened to be Jews; their terrible fate was falsely blamed on Poles instead of the true authors, the Germans.
This battle over historical truth is set to continue, and probably won’t ever be resolved. Perhaps Poland’s leaders should ask themselves why—given the appalling suffering their nation endured during World War II, a cataclysm in which goodness and evil were tested every day—their national self-esteem seemingly depends on making the Holocaust of 6 million Jews a Polish event. More importantly, they should be told that to again disturb the graves of Jedwabne over the objections of the Jewish community crosses a red line. However frosty relations may have been over the last two years, they are set to get much worse should Morawiecki deliver on his intention.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.