(February 28, 2019 / JNS)
Jews with connection to the Holocaust tend to harbor prejudice against Poles. From the Middle Ages, Jews in Poland were often subjected to severe discrimination and violence. Even after Emancipation, anti-Semitism remained intense and by the 20th century, it was rampant throughout Europe.
The Nazis considered the Poles racially inferior and murdered millions. But even while suffering under the brutal Nazi occupation, many Poles continued to harbor anti-Semitism. Some collaborated with the Nazis and some were rewarded with property left by deported Jews.
The Poles did not serve as guards in the concentration camps, and their government in exile encouraged resistance. Resistance fighter Jan Karski tried unsuccessfully to convince Western leaders to prioritize stopping the mass murders. Other heroic Poles, such as Karol Wojtyła (who would become Pope John Paul ll), risked death to protect many individual Jews.
Unfortunately, righteous gentiles rarely made headlines; collaborators did. A particular case was the 1941 Jedwabme pogrom, in which Poles burned alive more than 300 Jews in a barn. The Polish authorities mostly remained in denial over this mass atrocity until President Aleksander Kwaśniewski bravely called it a genocide.
Another example was the 1946 Kielce pogrom in which 42 Holocaust survivors returning to their homes were massacred.
When the Communists took over Poland in 1945, they suppressed exposure of the genocide. In 1968, the Polish government conducted an anti-Semitic purge and 30,000 Jews, the bulk of whom were Holocaust survivors, were expelled from the country.
After the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, the Polish government sought to cleanse the historical record, set aside the ugly past, and create a new image based upon nationalism and democracy. In this context, it passed a law last year that effectively criminalized anyone “besmirching” the Polish people by associating them with the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust.
This led to conflicts with Israel. In June 2018, the Polish government passed a compromise law. It emphasized the fact that the Holocaust was a Nazi objective in which individual Poles collaborated or resisted, but the Polish people as a whole did not collaborate.
This law was regrettable but had to be viewed in the perspective of a right-wing nationalist government that condemned anti-Semitism and sought to create a new image by downplaying the role of Polish collaborators. The government even invested in an impressive museum in Warsaw focusing on the Jewish contribution to Poland. In addition, Poland has emerged as an influential supporter of Israel within the largely anti-Israel European Union.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was misquoted as saying “the Poles” engaged in anti-Jewish activity during the Nazi era, there was an uproar. Netanyahu clarified that he had referred to Poles, not “the Poles.” Nevertheless, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was distressed.
The following day, acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz blundered into the debate, reiterating that “Poles collaborated with the Nazis” and quoting former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who had said that Poles “suckled anti- Semitism with their mother’s milk.”
For the record, Shamir’s parents and two sisters died during the Holocaust. Shamir claimed that his father was killed just outside his birthplace in Ruzhany by villagers who had been his childhood friends, after he had escaped from a German train transporting Jews to the death camps.
Morawiecki accused Katz of engaging in defamation of the Polish people and canceled Poland’s participation in the Visegrád group summit in Jerusalem.
A lesson should be learned from this self-inflicted fiasco. Other countries can act as important allies to Israel though their antecedents also included Nazi collaborators. The Polish case stands out because of the extent of the genocide in which 3 million Jews were murdered in one country. But in every Nazi-occupied country, most people were bystanders, some were collaborators, and a heroic minority risked death to save Jews.
We must neither forget nor forgive those who betrayed us. But politicians should never generalize. The details should be left for historians to compile and for our children to learn.
Populist nationalist parties are emerging as powerful forces throughout Europe, and many of their voters support Israel.
Until recently, some of these parties included fascists and Holocaust revisionists. Jewish cooperation them would have been unthinkable. However, over the past decade, most began purging their ranks of anti-Semites.
Some say that by allying with countries like Poland and Hungary, Israel is providing a fig leaf to fascists. This is nonsense. There is less anti-Jewish violence in Poland and Hungary than in France. Besides, Israel has no other allies in the E.U., whose anti-Israel bias is notorious.
Needless to say, populist support of Israel does not preclude some fascists voting for them. Likewise, the fact that racists may support U.S. President Donald Trump does not mean that his administration is racist. Nor have far-left anti-Semites taken control of the Democratic Party by voting for it.
We do not boycott left-wing governments that appease Muslim extremists. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries have not purged their anti-Semites but nobody suggests that we cannot cooperate with them on mutual objectives and confront common enemies.
As long as the current leaders repudiate their antecedents’ crimes, it would be a major mistake to spurn their support and accuse them collectively of anti-Semitism. That is what our foolish foreign minister did regarding Poland, with whom a strategic alliance would be of considerable benefit. Besides, by attacking those who seek friendship, we deter them from making amends for the crimes of their predecessors.
Isi Leibler’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.