(February 20, 2019 / JNS)
Just a week ago, I penned a column extolling the miraculous effect of witnessing a conference against Iran—co-hosted by the United States and Poland—take place on the very streets of Warsaw, whose ghetto has become synonymous with the Nazi German Holocaust.
In our generation, too, yet another evil enemy of the Jews has stood up with plans to annihilate them. Having personally heard U.S. Vice President Mike Pence declare Iranian intentions to enact a “new Holocaust” before delegates from across Europe and the Arab world, whose own leaders have not shied away from drawing on the obvious parallels between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and their Nazi forbearers, I felt that at last, the world might finally have understood that threats leveled against the Jewish people are not to be ignored.
That day wouldn’t pass before its cathartic effect was interrupted; now, by a small scandal that erupted from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supposed remarks reported by The Jerusalem Post that “the Poles cooperated with the Nazis.”
These were not the prime minister’s words. What he did say was that “a not insignificant number of Poles had cooperated with the Nazis,” which means something entirely different. The Jerusalem Post corrected their story and the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement reaffirming that “PM Netanyahu spoke of Poles and not the Polish people or the country of Poland.” Still, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki chose to cancel his trip to Israel this week to the Visegrád Group summit of Central European powers, which was set to be hosted in Jerusalem, dispatching his foreign minister instead.
Despite a brief, heated exchange between the foreign offices of Poland and Israel, it seemed the scandal would be short-lived and that we could resume the pursuit of our shared and stated goals of countering Iran and deepening bilateral ties between our nations. However, just as the tension began to subside, Israel’s new acting foreign minister, Yisrael Katz—halfway through his first day on the job—decided to chime in with a diplomatic bombshell of his own.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Katz declared that “Poles collaborated with the Nazis, definitely. Collaborated with the Nazis.” However, Katz would take things further, quoting the words of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who said that Poles “suckled anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” He ended with his own observation that “[one] cannot sugarcoat this history.”
The words had barely left his mouth when the Polish government announced its intention to withhold the visit by its foreign minister, too, which has since led to the cancellation of the entire Visegrád Group summit.
To be sure, the issue of Polish complicity in the Holocaust needs to be properly addressed in its full historical context. After all, this is an exceptionally sensitive issue, one better defined by nuance and exception than by broad generalizations and oversimplification.
On the one hand, few doubt the centuries of anti-Semitism in Poland, fueled as it was by a Catholic Church that saw Jews as deicides. (This was prior to the radical revamping of Catholic attitudes towards Judaism undertaken by the greatest Pole of the 20th century and the greatest of all popes, John Paul II.) Few, too, dispute the fact that tens of thousands of Poles abetted the Nazi slaughter of their nation’s 3 million Jews, with Holocaust researchers having collected significant evidence of a large swath of Polish villagers that murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis, as well as the existence of Polish blackmailers who saw in Jewish helplessness an opportunity for financial gain. The Poles’ very own Underground State’s wartime Special Courts investigated 17,000 Poles who collaborated with the Germans, sentencing about 3,500 to death. The devastating Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946—during which Polish villagers massacred 42 Jews returning from Nazi camps—all but confirmed the presence of deep-seated anti-Semitism among many Poles, as did the efficacy of the anti-Semitic persecutions set into motion by Soviet-backed Polish Interior Minister Gen. Mieczysław Moczar in March 1968, which spurred the mass emigration of what was left of Poland’s Jewish community.
However, all of that is only a part of the story. There is another that puts forth a picture of a nation that fought bitterly against the Nazi beast and had many citizens take great risks to save Jewish lives and suffered brutally at the hands of the Germans as a result of both.
From the moment the Nazis invaded Poland at 5 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 1, 1939, the Poles fought back. They were no match for the Germans; within weeks, their country fell. Even so, the Poles never established a collaborative government with the Nazis in the way that France, Hungary, Norway and even Belgium did. Even the Soviets, whom we credit with the liberation of the worst Nazi camps, willingly cooperated with Hitler far more than Poland did (the invasion of Poland, of course, being the best example). Poland never even surrendered to the Germans, choosing instead to evacuate its government and armed forces via Romania and Hungary to allied France and England, where it continued to direct an allied Polish resistance force known as the Home Army.
The Polish government in exile even had Jewish members, the most famous being Szmul Zygielbojm, who committed suicide in London after the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in order to protest the Allies’ reluctance to intervene on behalf of the hapless revolt. Another renowned member of this government was the non-Jewish Jan Karski, who stood at the forefront of Polish efforts to inform the global community of the atrocities being committed against his country’s Jewish community. (He would later be made an honorary citizen of Israel.) The Polish Foreign Minister Count Edward Raczyński, too, used Karski’s work to provide the Allies with one of the earliest and most accurate accounts of the Holocaust.
Clearly, there’s more to the story than either side of this political debate currently claim. My grandfather moved to the United States from Poland about 1905, and often lamented the anti-Semitism he faced on a regular basis. Shamir’s father was murdered by Polish villagers outside his hometown after jumping from a Nazi transport.
Still, to equate actions like these with the industrialized slaughter of the Holocaust is both inaccurate and unjust. Worse, it shifts the blame away from the German people who singularly planned, manned and implemented the mass killing of European Jewry. For a foreign minister of the Jewish state, sophisticated historical insight and diplomatic sensitivity must outweigh popular sentiment and emotion in delivering the Israeli government’s understanding of issues like these. His words were certainly not a great way to kick off his appointment as the chief foreign diplomat of the Jewish state.
Besides the question of content, there is also that of timing. Why would an Israeli official choose to attack Poland just four days after Poland stood with the Jewish state against Iran? Placing itself at odds with the entire European Union, the small Eastern European nation chose to host the State Department’s conference primed to enlist global support in re-enacting critical sanctions against Iran. It did this even as England, France, and, outrageously, Germany plot to undermine U.S. President Donald Trump’s courageous decision to leave the Iran deal and punish the mullahs for their promise to enact a holocaust of their own.
If this doesn’t bespeak a positive offer of friendship, I’m not sure what does.
Shmuley Boteach is a rabbi, best-selling author, TV host and public speaker.