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ALEXANDER KIMEL - HOLOCAUST UNDERSTANDING & PREVENTION

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THE JEWS AND THE POLES

by Alexander Kimel - Holocaust Survivor

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PAST HISTORY

In the 18th century, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Germany and Austria and lost its independence. The conquered areas were economically integrated with their respective conquerors. When Poland regained its independence in 1919, it became an economically disjoined country that lost most of its markets. Poland lost its industrial markets in Russia, and its agricultural markets in Germany, and Austria.

In the difficult economic situation, the semi-fascist ruling clique, helped by the Church, found a convenient scapegoat, the Jews. The Jews, the most dynamic segment of the population, were marked as parasites, and were blamed for all the economic ills of the country. "Polska bez Zydow" Poland without the Jews, became the dream of the Poles.

After the outbreak of WWII, Poland was partitioned again, by Hitler and Stalin. The paranoid Stalin, saw in Poles his potential enemies, and actively persecuted them. Hundreds of Thousand of Poles were sent to Siberia. During this period, many Jews, that for long times were denied employment opportunities, welcomed the change in government and became functionaries of the new regime. After the Hitler's attack on Russia, and the onset of the Holocaust, the Poles created a myth, that is still alive today, that the Jews are responsible for Stalin's persecution of the Poles. It was a convenient myth, it enabled the majority of the Poles to stand by and watch the destruction of the Jewish community, waiting to inherit the Jewish properties.

Generally, In Poland the rate of survival of the Jews was abysmal, about 1 percent only, compared to 75 % in France. It is true that only a small minority of Poles actively helped the Germans, by denouncing the Jews hiding under assumed Polish identity, catching the hiding Jews and delivering them to the Germans, or killing them outright. Some Polish underground organization like the NSZ, existed for the sole purpose of killing the Jews hiding in the forest.

It is also true, that many Poles, selflessly helped the Jews. Jewish children were hidden in many convents, and there was also a Polish organization, for helping Jews - Zegota. The problem, in my opinion is that the silent, hostile majority, allowed a minority actively to participate in the destruction of their compatriots. It is also true, that in the Eastern part of Poland, the Poles being a minority persecuted by the Ukrainians, had more empathy for the Jews.

During WWII, the Polish government in exile made an agreement with Stalin, to organize a Polish Army in exile, based on the mobilization of Polish citizens residing in Russia. General Anders, who performed this task, accepted only a token number of Jews to the Polish forces. As a result, Stalin was left with an extensive pool of Polish speaking Jews, that he extensively used later in the process of subjugation and communization of Poland. On the other hand, Stalin had no problem using Russians with Polish sounding names like Rokossovsky, Bierut or even Poles like Jaruzelski, for the same purpose.

And so was another myth developed, the Jews were blamed again for Stalin's subjugation of Poland. This myth is still reverberating through the acrimonious discussions on the Internet. Before the war, about 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland. Today, there in Poland no more than 15,000 Jews, out of a population of 38 millions. Although, small in numbers the Jews are noticed in Poland. Their presence is felt in the press, during the elections opponents accuse each other of Jewish origin. Somehow, one has an impression that the Poles feel that they are victimized by . . . the Jews. For example, a taxi driver told me that "All the banks in Poland are owned by Jews. The Jews control everything."

POLISH ANTI-SEMITISM?

It is generally perceived that there is anti-Semitism in Poland without Jews, but is this anti-Semitism? The situation of the Jews in Poland changed tremendously. First of all about 90% of the Poles never saw a Jew in their lives. Jews in Poland don't feel threatened, and most don't hide their identity. One can feel some Jewish nostalgia: Book stores a flooded with "Jewish" books, liquor stores sell an array of "kosher" vodkas, in Warsaw a Jewish Theater with Polish actors is performing in Yiddish.
We feel the this phenomena should be rather classified as a cultural bias, not anti-Semitism.

HOW DO WE FIGHT THIS ANTI-SEMITISM?

A cultural phenomena is based on irrational values and cannot be changed by discussions, blaming or rationalization. The best way is to leave alone. All the acrimonious fights on the Internet are not only counterproductive, but also harmful, because we give the irrational hate mongers recognition and a preaching platform.

Nevertheless there is hope for the future. The xenophobia of the pre-war culture disappeared already and there is hope that with the improvement in the standard of living, and a reduction of the Church influence, the anti-Jewish bias will cease to exist.

hline.gif - 2.4 K A shorter version of the following article was pubished in The Forward in late December 1996.

Polish-Jewish Reconciliation: A Long Way to Go

By Martin Kimel

An effort is underway to repair Polish-Jewish relations. But if a program held recently at the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum is any measure, true reconciliation between the two groups lies far off. After a millennium of uneasy co-existence in Poland, capped by a particularly ugly twentieth century, good intentions may not be enough.

The lead-off speaker on the Holocaust Museum panel was Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Pole who received Israel's designation of "Righteous Among the Nations" for co-founding a Polish wartime group to aid Jews. Speaking in a quavering voice through an interpreter, the elderly former Polish Foreign Minister discussed the importance of Polish-Jewish reconciliation to what he called the Polish-Jewish community in Poland and to Polish-Israeli relations. The state of affairs was encouraging, Bartoszewski suggested. As an example of this, he said, many Poles are interested in working in Israel.

The old Polish patriot meant well. More importantly, he had acted well -- even heroically -- when it had counted most, during the war. But Bartoszewski's failure to acknowledge Poland's history of widespread anti-Semitism made his discussion of Polish-Jewish relations ultimately unsatisfying.

His words also showed how little sometimes even the best-intentioned Poles understand Jewish sensitivities. Asked what Poland was doing to make restitution for Jewish property taken during the war, Bartoszewski replied, "Do you know who were the first victims of Auschwitz? Polish peasants whose land was taken [to build the camps]."

Bartoszewski may not have been especially sensitive, but he was not hostile. His Polish colleague on the panel, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, a courier in the Polish underground during the war, came across differently. Nowak opened his presentation by implying that fellow panelist, Yisrael Gutman, a Polish-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, historian, and research director of Israel's Yad Vashem, was not a man of good faith. Too much talk of Polish anti-Semitism, Nowak also cautioned, could cause a kind of "secondary anti-Semitism" in Poland. This came uncomfortably close to sounding like advice that Jews should "go along to get along."

Gutman had declared himself for reconciliation, but not at the cost of historical truth. His thesis was that while the Poles seek to portray themselves as simply another innocent group that was victimized by the Nazis, they have their own history of anti-Jewish actions. Nowak did not contest the facts that Gutman pointed to: the notorious 1946 pogrom in Kielce in which Poles killed Jews returning to their homes after the war, the official anti-Semitic campaign of the Polish government in 1967-68 that led to the exodus of most of Poland's surviving Jewish population (my own parents left in 1956), and the recent Polish presidential campaign in which Lech Walesa's supporters smeared an opponent with the (false) rumor that he was partly Jewish.

Instead, Nowak demanded to know why there was all this emphasis on Polish anti-Semitism. Why didn't Jews talk about anti-Semitism during the war on the part of Ukrainians and Lithuanians? he asked.

Unwittingly, Nowak hit on the central problem when he asked why Jews and Israel were willing to reconcile with Germany and not with Poland. While it is, in fact, difficult for some of us to reconcile with Germany, that country has at least acknowledged its guilt. Poland, by and large, has not. (Nor, for that matter, has Ukraine or Lithuania.) And Nowak, who presumably was participating in the Holocaust Museum program because he supported reconciliation, reflected the hard-line approach of disavowing any Polish responsibility for wrongdoing. (It was all Moscow's fault.)

At least Nowak did not make the charge one commonly sees in Internet discussions that Jews, some of whom were Communists at the time, were responsible for Stalin's post-war domination of Poland and therefore were themselves to blame for Polish anti-Semitism -- as if Polish anti-Semitism did not predate 1945.

While it is understandable that many Poles or Polish-Americans would have difficulty facing certain unpleasant facts about twentieth century Polish history, it was rather surprising that some Jews at the program, apparently caught up in the spirit of reconciliation, seemed eager to help their Polish counterparts downplay the historical truth.

A generation younger than the other three panelists, David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, struck a tone of determined neutrality. Harris implied that the Poles and the Jews had equal reason to be mistrustful of each other, listing grievances in carefully balanced pairs. For example, Harris mentioned the Polish priest who made anti-Semitic remarks in the presence of President Walesa, but he also noted that the documentaries "Shoah" and "Shtetl" had "angered some Poles." This latter equation of expressions of prejudice with superb documentaries depicting the existence of such prejudice was puzzling.

Similarly, during a question and answer session, a woman in her twenties said that she had just spent seven months in Poland working with "the Jewish community" there and she reported that its greatest concern was not anti-Semitism but, rather, anti-Polish feeling among Jews outside of Poland!

Given the pitifully small number of mostly elderly Jews living in Poland today, I was struck by the young woman's statement about a Polish-Jewish community I had never encountered during my own visits or even heard of. She explained to me after the program that the Polish Jews she had referred to were, in fact, young adults raised as Catholic Poles who had recently learned that they had some Jewish blood.

I can only guess what the many Poles in the audience took away from her comment.

A reconciliation based on false premises is no reconciliation at all. We cannot, it seems to me, move forward by pretending away a painful past. When it comes to healing the rift between Poles and Jews, the program at the Holocaust Museum showed that we still have a long way to go.

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Martin Kimel, a lawyer, has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the American Lawyer, Legal Times and elsewhere.
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