High Holidays Feature (11): Poles Begin to Come to Terms with History of Anti- Semitism

A ceremony in the southern Polish city of Kielce in July represented a major step in a painful process: the growing recognition by Poles of the extent that recent Polish history was marred by anti-Semitism.

The highly publicized ceremony commemorated the 50th anniversary of a postwar pogrom during which a Polish mob, inflamed by anti-Semitism, killed 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors.

The ceremony, which was attended by government officials, church and Jewish leaders, local dignitaries, Holocaust survivors from Kielce and their children, and ordinary townspeople, marked Poland’s official atonement for the pogrom and request for forgiveness.

“Half a century after the tragic Kielce events, which have left a bloody imprint on Polish-Jewish relations, we owe ourselves words of truth and moral evaluation,” Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz told the crowd.

“Deeply regretting everything that Poles have ever been guilty of against Jews and sincerely apologizing for it, we see the need to work towards true Polish- Jewish reconciliation and brotherhood, which we truly believe is possible in a world on the threshold of the third millennium,” he said.

Cimoszewicz’s words forcefully reiterated a groundbreaking statement issued in January by Poland’s Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati.

“We are ashamed that Poles were the ones who committed this crime,” he said in a letter to the World Jewish Congress that called for Polish-Jewish reconciliation. “We would like to ask for your forgiveness.”

Observers involved in Polish-Jewish relations regard these powerfully expressed official sentiments as a potential turning point in the difficult process of coming to terms with the past.

“In some ways, this process bears similarities to America’s coming to terms with Vietnam,” University of Wisconsin anthropologist Jack Kugelmass, who has written extensively on Polish-Jewish relations, said in an interview.

“It is the recognition that one’s own people can do horrible things, and the trauma of coming to terms with this fact.”

Krysztof Sliwinski, who has served for a year in the unprecedented position of Polish ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora, said Poles “badly need a real turning point.”

“In my eyes, Kielce is a symbol of all sorts of suffering which Jews in this country suffered from their fellow citizens,” he said in an interview.

For Sliwinski, the Kielce commemoration was “not just to remember the pogrom, but it is to remember those who turned in Jews during the war, and [other] deeds that were harmful.”

He warned, however, that the sentiments expressed at the commemoration must not simply remain laudable political statements.

“It has to be the expression of the feelings of an important part of the Polish people,” he said.

The Kielce pogrom — the worst episode in a wave of anti-Jewish violence after the war in which at least 1,000 returning Jewish survivors were killed – - sealed the image widely held among Jews of Poles as anti-Semites.

Yet until recently, as the American Jewish Committee’s Poland consultant Stanislaw Krajewski said, “Even among the large number of Poles who have only positive attitudes toward Jews, only few [found] the courage to acknowledge anti-Semitism in recent Polish history, especially during World War II and the immediate postwar years.”

“Poles think of themselves as victims, and only victims, first of Nazi Germany, then of Stalinist Russia,” said Krajewski. “Only in recent years has there begun some public discussion about the victimization of Jews by Poles.”

A survey carried out last year for the American Jewish Committee showed that Poles have a largely positive view of Polish behavior toward Jews during World War II and regard Poles and Jews as having suffered equally under the Nazis.

Asked who the main victims of the Nazis were, 28 percent of respondents said Jews, 26 percent said Poles and 28 percent said Poles and Jews together.

Some 49 percent of those surveyed said Poles “did enough” and 26 percent said they “did as much as they could under the circumstances” to help Jews during the war.

More than two-thirds of the respondents said “many” Poles “participated in rescuing Jews” during the war and only 11 percent said “many” Poles “participated in the persecution of Jews” during the war.

“There is nothing wrong with Poles remembering history,” Rabbi Andrew Baker, American Jewish Committee’s director of European affairs, said when the survey was released.

“But the Polish sense of suffering can become a unique lens through which the unique situation of Jews during the war can be pushed aside. Poles will have to confront the unpleasant aspects of their own history.”

One of the overriding reasons that Poles have only recently begun to confront these issues is the tight control — even taboo — placed on discussion of Jewish-related issues under the Communist regime.

“For several decades, systematic attempts were made to eliminate the Jews from Polish memory,” emigre Polish Jewish intellectual Aleksander Smolar wrote in 1987.

“The Jews tended to disappear from Polish history, from the landscape itself, from guides for tourists and, as a particular group of victims, from official publications about the war,” he wrote.

Although Polish behavior toward Jews began to be discussed informally in the 1980s, a 1987 article in the influential Catholic intellectual weekly Tygodnik Powszechny provoked a fierce and open debate.

In the article, Professor Jan Blonski suggested that Polish indifference and passivity in the face of the Holocaust in effect made Poles a sort of accomplice to the horror.

Discussion of Polish treatment of Jews during and after the war has grown increasingly wider in the 1990s since the fall of the Communists.

Specific issues triggered intense reaction.

A 1994 article in Poland’s leading newspaper contending that at least a dozen Jews were killed by anti-Nazi Polish resistance fighters during the wartime Warsaw uprising caused particular fury.

“Most people simply could not believe that the saintly [resistance] fighters could have killed innocent Jews,” Krajewski wrote. “[But] few of the letters in response to the article acknowledged that the controversy raises genuine moral problems, and that, for all of its greatness, the Warsaw uprising had a dark side to it, which, for the sake of truth, must be faced.”

Still, he wrote in 1994, “In the wake of this public debate, no Pole can claim to be ignorant of anti-Semitic attitudes during World War II. And that very fact is a tribute to today’s free Poland.”

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