Elie Wiesel: A Holocaust Icon Everywhere but Poland

In the country where most of the victims of the Holocaust were killed, the renowned survivor was mostly ignored or reviled.

Lech Walesa, left, and Elie Wiesel, right, arrive at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, March 1988.
Sokolowski/AP

KRAKOW, Poland – The rapturous, all-night concert known as Szalom na Szerokjej that closed the Jewish Culture Festival on July 2 hit its first somber note in 26 years. “Elie Wiesel has died,” announced festival organizer Janusz Makuch. “He was always the strong and bright voice of our conscience. Now he moves from the physical world into our hearts and minds, where he must live forever.”

As if on cue, the slate gray skies turned onyx and it began to rain. All the young revelers stopped dancing in this cobblestone square, once the heart of Krakow’s Jewish quarter, as Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, recited “Shir Hama’alot.”

It was the first time a formal Jewish mourning prayer took center stage at Krakow’s jubilant Jewish festival – a paradox in many ways. Of the 18,000 mostly non-Jewish Poles who attended the concert, who knows how many knew who Wiesel was?

“In the middle of this tremendous outpouring of music and life, they paused to remember,” said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, taking in Szalom na Szerokjej, or Shalom on Szeroka Street, from a hotel suite. “Elie loved singing, storytelling and was deeply tethered to his Yiddish roots.”

But Wiesel, whom Berenbaum called “the ultimate Diaspora Jew,” never attended the Krakow festival and had a fraught relationship with Poland. To him, it was mostly a Jewish graveyard, a perception festivals like this one are trying hard to change.

“Elie Wiesel was able to communicate the Holocaust to the whole world in a way no one else has – the way he spoke and wrote were all very effective,” says Polish-American author and Princeton professor Jan T. Gross, whose 2006 book “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz” was reviewed by Wiesel for The Washington Post.

“His is a great legacy, but I’m not sure he had much of an impact in Poland. Most Poles don’t even have a clear sense of what the Holocaust was, let alone who Wiesel was,” adds Gross.

Citing the latest research by the Center for Public Opinion Research, which takes yearly public opinion polls in Poland, Gross maintains that between one-quarter and two-thirds of Polish citizens have no understanding of what the Jews endured during the Shoah.

Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, “Night,” isn’t on the Polish school curriculum, says Jakub Nowakowski, director of Krakow’s Galicia Jewish Museum, who hosts teacher-training seminars on how to educate about the Holocaust, adding, “It wasn’t even translated into Polish until the mid 1990s, and only in a limited edition. It wasn’t readily available until 2007.”

Poles have their own canon of Holocaust literature taught at school, such as “Medallions,” by Zofia Nakowska, “Conversations with an Executioner,” by Kazimierz Moczarski; and “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” by Tadeusz Borowski.

“To us, the Holocaust is a local story. It took place here,” says Nowakaowski, standing next to a copy of “Night” sold at the Galicia Jewish Museum bookstore. “Elie Wiesel is not Polish, he’s from Romania, and there were many Polish authors who preceded him here and whose books became classics of Polish Holocaust literature. That’s not to diminish Wiesel’s amazing contributions. But it’s mostly Jewish or foreign tourists from countries like Korea who buy his books here.”

Indeed, there’s a great demand for Holocaust literature here, says journalist Kostek Gebert. But Wiesel’s books didn’t have the same shattering effect here they had elsewhere.

“This was a country raised on Borowski,” says Gebert. “So we knew. And it’s unfair to do the ‘Who’s a better Shoah writer?”

Whether it was a case of his words being lost in translation, or a result of his resentment toward Poles for what he viewed as a cover-up to conceal their complicity in the extermination of European Jewry during World War II, Wiesel was not the global Holocaust ambassador here as he was in other countries.

Gross remembers meeting Wiesel at the 50th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom, the first time Poland acknowledged the 1946 massacre of Jews by its own citizens, a coup considering it was under former Communist Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz.

“He spoke about Polish anti-Semitism and guilt,” says Gross. “And also about the crosses at Auschwitz, which didn’t bother me because many Poles died there and crosses are a symbol of martyrdom to Catholics, not of chasing away Jews.”

Wiesel’s statements garnered him “virulent, deplorable – essentially anti-Semitic – attacks” in the Polish press, as he wrote at the time. The affronts grew so extreme that when Wiesel reviewed Gross’ book in 2006 for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the liberal-leaning daily had to block reader comments.

“This was not his country – it was just where he was persecuted and his family was killed,” says Gebert, who writes for Gazeta. “Lech Waesa had once told me that, returning from a common visit with Wiesel to Auschwitz in 1988, he had said to him something along the lines of, ‘Now you guys can come back.’ And then he answered his own question: ‘But what is there for you to come back to’?”

What seemed to alienate Poles even more was when Wiesel famously took Pope John Paul II to task for the crosses at Auschwitz. He viewed them as an all-out affront to Jewish memory, while Poles viewed his stance as oblivious to their suffering.

“He was just being faithful to his vision of Auschwitz,” says Berenbaum. “Auschwitz I was a concentration camp for Polish citizens and political prisoners since 1940, but that wasn’t Wiesel’s experience. Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, was 100 percent a Jewish camp when Wiesel was there. The Roma and Sinti -- Gypsies -- who were part of Birkenau were gassed to make way for the arrival of Hungarian Jews. Wiesel was sitting at home peacefully with his entire family in Sighet, Romania, until March 1944. So for him, Auschwitz was a Jewish camp, and he was deeply afraid that Pope John Paul II was stealing and de-Judaizing the Holocaust. Wiesel may have been aware that Auschwitz was also non-Jewish, but he wasn’t emotionally.”

Wiesel’s Jewish focus ran counter to Poland’s Holocaust narrative, which was that it lost three million of its own citizens during World War II. It didn’t recognize that Jews were part of the narrative of Auschwitz until recently. Before the fall of communism in 1989, Auschwitz tour guides never mentioned the word “Jew.” 

Of course by the time Wiesel had become known as a humanitarian, taking on causes like the crisis in Darfur and the Rwandan genocide, Communism fell and attitudes towards reconciliation began in Poland. “To his great credit, he was able to see beyond what some termed Jewish chauvinism regarding the Holocaust and embrace the suffering of people around the world,” says Berenbaum.

And that sense of global moral outrage became his great legacy, which finally endeared him to Polish policy makers, who greeted him when he accompanied Oprah Winfrey around Auschwitz in 2006. “Wiesel spoke out against the rise of right-wing xenophobia concerning refugees, which is the current party line in Poland,” says Gross. “To a Jewish survivor, who lived through and remembered prewar and wartime sagas of Jews who couldn’t find shelter, that became his moral voice.”

However limited Wiesel’s impact was here, you could hear his voice resounding in Polish President Andrzej Duda’s remarks at the 71st anniversary of the Kielce pogrom last week. In an official statement he released, Duda praised Wiesel and mentioned the honorary degree he received last year from Poland’s John Paul II Papal University in Krakow.

In addition, Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, called Wiesel “one of the best-known witnesses of the Holocaust, a man who took up in his life the difficult mission of cultivating the memory of the Holocaust, spreading the message of peace, atonement and human dignity.”

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has been criticized for its increasing antidemocratic measures, including threatening to try and sentence those who imply that Poland played a role in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. And Gross is currently persona non grata in Poland and may be stripped of his Order of Merit for claiming Poles killed more Jews than Nazis in an opinion piece about the refugee crisis that was published in among others, the German newspaper Die Welt. He says recognizing Wiesel’s legacy is a step in the right direction for Duda.

“I’m glad he did,” he says.