One day, during my tenure as minister of education, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called me with an unusual request. Polish President Lech Kaczynski was going to visit Israel and wanted to meet with the education minister. Presidents who visit Israel routinely meet with the country’s president, with the prime minister, the foreign minister or the defense minister, but they don’t call on the education minister. Kaczynski insisted. He wanted a meeting – and not just a courtesy call, but a long working meeting. I was asked to set aside two hours.
Short, determined, with white hair and fiery eyes, Kaczynski strode into my office with quick steps. He bowed slightly and sat down. I was intensely curious.
What do you know about the history of the Jews in Poland, he asked. A thousand years of joint Jewish-Polish history – what do you know about it? The truth, I said hesitantly, is that I know a lot about the end and not much about the beginning. I will tell you, he said, and launched into a detailed, riveting history lesson.
Do you know why there were so many Jews in Poland on the eve of the war, he asked. He didn’t wait for an answer: because the Poles accepted the Jews and granted them rights that they didn’t have in other countries; there were cities and towns in Poland in which the Jews were a majority; the Polish people did not view the Jews as an enemy; and I intend to build a museum that will survey these hundreds of years – hundreds of years of life together, and at the end the extermination camps. The end is terrible, but the story of the life also has to be told. I do not deny what happened in the extermination camps, but you have to remember that if the Nazis hadn’t come to power in Germany, there would not have been extermination camps in Poland. The Poles never aspired to annihilate the Jews.
The Nazis conquered us, he continued, they tore Poland to pieces. My parents were members of the Polish underground – what do you know about the anti-Nazi Polish underground? What do you know about the Warsaw Uprising of the Poles? What do you know about the persecution of the Polish intelligentsia? What do you know about the destruction of the Old City in Warsaw? It was completely wiped out.
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I am not saying that we were saints. There were Poles who collaborated willingly, there were those who collaborated out of indifference, there were those who collaborated out of fear, and there were those who fought. We were a conquered nation, the Poles lost the battle and the campaign, six million Poles were killed in World War II – half of them Jews. The entire Polish nation suffered from the German occupation: Poles were expelled from their homes, hundreds of thousands were sent to Germany do to forced labor, many of them did not return. That does not justify collaboration with the Nazis, not even the killing of one person! He paused for breath, and I also breathed for a minute. An hour had passed and I hadn’t yet spoken a word.
I understand the terrible pain and powerful urge not to forget what happened, Kaczynski said, but you forgave the Germans. You forgave because they had money to pay you; they bought their forgiveness with money. We were poor. We were under the Soviet juggernaut, so we couldn’t offer you a thing, and you cynically made a decision to divert your fire to us. You send your high school students to Poland, they march in our streets, waving Israeli flags, exuding hatred and fear; they look at us as though they’re seeing Satan, and then they go to Berlin to have a good time. And they have it good in Berlin, they sit in the cafes next to Gestapo headquarters and feel good. In Germany, they see culture and art; in Poland they see only bodies.
You are rewriting history – he raised his voice and suddenly looked worn out and angry. You are deliberately blurring the difference between the horrific testimonies about Poles who murdered and massacred Jews, and the fact that the Polish people and its government never declared a war of annihilation on the Jews – the annihilation policy was official German policy. I respect and understand the pain of the victims, but we too were victims. Our whole history is a history of defeats: Poland was conquered, divided, united, passed from hand to hand. Now it is independent and will write its history anew, as befits a free nation.
The president paused for breath again, looked to see the effect his words were having on me. He had been an actor in the past and was very adept at exploiting the power of words. Now he leaned back, ostensibly relaxed, and said with a half-smile: Don’t say a thing, just come to Warsaw for a visit. Having spoken his piece, he went on his way.
A universal lesson
I went to Warsaw. My three days there had one purpose only: to see World War II from a Polish point of view. I followed the trail of the Polish underground, I heard stories about the destruction in Warsaw, I saw photographs and videos of the city that was being wiped out, and of a starving, defeated local population who were living in the bombed streets. I went to see German detention camps for intellectual dissidents and opponents of the occupation government. I spoke with educators and historians. Proudly, they showed me the site on which the Jewish museum was to be established. Each evening ended with a few glasses of vodka alongside thick, tasty Polish soup, and a conversation with the Polish education minister, who accompanied me. His father, he told me, was a Polish partisan who was wounded in the war. He was burned when he tried to throw a Molotov cocktail and was left disabled, until he died in great agony.
Every morning I asked myself whether there was a measure of truth in Kaczynski’s tempestuous words.
On the final evening, I asked my hosts what they would like to see happen. We want you to remember that we did not initiate the Holocaust. For your children who come to visit the camps to look at us differently, to meet Polish youth, to know that there is a different Poland. We want you to treat us the way you do the Germans. For a moment, an embarrassed silence descended on the room. It sounds strange, they said: Who would have believed at the end of that war that we would beg to be treated like the Germans.
I thought the request was a deserving one, but the apparatus that organizes the school visits to the camps was deeply entrenched and didn’t want to give up its earlier approach. For them the Poles were invisible. They wanted to intensify the experience, not diminish it.
Still, a year later I joined a visit by Israeli high-school students to Poland. In a ceremony on one evening of the trip, certificates of honor were presented to Polish Righteous Among the Nations, and in my remarks I read out the thought-provoking poem by Ka-Tzetnik (the pen name of survivor-writer Yehiel De-Nur), “God, Who Created Auschwitz?” It raises the most difficult question of all: whether in other circumstances the victims could have become torturers.
The conversation that developed after the ceremony was difficult but was also marked by no little openness and attentiveness. At the end of the visit we went to Janusz Korczak’s orphanage and held a moving meeting between Israeli and Polish youths. We talked about human rights, about democracy and its failures, about the Holocaust and also about a new generation and hope. Then we went out to the courtyard and flew kites together.
No meaningful change occurred at the national level. The Poles remained frustrated, while our children went on walking in the streets wrapped in Israeli flags, singing "Hatikva" as though they’d just captured Krakow.
My words here should not be taken as justifying the new Polish law [that criminalizes attributing the crimes of the Holocaust to Poles, rather than to Germany alone], but they do contain a call for us to look more critically at our attitude toward Poland and the Poles. Like Ka-Tzetnik, who survived Auschwitz, I too often ask myself what I or we would have done under the conditions of a brutal occupation. Who would collaborate, who would fight, who would turn his head in order not to see.
In his important article “Moral Luck,” the philosopher Thomas Nagel writes that people are judged for their deeds, but those deeds, in large degree, are the product of external events that befall them. The same person, if not confronted with the opportunity to join a mechanism of evil, might have lived his life as an ordinary person without his monstrous aspect ever being revealed. The Poles had many opportunities to lose their humanity – and many of them took advantage of those opportunities. The same happened among most of the peoples the Nazis conquered.
Thus, the lesson I learned from Kaczynski is not a Polish lesson but a universal one about the thin crust of humanity that envelops us, and about how easy it is to crack it.
Two years later, in 2010, Kaczynski was killed, along with his wife, the heads of the Polish army and senior legislators, when their plane crashed in Russia. His questions continue to resonate within me. Germany was the central player in the European drama – it ruled, occupied, destroyed and then surrendered, underwent a face-lift and became an indispensable political and economic force. Today it is leading the new Europe, and as the great victor, it is writing – and to some degree is rewriting – its intellectual history. It has supplanted the dark romantic heritage with a heritage of human rights and has positioned itself as the defender of minority rights.
Perhaps the Poles are right: Possibly the defeated, too, should be allowed to present their version of the events. It is no less credible and is even more challenging than the account we cling to today.
Yuli Tamir is a professor of political philosophy. She has served as Israel’s minister of both education and immigration. Presently, she is president of Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Tel Aviv, and adjunct professor at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.