Analysis |

The Germans, the Jews and the Poles Are on the Battlefield Again

The Poles see themselves as the ultimate victims, the Germans repent and pass anti-BDS resolutions, and Israel speaks in two voices

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Poles take part in far-right protest against the U.S. Senate's decision to accept a law that allows Jewish people to claim compensation for property lost during WWII in Warsaw, Poland, May 11, 2019.
Poles take part in far-right protest against the U.S. Senate's decision to accept a law that allows Jewish people to claim compensation for property lost during WWII in Warsaw, Poland, May 11, 2019.Credit: AGENCJA GAZETA/Reuters
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Nearly 75 years after the end of World War II, the Germans, the Jews and the Poles - the perpetrators, the victims, and those who were both perpetrators and victims – find themselves at the battlefield once again. This time there are no fatalities, and not a single drop of blood is being spilled. It's a different type of campaign, the campaign for shaping memory and presenting the “truth.”

Last year’s Polish “Holocaust Law,” which threatened to imprison anyone accusing the Polish people of collaborating with the Nazis, is nearly forgotten. Now another old dispute has arisen, and it focuses on a much more practical subject than the complex question of abetting Nazi murder.

Jewish property in Poland is on the agenda, or in other words: Grandpa’s house, which he lost when he fled his native land a minute before the gates closed, the store belonging to the uncle who was sent to the ghetto and camps but survived, or the summer home of the mother who was murdered at Auschwitz.

>> Read more: Poland's militant nationalists are targeting Holocaust scholars, with help from an Israeli historian | Opinion ■ Israel claims victory after Germany's BDS ban at the expense of minimizing the Holocaust | Opinion ■ Poland vs Israel: Who's Really Winning the War Over Holocaust History?

For many Jews, many of whom are Israeli citizens, the topic has never dropped off the agenda, even if the media hasn’t focused on it continuously over the years. At family meals, on legacy tours, and on pilgrimages to Poland, the topic of Jewish property pursues them as a tangible memory – sometimes the last one – and refuses to give them rest.

The Poles, on their part, are refusing to consider a comprehensive arrangement for restoring property that the Nazis stole and the communists, who seized Poland after them, nationalized. Jewish heirs have to deal with an impossible legal bureaucracy and are offered no systematic solution to the problem by Poland, as has been provided by other countries.

The Poles see themselves as victims who are still awaiting full compensation for Nazis’ crimes, for the cities that were destroyed, for the (non-Jewish) citizens who were murdered and the property that was looted. Germany, however, says that the issue has been settled in the past, and is rejecting the Poles’ renewed demands, raised by the nationalist right—wing government.

Nevertheless, Germany is increasingly willing to recognize Polish suffering, and has recently called to deepen the discourse and research into the issue, after being persuaded that alongside the Jews, Poles were also murdered and dispossessed, and they should also be studied and remembered.

At the same time, Poles are refusing to even negotiate with Israeli representatives on restoring Jewish property. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki went so far as to say that compensating Polish Jews for damages would be a “victory for Adolf Hitler,” hinting that if Poland would compensate the Jews for property that the Nazis stole from them, Hitler, in his imaginary grave, would be smiling at the sight of the two nations he so hated fighting with each other over what he had stolen from both.

One can understand this viewpoint, popular among the Polish conservative right, which sees the Polish people as the Nazis’ ultimate victims. Given the fact that Poland was occupied and destroyed during World War II, it’s hard to persuade Jacek from the village or Pavel from the city that their tax money should go toward compensating Jews for property they lost decades ago in a complex historical process that began with the German occupation.

On the other hand, it is regrettable that Jacek and Pavel have a hard time accepting the fact that the reality was more complex than just victims and perpetrators. The Nazis indeed stole the Jews’ citizenship, souls, lives and property, but the Poles nationalized these homes after the war, as part of the communist effort to rehabilitate the ruined nation and to house the masses in them.

And what is Israel doing? It’s speaking with two voices. One is the voice of Yad Vashem, the world-renowned institution for Holocaust research, which claims that Poland is distorting the memory of the Holocaust and the role of the Polish people in its execution. This voice certainly recognizes the complexity of the very sensitive issue of Jewish property.

The other voice is the voice of the Israeli government, or more specifically, the one who heads it, signing memorandums and agreements with Poland which have not yet been clarified, in an effort to convey that it’s “business as usual” and to avoid a diplomatic crisis with the country Israel needs as a friend in Europe, in the United Nations and in other institutions.

Meanwhile, Germany, the primary perpetrator of World War II and the destruction of European Jewry, has passed a resolution in parliament that Israel could have only dreamed of a few years ago, declaring the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement anti-Semitic. This was such a far-reaching decision that even people in Israel raised their eyebrows at its passing.

So who here is Israel’s friend and who is its enemy? The country from which the Nazis sprung and which has since repented and is now even turning its back on the Palestinian movement, or the country which was itself a victim of the Nazis but is now refusing to deal courageously with the stains of its past?

When history, politics, diplomacy, memory and money get mixed up, it allows the Polish prime minister to warn of a “Hitler victory,” and to prove that in a way, World War II hasn’t ended.

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