Opinion

Adviser to Polish PM: Jews Should Be More Sensitive to Polish Feelings When They Talk About Holocaust-era Poland

Radicals on both sides, feeding on evil emotions, don’t want Jews and Poles to recognize the 1000 years of religious tolerance preceding the Holocaust in Poland – and how Poland is again a safe haven for Jews

A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter in 1943.
AP

Poland is a safe country for Jews.

Jewish culture flourishes here; there are concerts and festivals such as Kraków's Jewish Culture Festival. The number of Israeli tourists visiting Poland is growing steadily. Last year, more than 250,000 Israelis visited, and the state-sponsored Polish Tourist Organization is planning to open an office in Tel Aviv to promote Poland as a tourist destination.

In Poland, there is no room for anti-Semitic attacks; they do not happen. No one is attacked for wearing a yarmulke, and no synagogues or Jewish shops are burning. A man who burned a Jew in effigy during a 2015 demonstration was recently imprisoned for three months.

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It is in Western European countries where synagogues need armed guards, and Jews are assaulted for wearing skullcaps. Poland, however, is a safe haven for the Jewish community.

The level of anti-Semitism in Poland is much lower than in France, Belgium, Germany or the United Kingdom. According to the most recent report on anti-Semitism by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, published in November 2017, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK increased 36% between 2015 and 2016, from 924 to 1309. In Germany, there were almost 1,500 such incidents in 2016.

And in Poland? There were a total of 101 in 2016, a decline of almost 40% from 2015.

The latest tension between Poland and Israel is due to a January 2018 vote by the Polish parliament criminalizing the use of the term "Polish death camp." For those who know history, it is obvious – the Poles were not involved in planning the Holocaust.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visiting the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during WWII, in Markowa, Poland, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018.
Alik Keplicz/AP

However, part of the Israeli public believes we were co-responsible for the extermination of the Jews. This sentiment arouses considerable emotions in Poland, which for centuries has been famous for its religious tolerance.

Before World War II, almost three million Jews lived in our country (in comparison, only 500,000 lived in Germany). During the German occupation of Poland, thousands of Poles hid Jewish families, even though they could be sentenced to death if caught. This punishment was an exception in occupied Europe.

Our country had no collaborative government with the Nazis. Rather, it had a strong underground state, which executed Poles who exposed Jews to the Germans.

Unfortunately, such cases did take place. There were szmalcownik gangs, who blackmailed Jews in hiding, and also pogroms. The scale of these events is still being investigated, including by Polish historians. Maybe their conclusions will prove painful for us, but certainly we cannot say Poland bears responsibility for the Holocaust.

The Jews should be more sensitive in referring to the difficult period of the Second World War in the territory of Poland. The Germans murdered six million Polish citizens during the war, and accusations of being co-responsible for the Holocaust are particularly painful to us.

This does not mean, however, that we close our eyes to the shameful attitudes of many citizens in the fog of war. We are striving for a thorough investigation of those times, and contrary to the stories disseminated by some communities, the freedom of this investigation is not endangered in Poland at all.

Polish President Andrzej Duda and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, in Oswiecim, Poland, April 12, 2018
\ KACPER PEMPEL/ REUTERS

Last month, the National Centre for Scientific Research awarded a 500,000 zlotys (about $135,000) grant to the Polish Center for Holocaust Research for a project co-authored by Prof. Barbara Engelking (who is critical of the government’s historical policy), "Witnesses of the Holocaust – Polish Society in the occupied areas against the extermination of Jews (1939-1945)."

Also, the State Institute of National Remembrance investigates the cases of Jews murdered by Poles. I am confident of their results, even if they are difficult for us to accept.

It cannot be assumed a priori, that there is the Polish truth or Jewish truth. There is only one truth, and it is the responsibility of both nations to get to know it further.

Can we do something more? I think we can.

While not forgetting about the past, we should not only nurture what connects us, but also think about the future. There is nothing better than investing in future generations.

I imagine a Polish-Israeli youth program, an intergovernmental institution to break up mutual prejudices with exchange programs, and cooperation between schools and non-governmental organizations.

This idea will certainly not appeal to the radicals on both sides. They feed on evil emotions. But we cannot be hostages of evil. We are connected by too many good things; we have lived together for nearly 1,000 years. Paradoxically, the current crisis can be useful for something good.

Andrzej Pawluszek is Adviser to the Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki. Twitter: @apawluszek