Must Every Foreign President Visiting Warsaw Mention Jedwabne?

As a Pole, I dare not negate the feelings of Polish Jews who suffered anti-Semitism and lost their relatives, but we may have lost a sense of proportion in this emotionally charged debate

U.S. President Donald Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda arriving for a news conference in Warsaw, July 6, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

Since living in Israel, I have repeatedly found myself forced to respond to questions by confused people about contemporary Poland. The confusion doesn’t surprise me. However, the conclusions they sometimes draw do.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a historic speech in Warsaw on July 6, in which he spoke of a Poland that showed bravery in the face of its occupiers, and the wars that were fought in the country throughout history. He mentioned the partition of Poland, the Nazi occupation and the communist regime. He noted that the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and that its citizens were victims of the Nazi regime. He also mentioned the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and the revolt that transpired within it. And he made special mention of the suffering of Polish Jewry.

Was he lying when he said these things? No, but he didn’t say enough, according to some reactions to his speech.

The Jewish community in Warsaw swiftly issued a press release condemning Trump for not visiting the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt memorial, as previous American presidents had done. Indeed, only his daughter Ivanka laid flowers there. Haaretz surpassed itself by writing that Trump had been silent regarding the most important thing: the fact that Poles also murdered Jews during World War II.

We have become used to Trump saying exactly what his host government wants in speeches he makes outside of the United States. Thus, he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem; he promised peace in Bethlehem; he criticized Iran in Riyadh; and in Warsaw he said exactly what was most important for the conservative government of the Law and Justice Party to hear.

But does that mean historical awareness in Poland is limited only to what Trump said in last week's speech? Is the reality only what politicians describe in their speeches? Is it true that there is no discussion in Poland about Jedwabne, Kielce and other crimes that Poles committed against Jews?

There clearly is. We have researched and debated this topic for over 25 years, since the fall of communism. Haaretz, you may be surprised to hear, is not our sole source of information on the matter.

Poles have led some of the greatest research on this issue, publishing books and articles, producing films and curating exhibits. We are not silent on this subject. We are tirelessly engaged with it.

Thousands across Poland, including non-Jews, are involved in preserving the memory of the local Jewish community. They are educating the next generation of Polish students.

I don’t know if there is another country in the world whose attitude toward the Jews who lived in it arouses such intense emotions – moving from anti-Semitism to growing philo-Semitism.

The Jewish issue continually lives and breathes in Poland. It is present in elections campaigns; it participates in cultural events; and it finds expression in popular television series.

Are you Israelis – who learn about pogroms from 70 years ago – also aware of the other activities done on the Jewish issue in Poland today?

Any given party’s historical policy can’t change Poland’s Jewish past. Indeed, the Law and Justice Party went too far. It claims we have focused too much on Jewish-Polish relations over the past 28 years. Party members are saying it’s time to stop, put the matter aside and turn to fostering anew our self-confidence. They say we don't need to engage only with the negative side.

It seems the party sometimes forgets that this self-confidence must be loyal to the truth and can only flourish if based on the fact that history isn’t black and white, and on the recognition that we had both good and bad Poles. The good ones are a source of pride; we must ask forgiveness for the bad ones.

When discussing the history of Jewish-Polish relations, we must mention both sides – but we must do it calmly. Must every presidential visit to Warsaw repeatedly tell the audience about Jedwabne, as Haaretz insists?

What would happen if we were to apply the same principle to all countries? How would the worldwide list of “accusations” look? How would it influence diplomatic relations today?

As a Pole, I dare not negate the feelings of Polish Jews who suffered anti-Semitism and lost their relatives. I regret it and do what I can so that the knowledge of what transpired in Poland is not forgotten. But I can’t help but think we have also lost a sense of proportion in this emotionally charged debate – Trump, the Jews who criticized him and the Poles who happily received his flattery.

There is no solution other than listening and understanding, in order not to perpetuate the cycle of enmity and hatred. It is not only a Polish responsibility, but also a Jewish one. In the end, it is our joint history.