It wasn’t hard to sense a bit of gloating following the Poles’ decision not to attend the Visegrad summit in Israel, a move that got the event canceled. The work of the righteous is sometimes accomplished by the crude and ignorant.
The brand-new foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, repeated the awful statement by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that the Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk. Then he said there was no crisis with Poland and the Polish foreign minister would be attending the summit. What was our clever new foreign minister thinking? Did he really expect that he could spit in the face of a proud nation and they would consider it sweet perfume?
The response from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki shows that when it comes to the Polish narrative of the Holocaust, his country isn’t about to cut any slack to cynical Israeli politicians seeking political points at the expense of the Polish national memory. Historians in Israel, along with self-styled experts on Polish Holocaust history, have been telling us over and over that Poland’s current government is an extremist nationalist government rewriting history and blocking critical research on the Poles’ role in the Jewish genocide during the Holocaust.
What these Israeli critics don’t realize is that, with just minor differences, supporters of the populist right-wing government and supporters of the liberal centrist opposition share the same view: The Polish people as a collective did not collude with the Nazis in the murder of the Jews during the Holocaust and was itself a victim of Nazi barbarity. Similarly, nearly all Jews living in Israel – from the right, center and Zionist left – reject the premise that Zionism is a colonialist movement whose takeover of the land is a historical injustice.
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The problem is that in Israel the attitude toward Poland – mainly for those for whom the Holocaust is a totem – borders on a hysterical obsession. And that’s coupled with incredible ignorance. Here, hardly anything is taught about Jewish history in Poland, and even less about Polish history.
How many people know about the Jews’ flourishing cultural, economic and religious life in Poland for centuries? How many know that in the 18th century, Poland adopted an amazingly progressive constitution whose ideas and timing were ahead of the French Revolution? How many can name a few of the giants of Polish culture, music, science, literature and academia such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Frederic Chopin, Adam Mickiewicz, Boleslaw Prus, Eliza Orzeszkowa, Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Marie Curie, Bruno Schulz and Julian Tuwim – Poles and Polish Jews whose works are classics of Western civilization?
Katz is the epitome of this ignorance and folly: The Poles imbibed anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk and therefore the Polish nation colluded with the Germans in the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust. Katz’s offensive remarks weren’t followed by any criticism or corrections in Israel, not even from people at Yad Vashem who are quick to publish learned petitions condemning the Polish government’s moves.
Of course, there is no argument about the facts: Many Poles informed on and murdered tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. But even if in Poland a legitimate debate is occurring over the extent of this, not a single historian or consensus politician there would deny these facts.
But the Israelis are demanding that Poland acknowledge that the Poles as a nation or country colluded with the Nazis in the murder of the Jews. This will never happen because it simply isn’t true.
The Polish historian Jacek Andrzej Mlynarczyk has published an article presenting a theoretical framework for defining Polish collaboration with the German occupation regime, relying on the accepted definitions of collaboration with the Germans by various nations during World War II. Collaboration is perceived as working with the occupation authorities in a way that clearly threatens the existential interest of the occupied people. However, aid given to the occupier to support the interests of the occupied and help them cope with life’s hardships does not fall under the definition of collaboration.
This understanding of “harmful” versus “useful” collaboration is also the approach adopted some time ago in Holocaust research to define, for example, the type of activity by the Judenrat or the Jewish police in the ghettos.
Mlynarczyk argues that opportunities for collaboration between Poles and the Nazi occupation were nearly nonexistent. The Germans did not enable this, nor were they looking for Polish collaborators. On the contrary, those who could have been capable of collaborating – the intelligentsia, politicians and other leaders – were either murdered or imprisoned in camps.
There were attempts by Poles to collaborate, such as by Wladyslaw Studnicki, a pro-German politician and journalist who advocated such an arrangement with the Germans but failed. In the New Order that the Third Reich planned for Eastern Europe, the Poles belonged to the category of victim and not the category of partners of the Aryan race. Only toward the end of 1944, when the Germans faced military defeat, did they try to exploit the hostility and fear stoked by the approaching Bolshevism from the east to recruit volunteers for the German army on the eastern front. But they could only muster 699 such volunteers, some of whom were teens sent to serve in Hitler Youth units.
So what about the genocide of the Jews? Poles did not serve in the concentration camps, unlike Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians and others. The murder of the Jews by Poles has to be understood in a broad and more complex context. The Poles did not kill Jews in order to help the Nazis realize the idea of the Final Solution, i.e., to aid in advancing the interest of the occupier.
This question is much more complex, as the Polish historian Tomasz Domanski showed in an article this month in the journal of the Institute of National Remembrance (known in Poland by the acronym IPN). Domanski made a careful study of two volumes of articles published by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research and edited by Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski. These collections present a chilling picture of different areas in occupied Poland in which Jews seeking refuge were killed or turned over to the Germans. The articles show that in these rural areas the danger the Jews faced from the Poles was often greater than the danger posed by the Germans, who were not always present there.
But Domanski argues, rightly, that separating the Polish violence against Jews from the entirety of the Germans’ violent policies and killing in Poland fails to understand the complexity of the picture. Besides the places examined in these studies, there were districts where the picture was different and Jews were not murdered and were aided by the local population.
In other words, before portraying the murder of Jews by Poles as a mass national phenomenon, one must carefully look at what the German policy was, for ultimately it was the Germans and not the Poles who determined what was allowed and what was forbidden regarding the Jews. Many times, Jews were killed by Poles because the killers believed that in this way they would help rid themselves of the danger of the German presence. Bear in mind that the violence against Jews was adamantly rejected by the official Polish underground.
It’s certainly correct to maintain that the effort to prevent violence against Jews was not at the top of the underground’s agenda. But saying that the Polish people and Polish state (which existed only in the underground) collaborated with the Nazi murderers is not correct. Plenty of Poles did collaborate for all kinds of reasons, but the underground Polish state objected to this, even if it didn’t try that hard to stop it.
None of this complex discussion interests Israel’s number-one diplomat, of course. He and the prime minister were also more than ready to make things difficult for Poland’s small Jewish community, whose leaders had to come out and defend the society to which they feel they belong. This is nothing new, either. The Netanyahu government has stirred up trouble with other Jewish communities around the world and undermined what was once unconditional support for Israel among large sections of the Jewish community in North America.
Katz can take solace in knowing that he’s not alone in this march of folly. At the ceremony last week at the Warsaw Ghetto monument, attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Benjamin Netanyahu, veteran NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell informed the American people that on that ground Jews fought for a month against the Nazi regime and the Polish regime.
Why would anyone expect her to know that Poland was under Nazi rule and that during the uprising the fighters of the Jewish Military Organization waved the blue-and-white flag alongside the Polish national flag? As the saying goes, “A fool may throw into a well a stone which a hundred wise men cannot pull out.”
Prof. Daniel Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the chief historian at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.