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Poland's Ambassador to Israel: We Are the Only State in Europe to Properly Honor the Holocaust

Polish leaders consciously chose to commemorate the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Astonishingly, Israeli scholars call that 'suspicious,' 'politically prejudiced' and a 'historical distortion'

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Polish President Andrzej Duda lays a wreath during state ceremonies in homage to the victims and fighters of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on the 75th anniversary of the start of the revolt, in front of the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Polish President Andrzej Duda lays a wreath during state ceremonies in homage to the victims and fighters of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19, 2018. Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Thanks to the extraordinary hospitality and intellectual openness of this newspaper, two prominent Israeli historians, Prof. Havi Dreifuss (The Israeli Historian Under the Polish Government’s Thumb) and Prof. Daniel Blatman (Yad Vashem Teaches the Holocaust Like Totalitarian Countries Teach History) have been vehemently discussing the latter’s decision to accept the offer of the Polish government to become the chief historian of the Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto.

To cut a long story short - Prof. Dreifuss is not particularly enthusiastic about this appointment. She asserts that Prof. Blatman is being used as a “fig leaf" by the Polish authorities who “attempt to distort the history of the Holocaust."

It should come as no surprise to you, dear readers, whose side the Polish ambassador is taking in this heated debate.

Firstly, let me point out a nagging paradox: Had we not decided to establish the Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto, this exchange would have never occurred. There would be no articles in Haaretz, no acrimonious controversies. But the Polish government did choose to honor the Jews who tried to preserve their dignity in that mundane inferno. And it invited Israeli scholars to contribute their expertise. Another conscious gesture of a state in which Jews had lived for hundreds of years and whose culture imbued Poland’s.

>> These Are the Things That Get Jews Branded as ‘anti-Polish’ in Warsaw These Days >> Aide to Polish PM: Jews Should Be More Sensitive to Polish Feelings When They Talk About Holocaust-era Poland

Oddly enough, all this led Prof. Dreifuss to claim the entire initiative is suspicious and should be - essentially - shunned by Israeli researchers. The museum is due to open in 2023; nevertheless Prof. Dreifuss has no reservations about anticipating what it will look like.

Interestingly, Polish authorities had approached Prof. Dreifuss herself, but she declined to cooperate. Thus, her criticism of Mr. Blatman’s decision seems to be guided, at least partially, by political prejudices rather than by the assessment of the museum’s academic validity.

Obviously, Prof. Dreifuss is fully entitled to express her views about the policies of the current Polish government. But some of the astonishing remarks she made in her latest article require a prompt response.

According to Mrs. Dreifuss, Mr. Blatman "validates historical distortion" by addressing the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto as "Polish citizens." Admittedly, it is a moot point as to what extent they felt unwelcome in Poland, were harassed or even persecuted by their neighbors, but they undeniably did hold Polish citizenship. Many of them served in the Polish army, defending THEIR country from German and Soviet aggression.

Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, wearing white armlets bearing the Star of David, board a tram marked with the words ‘For Jews Only,’ Feb. 17, 1941.Credit: AP

At the venerable Ghetto Fighters’ House in northern Israel, the life of the Polish Jewry in pre-war Warsaw is depicted in the following terms: "Many Jews in Warsaw regarded Poland as their homeland and the cradle of their culture. Polish was their native language and they were actively involved in the country’s culture and politics."

Does this qualify as "historical distortion" too?

Finally, on Yad Vashem’s website, in the brief account of the Katyn massacre, there is no mention of approximately 400 soldiers of Jewish descent assassinated by the Soviets in 1940, including Baruch Steinberg, the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Armed Forces. In this case, Yad Vashem makes no distinction between "Polish" and "Jewish" officers. All of them are defined as "Polish."

Subsequently, Prof. Dreifuss argues that the Polish government is "happy to embrace dead Jews" (and not, it is to be understood, "living ones.") Nothing could be further from the truth.

In my capacity as Polish ambassador I embrace living Jews on a daily basis. Oftentimes, literally.

People walking over the line marking the boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto in the center of the Polish capital. April 2013 Credit: Reuters

We are lucky to have a large, vivacious community of Polish Jewry in Israel. Some of them are in their eighties and nineties, speaking impeccable Polish and profoundly embedded both in Polish and Jewish culture. "I feel Jewish and Polish at the same time," most of them say.

They may not have the rosiest memories of their youth, their parents holding a grudge against their Polish compatriots and against the communist regime,which expelled them from Poland. Others, on the contrary, are eternally grateful for being saved from the Holocaust by Poles.

Do Polish authorities want to forget or manipulate the past, as Prof. Dreifuss suggests?

Please, correct me if I am wrong, but I can’t recall any European country in which the head of state regularly presides over ceremonies commemorating the dark chapters of the history of their relationship with the Jewish community.

I can’t recall any other country where such scrupulous care is taken of the material legacy of the Holocaust.

And I can’t recall any other nation being admonished for eulogizing their own Righteous Gentiles.

Hopefully Prof. Dreifuss’ concerns about the future role of the Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto will be dispelled sooner rather than later. I am confident the new institution will cover all the shades of our common history in a balanced and professional manner.

Marek Magierowski is the Polish ambassador to Israel. Twitter: @mmagierowski

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