Polish Jews Torn Over Government’s Emphasis on Righteous Neighbors

The Polish government is honoring more and more Poles who saved Jewish lives during WWII, but its opponents are saying that it does so only due to a political motive

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Soldiers stand guard at the flower-covered grave of the Ulma family, a couple with six small children, who were killed by the Germans in 1944 for sheltering eight Jews, who were also killed with the family, during remembrance ceremonies at the cemetery in Markowa, Poland, Thursday, March 17, 2016.
Soldiers stand guard at the flower-covered grave of the Ulma family, who were killed by the Germans in 1944 for sheltering eight Jews, at the cemetery, in Markowa, Poland, March 17, 2016.Credit: Czarek Sokolowski / AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

At first glance, the ceremony last month in Torun, northern Poland, looked ordinary. No one was surprised that a number of VIPs, among them Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydo and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, took the trouble to travel to the Polish city where 500 years ago one of the most famous Poles in history was born: Copernicus.

The purpose of the ceremony was to pay respect to 1,170 Poles, about whom it was claimed that they were killed by the Nazis after saving Jews during the Holocaust. Their names are carved into a memorial called the Chapel of Remembrance built about a year ago in a Torun church.

“We, as Jews, must attend such events, to say thank you and show that we aren’t ungrateful,” a former Yesh Atid MK, Rabbi Dov Lipman, told Haaretz this week. Lipman was present at the ceremony.

Despite the emotional words, the ceremony was a flashpoint in a disagreement raging in recent years in Poland’s Jewish community. It centers around the question of how to address the right-wing Polish government’s policy that glorifies the role of Poles who saved Jews but, according to its opponents, does so out of political motives while distorting history and minimizing the part played by the many Poles who helped the Nazis.

Rabbi Rafi Ostroff and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło, at a ceremony in Torun, Poland, in November 2017.Credit: FromTheDepths.org

On one side are those who believe the government deserves praise for honoring people who saved Jews, no matter why it’s doing so, because it’s sending a message against anti-Semitism. On the other side are those who prefer to commemorate the Jews who lost their lives because Poles turned them in to the Nazis or murdered them with their own hands.

A symbol of anti-Semitism

An echo of the split was heard in things the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, told Haaretz this week. He believes that the Jews who helped organize the ceremony will have to explain it to the heavenly court of justice, as he put it. Schudrich recognizes that people who saved Jews are among the most exalted of human beings, but in this case, the organizers cynically exploited the memory of these heroes for illegitimate purposes.

Former Labor MK Colette Avital, head of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, feels similarly. “It’s a pity that a Knesset member who represents an important community in Israel doesn’t bother to look into the identity of those who have invited him before he departs for abroad at their expense,” she wrote to MK Hilik Bar (Zionist Union), who gave a speech at the ceremony.

Their ire is directed mostly at the man who initiated the construction of the memorial and sponsored the ceremony: Father Tadeusz Rydzik, the owner of the popular Catholic radio station Radio Maryja. After the fall of communism in 1989, Rydzik and his station became symbols of anti-Semitism in modern Poland. Hatred of Jews and incitement against them were broadcast on the station daily.

The priest’s supporters say he has changed direction. They believe he deserves a chance to apologize and use his influence to bring about a rapprochement between Poles and Jews.

Israeli sources say the change in Rydzik’s positions was influenced by his meeting in Warsaw last year with Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari. Exactly what was said in that conversation remains a mystery, but according to a recent article in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, after that meeting the radio station stopped preaching anti-Semitism.

According to those sources, amid the rise of the far right in Europe, Israel has no alternative but to cultivate people like Rydzik in Poland. That’s how the policy has been in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, and that’s how it will be in Austria if the predictions come true and far-rightist Heinz-Christian Strache gets a top ministry.

“Let’s assume the priest realized he had been mistaken and he wants to beat his breast and honor Poles who saved Jews during the war,” says Bar, the Zionist Union MK. “Why is this not legitimate?”

As Zvi Kelner, head of the Israel-Poland Friendship Association, puts it: “Rydzik was our enemy, and precisely because of that we have to speak with him. When Sadat came to Israel there were also people who said it was a hoax.” According to Kelner, the 1,000-year history of Polish Jewry is a history of pogroms and anti-Semitism, but today Poland is different.

Rabbi Schudrich, for his part, is prepared to forgive only in return for clear proof that the priest has mended his ways. “Let him say loud and clear that the anti-Semitic content he disseminated was wrong; let him confess that he transgressed and ask to repent,” Schudrich says. “Let him start broadcasting Jewish religion and culture on his radio station instead of anti-Semitic programming.”

Grave of the Ulma family, who were killed by the Germans in 1944 for sheltering eight Jews, during remembrance ceremonies at the cemetery in Markowa, Poland, March 17, 2016.Credit: Czarek Sokolowski / AP

Schudrich’s ire is largely directed not at Rydzik but at “the Jews who are prepared to support him and certify him kosher.” One of the most prominent of the latter is Jonny Daniels, a British-born Jew in the public relations business who divides his time between Israel and Poland. In recent years he has become close to the governing elite in Poland and depicts himself as one of the outstanding voices in the Polish-Jewish conversation today – but he has also acquired some enemies in the Jewish community.

Daniels has met with Rydzik several times over the past year and believes that the change in the priest is real, that “he has understood that there is scope for dialogue.” According to the website of the nonprofit group Daniels established, From the Depths, the goal is to “preserve the memory of the Holocaust” and “bridge the past to the future.” A significant part of these efforts is documenting Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust and honoring their families.

He does not coordinate this project with Yad Vashem. Daniels says an injustice has been done to Poles who risked their lives to save Jews; people who waited decades until anyone discovered them.

Yad Vashem has recognized about 6,700 Polish Righteous Gentiles (out of a total of around 25,000 around Righteous Gentiles around the world). Their number is increasing amid new testimonies. Daniels says that, for his efforts, he has received a seal of approval from the Institute of National Remembrance – a research institute identified with the Polish government.

“We are concerned about Daniels’ connection to the problematic tendency in Poland to glorify the role of Poles who saved Jews in the Holocaust at the expense of dealing truthfully and courageously with the historical complexity of the behavior of the Polish population during the Holocaust,” says a source at Yad Vashem. Under this view, this activity “even creates a distortion of the memory of the Holocaust.”

Furor on Facebook

The regime in Poland appreciates Daniels’ activity; it toes the line of the ruling Law and Justice party, which depicts the Poles as victims of the Nazi regime, not as collaborators. Thus about two years ago the government established the first museum and memorial of their kind dedicated to Poles who saved Jews. The complex was built in the town of Markowa in southern Poland, where the eight members of the Ulma family were murdered by the Nazis for hiding Jews in their home.

“We are obligated to spread the truth about the real extent of the help Poles gave to Jews,” wrote Jarosaw Kaczynski, Law and Justice’s leader, in a speech read out at a ceremony last month. He said the prevailing view that many Poles aided the Nazis was “distorted, mendacious and anti-historical.”

He added: “There were also Poles who turned Jews in to the Germans, and under the circumstances did not fulfill their moral obligation.” But he argued, “It is impossible to conclude that the destruction of the Jewish people received the blessing of the Polish people, but rather the opposite.” He said private individuals, the Church and the Polish government in exile worked to rescue Jews.

Kaczynski’s words are far from reflecting the historical truth, as historians in Poland and elsewhere put it.

“This is part of a trend characterizing the countries of Eastern Europe as victims of the Nazis that – heaven forfend – never laid a finger on the Jews,” says Prof. Dina Porat, the head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University.

Daniels, for his part, believes that we must not forget “the bad things that happened” but also argues that “it’s impossible to talk only about the bad. No nation is perfect, but the question is what the focus is.”

In October, Daniels clashed with the Jewish community after saying in a television interview: “The leftist Jewish media is continuing to attack Poland and depict it as a racist country, because they make money from this, and it helps them get reparations from Poland.”

Rabbi Schudrich says this is reminds him of the propaganda in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer.

In the meantime, in the Israelis of Polish Origin Facebook group, an argument is raging. The administrator of the group, Lili Haber, makes no bones about her opinion: “I don’t understand why we need to fawn over the regime in Poland,” she told Haaretz.

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