According to the organizers of a recent Jerusalem conference marking the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Poland, the time has come for Jews to recognize the plain truth: Poland is Israel's best friend in the European Union. Moreover, they add, it is time to take a more nuanced view of Polish Jewish history altogether, to focus less single-mindedly on the killing fields implanted on Polish soil by Nazi Germany and more broadly on the preceding 1,000 years of Jewish civilization.
It's not an easy sell—and the reasons are plain enough. An image framed by Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's (Polish-born) former prime minister, persists: Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk. To speak only of modern history: long before a single Nazi boot set foot in the country in 1939, Jewish college students had been forced to sit on segregated classroom benches. By 1937, a "cold pogrom" had systematically eliminated Jews from Polish economic life. In July 1941, 1,600 Jews in the town of Jedwabne were burned alive in a barn by local Poles before the Nazis could lay hands on them. After the war, a pogrom in Kielce claimed the lives of 42 Jews who had survived the Holocaust.
As for Communist Poland's post-war record, the generous word is spotty. To its credit, Poland allowed the Haganah to set up a military training camp and was among the first to recognize Israel's independence. But when Stalin's policy shifted against Israel, so did Poland's. By 1953 Israeli diplomats had been declared unwelcome. The elevation of Władysław Gomułka in 1956 briefly improved matters; although relations remained muted, Polish authorities permitted tens of thousands of Jews to emigrate to Israel. With the 1967 Six Day War, however, Gomułka broke diplomatic and trade relations and anti-Semitism returned as a salient element in domestic propaganda.
Low-level trade ties with Israel resumed in the 70s; by 1986, as the Soviet empire showed early signs of teetering, Poland sought improved contacts with Jerusalem in a transparent gesture aimed at impressing the U.S. "Jewish lobby" and thereby, presumably, Washington. After the Communists lost power in 1990, relations were re-established and ever since then democratic Poland has gone to great lengths to rebrand its image among Jews, including by creating, in 1995, the post of minister plenipotentiary for Polish-Jewish relations.
Over the years, President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have all been welcomed in Poland. Israeli and Jewish authors are prominently featured in bookstores. Klezmer music is all the rage. A renewal of Jewish life is under way, manifest among other ways in the number of Poles discovering, or rediscovering, their Jewish roots and desirous of joining the organized Jewish community. A cultural festival in Krakow, sponsored principally by the Taube Foundation of San Francisco, draws Polish and international crowds; a Jewish museum is under construction in Warsaw.
Annual trade between Poland and Israel stands at $500 million. Polish entrepreneurs seek to invest in Israeli hi-tech; Israelis are active in Polish real estate. The Israeli company Teva ranks as the country's second largest pharmaceutical firm.
And Poland has indeed become an invaluable diplomatic asset within the EU—siding with Jerusalem against the tainted Goldstone Report, refusing to participate in the Durban II conference, derailing a Swedish initiative on Jerusalem inimical to Israeli interests, and assuming a leading role as Europe's voice against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In November, relations are to be taken to an even higher level when Poland's top leadership is expected to arrive in Israel for inter-ministerial meetings.
All Poland asks in return is for Israelis, and Jews, to view it with fresh eyes, not overlooking the ignoble aspects of Polish history but placing them in the context of a very long, at times positive, always complex relationship. For some Jews, influenced less by realpolitik than by still-searing memories, this may nevertheless be asking too much. Whether and when such attitudes will change are questions for the longer term.
A Gentile friend of mine from college married a Polish-born naturalized U.S. citizen. During the early 1990s, I had a conversation with her about Polish attitudes towards Jews today.
She said that the immediate postwar generation, and those born earlier, were still very anti-Semitic. She frankly said that her parents would have openly objected if she had dated - much less married - a Jew. But, she said, our generation and later - we were about the same age, born in the early 1960s - considered such attitudes, old-fashioned, ignorant, "square". Our generaional cohort and younger in Poland considered the attitudes of their elders on this to be a great embarrassment.
I also had a colleague in grad school during the late 1980s, who was a passport carrying Polish national, who also reflected similar views. He also was about my age, and was downright philo-Semitic. He was extremely apologetic about Polish behavior during WW2, and also admitted that older Poles were pretty obnoxious that way. He related to me that among the wartime generation, it was not uncommon to hear from them, "Hitler was a very bad man, but at least he killed the Jews!"
As someone heavily involved in Israel advocacy here, as a practical matter, I'm happy for any friends we can get nowadays on the world stage, and for my part, I welcome Polish support.
Interestingly, in my own personal experiences here, there is more blatant anti-Semitism on the part of Americans of ethnic Polish origin than there is from Polish nationals today. Seems the descendants here have not gotten the word yet from the old country....
Also the tourist tax is VERY attractive to a third world country.
Your piece, “Rebranding Poland,” expressed surprise that Poles and Jews can be close. Yes, there is anti-Semitism in Poland, but there is even more philo-Semitism. That’s because Poland is not just where Jews died – it’s where they lived. And boy did they live. Poland was the center of the Jewish universe for centuries. It’s where Talmudic scholarship grew and Chasidim began. It’s where Yiddish flourished. It’s where numerous Jewish artists such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Artur Szyk, and Artur Rubenstein honed their art. Polish kings protected Jews and Polish land magnates welcomed them because Jewish traders exported their wheat to the West. Jews weren’t dragged to Poland against their will. They flocked there because Poland was the country most friendly to them. But that reality was lost during the horrors of the 20th century. You mention the murders of 42 Jews in Kielce after the Holocaust, but ignore the fact that the Polish government found these killings abhorrent and convicted 12 people, giving the death penalty to nine and lengthy prison terms to three others. And during the German blitzkrieg, many Poles risked their lives to save Jews. Irena Sendler rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. Jan Karski sneaked through enemy lines to learn the truth about German death camps and then begged Churchill & Roosevelt to stop the Holocaust. Polish Captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to be arrested by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz to try to organize a prison break. As for criticizing Poland’s foreign policy under occupation when Soviet tanks were parked on Polish soil, and Russian nukes were pointed at their backs, that’s just meshugana. Dating back to the Statue of Kalisz in 1264, which provided civil liberties for Jews, Poland’s Kings Casimir, Sobieski & Stanislaw Augustus and others protected Jews. Poland’s most popular heroes such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Jozef Pilsudski and Pope John Paul II had very close ties with Jews. And Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash in April, lit a menorah in the Presidential Palace, even though he was Catholic. Poland was not a perfect world for Jews, but it was a nation that offered sanctuary to Jews. Over the cold centuries of rotating borders in Eastern Europe, Poles & Jews shared more than just hot bowls of borscht. This is not "rebranding.” This is history. Don’t dismiss the friendship between Poles and Jews as realpolitik, but embrace it as reality.
1.) Authors of similar articles on Polish-Jewish relations, intentionally fail to acknowledge that Jewish life in Poland was in fact very socially diverse. First of all, rather than referring to Jews living in Poland as Jews, we should start referring to them as Poles (of Jewish origin). These were Poles (of Jewish origin) who have in most cases been living in Poland for centuries, from way back when King Casimir the Great has welcomed them on what was then Polish soil and gave them rights and the freedom to live peacefully and cultivate their heritage. Some of them chose to integrate with the rest of the Polish society (as did my uncles family - who by the way was a Polish officer who was exterminated in the Katyn Forest Massacre in 1940 by the Soviet NKVD, which had many Russian Jews as it's high ranking officers), others preferred to remain within their own social, cultural and religious "enclaves". When WWII came, by now, the more integrated part of the Polish-Jewish society, as a result of their family connections and friendships (but also the polonised names and physical features) had a much higher chance of survival then those who lived in strictly and above all "visibly" Jewish communities. Those who chose to integrate with the ethnic Polish population were often more affluent and successful than their less-integrated counterparts who were for the most part manual workers. This was the reality, the American-Jewish authors always fail to discuss. Partly because they simply don't know Polish history, and partly because they fail to acknowledge it out of some hidden bias towards the Poles, which, perhaps, they in turn imbibed with their mother's milk?
I am not trying to say that being a minority and not fully integrating with a society gives anybody the right to be mistreated, discriminated or killed, however, upon Germany's brutal attack and occupation of Poland, the reality was that those more "visibly" Jewish were more prone to be captured and killed. However sad, this was the reality.
The loss of the Poles (of Jewish origin) was a huge blow not only for all Jews around the world, but above all for us Polish citizens and for our country who only regained it's souvergnity in 1989.
2.) Authors of similar articles, including this one, almost always concentrate solely on the wrong inflicted by the Poles on Poles of Jewish origin, but not vice versa. There are those who know better, but remain silent and take advantage of the ignorance of many reader about the subject matter, to cover their own atrocities committed in Nazi occupied and Soviet "liberated" Poland after 1945. Many of them later emigrated to Israel and the U.S. Morel, Zambrowski, Berman, just to mention a few of the Soviet installed members of the Polish Public Security Bureau (UB) which was responsible for imprisoning, torturing and murdering thousands of prominent and respected public figures of the Polish Underground Army, the Armia Krajowa (AK), who were opposed to the Communist State.
As we are well aware of the incidents of anti-semitism in Poland prior to WWII, we are also well aware of the atrocities comitted by the post-WWII Polish Communist regime at the hands of persons of Jewish-origin on Polish citizens. As a Pole whose family fought in the Warsaw Uprising, who lost two uncles in the Katyn Forest Massacre, I can not and will not take account and claim responsibility for the politics of the Polish Communist State (the Polish People's Republic) as those who governed my country during the years of 1945-1989 were not placed in office through free, open and democratic elections, but forced upon us by the Soviet regime.
Despite the above, I remain optimistic, that one day we will all be capable of discussing our common history openly and with mutual respect.
There are wise American Jews who are dedicated to the cause, such as Eli Zborowski from the Society of Yad Vashem, who is not afraid to admit that he is Polish, and never fails to be objective and unbiased in his efforts to present the truth.
More so, my family, as those of thousands of Poles after 1945, because if its anti-Communist stance, has been officially declared to be enemies of the Polish Communist State, and was for that reason imprisoned and tortured. Should I be blaming my whole nation and its people for this atrocity too?
I have numerous Polish friends (of Jewish origin) living in Poland leading successful and happy lifes and have never heard them complain or brag about the whole of the Polish society being anti-Semitic.
To me, if you feel that your are Polish, you are in fact a Pole. By now probably even Polish-Canadian (of Jewish origin) :-)
All the best
Also, it is worth remembering that during WWII and the period of persecution that followed the Soviet occupation of Poland after 1945 (and particularly after the forged elections of 1949), Poland lost most of its intellectual elites (intelligencja). The communists knew that without the elites the masses (peasants and workers) would be much easier to govern and to control (as they are generally more prone to propaganda and "simple-minded"). This was one of the reasons, why my family, as well as thousands of other families who were part of the intelligencja were forcefully made to leave Warsaw after 1945 and to resettle to Lower Silesia (eg. Wroclaw). The communists knew very well that if the didn't rid the capital of the intellectual elites, they might sooner or later be confronted by unrests and/or even a new uprising. They had to consilidate their power first, which they did between 1946-49, after capturing and killing the remaining leaders of the underground opposition.
I understand your grievance and anger, and only wish that some day perhaps you will be capable of putting them aside. Reconciliation starts within us and we all need it to be at peace with ourselves.
But I question the reason/s and the timing.
It's still too early to decide to forget.
For me, there should be more time lapse and more positive facts to change my outlook and feelings towards Poland and its people.
With a new generation developing in Poland maybe a new approach is possible but I ned more time and more proof.
At some point, Poles may also start wanting to expect proof and some kind of moral and material recompensation for the harm done and the crimes committed by the communists of Jewish origin in occupied Poland between the years of 1945-1989 - some of whom escaped justice by fleeing to Israel. What would this lead us to?
It's not simply a question of a new generation of Poles or Jews (the younger Jewish generation isn't too objective about the past), but more so of pure forgiveness and a MUTUAL willingness to admit your sins and weaknesses while remaining respectful of our shared and unshared history and open to dialogue.
I also do NOT think drawing us Poles into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a good idea.
In a larger sense, you - along with the rest of the West - have no choice but to be drawn into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. This is not happening in isolation; it is part of a larger war.
Israel is to the current war on Islamist terror what West Berlin was to the Cold War. They are not the cause of the war, and if Israel disappeared the war would not end. Like West Berlin was to the Soviets, however, Israel is a symbolic flashpoint of substantial psychological significance. But would the Cold War have ended one day sooner if the West had abandoned West Berlin to the Soviets? As a Pole, I'm sure you know the answer to that.
The Palestinians represent little more than the "cannon fodder" for the rest of Islamic SW Asia/NE Africa in their medieval, bloody-minded crusade to destroy the non-Moslem beach-head in the Levant. But their ire is not only directed at Israel. Look at Russia and their problems with Islamist terrorism emanating from Chechnya. The Chechen terrorists are trained and funded by Wahabbi extremists imported from Saudi Arabia, a so-called "moderate" Moslem country (ha!). Russia, for her part, has to be about the most anti-Israel non-Moslem country in the world, so where is their "reward" from the "moderate Moslems" for ceaselessly putting the screws to Israel and helping her enemies? Why, the "moderate Moslems" ought to be just lining up to help prevent the "extremists" from attacking Russia, but they do not. Just can't trust anybody nowadays!
Like it or not, Israel's war is the West's war. The only real difference between Israel and the NATO countries fighting in Afghanistan (including Poland) is that for Israel, 'Afghanistan' is right next door.
I'm thinking of making up a bumper sticker or a t-shirt with the slogan: "SUPPORT TERRORISM: BASH ISRAEL". Just a thought.
Ostriching in the face of increasing terrorism was a large factor in the rise of Nazism & the Holocaust.
Just like the Christian world, the Muslim world is quite diverse. Apart from religion, cultural and social factors play into it as well. Hence, I would be very careful about using the term "war on Islamist terror," or the term "war" for that matter. "Fight" or "struggle" against terror may be an option.
Considering what you said about Israel being a symbolic flashpoint and the Palestinians little more than "cannon fodder," wouldn't it be worthwhile to rid the extremists of one of their major arguments (Israel's suppression of Palestinians) and reach a final settlement between Israel and Palestine? The problem is that there are extremists on both sides, Muslims and Jews, who are too proud and too selfish to give ground in exchange for a settlement. That is why both the Palestinian and the Israeli authorities should first and foremost come to terms with their own extremists. This takes lots of courage and determination, but it is possible. The Palestinians and Jews are after all a Semitic people :-)
Pols could not care less for Jews and the Church did nothing to change their antisemitic attitudes.
The Russians DID give Chechnya independence, and then the Chechens kept attacking them anyway, as "revenge" for "past injustices" (doesn't bode well for Israel, even under the best scenarios, I should think). So, the Russians had to invade again in order to put down the attacks. It is known that the Saudis have exported Wahabbism to Chechnya. No, they don't really care about Russian-Israeli relations, and that is my point.
That excuse for Islamist terrorism is a sham. There is Moslem terrorism in the Philippines, and this also has nothing to do with Israel. In 1993, Al-Qaeda lined terrorists tried to get a French airliner to fly into the Eiffel Tower; this under the regime of Jean Chretien, who was so pro-Palestinian that Arafat kept his wife in Paris, and sought medical treatment there before he died.
So, if this is a bogus rationale, why should Israel be pressured into surrendering land and security in support of a lie? A lie that is simply convenient for some in the West to believe, because they think this is an easy, cheap solution to this war?
Yes, I know the Moslem world is diverse in many ways, but they are pretty united about the Jihadist agenda. A Pew research poll in recent years revealed that large portions of the population of a dozen Moslem countries agreed with much of the Jihadist agenda. Here in the U.S., a poll not long ago revealed that 28% of Moslems thought suicide bombings of civilians was a legitimate tactic - and that's here in the U.S.!!!!
I can tell you from my work in Israel advocacy, in my dealings with Moslems from many backgrounds over the years - Iranian, Lebanese, Turkish, Palestinian, Egyptian, Saudi - that their hatred of Jews and/or Israel is pretty uniform. There are exceptions - I have known a few genuinely moderate Moslems who accept Israel - but they are very few, and never seem to get into leadership positions.
This "there are extremists on both sides" moral equivalency is nonsense, Alex. C'mon! The so-called "moderate" Palestinian leadership under Abbas won't even recognize Israel as a Jewish state! That would be like Russia refusing to recognize Poland as a Polish state (which was a contentious issue at one time as well, as I'm sure you are aware).
That was just a joke, a bit of sarcastic irony. Wasn't at all meant in the sense of ignoring the threat, but rather, to showcase the absurdity of the position of Israel's detractors.
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It's unfair to hold Poland or Poles accountable for their country's foreign policy toward Israel during the Soviet Communist era. The country was brutally occupied by the Soviet Union, by force. It was a satellite. The first chance they got the Poles threw off the Communist yoke (Solidarity) but the idea that in 1953 or 1967 they should have risked being run over by Soviet tanks so that they could have diplomatic relations with Israel seems a strange standard. If, at that point, they weren't willing or able to have such a rebellion so they could elect their own leaders or publicly criticize the government, they were supposed to have done it because the foreign ministry was insufficiently pro-Israel? Not even American Jews would meet such a standard in respect of our own State Department.
This article seems to dwell on the communist period during which the Polish diplomats were really just Soviet puppets at the expense of earlier moments, such as in 1794, when a Polish veteran of the American Revolution, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, wrote a letter to the mayor of Warsaw helping that city’s Jews plead their case against a special tax on them: “It is indecent and inappropriate that this class of citizens, that are equally useful like others, and even equally devoted to public defense like others, should be more distant from the privileges of our government.” Five hundred Polish Jews formed a special cavalry unit to fight alongside Kosciuszko’s forces for Polish liberty against Russian and Prussian troops. The story is recounted in my former New York Sun colleague Alex Storozynski's biography of Kosciuszko, "The Peasant Prince."
(It's worth mentioning, too, that when the Poles eventually did overthrow Communist rule, they did so with the assistance of American Jewish labor leaders like Albert Shanker and many others, a fact that is not lost on plenty of today's Poles.)
The Polish pope, John Paul II, also did a lot for Catholic Jewish relations.
I'm not saying there are no Polish anti-Semites or that the pogroms mentioned here did not happen. But by mentioning the pogroms and dwelling on the foreign policy during the Soviet period at the expense of the positive elements I mention here, I think this take skews more negatively on Polish-Jewish relations than the evidence warrants.