The proud and beautiful city of New York is known worldwide as one of the most important centers of the Jewish Diaspora. In fact, nowadays it is true to say that it is the most important city in the entire world. But as a Pole who lives and was born in Poland’s capital city, Warsaw, I can never forget that it was from Warsaw and other Polish cities, and from countless shtetls, that during the 1900s Polish Jews left for New York, for the freedom of America, in search of a better future for themselves and their children.
This Saturday we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. While we must never forget the horrors of the past, let us also remember the centuries of peaceful coexistence between Poles and Jews. Our common cultural heritage can serve our communities well as we confront the challenges of the 21st century.
Before it was attacked and destroyed by the Nazis, Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million, of whom one in three was Jewish. At the outbreak of World War II, Poland had the greatest concentration of Jews in Europe. The total number of Poland’s Jewish citizens on September 1, 1939, was 3,474,000, about 10% of the country’s population. The course of war led in 1939 to Poland being divided geographically in half between Germany and the Soviet Union. Based on prewar demographic data, 61.2% of Polish Jews ended up under German occupation, 38.8% under Soviet rule. These figures in large part determined that it would be in Poland — home to Europe’s largest Jewish community — where the Nazi death camps for the extermination of Jews were located.
The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Within a few weeks they took all of prewar Poland. By July 1941, Polish Jews who had not fled or been deported into the Soviet Union found themselves under Nazi control. Almost immediately after the invasion, in several towns of Bialystok province — Grajewo, Radzilow and Jedwabne — mass murders of Jews were committed by groups of local Poles or with their participation. Historians do not doubt that the Germans were the inspiration behind these shameful crimes, but this does not alter the fact that they were committed by Poles.
The first few months of German occupation of Poland were characterized by a repressive regime that discriminated against Jews, yet did not cause either Jews or Poles to suspect the possibility of a physical threat to the entire Jewish population. At the same time, from late 1939 to late 1940, the Nazi occupation authorities carried out a consistent operation to exterminate the Polish intellectual and political elites. By the end of 1939 the Germans had murdered some 45,000 Poles. From the spring to the fall of 1940 they carried out “Operation AB” — the liquidation of “Poland’s spiritual leadership,” involving the murder of some 3,500 politicians, scholars, journalists, clerics and social activists. Tens of thousands more were sent to concentration camps. All told more than 2 million Polish Christians perished at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.
In the late fall of 1940 in Warsaw and several months later in Krakow, large ghettos were set up by the Germans on the territory of occupied Poland. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were sequestered within the walls. In Warsaw alone approximately 113,000 Poles and 138,000 Jews were “resettled,” resulting in a feeling between both communities of shared suffering. We Poles never felt it was just Jews who were being driven out — we were all being driven out, Poles and Jews alike, whatever street we lived on in our city.
In November 1941, the Nazis declared helping Jews a crime punishable by death. Historians reckon that the saving of a single Jew during the Holocaust required the involvement of at least a dozen people. I took part in helping out, and I can say we had no instant formula. No one had ever done anything like it before in their life. There were no experts around with experience in hiding people at risk of genocide, nor are there any now. There were no quick fixes and no safety instructions, apart from common sense.
Our task in the Polish underground was, in general terms, to save people from death: to find accommodation for escapees from the ghettos and camps, to supply them with documents, to provide material allowances and often to help find work for those, mainly women, who were able to move about.
Yes, even while we were doing what we could to thwart Hitler’s “Final Solution,” there were Poles who were ill-disposed toward Jews, who washed their hands of involvement in their fate. As we examine their actions today, with the benefit of 60 years’ perspective, we should take care to note the difference between active dislike and passive lack of understanding.
Lack of understanding falls under what Catholics are commanded to confess as the sin of neglect. They believe the true Christian offends God by deed, word and neglect. The offense may be a criminal deed, or an evil, sinful one; it may be a word spoken that has far-reaching consequences, or it may be neglect — that is, not doing something one should in the spirit of the injunction to love one’s neighbor.
While many Poles did indeed commit the sin of neglect, judging their culpability must consider the fact that war brings with it a moral crisis. War polarizes extremes. In war, good attitudes evolve into heroism; bad attitudes descend into villainy.
If we accept that in any human society there exists a certain percentage of decent, benevolent people, and also a certain number of egoistic, selfish people — those willing to break society’s rules to make their own lives simpler — then between these two groups there is a majority with middling attitudes, the sort of people who answer “don’t know” in opinion polls. It is this middling majority who, in extreme circumstances, can be transformed into heroes, evildoers or accessories.
Today I understand that the mass extermination of Jews between 1942 and 1944 was an event for which no one was prepared, neither practically nor psychologically; it surpassed all possible expectations or capacity to counteract. The disproportion between the hellish situation and the limited opportunity to help was immense.
The world’s helplessness in the face of Nazi evil leads one to reflect that humanity failed — and will always fail — in allowing a totalitarian system to develop. But in the last analysis, only those who have themselves faced the ultimate choice — as entire societies did during World War II — and chosen good over evil can fully affirm their humanity.
Many of the heroes during the Holocaust paid for their choices with their lives. None of those still living can say of themselves that they did enough to save others. But no one who has not faced such a test should ever accuse others wholesale, for whatever reasons, of not having been heroes.
Jewish society thrived in Poland for hundreds of years. This is now a closed chapter in the history of the Jews and in the history of Poland, yet it demands remembrance. Only where there is free public life and open exchange of views can people effectively be taught to be free of prejudices and to reject stereotyping. Until recently — until 1990 — these conditions did not exist in Poland.
Now those conditions exist.
Poland, a NATO member since 1999, has been a staunch ally of both the United States and Israel as they fight their respective wars against terrorism. Economic cooperation between our countries grows as we put into practice the free-market principles championed by America.
Perhaps most important, given our shared heritage, Polish interest in all things Jewish is growing exponentially, particularly the heritage of East European Jews who formed the core of modern Israel and American Jewry. Hundreds of new books on Jewish history and culture are published in Poland every year. Many Poles have also taken an active interest in Israel, including visiting there.
At home, the decision to create the Museum of History of Polish Jews in Warsaw — on the very spot where the ghetto was established by the Nazis 60 years ago — is indicative of Poles’ growing understanding of the role Jews have played in Polish and European history. The museum, designed by Frank Gehry, will be more than a symbol of our communities’ shared history; it will help to raise new generations of Poles in a spirit of tolerance.
From the devastation of the Holocaust, let that spirit of tolerance help build new communal ties between Poles and Jews. As we remember what we lost during the Holocaust, let us work together to gain a common future.