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Do Not Stand Idly By: The Holocaust Lesson Poland Hasn’t Yet Learned

Only a few years ago it seemed that the fraught narrative of Poland and its Jews was evolving from uneasy suspicion to tentative embrace. The 2014 opening of the core exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw, was the joyful epitome of this developing story; lauded by politicians and celebrated by the public, it represented the resurgence of Jewish investment and optimism in a land too often associated with only the shedding of Jewish blood.

Now, Poland and Israel are engaged in a bitter diplomatic rift over a new defamation law making it a crime to blame the Polish nation for Nazi crimes against the Jews during World War II. Jewish leaders in Warsaw and Krakow say they are fearful that this will increase anti-Semitism. Poles who contend that they, too, were brutally occupied by the Germans are angry and defensive.

Against the backdrop of a far-right, nationalist government that came to power in 2015, this dispute has become locked into competing victimologies. Either Poles betrayed the Jews or Poles saved them. Either Poles were collaborators and enablers — in the words of Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, “worse than the Nazis” — or they were resisters whose virtues and suffering have been long overlooked.

This is an argument neither side can win outright, because both sides are correct. Many Poles risked their lives to harbor and help their Jewish neighbors. According to Yad Vashem, 6,706 Polish men and women are counted as Righteous Among the Nations, the highest number of any country in the world.

But those heroic acts saved only about 1% of Polish Jewry, and there are equally searing stories of Polish collaborators and betrayers, during and after the war. When someone like Bergman recounts his mother’s damning observation that the Poles were worse than the Nazis, he is historically wrong but emotionally correct, as the Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum told me. The Germans were invading foreigners. The Poles were neighbors, business associates, friends. The intimacy of those relationships made the betrayals that much more hurtful.

The choice in Holocaust narratives is not a binary one — not either/or; it is both/and. Academics know this, responsible communal leaders have said this, but in the struggle over competing Holocaust narratives, too many Polish politicians and their Israeli and American counterparts have pandered to their respective domestic bases instead of acknowledging nuanced, complicated historical truths.

There is another reason that this is not a binary choice. What many Poles do not appreciate is one of the central lessons of the Holocaust — that, from a Jewish point of view, there was a third category of behavior beyond perpetrators and saviors: the bystanders, the onlookers, the ones who stood idly by and therefore were indirectly complicit in the crimes against humanity around them.

“We must take sides,” the late Elie Wiesel said in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

But too many Poles did not interfere, either before the Germans invaded and occupied their land, or after, when the air was foul with smoke from the crematoria, roundups occurred in plain sight, ghettos imprisoned Jews in hundreds of cities and towns, and fields and meadows became heaving dumping grounds for the Jewish dead.

Few in today’s heated moment are willing to reckon with this silence, but I don’t see how this roiling debate on Holocaust suffering can be resolved unless this reckoning occurs.

Judging silence, inaction and acquiescence is morally difficult in retrospect, of course. The pressure to conform to the Nazi regime was enormous. Poles will say that their resistance was more widespread than they have been given credit for — the Polish underground, for example, executed those who collaborated with the Germans. Unlike other nations ruled by the Germans, Poland never had a collaborationist government. Many Poles hated the Nazis as much as the Jews did.

At the same time, by the 1930s anti-Semitism became a fixture of radical right-wing nationalists and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as Adam Michnik, the Polish historian and journalist, has written. “Though historically Poland had been a relatively safe haven for them, Jews began to feel increasingly discriminated against and unsafe — and they were, with noisy anti-Semitic groups, segregated seating at universities and calls for pogroms,” he wrote.

It is this deep-seated anti-Semitism baked into Polish attitudes toward Jews that enabled some to respond to the Nazi invasion with no more than a shrug. They may not have collaborated, but many knew what was going on and did not act to stop it. Berenbaum shared with me something that Adam Polewka, a Polish resistance fighter, said during the occupation: “The Germans will throw stones at Hitler’s death, because he brought about the downfall of the German people, but the Poles will bring flowers to his grave as a token of gratitude for his freeing Poland from the Jews.”

Still today, there remains in Poland a stubborn, widespread streak of anti-Semitism, expressed in legislation, public opinion surveys and the media more than in violent acts, since there are so few Jews there, anyhow. It is an odd form of anti-Semitism — one without Jews, a hatred without the source of the hatred present.

The Center for Research on Prejudice, an interdisciplinary research unit at the University of Warsaw, surveys anti-Semitic attitudes among Poles regularly in a smart way — by recognizing that there is traditional anti-Semitism (blood libels, Christ-killer, etc.) and other forms that position Jews at the center of a global conspiracy. The 2017 results show that while only about a quarter of Poles still believe in traditional anti-Semitism, a far greater number share the more “politically correct” beliefs that Jews are scheming against Poles and for themselves.

So 43% agreed that Jews strive to rule the world.

And 46% agreed that Jews operate covertly, behind the scenes.

And 53.5% agreed that Jews strive to expand their influence on the world economy.

These are latent prejudices, because, again, there is only a sprinkling of Jews left in all of Poland. But it’s not hard to imagine how, under the right circumstances, they can come alive.

Here’s a case in point: Last September, the Polish government finally sought to provide some compensation for property confiscated by the Communist regime after World War II. But the proposed legislation as written would have discriminated against Jews in several ways, Gideon Taylor, chair of operations of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, told me. To receive restitution, the property owner would have had to be a resident of Poland when the Communists nationalized the property, but many Jews had fled by then; they would have to be a citizen of Poland today, which very few Jews are, and they would have only a direct line as heirs, even though many Jewish property owners lost children in the war.

Jewish groups lobbied to amend the legislation, enlisting Israeli and American officials in their effort. After some public debate, the Polish government referred the legislation back to the Ministry of Justice for further consideration.

Now, in the raw tumult over the Holocaust defamation law, this proposal on property restitution has resurfaced. But whereas the discussion last fall remained civil, this time far-right voices are braying that the Jews want changes in the law because all they want is money — when, in fact, all the Jews want is treatment equal to that of non-Jews.

And why would such outlandish claims resonate right now? According to the 2017 Center for Research on Prejudice survey, more than half the Polish public — 56% — agreed with the statement: “The Jews want to get compensation from the Poles for the things that in fact were done to them by the Germans.”

This is why I am so haunted by Polish indifference, then and now. It presents as neutrality, but in fact it can be activated and turned into hate and prejudice by, say, a government with a radical nationalist agenda that sees Poland as an aggrieved Christian nation. “There’s a deep linkage in recent Polish tradition between nationalism and anti-Semitism,” the controversial historian Jan T. Gross said at a program at the Center for Jewish History. “The aspect of an unwanted Jewish presence is a central element of Polish nationalistic policy. You can see how that sentiment is very much alive.”

In this, the Poles are no different from other peoples who harbor deep prejudices that linger beneath the surface until they are called out and exploited. We Jews can be blamed for the same tendencies — in our willingness to overlook Palestinian suffering or, closer to home, to tolerate systemic racism in America.

This is why Wiesel’s admonitions are so essential. He gave eloquent voice to a central biblical teaching: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.”

If I could impress one thing upon all the Polish people who do not want to continue this useless bitterness, it would be this: Examine, with us, the way in which your indifference and your silence enabled the Holocaust to go on and on. Even if you believed you were only protecting yourselves, you endangered millions of others, and robbed your country of a people who contributed so much.

And I’d read them this quote that Emanuel Ringeblum, a Jewish historian, wrote before he was murdered in 1944: “The Polish people and the government of the Republic of Poland were incapable of deflecting the Nazi steamroller from its anti-Jewish course. But the question is permissible, whether the attitude of the Polish people befitted the enormity of the calamity…. Was it inevitable that the Jews looking their last on this world as they rode in the death trains… should have seen indifference and even gladness on the faces of their neighbors?”

Jane Eisner is the editor-in-chief of the Forward. Contact her at [email protected].

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