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Defending the Poles

I read with great disappointment Jane Eisner’s piece, “Chasing Ghosts, Reviving Spirits: The Fall and Rise of Poland’s Jews” (December 5). The feeling that Jews have toward Poland is understandably painful, because millions were killed there. But most of that anger is misplaced. And, the Jewish perspective on Poland is not the only one.

For starters, the headline used online, “Home of Death Camps,” line is antagonistic toward Poland. Nazi Germany built these camps in Poland because it was the one country in the world that provided asylum to Jews for centuries.

Eisner asks if it’s time to “forgive a country and a people many Jews blame as much as the Germans for the atrocities and destruction of European Jewry,” but then emphasizes the negative rather than the positive.

Let’s not forget that during World War II, the Germans killed millions of Christian Poles as well, and that no country did more than Poland to rescue the Jews. Even though Poland was the only country whose citizens were given the death penalty for helping Jews, it was the only country to establish an organization to rescue Jews.

No country “opened its doors” wider for the Jews over the past millennium than Poland. Yes, Poland has anti-Semitism and bigotry like all other nations. Yes, there were Poles who killed Jews, or who turned over Jews to the Germans during the war, but the Polish underground searched for these traitors to execute them. No country did more than Poland to rescue Jews during WWII. Jews should know the names Karski, Bartoszewski, Sendler, Pilecki and about the 6,454 Poles honored at Yad Vashem.

Jews should know that the Statute of Kalisz, passed in the year 1264, protected them. That’s why the Jewish Diaspora flocked to Poland. This was a willful migration. Jews came to “Polin” because that’s where their culture, religion, commerce and self-governing society, a Jewish state within a state, were allowed to flourish.

The story of Polin is finally being told, faults and all, in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in Warsaw. The Polish government paid for the building, and the exhibits were paid for with donations from Jewish and Christian donors. Eisner writes that she “believes” the “museum presents a message that is fundamentally subversive for Jews.” Why is the truth subversive?

Worse yet, Eisner suggests that there should have been “Nuremberg-style trials” to punish Poles. That is outrageous. My stomach turned when I read this. No country fought Nazi Germany longer than Poland did. My father and grandfather were both wounded fighting Germans during the war. And what was their reward? After the war, Poland was subjected to forced Soviet occupation and oppression for another 45 years. For Poland, WWII ended only 25 years ago.

At a time when the military threat against Israel is growing, when anti-Semitism in Europe is on the rise and when fewer people are willing to show support for Jews, Poland is trying to keep its Jewish history alive. And Poland, like the United States, is one of the few countries that Israel can count on as a friend in the United Nations. It makes no sense for Jews to continue bashing an ally.

There is a renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland where even Christian students are studying Hebrew and Jewish customs. It is a genuine, benevolent fascination in Poland’s Jewish past.

Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of JCC Krakow, told Eisner that Jews “need to see that there’s a country in the world that likes us.” That’s the message that Poles are trying to convey. But Eisner’s piece is a slap in the face to the Poles who do feel an affinity toward Jews and have an interest in the role that they played in Polish history.

Alex Storozynski

President Emeritus The Kosciuszko Foundation

New York

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