Last week, I ridiculed the Polish Parliament’s totalitarian law outlawing the phrase “Polish death camps.” It’s as absurd as banning phrases like “Jewish killing field” or “Hiroshima nuclear bomb” – and as unconvincing as those German neighbors who lived near death camps, smelled Jews’ burning flesh, approved the Nazi efforts to eliminate those pesky Jews, yet insisted, “we didn’t know.” But even as thoughtful people oppose this law categorically, the tortured history of Polish-Jewish relations demands more subtlety.
When Poles started blasting my column – “shame!,” “how dare you insult the Polish people!,” “Kike!,” etc. – I realized that Jews and Poles were talking past each other, again. Most Poles consider their people victims of the six-year Nazi conquest – correctly. To them, that national trauma excuses the Poles of any Holocaust-related guilt – incorrectly. And, to them, their suffering makes every Pole who resisted, and any Pole who defended Jews, broadly representative, marginalizing any antisemitic collaborators.
Most Jews consider their people the victims of 900 years of Polish antisemitism – also correctly. That makes Poles partially complicit in the Germans’ crimes. And that makes every Pole who collaborated in killing Jews broadly representative, marginalizing any rare Righteous Gentiles.
Probing deeper, as the grandsons of a Jew born in Stawiski, Poland, who fled to America in 1918, my brothers and I inherited his anger against the Polish people. My late grandfather Leon Gerson spent the first 20 his 100 years in Poland. He was conscripted into the Polish army, before fleeing from the antisemitism he endured there. His hatred against Poles ran so deep he denied speaking Polish – and bristled if anyone called him Polish. His trauma from living in Poland ran so deep he recoiled whenever he passed police officers, even those in America protecting him.
“Grandpa” was a Jew – with no modifier – vomited out of his birthplace. The alienation was so intense we never considered ourselves as having Polish lineage. It’s just as well. When I finally visited Stawiski – 13 kilometers from Jedwabne – which once was two-thirds Jewish, it had been de-Jewed, purged not just of Jews but of any sign of 400 years of Jewish life. In the nearby Płaszczatka Forest a marker blames the Nazis for slaughtering 700 Jews on July 4 to 5, 1941, covering up the local brutes who beat about 300 of the victims to death in Stawiski’s final pogrom.
My grandfather abhorred bigotry. But when I visited Poland in 2013, I realized we had inherited his perception of Poles as antisemitic thugs whose Jew-hatred was bloody and personal, not scientized and sanitized like that of the more sophisticated Germans. I confess that landing in Warsaw’s Chopin Airport shocked me. I had never associated artists or intellectuals with that vast Jewish killing field.
Even more surprising, I met young Poles confronting their country’s Jewish past – thoughtfully, humbly, remorsefully. These people clump the Nazi and Soviet occupations into one 50-year abyss. Repairing Polish-Jewish relations helps restore their national story – and pride. These are not the ahistorical parliamentary brutes censoring history. These are sensitive storytellers researching Polish Jewry’s heritage, creating Polish Jewish museums, running Polish Jewish cultural centers and seeking new relations with Israel, the Jewish people, individual Jews.
Unfortunately, many Jews scoff at this new, unfamiliar story – especially if they recently returned from March of the Living trips. Unfortunately, beyond this enlightened Polish minority there’s a backlashing minority that, like other neo-fascists, rants against “the Jews.” And, unfortunately, the fight over this stupid law helps the rabble-rousers trump the renovators and confirms our traumatized skeptics’ greatest fears.
While fighting Polish antisemites and pogrom-deniers uncompromisingly, let’s reconcile with Polish philo- Semites and history-confronters creatively.
The Israeli government should continue denouncing this law, ignoring pro-Israel blue-and-white-washing. Israel cannot tolerate any antisemitism or any denial about Polish antisemitism, which peaked during the Holocaust. The Poles and Ukrainians and Croatians who killed Jews then, did it because they could. At the same time, let’s avoid sweeping generalizations about Polish antisemitism that ignore Polish suffering – and Polish goodwill. It’s too easy to see today’s haters standing on the shoulders of yesterday’s oppressors. It’s harder to incorporate the bridge-builders, past and present, into our narrative too. My advice: take the risk.
My friends in March of the Living and every Jewish program visiting Poland must forgo the cheap, easy, “they all hate us” emotional triggers too many resort to too often for Jewish identity-building and dramatic trip-making. Jewish educators must think more deeply about how to teach this New Narrative of Polish-Jewish relations effectively, without sanitizing the past or ignoring current challenges.
Every bus should “adopt” one Polish Righteous Gentile like the social worker Irena Sendler who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis. Learn from Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, from the Tad Taube Foundation’s educators, from Jonathan Orenstein of the Krakow JCC, about the cultural festivals, educational programs and museums reconciling Poles and Jews. And start facilitating dialogue with young Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish, willing to face yesterday’s sins while writing constructive new chapters today.
History shouldn’t serve as blinders or handcuffs. Poles must stop ignoring the pain their ancestors imposed on many of our ancestors – and the particular pain, magnified by remaining scars – today’s thugs impose. At the same time, Jews must remember the past without being addicted to it, pioneering a healthier relationship with a New Poland, helping to bury the Old Poland, my grandfather’s Poland – this legislation’s Poland.