Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Why Poles need to talk about the Holocaust

A road sign in Poland points to the city of Kielce, site of an anti-Jewish pogrom in 1946.
A road sign in Poland points to the city of Kielce, site of an anti-Jewish pogrom in 1946.

A road sign in Poland points to the city of Kielce, site of an anti-Jewish pogrom in 1946.

The director of the FBI stepped in it.

Or did he?

Here’s what happened. Last week, James B. Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, delivered a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He said: “In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.”

The Polish government was not happy. The Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski, castigated Mr. Comey for his “ignorance, lack of historical knowledge and possibly large personal aversion” toward Poles. And, as a gesture of good will, Mr. Comey has apologized.

Let’s be clear here. Mr. Comey was not accusing the nation of Poland of being complicit in the Holocaust. For all intents and purposes Poland as a nation temporarily ceased to exist during World War Two.

But, Poles? And Hungarians, Hungarians, Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Croats, Estonians. Dutch, Latvians….who can deny that so many of them were willing conspirators with the Nazis in the roundup of Jews and the wholesale destruction of European Jewish life?

Here is how President Komorowski could have responded.

“I know that Mr. Comey has offended many Poles — as well as Germans and Hungarians — with his recent remarks at the US Holocaust Museum. In large measure, he has defamed our history.

“Poland suffered terribly during World War Two. We were invaded by both the Soviet Union and Germany. The Nazis intended to turn our people into a permanent underclass of slaves. If you have read William Styron’s book Sophie’s Choice, or if you have seen the movie, then you know that the Nazis kidnapped Polish children and raised them as Aryans. Auschwitz was a killing field for the Poles, no less than for the Jews.

“By the end of the war, Poland lost 45 percent of her physicians and dentists, 57 percent of her attorneys, more than 16 percent of her teachers, 40 percent of her professors, 30 percent of her technicians, and more than 18 percent of her clergy.”

“Let me go further. In the early Middle Ages, Polish kings welcomed Jews who were fleeing the Crusades. The Jews called our land ‘Polin’ — in Hebrew, “here you shall sojourn.’ But it was more than a mere sojourn. The Jews created a Polish middle class, as well as a powerful religious culture.

“And, let us not forget: During the war, many Polish citizens saved Jews. According to Yad VaShem, 6,532 Poles were righteous gentiles. This is not only more than any other country; it accounts for no less than 26 percent of the total number of 24,811 people who Yad VaShem has recognized for their moral heroism.

“But, this moment also demands our honesty. Yes, in our best historical moments, we welcomed Jews, and we saved Jews. As Jews would say, that has been our ‘good inclination.’

“But, our ‘evil inclination’ has also been present. Let this be a Polish Yom Kippur. Anti-semitism is deeply imbedded in our history. Some of that hatred was based in religion; some of it in Polish nationalism; often, a combination of the two.

“And, if we are to remember Polish righteous gentiles — which we ask the Jews and the world to do — then we must remember those of our people who were far from righteous. In August, 1945, there were pogroms against Jewish survivors in Kraków. In July, 1946, there was the infamous pogrom in Kielce. Within two years of the end of the war, our citizens murdered at least fifteen hundred Jews.

“The blood of the Jewish people stained the soil of Poland, and that blood continues to scream at us. In 2012, the Anti-Defamation League carried out a survey of Polish attitudes towards the Jews. I am ashamed to report this: 54% of Poles believe that ‘Jews have too much power in the business world.’ Many Poles believe that there is a Jewish conspiracy to control international banking and the media. And many Poles still harbor traditional, Christian anti-semitic stereotypes about the Jews, including some of the vilest stereotypes imaginable.

“So, yes — I was personally troubled by what FBI Director Comey said about how Poles collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. I was troubled because he was neither entirely right, nor was he entirely wrong.

“But, in another sense, we Poles should welcome Mr. Comey’s remarks, because they offer us the opportunity for sober reflection, and even repentance.

“To repent of our dark history means that we can transform that history, that we can write a new story. That is precisely what is happening now. Jewish life in Poland is growing again — much of it, under the auspices of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  Consider the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. It is perhaps Poland’s greatest cultural achievement since the fall of Communism.

“Not far from the smokestacks of Auschwitz, there is now a Jewish Community Center in Krakow — a place of vibrant Jewish life, in the shadow of what had been Jewish death.

“Thank you, Mr. Comey. Your words made us uncomfortable. May our discomfort be the gateway to repentance and renewal.”

 

Upcoming appearances by Jeff:

I’m speaking for Hadassah as part of its online series on Zionism. The “Z” Word: Why Zionism Makes Some People Uncomfortable. Tuesday, May 5, 7:30 – 8:30 pm ET.

This weekend, I am speaking about the Armenian Genocide, among other topics, at Temple Emanuel, Westfield, NJ.

In south Florida? Next weekend, I am speaking about caffeinated Judaism — the relationship between Jews, Judaism, and coffee — at Temple Shaarei Shalom in Boynton Beach.

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

19 Comments

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  • Following your logic Mr. Salkin and Mr. Comey’s, I am allowed to say that Americans are killers and murderers because of what happened at Abu Ghraib. And also I can say that Americans are killers of women and children because they’ve been killing them in Vietnam thinking they are doing the right thing. Right?

    I am disgust with the fact that there were people that collaborated with the occupant or did terrible things – it happened during every war on every continent. Don’t forget that during the war there was a German law in place – to kill anyone that is helping Jewish people. I wonder how would you Mr Salkin behave? I am sure you would be very brave and would help anyone? You would risk the life of your family and yours to help some stranger? It’s such an easy decision to make, right?

    Also, Poland was a country not a nation. Polish nation still existed and exists and did not temporarily ceased to exist during WWII. It’s the country that ceased to exist.

    Regards, Marcin

  • Nice graphic. Incidents such as Kielce occurred all over Soviet-occupied Eastern/Central Europe after WW2: e.g. there were two in Czechoslovakia and, in Hungary, four in Budapest alone. Only Kielce is discussed and dissected. Why is Poland singled out? And what about Jewish complicity in the annihilation of their own people? The subject is taboo. One is accused of anti-Semitism for even broaching the subject. Poles are expected to recite mea culpas for collaboration by a marginal number of society dregs. Polish traitors were tried by underground courts and executed when possible. Meanwhile, Jewish collaboration has been airbrushed from history. The first people killed by the Jewish insurgents of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were the Jewish traitors. Those who survived the Holocaust lived with impunity in the US and Israel. Where is your own “sober reflection” and sense of self-critique?

  • There are always exceptions to the rule, or upper and lower ends to the Gaussian curve. It’s the media we need to talk about. Pointing out the few that did terrible things shows where your perspective it. Point to the positive, those who saved the Jews at risk of death there were more of them then the others. We rarely point out almost all the Kapos in the camps were Jewish. And did other work for the Germans. But it’s true as my cousin told me about his time in Stutthof. This kind of vitreal does nothing for the Jews or the Poles but keeps the flames burning. Since you are a leader in the Jewish community you should set a positive example. The next generation may then know better.

  • Ok, let’s ignore your sickening picture at the preview of your text and think… so the FBI chief speaks about the holocaust:
    ‘In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.’
    Please, do not be naive. In fact, while equalling Poles with Hungarians, Comey forgot that Germans had no time to create a network of criminals called Szmalcowniks on the Danube as Hungary was a Nazi ally. Even less I can imagine any similarity between Poland and Germany where ideology, according to which Jews were not human beings, was tested, implemented and imposed by sword on Europe and where Germans applauded their victories. Can you compare it with Poland which had accepted thousands of Jewish refugees: poor and rich, intellectuals and criminals, religious and atheists and…

  • …and was even more terrorized because of it? Who will say a word in defence of Jewish people if the places that accepted Jews are called hell and Jewish neighbours are perceived as subhumans, in similar way like Germans or even many Americans perceived Jews before the war?

    Was Comey right to suggest that Poland was like Germany? Perhaps Poland should be a part of Axis (to accept German rules in Gdansk and exterritorial highway through Pomerania) instead of being destroyed, losing 6 million citizens (half of them Jews) and being compelled to build underground state structures opposing to the occupations.
    Kielce pogrom did not happen in normal country but in the country which was invaded by the Soviets before. Stalin allowed and helped Germans to invade Poland. He had common parades with Germans and Soviet NKVD closely cooperated with Gestapo. Stalin killed ‘only’ about 150 thousands of formerly Polish citizens, millions were robbed and deported. Also Polish Jews experienced it…

  • … If not Stalin’s help there would not be any opportunity to holocaust for Hitler. After being betrayed by Hitler, Stalin became cordial ally of Americans while Jews were overrepresented in Stalinist terror administration in occupied Poland. Not because they were racists, but because they were brainwashed. These Jews were abused the same way as Szmalcowniks, in order to impose the inhuman system together with collaborating Poles. According to the same Stalinist scenario Jews are today blamed by Russian fascists, to be the main perpetrators of anything wrong what happened in Russia during Soviet period. This is exactly the same story that anti-Semite Stalin wanted people to stick to and this is why he was inciting and waging ethnic wars and ethnic cleansing like Hitler did. It is easy to blame ethnic minorities.

    So is it acceptable for the chief of the FBI to unwillingly follow Stalin’s and Hitler’s historical discourse, just forgetting about some important facts like:
    – who was…

  • – who was a victim and who performed the crime during Nazi-Soviet occupation of Europe
    – a large-scale antisemitism in the prewar USA
    – the extent of US indifference to the holocaust
    – the American hesitation to accept Jewish refugees
    – the information about holocaust was censored by the allies during the war
    – the US came into close alliance with Soviets, who were responsible for starting the war together with Nazi forgetting that until 1941 Soviet police closely cooperated with Gestapo
    – many American companies cooperated and benefited from holocaust
    – after Soviets stopped to be Hitler’s helpers, during negotiations between allied, Poland and her territory was treated as a buffer, bribe to the Soviets and their war trophy.

    Are people having such serious gaps in a basic psychological and historical knowledge, a people who are prone to sweeping generalizations, suitable and qualified enough for such a high rank state positions to cooperate with Europe?

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  • I have no problem with Poles coming to grips with the Anti Semitism from their history till now and those atrocities that were committed by Poles against Jews in Poland. I guess what I see is that Poland is singled by people and governments who had people with in their own borders who contributed to seeing that Jews were turned in or rounded up by the Nazis . They were not under under penalty of death for helping a Jew as in Poland. The allies including Great Britain and the U.S. were made aware early in 1943 , by Polish partisans of the horrors taking place in the death Camps . They did nothing to stop the trains or to try to stop the killings. Yes Poland has to face its past but let those who also have accountability stop being the ones to tell Poland how wrong they were . People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

  • You are all ignoring the murder of Jews by Poles AFTER World War II ended and Jewish Poles tried to return to their homes. There were no more Nazis to turn them in if they helped Jews, but they didn’t help Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust, they attacked them.

  • Stephen, for the 1,000th time, every rabbi and pretty much every Jew knows that the word Torah comes from Hebrew for teaching. Your claim that it comes from the Egyptian deity Taurowet is false, as there was no such deity. There was a goddess named Taweret. In your drug- and hate-infused fake etymology you switched the phonics to make it seem closer to Torah. You’re a fraud, plain and simple. No one should listen to or trust a thing you say.

  • Jews have faced persecution, hatred, massacres, forced conversions, being forced into ghettos and contempt from Christians. Jews have every reason to hate Christians, but Jews don’t.

  • Judaism is growing and evolving and it doesn’t need you. Have you ever heard of Mordecai Kaplan and the Reconstructionist movement.

  • Mr K.Serafin, a lot that you have written it’s not true,I understand yours defence of Poland reputation and blaming it totally on to Stalin it’s bit much, and turning on to USA is ridiculous ,it’s like saying well the Americans where bad to Jews why shouldn’t the Polish too, common! And blaming communism on the Jews? Well there was 0.7% Jews in the top Communist positions during the Soviet Communism in Poland, but nobody is blaming the 99% of Polish Communists who were in top Positions, was the Jew who ever was the First Secretary of PZPR ever?, The Polish communist leaders still have high pensions and live in luxury naw i Democratic Poland but nobody is talking about them only the Jews, As for Stalin being in comrade of Hitler, well if not for Stalin my parents would never survived, Russia have open the borders in 1940 so 230 000 Jews could escape the death sentences, they where not communists only refugees, and that’s where I was born in Ural Russia, no surprise why jews…

  • The Jews who escaped to Russia in early 1940 could out of gratefulness became communists, who knows?When we came back to Poland in 1946 to Kalisz my mothers hometown, the Polish people where organizing a pogrom on us but it was discovered by militia just in time, there was many pogroms on Jews murdered when they came back and tried to claim they property taken over by Polish families and the men where standing with “siekiera” in the door saying well the germans didn’t kill you but I will ,,get lost!! not even allowing them to take personal thinks like family photos 1947, that’s why there was mass emigration of Jews in 1949.As a child going to Polish school I was constantly abused by teacher with dirty Jew remarks and beat up by kids named called constantly and that’s was long after the war, was USA antisemitism the same, I don’t think so,I know that Jews was not allowed in certain places like the blacks.I live in Australia best country in the world, no antisemitism here…

  • What this has to do with Polish Jewish connection during and after WW II? go and write yours fantasies somewhere else like some of the Muslim hate Jews sites they might believe this garbage, really !!

  • Spiritofeliah you area mentally sick man, maybe you area Muslim and came here to abuse Jews, with yours invented fantasies, who are you trying to convince? only yourself, go and see psychiatrist,as blaming Jews For everything bad that’s been happening in the world is nothing new, we have been living with this for centuries , and all because of jealousy that you know hows mart and clever Jews are.Look 186 Nobel prices given to Jews, Israel the size of New Jersey with only 8.3 million people including 1.8 million Palestinians who are living happily in democracy and equality is number 3 country in the world as for Innovations, technology, inventions, so go and spew yours hate somewhere else, there is plenty there even in Poland too.

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