Tourists gather in front of the monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto who fought in the 1943 uprising, in Warsaw, Poland, on Feb. 1, 2018. Poland's Senate has backed legislation regulating Holocaust speech, a move that has the potential to strain relations with both Israel and the United States. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski; cutline amended by RNS)

Parliament's action imperils Polish-Jewish relations

WARSAW, Poland (RNS) — Poland, the country where I was born and where I live and work today, has suddenly found itself at the center of a major internal and international crisis that is deeply rooted in historical tragedy, competing narratives and questions of identity. A legislative measure that will criminalize claims that Poland as a nation bears responsibility for any Holocaust crimes triggered the contretemps.

Polish-Jewish relations are complicated, and simple, mutually satisfying answers to key questions are difficult to find. What were Polish-Jewish relations like over the centuries preceding World War II? If many Jews in prewar Poland identified as Poles, why do we use the term “Polish-Jewish relations” rather than “Christian-Jewish relations?” How many Jews live in Poland today? Just how serious is the problem of anti-Semitism in Poland? And — most controversial of all — what were the attitudes of Poles towards Jews during the Holocaust?

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There are more questions, often raised by Poles. Why is Poland so often singled out for alleged Holocaust complicity, much more than France, for example? Why does the world empathize so little with the suffering of Poles during the war? And why is there so little understanding of Polish sensitivity regarding the harmful and untrue phrase “Polish death camps”?

Not until the fall of the Soviet-controlled communist regime in 1989 did serious discussions about Polish-Jewish relations and the history of Poland’s Jewish community begin in earnest. For more than a half a century before that, Soviet propaganda had focused on the victory of communism over fascism. Education about the Holocaust, including the attitudes of Poles toward their Jewish neighbors, was ignored.

Visitors gather on the grounds of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau near Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2016. Photo by Kacper Pempel/Reuters

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Blocked by the Iron Curtain, Poles could not tell the world their narrative of a country that suffered immensely from two occupations, Nazi German, followed by Soviet. They could not explain and receive credit for their noncollaboration with the Nazis, for supporting a very important underground movement, and for the fight civilians put up against the occupation forces as exemplified by the Warsaw Uprising, which yielded over 200,000 dead. All in all, Poland lost six million citizens, including most of its intellectual elite, and afterwards, instead of gaining freedom, it was handed over to the Soviets after the Yalta Conference in 1945.

With the transition to a western-oriented democracy in the early 1990s, Poland finally began facing up to long-suppressed issues essential both for the clarification of its identity and for establishing its place in the world. And thus Polish-Jewish relations, with all its inherent complexities, became a topic of discussion. Poland’s Foreign Ministry began focusing on relations with the Jewish diaspora, and Jews from Israel, the U.S., and other countries visited Poland to learn the truth. Polish schools, museums, and other cultural institutions began teaching about Jews and their history. For over 25 years, Poland and Israel have enjoyed excellent diplomatic, cultural, and economic relations, and Poland today is one of Israel’s strongest allies.

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Over several decades, my own organization, the American Jewish Committee, has pioneered in building relations between Poles and Jews, and in March it opened its Central Europe office in Warsaw.

Unfortunately, the Sejm’s (Poland’s parliament) recent adoption of a highly controversial measure threatens the positively evolving relationship and reopens the wounds of a multilayered history. The bill amends the Institute of National Remembrance law by introducing a provision that will penalize anyone who “ascribes to the Polish nation or Polish state responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.”

Poles have long asserted that Poland’s government did not collaborate with the Nazis, that Poland is the country with the largest number of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and this despite the fact that helping Jews was punishable by death. All of this is true – and the world, especially Jews, should remember that. But it is not the whole truth.

Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, on Jan. 27, 2018.  It marked the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet army. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski; cutline amended by RNS)

Preoccupied with its own unappreciated sacrifices, Poland struggles to cope with the painful reality there were those among its citizens who committed atrocities. How numerous they were and how many people they killed is hard to quantify. But there were certainly more than many Poles today are ready to admit, and denying their existence will not make the historical facts go away.

Nor can Poland continue to limit the discourse to its record of heroism and martyrdom. The ultimate cause of the current crisis is that Poland has not sufficiently confronted its past. For the sake of Poland itself — and not just for Polish-Jewish relations — the unresolved issues of the war period must be examined objectively. Difficult and painful as the discussion may be, it is essential for building Polish identity and strengthening our democratic society.

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But there is also a lot to be done from the Jewish side. The sharp — and, in some cases, abusive — reaction to the new law from Israelis suggests that they too need to do some homework. Does the education provided to young Jews who come to Poland to learn about the Holocaust adequately convey the historical context and the situation in which Poles found themselves under occupation? Are they taught about the Warsaw Uprising, about the three million non-Jewish Polish victims of the war? Such topics are important for Jews as well as Poles to know, as the centuries of our common past undeniably left a mark on Jewish as well as Polish identity.

There is always the temptation to perceive history — and our own role in it — in black and white, but such a simplified picture will not take us very far. The new bill’s designation of up to three years in jail for expressing an opinion will hurt Poland’s reputation in the democratic world and set back the efforts of so many of us in Poland, Israel and the United States to expand and deepen Polish-Jewish and Polish-Israeli relations. Surely educational initiatives will be far more effective than legal bans in arriving at the truth and furthering mutual understanding, open dialogue and reconciliation.

(Agnieszka Markiewicz is director of the American Jewish Committee's
Central Europe Office. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Do young Jews learn about Semyon Krivoshein ? THAT’S the most important question.

  2. Wasn’t he a Soviet Red Army Jew who with both Germany and the Soviet Union conquered the territories of the weaker Polish republic?

  3. I think Jews don’t have to do anything to better Polish-Jewish relations. Jews aren’t spewing anti-Polish propaganda, most Jews don’t care about Poland unless it’s their war experiences. Only thing AJC should do is start looking for better head of their office in Poland.

  4. So you are implying the systematic collaboration of the Poles in committing genocide had a reasonable excuse?

    How can we Nazi that coming?

  5. Do you know why polack jokes were so popular in the ’60’s?
    No, you don’t.
    So one man of Jewish descent in the soviet army defines all jews everywhere. You might want to read “Poland” by james Michener. The history of polish anti-Semitism is long and bloody.

  6. Thank you for the informative and brilliant article by Agnieszka Markiewicz. It has the ring of Truth and tolerance and helps greatly in my understanding and recognition of the passion of Poland . Please share this comment with the author. God bless your apostolate. Freda Muldoon, new hampshire

  7. So, you think the actions of ONE Jew, excuses centuries of Polish anti-Semitism. The long history of the Polish Church’s role in anti-Semitism was not mentioned.

    What happened to the Polish Jews who returned to Poland after the WWII ended. They were attacked and murdered by their fellow Poles.

  8. OK, American Jewish Committee (AJC), you’re asking for it. It being footnotes for your article here on your brushes with controversies.

    Here they are, courtesy of Wikipedia:

    (1) You accused “Jewish … editors and contributors to ‘Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ (Grove Press) … 2003 … of participating in an ‘onslaught against Zionism and the Jewish State’ … [Your] intent was to ‘turn Jews against liberalism and silence critics. … Any veering from orthodoxy is met with censure … the most powerful of all post-Holocaust condemnations – anti-Semite'”.

    (2) Your “October 2011 AJC … joint statement with the Anti-Defamation League … [was] a call to avoid criticizing the [US] president’s policies toward Israel.”

  9. So does that mean you’re partial to American Jewish Committee despite their own brand of controversies (2 of which I’ve just posted)?

  10. Are you then a collaborator with American Jewish Committee, who puts down fellow Jews (as per my post just now without the URLs – ha)?

  11. What you should’ve asked is, “Do young Jews learn about [American Jewish Committee’s ostracizing dissenting Jews in Israel & America] ? THAT’S the most important question.” Otherwise, everybody’s accusing you of anti-semitism. I don’t.

  12. What’s your obsssion with the American Jewish Committe? You’re not making any sense.

  13. This is my obsession with American Jewish Committee. Hey, you, yeah you AJC –

    (1) How come you accused “Jewish … editors and contributors to ‘Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ (Grove Press) … 2003 … of participating in an ‘onslaught against Zionism and the Jewish State’ … [Your] intent was to ‘turn Jews against liberalism and silence critics. … Any veering from orthodoxy is met with censure … the most powerful of all post-Holocaust condemnations – anti-Semite'”.

    (2) How come your “October 2011 AJC … joint statement with the Anti-Defamation League … [was] a call to avoid criticizing the [US] president’s policies toward Israel.”

    Understand now?

    This article’s writer, “Agnieszka Markiewicz is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Central Europe Office”!

  14. Don’t look at me, I am not the one who made the reference. 🙂

  15. What I said had nothing to do the American Committee in any way. It only has to do with Polish history. I have never mentioned the A J Committe. It should be impossible to find a positive or negative opinion of A J Committe in my reply because there wan’t one.

  16. I was criticizing the author’s post. How does that make me partial to the A J Committee?

  17. He is the tip of an ice berg. There were thousands of Jews in the Red Army and NKWD, which invaded Poland and persecuted Poles. Jews of course want to forget this chapter between 1939 and 1941. They want to remember only the period after 1941, when they fought against Hitler.

  18. There was no systematic collaboration. That’s nonsense

  19. LMAO! Those ghettos existed for centuries before the Nazis took over. They found no shortage of Poles willing to aid in herding Jews back into and sealing them. The Germans themselves documented the Polish collaboration.

    There is a reason there was a Polish and a separate Polish Jewish resistance.

    Currently far right winguts are influential in Poland. This is just a way to whitewash their history.

  20. Uh uh uh the author whose article influenced your involvement in the discussion was AJC through and through while writing about Polish law.

    See, prejudice cuts both ways. You’re showing yours as well.

    And here’s an obvious note to make. You didn’t know the writer was AJC until I brought that detail to your attention. Tsk tsk tsk.

  21. Yup. There was no shortage of collaborators in Occupied Europe when it came to committing genocide. Denmark being the major exception.

  22. Nonsense. German Ghetto has nothing to do with pre war Jewish qaurters.

  23. You mean besides having a ready made area to isolate the Jews from the rest of a city population.

  24. Jews had no choice. Russia was not a free country.

    The most important question is why Jews were attacked and murdered when they returned to their homes after the Holocaust.

  25. After the war there was widespread violence. People robbed, killed, raped, and expelled other people. Jews included. This is nothing unusual. One can’t expect “immunity for Jews” or “zero violence overall”. That’s an utopia. Not even Israel can guarantee you that, even during times of peace and prosperity. In post war Poaldn there was no peace. people were traumatized. They did not even know if the war is really over.

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