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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)