Poland and the Jews — it’s complicated

There are two words you need to use when discussing Polish Jewish history: nuance and ambivalence.

I need to tell you about the old Polish woman who lived with one of my childhood friends, Ira Handleman (not his real name).

Her name was Anya.

Anya didn’t speak English, and I assumed that she was my friend’s grandmother.

“No,” he corrected me, “she’s the lady who hid my mother in a closet during the war. My mother was so grateful to her that she brought her to the United States with her.”

The Handleman family moved to Israel, and we lost touch.

Ten years later, I went to Israel for the first time. I called my old friend’s family.

I had to ask: “And the old Polish woman? Whatever became of her?” I asked.

“When we decided to make aliyah,” Mrs. Handleman told me, “we offered to buy Anya a house in New York and to support her for the rest of her life.

“But, she said to us, ‘Who else could I live with? You’re my family.’

“And so we brought her with us to Tel Aviv. She died just a few years ago. We buried her here in Israel.”

Anya’s life was a one-woman response to my childhood version of Eastern European Jewish history — where all Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians danced around our mass graves.

The former prime minister of the state of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, once infamously suggested that Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.

Not Anya.

I have been thinking about Anya recently, because I have been thinking about the new Polish law that would outlaw any mention of “Polish death camps” during the Holocaust.

Denial is no longer just a river in Egypt.

It flows into the Vistula, as well.

So, let’s talk about Poland and the Jews.

There is hardly a European Jewish civilization that can match the achievement of Polish Jewry. Go to Warsaw. Spend a few hours in that spectacular museum of the Polish Jewish experience, Polin.

Relatively little of its acreage is devoted to Jewish death in Poland; rather, it’s about Jewish life in Poland.

If you want to understand the relationship between the Jews and Poland, you need to imbibe the twin themes of ambivalence and nuance.


Yes, there is a deep history of anti-Semitism in Poland.

But, for many years, Polish kings actively welcomed Jews into Poland. Jews were able to settle in Poland, even and especially when other countries were closed to them.

Yes, the Catholic church encouraged popular anti-Semitism.

Except, when it didn’t.

Consider these words, uttered by the Bishop of Warsaw, responding to outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Poland in the 1960s:

I, Bishop of the Metropolis, suffer greatly because of these “spectacles of hatred.” Perhaps I am to blame that as bishop of Warsaw I did not say enough on the law, the obligation of love and of loving, regardless of speech, language, and race, that I did not prevent your being overtaken by the monstrous shadow of a new racism, allegedly in order to defend our culture. That is not the way! Not the way of hatred—We can defend our country only by the way of love.

And, the inevitable discussion — the role of Poland, and Poles, during the Holocaust.


Can we really speak of wartime “Poland”?

“Poland” had ceased to exist — decimated in fiendish partnership by the Nazis and the Soviets.

Yes, the vast majority of Nazi concentration and death camps were in Poland.

Perhaps, those camps were in Poland, but not of Poland.

The Nazis did not use Poles as guards in the concentration camps located in Poland. They preferred Ukrainians.

The Poles themselves suffered terribly during the war years. The late Pope Paul John Paul II was a survivor of those years. Auschwitz itself has become a sacred site of Polish martyrdom. Re-read, or re-watch “Sophie’s Choice,” which focuses on the suffering of a Polish gentile (a plot choice which itself was controversial, as some critics believed that it was a distraction from the unique Jewish aspects of the Holocaust).


Poles committed anti-Jewish atrocities, such as at Jedwabne.

But, my childhood acquaintance, Anya, was far from alone. Many Poles hid Jews, at great risk to themselves — in closets, in barns, in cellars, in sewers.

Go to Yad Va Shem in Jerusalem. Walk down the Avenue of the Righteous, which commemorates gentile heroism during the Shoah.

You will see more Polish names there — than those of any other nation.

But, then again — after the war, Poles killed Jews who returned to their homes. The pogrom in Kielce, in 1946, remains a permanent stain on the Polish national conscience.

Ambivalence and nuance. Go to Krakow. There, you will see a renewed Jewish community — complete with a spectacular Jewish Community Center.

On the street, you can buy figurines — of traditionally-garbed Jews.

Holding gold coins.

Are those figurines anti-Semitic?

Or, are they fetishes –that Poles purchase for good luck — hoping that they will become as rich as the plaster Jews in their hands?


Zofia Kossak was a Polish novelist, and headed a Catholic social and educational organization, the Front for the Rebirth of Poland.

In 1942, she wrote, in a leaflet entitled “Protest.”

“He who remains silent in the face of murder becomes an accomplice of the murderer. He who does not condemn, condones.”

She went on to help create the underground organization Żegota, that saved the lives of many Jews.

Ready for a heaping pile of ambivalence?

Zofia went on to write:

Our feelings toward Jews have not changed. We still consider them to be political, economic, and ideological enemies of Poland. The awareness of these feelings, however, does not relieve us of our duty to condemn the crime.

Sofia didn’t love the Jews, but she certainly wished them no harm.

Why should Poland confront its history of hatred?

Because of what we recently re-learned here in the United States.

Remember all those controversies about Confederate monuments, and about Confederate street names?

We understood something simple and profound.

The only way to prevent more outbreaks of hatred — is to confront the history of that hatred.

That is what Poland needs to learn. It cannot learn that lesson by chilling the conversation, and certainly not by making it illegal.

As Nachman of Bratslav said, memory is the key to redemption.




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