Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Poland and the Jews — it’s complicated

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.

Ambivalence.

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.

Nuance.

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).

Ambivalence.

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?

Ambivalence. 

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.

 

 

 

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.

20 Comments

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  • Powerful article, thanks for writing. Trying to live a lie, (cover up truth) harms the liars as much as those they lie about.

  • “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.”

    Sorry, rabbi, this is where I must disagree with you, though I agreed with the rest. It is impossible to make a statement like that about a whole class of people, and yethave absolutely no feelings about the people you have declared to be your enemies in all ways beyond that.

    As a gay man, and as a jew, I have been listening to that kind of crap my entire life. I can listen to a certain class of so called christian tell me they love me, while simultaneously hating my child molesting, disease spreading, family endangering, morality wrecking, civilization destroying ways.

    There is no need to mitigate the long history of polish antisemitism because you knew a nice polish lady who didn’t hate Jews.

  • If only the Agnieszka Markiewicz of the “Parliament’s action imperils Polish-Jewish relations”, RNS, February 5, 2018 article, had met and known people like Anya, brother Jeffrey Salkin, what an investigative journalism team you both would make to cover this developing news in Poland right now. What a nasty AJC woman, otherwise. There’s just nothing “complicated” in her Israel-centric view of things, unlike yours.

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

    Doesn’t Israel have a law criminalizing Holocaust denial ?

  • Rabbi Salkin, sadly, has not thought critically about these matters. He’s been distracted by his knowledge of Anya, and by lack of critical thinking about movies and novels. Rabbis would do well to make a point of including copious amounts of history and reasoning in their education, if they are going to comment on the Real World.

    Yes, he’s correct (ttbomk) that early Polish kings welcomed Jews to Poland. But what happened later?

    For starters, Christian Poles carried passports identifying them as Poles, while Polish Jews had to carry passports identifying them as Jews.

    I’ve known several Polish Holocaust survivors who told me stories of Catholic friends taking them to church, to see what went on–and hearing vicious anti-Semitism from the pulpit. I doubt that anyone knowledgeable would claim those stories are untrue.

    The rabbi is correct as well–again ttbomk–about a small number of Poles helping and hiding Jews. But compare that situation to, say, Denmark.

    And, of course, the charming Catholic church could not have been unaware of the anti-Semitism being preached in Poland. How could they, when that kind of hatred–that kind of spitting in Jesus’ face–was a feature of Catholicism for centuries?

    As for movies and books…someone correct me if I’m wrong, but is Sophie’s Choice history? Or a novel? And what movies are “truthful”?

    Rabbi, next time you decide to write about matters like this, may I suggest that a long and deep discussion with someone who differs from you, would help inform your writing and make it more useful to readers.

  • On the other hand it is very possible given your approach to other people that your being disliked has nothing at all with being a Jew or gay but simply being yourself.

  • As soon as you can demonstrate you are actually rational, as opposed to merely contemptuous, please let me know.
    Meanwhile, it appears you are following me around. What? Run out of things to do at JoeMyGod?

  • Yes, but so do continental European countries. It comes from a longstanding tradition of criminalizing libel/defamation dating back at least since the 19th century.

    Holocaust denial is deliberate lying about history for a specific defamatory intent and political position.

  • Before I read any online article, I research the author, then, if worthy, I research the content.
    I’ve read a number of Salkins writings in the past.
    Salkin does damage to the image of the Jews with this article.

    ” Yes, the vast majority of Nazi concentration and death camps were in Poland. ”
    Salkin correctly addresses the concentration and death camps in Poland as ” Nazi “.

    ” Poland” had ceased to exist — decimated in fiendish partnership by the Nazis and the Soviets. ”
    Meaning the Polish citizens were under dictatorial control of the Nazis and/or the Soviets.

    ” The Nazis did not use Poles as guards in the concentration camps located in Poland. They preferred Ukrainians. ”
    Again, correctly, Salkin identifies the camps as ” Nazi “.
    However, he leaves ambiguous whether the ” Ukrainians ” were volunteers – or forceable conscripts.

    ” 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. ”
    This happened. But Salkin’s statement is cherry-picked as to border on slander.

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

    Dangerous statement. You may get what you wished for.

    Kaganovich, Lejkin, Gancwajch and Yagoda, below, were Jews.

    Ukraine
    Lazar Kaganovich – “…. found Kaganovich, Postyshev, Kosior and other Soviet Communist Party functionaries guilty of genocide against Ukrainians during the catastrophic Holodomor famine. ”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazar_Kaganovich

    Kielce killings
    ” Government authorities ordered military units and local residents to
    attend the funeral as a sign of respect for the victims. Although the
    government executed nine of the attackers on July 14, following a hasty
    judicial investigation….”
    https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007941

    Jakub Lejkin

    ” Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, deputy commander[2] subordinate to the Germans at the Warsaw Ghetto. Lejkin played a leading role in the deportation of local Jews to extermination camps and was known for his brutality. ”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakub_Lejkin

    Abraham Gancwajch
    ” Abraham Gancwajch (1902–1943) was a prominent Nazi collaborator in the Warsaw Ghetto during the occupation of Poland in World War II, and a Jewish “kingpin” of the ghetto underworld.[2]”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Gancwajch

    Genrikh Yagoda – ” Yagoda supervised the deportations, confiscations, mass arrests and
    executions that accompanied the forced collectivisation, and was one of
    people responsible for Holodomor which resulted in deaths of at least 7.5 million people. ”
    https://wikivisually.com/wiki/Genrikh_Yagoda

    Jewish Ghetto Police” The Polish-Jewish historian and the Warsaw Ghetto archivist Emanuel Ringelblum has described the cruelty of the ghetto police as “at times greater than that of the Germans, the Ukrainians and the Latvians.”[4] ”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Ghetto_Police

    Stalin’s Jews
    Sever Plockner, author
    ” Many Jews sold their soul to the devil of the Communist revolution and have blood on their hands for eternity. In 1934, according to published statistics, 38.5 percent of those
    holding the most senior posts in the Soviet security apparatuses were of
    Jewish origin. ”
    https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3342999,00.html

    Antisemitism is a Christian invention, and valued tool, for 2000 yrs.

    Chances of success as a leader of a country or, for that matter, an institution, has been, over millenia, shown to be much easier if there is an ” enemy ” who can be used to instill fear in the followers of the country’s or institution’s membership. The ” enemy ” is also a convenient scape-goat upon which the leaders of the countrys or institutions, can blame for their shortcomings.

    Labor/corporation ; socialist/capitalist ; The Roman Catholic Church/ the Jew.

    The Roman Catholic Church is the most successful and longest extant organization on earth – and the source of the antisemitism of the Holocaust.

    The Nazis made very effective use of it.

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