Defending Bid for World War II Reparations From Germany, Poland’s Deputy PM Appeals for Jewish Understanding
To anyone who has followed Polish politics since the turn of this century, the strident language that marked 2016’s political earthquakes — from Brexit to the election of US President Donald Trump — carried a strong air of familiarity. In successive elections that have become unseemly tussles between EU-leaning liberals and nationalist advocates of sovereignty, Polish voters have become inured to talk of “elites” and “globalization,” and of the gulf that separates ordinary Poles from the interests and political commitments of those who purport to serve them.
Following the 2015 elections, Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) is once again in charge. For at least a year, bitter rows have raged between Warsaw and Brussels over the direction of the country under Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, in particular regarding Poland’s controversial judicial reforms, as well as the PiS-led government’s desire to make the discussion of Polish history a target for legislation. All in all, that has resulted in Poland’s democratic image taking a battering. The general perception is that the forces of intolerance — antisemitism prominently among them — are on the rise.
Indeed, on the day last week when The Algemeiner sat down with Mateusz Morawiecki — the congenial alumnus of Northwestern University who now serves as Poland’s deputy prime minister – the European Jewish Congress had just issued a statement expressing “grave concern” at the rise in antisemitism in the country.
“Across Europe, governments consult with the local official leaders of the community to seek their counsel and coordinate a response to antisemitism,” the EJC’s president, Moshe Kantor, said. “However, Poland stands out as an example of a leadership which appears to have little interest in opening a dialogue with the Jewish community.” Such a dialogue, the EJC believes, would include an honest assessment of the impact the rise of the Polish far-right is having upon Poland’s community of approximately 10,000 Jews, who are — according to Poland’s American-born chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich — “for first time in many years…not feeling 100 percent comfortable, as they used to.”
Often, those anxieties coalesce around deeply sensitive historical issues, such as the increasing trend in Poland to portray Polish victimhood in the Second World War as on a par with the Nazi Holocaust. Just last week, Poland renewed calls for war reparations from Germany, which could theoretically run into trillions of dollars. Explaining the demand, the Polish vice president of the European parliament, Ryszard Czarnecki, declared, “If Jews have gotten compensation, and rightly so, why shouldn’t we make claims?”
Did Deputy PM Morawiecki understand why such a blunt comparison as this leaves many Jews distinctly uneasy? “I would say it in a different way,” he answered. “I would say that nobody is going to provide compensation for the elimination of the great culture of the Polish Jews, which is never going to be re-established. Also, the 3 million Polish citizens who were killed, they are not going to be brought back to life. But all the material losses, they have never been compensated even to a small degree.”
Marowiecki added that “some part” of any reparations from Germany that might be forthcoming “should be given to the successors of the Jewish victims.”
“Today, if Jewish friends are coming to me — and I have many of them — and they say, ‘Listen Mateusz, my grandfather had a house here, or a plot here, why can’t he recover it?’, I say it’s because this is a completely new country, re-established from the apocalypse of the Holocaust and the Second World War,” Marowiecki said. “But if there were some reparations, I think that some portion of this should be going to the successors of the Jewish victims.”
Candidly, he continued: “Today, Poland cannot pay for crimes and sins that were not ours. We were actually falling victim to what the Germans have done during the Second World War, and they have never paid for this, for the material losses.”
The backstory here is complicated, but briefly, in 1954, communist Poland, acting on the instructions of its Soviet masters — who also controlled East Germany — “unilaterally” waived its right to reparations. While more than $1 billion of compensation for Polish victims was received from Germany during the mid-1990s — half a century after the war ended — many Poles still feel passionately that their country was first annihilated by one totalitarian regime, Nazi Germany, and then robbed of basic justice and dignity by a second, the Soviet Union.
In some ways, the twin shadows of Russia and Germany loom as large over Poland now as they did seventy-eight years ago, when Hitler and Stalin carved up the country between them. Marowiecki is animated when he talks about his grand plan to secure Poland’s complete independence from supplies of Russian natural gas, and how this should be a model for the rest of the EU to liberate itself from the “blackmail” of the Russian government and its state-owned gas giant, Gazprom. When it comes to Germany, Marowiecki demands not just reparations, but issues a direct challenge to what he regards as a deliberate German campaign, in motion since 1945, to share their war guilt with the populations of those countries, like Poland, that were occupied by the Nazis.
The flip side of this is an increasing tendency in Poland to use legislation as a means of adjudicating the past — so that phrases like “Polish concentration camp,” which reputable historians have long known is a false and possibly defamatory description of the Nazi camps in Poland, become criminal offenses if used in public. Moreover, there are several cases where the underlying reason for offense is nowhere near as understandable — such as the government-backed campaign accusing the Polish-American historian, Jan Gross, of insulting Poland’s national dignity through his investigations into two instances of massacres of Jews committed by Poles, one during the war and one immediately after.
Asked about the battleground that history has become in Poland, Marowiecki said that Poland’s incorporation into the Soviet bloc after the war had robbed the country of the right to defend its reputation. “We need to have a long-term strategy of calm, objective presentation of what has happened between 1939 and 1989 (the year communism collapsed),” he said. “We want to do this in accordance with the historical truth. There were things happening in the German-occupied part of Poland which are beyond the imagination of people in a peaceful world today, but any Jews who survived could survive only with the help of Polish families — so if 100,000 Jews survived, 100,000 Poles should be seen as righteous among the nations. But they are not, because many of those families did not survive the war.” Moreover, the risks for Poles in saving Jews were greater, Marowiecki claimed, punishable in “Holland or Denmark” with a fine, he said, but carrying the death penalty in Poland. (According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in many places around Nazi-occupied Europe, “providing shelter to Jews was punishable by death.”)
The current state of Polish-German relations suggests that any discussion of historical responsibility is unlikely to stay calm for very long. For the Germans, as for many countries in eastern Europe, Poland’s claims upon the past are one part of a broader agenda that has encouraged and enabled the far-right, much as is the case in neighboring Hungary, which has a similar government. Currently, there is talk of suspending Poland’s voting rights at the EU over judicial reforms which critics say breach the line of separation between government and the judiciary. Marowiecki dismisses the contention that the reforms will result in the political appointment of judges, arguing to the contrary that the end result of the reforms is to make the judicial process less politicized and more transparent.
Is Marowiecki worried that Poland’s fraught relationship with the EU, against the background of these deeper disputes, will damage the country’s bid to present itself as a new hub for outside investment? Almost as if he knew the question would be coming, he answered with an assured no, and his reasoning exhibited the unsentimental realism of an old-school politician. “Business is business and people come because we have a good business environment, we provide a good return on investment,” he said. That includes, he emphasized, Israel — a subject to which he warms.
“Poland is such a defender and friend of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and what the Israeli government is doing,” Marowiecki said, “and we are bashed by our partners from western Europe, by France and the UK and the Netherlands, they say that we are too friendly with Israel, and why don’t we support Palestine to a sufficient degree?”
Then he chuckled, adding as a final thought, “and I say to myself, ‘We are so friendly with Israel, why is Israel not more helpful to us as well?'”