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September 4, 2017 2:53 pm

Defending Bid for World War II Reparations From Germany, Poland’s Deputy PM Appeals for Jewish Understanding

avatar by Ben Cohen

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Deputy Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki. Photo: File.

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.”

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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?'”

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  • Eddie Quist

    Ireland has never received a penny.

    • Josep

      Last time I checked, the Republic of Ireland was neutral during WWII, but parts of Dublin did get bombed once, and I don’t really know if Ireland demanded any reparations from Germany. However, there were some Irish soldiers who served in the British Army.

      • Eddie Quist

        Ireland received massive drubbings from Britain and when Ireland was ejected from the UK the nation received nothing in the form of compensation.

  • LeseMajeste

    Jewish interests are more concerned about that reparations money going to Poland instead of into Jew bank accounts, that’s why they’re complaining.

    Every one knows that although close to 85 million were killed during WWII and hundreds of millions wounded, displaced and lost homes, suffering greatly, that only Jews are to be recognized as having suffered during WW II.

    Why doesn’t Poland also ask for money from Russia, since the USSR also invaded and brutalized Poland during WW II?

  • Coen Vanderstede

    Except for some extremists forever-stuck-in-puberty, there is no general antisemitism amongst European autochtones. The current wave of antisemitsm is almost exclusively a muslim issue. But it is the elephant in the room that no one wants to see. As Poland has very few muslims, there is few antisemitism. Especially when compared to cities with a historically large jewish community like Amsterdam, Antwerp, Paris, London. Making fuss about the Polish government not acting against – barely existing – Polish antisemitsm, is probably a hidden agenda to force the country to accept Merkel’s unilaterally decided quota of wir-shaffen-das-muslims. Something the mainstream Polish view as an attack on their national sovereignty. A sensible issue in a country that barely existed for centuries and that suffered gravely under national-socialist and soviet occupation. Moreover, it’s perverse to frame Polish antisemitism to right winged Poland as the bulk of jews that survived WWII were expelled to Israel and the US by the left winged communist government in the 1950’s and 1970’s. It would be good if people read Milo Anstadt’s ‘Poles and jews’.

    • guest historian

      Coen, you are right. Postwar history of Poland is little known and what is left are anti-Polish stereotypes, that till now are applied to contemporary Poles. Bewildering, indeed

  • henrytobias

    ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’ is one of the most often heard defenses by antisemites. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/853538ebdda7c09e7629d990f8c055b15094b9d07a2f88f5ee1a73d3b8960449.jpg

  • Poland should not expect World War II reparations from Germany. The only people who deserve reparations are European Jews (and relatives), who were murdered by Nazis in occupied countries.

  • Ilya

    A number of Polish Jews were murdered and robbed by Polish citizens during and even after the war, upon return to theIr homes. Shouldn’t their descendants be entitled to compensation from Poland?

  • CounterJihad

    Mr. Cohn predictably takes the cultural Marxist line where the automatic meme that is applied to those who support sovereignty among the E European nation states is of course…anti-Semtism. As an attack weapon it’s a rather dull knife, as a journalistic enterprise its hollow. Thumbs down Mr. Cohn, you really need to examine the bias you bring to this project.

  • BOTOSANI123 .

    The president of Poland makes on simple mistake other countries and i know as a fact Romania for example had the same history in war and after but they compensate the Jewish victims of WWII. THE PROBLEM IS THEY WILL NOT ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY IT CAN COST THEM BILLIONS.

  • duPont

    I have no sympathy whatsoever for Poland or its people. In 2015 I was in Gdansk and visited a Death Camp. The tour guide spoke only of the Poles who served in WWII and never mentioned the Jews who were left to rot on the streets of their country and be slaughtered in the very Death Camp in which we stood. Morawiecki mentions 100,000 surviving Jews who owe their lives to 100,000 Poles. What about the millions of Jews slaughtered in Poland for no other reason than being Jewish whose lives were spat upon by the millions of Poles ignoring the ashes of the Jews blowing in their faces and into their nostrils daily! The Poles deserve nothing as their lack of humanity and compassion are still part of their culture. People who lack compassion and love for their fellow man regardless of religion, color, etc., are doomed to live backward lives always wishing for something better. Something better will not come to those devoid of compassion and love of humanity and who are filled only with selfish desires. As they continue to live in the homes and on the properties of the very Jews murdered in their midst they have made no attempt to find any remaining survivors to whom those properties truly belong. The Poles willingly usurped everything left by the Jews and are still begging for more?

  • Reb_Yaakov

    It’s obviously a complex situation, rife with accusations, recriminations, and slights, sometimes giving rise to historical revisionism. Half of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were Polish Jews, and survivors relate the overwhelming hatred of Jews among the hoi polloi, who cheered while the Jews were being taken away. But now we have to look at the present and the future. In response to Marowiecki’s question in the final paragraph, I would ask, “In what way would he like to see Israel being more friendly to Poland?”

    The issue of compensation comes up in my places, and it brings to mind the question of compensation to Arabs who were forced to abandon their properties and flee at the time Israel’s war for independence was being fought. That issue should be dealt with regardless of what happened to Jews elsewhere in the Middle East.

    The Right in Poland is indeed a problem, as it is everywhere. It’s an ideology fostered by disaffection and anger and based on a mindset of group loyalty and tribalism, xenophobia, intolerance of “the other,” and lack of compassion. The preventive and antidote for it is a moral system based on faith in which one subordinates one’s psychological tendencies to the will of a higher power. Judaism is a good example of such a system. For Jews, there is no right and left, just straight ahead with the boundaries on either side set by Torah values. This should be a warning to Israel, where a false, ethnic definition of “Jewish” has led to a divisiveness characterized by the idols Left and Right and that is already tearing the country apart.

  • Ron Jeffry

    sorry but Poland got a mass of land that makes up the western part of their county, and we Jews didn’t wait 70 years.