Poland-Israel Meltdown Demands Elisha Wiesel’s Intervention
In March, we will hold our annual gala, celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary. The Elie Wiesel Defender of Israel Award will posthumously be given to Yoni Netanyahu, who was selected by Elie’s wife Marion and son Elisha.
Up until the recent clash between Israel and Poland over the latter’s new and highly misguided law criminalizing the discussion of Polish participation in the Holocaust, we were hoping that new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki would also attend our gala.
The new law allows the debate over what took place in Poland during World War II to be hijacked by extremists. The Israeli government, and Jews around the world, have rightly reacted with outrage to the apparent attempt to whitewash the anti-Jewish activities of some Poles during and after the war.
The discussion is spiraling out of control. Relations between Israel and the Polish government are quickly deteriorating. In response to Israel’s reaction, the Poles have become defensive and made several unwise remarks, in particular when the Polish prime minister suggested that Jews were also perpetrators during the war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly called that comment “outrageous.” The next day, swastikas were painted on the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv.
It is time to cool the rhetoric. My idea: if Elisha will agree, a dialogue should take place between Elisha and the prime minister.
As the only son of the famous Holocaust survivor, Elisha Wiesel has unequaled credibility in representing the Jewish community. Conversely, the prime minister would have the opportunity to be heard by the Jewish community as to why Poles feel so aggrieved in being asked to accept responsibility for participation in atrocities against Jews.
The unfortunate reality is that Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka were all located in Poland. Those camps killed 90 percent of the Jewish population of Poland. They were built and run, however, by the Germans. Moreover, as the Polish government also rightly notes, three million Poles were also killed during fighting and in the camps. At Auschwitz, an estimated 70,000 non-Jewish Poles were murdered — along with 1.1 million Jews.
It is important to acknowledge Polish suffering during the war. Unlike many other Europeans, the Polish government did not ally or collaborate with Germany. A government-in-exile opposed the Germans throughout the war, and partisans fought them inside Poland. The Polish underground gave some help to the Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Yad Vashem has recognized nearly 7,000 Poles as “Righteous Among the Nations” for rescuing Jews.
But that does not change the fact that many Poles participated in the murder of Jews. Historians estimate that up to 200,000 Jews were murdered directly or indirectly by Poles.
The case of the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is a painful case in point. His father was murdered by childhood friends after he escaped a death train, and sought their help. His sister, her husband and their children were also murdered when they tried to hide in the home of a Pole who had previously worked for them.
Many Poles turned Jews over to the Nazis. Some may have feared for their lives if they sheltered them, but others ratted them out, looted their possessions and stole their homes. After the war, Poles massacred Jewish survivors who returned to towns such as Kielce.
“Of course Poles took part,” former Polish premier Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz told the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. He specifically mentioned the “tens of thousands” of Poles who informed on Jews or extorted their property. Cimoszewicz said that at least 60,000 Jews were denounced by Poles to the Gestapo.
This does not mean that the Poles as a nation participated in the Holocaust. They did not. The Poles were occupied by the Germans, and suffered horribly. They were bombed from the air and slaughtered on the ground. But many individual Poles collaborated, which is why the law criminalizing discussion is just plain wrong.
Years ago, Oxford Professor Jonathan Webber took me on a tour of Poland. I had a somewhat negative attitude toward Polish-Jewish history. I was convinced it was rife with antisemitism and that Poles had brutalized the Jews before, during and after the war.
Jonathan, however, helped me see that the situation was more nuanced. He wrote a book called Traces of Memory, with pictures from cities, such as Krakow, Tarnow and Belz, where he found remnants of Jewish life. He also founded the Galicia Jewish Museum and has been living for many years now in Krakow. He argued that the Poles are friends of the Jews, and that Poland has done an admirable job of remembering the Holocaust and creating moving monuments.
I had positive experiences with the Poles when I visited the country with members of the Knesset to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and when I attended a speech by US President Donald Trump in Poland last year.
Trump’s address took place in the middle of my family’s trip to visit sites in Eastern Europe where the Final Solution was planned and implemented. It was an incredibly powerful — but also depressing experience. Yet I was gratified by the extent to which the Poles have gone to preserve the German extermination camps, to memorialize the victims and to educate visitors about the Holocaust.
I do sympathize with the angst of Poles who resent the association with the death camps. We should acknowledge that the Germans were responsible for the death camps and the Holocaust. We should also acknowledge that millions of Poles suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis, etc.
The Polish government, however, must also recognize that it cannot criminalize the conversation. The proper redress for their concerns is education, not legislation. The law should be repealed — lest it put historians and scholars in legal jeopardy, ruin the progress made in Polish-Jewish relations and irreparably damage ties between Poland and Israel.
A conversation between Prime Minister Morawiecki and Elisha Wiesel would allow the Polish and Jewish communities to diminish the rhetoric and begin the healing.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior.” For tickets The Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala on 8 March, go to www.thisworldgala.com.