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April 12, 2018 9:02 am

A Discussion with Poland’s Prime Minister About the Holocaust

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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The Jewish cemetery in Lodz, Poland on May 11, 2017. Photo: Isaac Harari/FLASH90.

I recently had a kosher dinner with Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieckiat at his official residence in Warsaw. After the passage of Poland’s Holocaust law criminalizing both the mention of “Polish death camps” and the attribution of blame for Nazi crimes to Poland I penned a column criticizing the law and calling on the prime minister to rise to the occasion of setting Polish-Jewish relations on a new footing.

The prime minister responded in a letter, saying “no Jewish family, none of our Jewish brothers and sisters, could be saved during the Shoah without some form of help from Polish families, from Polish neighbors.” The prime minister invited me to sit down and discuss the issue with him and I did so.

He said that he takes the tensions created by the Holocaust law seriously.

The day before our dinner, Bashar Assad of Syria had gassed and slaughtered his people again. The message was clear: genocide and mass murder remain global problems that are never sufficiently addressed.

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In my view, Poland — which witnessed the greatest genocide of all time taking place on its soil — could become a leading voice in fighting genocide and condemning the use of poison gas. But the Holocaust law undermines Polish credibility on the issue.

The prime minister expressed his people’s pain, and conveyed the unjustness of conflating victim and culprit. He said that Poland had lost 200,000 citizens in the Autumn 1944 uprising alone. Poland had been the first to fight the Germans, had never collaborated as a people, had never collaborated as a government, had been brutally suppressed by the Germans, and scores of Poles had helped to save many Jews.

The prime minister said that his government was Israel’s strongest ally in Europe. He claimed that he comes under repeated pressure from EU countries to join in various condemnations of Israel, from which he always abstains because of his genuine friendship with Israel and the Jewish people. He said that the purpose of the law was to lay blame for the Holocaust squarely where it belonged — with the German Nazis and not the Polish people.

But what of well-documented atrocities against Jews — where Poles were directly involved? Jedwabne was mentioned at the dinner. There is, of course, also the Kielce pogrom of July 1946, in which 42 Jews were murdered by Poles after the war was over. The prime minister was adamant that the law would never contravene fact or dispute the historical record.

But why in that case was the law important at all? Poland is a democracy whose constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Let the historical facts decide. The prime minister maintained that the Polish people were hurt and angered by repeated use of expressions like “Polish death camps.” The law was an attempt at righting a historical wrong. Indeed, President Obama used the expression in May 2012, for which the White House later apologized.

But, I countered, the law was counterproductive and only increased accusations of Polish insensitivity to Jews.

What was clear from the conversation was that this controversial law, to which I am irrevocably opposed and hope will be struck down by the Polish courts that are currently reviewing it, might present an opportunity.

A great many Jews, including myself, are of Polish descent. But the story being passed down through many Jewish families is that Poland was a place of irrevocable hostility to Jews and endless antisemitism.

Is that the whole story? Obviously not. Jews lived in Poland for 800 years. In that time they produced some of their greatest rabbis, works of scholarship, and synagogues of awe-inspiring beauty. Was there antisemitism? Undoubtedly so. Poland was deeply Catholic, and the church itself held the Jews accountable for killing Christ.

But Poland was also the place that the Jews began to emigrate to in the 12th century because of the tolerant policies of Boleslaw III; the Polish Jewish community would become the largest and most developed in the world. Jews suffered in Poland, but they also thrived and flourished.

Are the Poles responsible for the Holocaust? Most definitely not. Did large numbers of individual Poles collaborate with the Germans? Were many Poles happy to see the Jews gone? Historical fact would definitely suggest this was the case — and certainly, after the war, when many Jews tried to reclaim property, they were met with a strong rebuff and in many cases violence. Poland cannot deny these historical truths. But that does not change the fact that the Polish government never collaborated with the Nazis and Polish partisans fought them throughout the war.

I do not believe there is any antisemitism in Mateusz Morawiecki. In fact, I believe he seeks to be a friend of the Jewish people and truly wishes for Poland to have a closer relationship with the Jewish community and Israel. The prime minister also claims that the Jews have to better understand the extent of Polish suffering under the Nazis, even if it did not reach the mass extermination faced by the Jews. In my view, he is right. But the law has hindered those efforts.

What’s needed is the abolition of this law so that misunderstandings can be addressed honestly and forthrightly, and a new era of Polish-Jewish relations can ensue.

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. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. 

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