Professor of history of the Holocaust at the University of Ottawa.
On April 19, Poland and the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto – an act of desperate Jewish resistance and the first civilian uprising in occupied Europe. It was on that day, in 1943, that the Jews of Warsaw confronted the German troops with (very few) guns, Molotov cocktails, stones, knives and fists. The Germans, surprised and unwilling to take more casualties, withdrew and later started to burn the ghetto down, house after house, street after street, block after block. The destruction of the ghetto and mass murder of its civilian population lasted three weeks. On May 8, 1943, the remaining leaders of the Jewish Fighting Organization, facing an impossible situation, without weapons and without hope, committed suicide in their besieged bunker.
Today, this event has special significance, as the climate in Poland is one of increasing anti-Semitism – three months ago, the Polish parliament passed a “Holocaust Law” (locally known as the “Institute of National Remembrance Renewal Act”) that made it a criminal offence to “slander the good name of the Polish nation.” The Holocaust Law effectively freezes historical debates surrounding the issue of complicity of segments of Polish society in the destruction of the Polish Jews. When Jews protested, members of the government and figures in mainstream media alike reacted with racist epithets and accusations that the Jews themselves were culpable for their collusion in the Holocaust. “It is not freedom and liberty they want,” said Jerzy Czerwinski, member of the senate, of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, “it’s – as always – money.”
This is the ideological landscape in which Poland began to commemorate the anniversary. The current atmosphere is an uncomfortable reminder of the Poles’ historical relationship to its Jewish population.
The inconvenient truth is that, contrary to the Polish mythology around wartime events, the Jews of Warsaw in 1943 died alone, forgotten and – with rare exception – abandoned. On the “Aryan,” Polish, side of Warsaw, life went on and people were preoccupied with the approaching celebrations of Easter – the uprising inconveniently began during the Holy Week. Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel-prize winning Polish poet, lived in Warsaw during the occupation, and watched the burning ghetto from the other side of the wall. In his haunting poem Campo dei Fiori, he wrote about his fellow Poles:
At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
The loneliness of Jewish fighters was at least in part tied to prewar anti-Semitic feelings which Germans skillfully exploited and fuelled during the occupation. Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a Catholic writer and one of the celebrated founders of Zegota (the Council to Aid Jews), wrote while looking at the burning ghetto: “[The Jews] fought against everybody, but only with ruse, never openly, never with weapon in hand. They were the reason, the driving force behind 75 per cent of all wars fought by European nations, but they diligently covered their tracks. Jewish cowardly behavior became proverbial. They lost human dignity.” These shocking words came from a person genuinely preoccupied with the plight of the dying Jews.
The destruction of the Polish Jews and the attitudes of “bystanders” associated with this tragedy were a painful subject in Poland in 1943, and they still remain a painful subject 75 years later. During the communist era, the memory of the Jewish uprising was largely removed from the public sphere with both authorities and Polish society showing − for various, often opposing reasons − little or no interest in coming to terms with this part of the not-too-distant past.
After the fall of communism, the situation changed dramatically: The walls of isolation came down and the Poles learned, to their dismay, that in the eyes of the world, the wartime history of their country is very often seen through the prism of the tragedy of the Jews. It quickly became obvious that it was the Jewish uprising, and not the Polish uprising of August, 1944 (an event known to every Polish child), that had an international recognition and worldwide resonance.
Poland became thus a reluctant custodian of commemorations that were, in a way, “dictated” from outside. The fundamental problem was, of course, how to reconcile the memory of the Jewish uprising (or, for that matter, that of the Holocaust) with the deeply entrenched national myths of their own “national innocence” and the ethos of their own victimization at the hands of the Nazis. Hence the unending declarations and assertions about the alleged universality of help offered by Poles to Jews. With time, the myth of massive Polish assistance to Jews became one of the cornerstones of the Polish “history policy,” or the state-sanctioned historical narrative.
If one were to believe many Polish politicians, diplomats and officials, Poles selflessly, bravely and constantly assisted the Jews during the German occupation. The rare individuals who harmed their Jewish neighbours belonged to a criminalized underworld and through their acts excluded themselves from the national community. This, unfortunately, flies in the face of historical record.
Many Poles, in fact, took advantage of the Jewish tragedy: Some took over the Jewish property, some denounced the Jews to the authorities and some took part in the brutal liquidation of the ghettos. Any suggestion that helping the Jews was a default position of the Polish society at the time of the Shoah is a distortion of the history of the Holocaust.
Three months ago, in order to secure and protect the feel-good narrative, the Polish parliament passed the aforementioned Holocaust Law. In the pervasive climate of rapidly growing nationalism, Polish historians, journalists, artists and teachers are now faced with prison terms of up to three years for “unwelcome” comments and interests that might offend the authorities and their proxies.
In sharp conflict with international public opinion, the Polish authorities released forces of hate whose reach and extent few were able to anticipate and which no one is able to control. Anti-Semitic outbursts, previously relegated to more awful corners of the internet, have now entered the mainstream Polish media, including national TV broadcasts. And the example comes right from the top. The Polish Prime Minister, reaffirming his impeccable anti-communist credentials, chose recently to pay respects to the only unit of Polish resistance, which, in the winter of 1944-45, withdrew to the West – together with the Nazi forces – in front of the Soviet advance. To add insult to injury, the same day, the Prime Minister created an international scandal by talking about Jewish perpetrators of the Holocaust. And many lesser politicians and activists of the ruling Law and Justice party followed his lead.
What is forgotten in the midst of these controversies is the simple fact that close to three million Polish Jews who found themselves under the German occupation perished. An ancient nation, rich in its own language, traditions, history, disappeared together with 98 per cent of its members. And this – not a nationalist feel-good narrative, not feeding one’s national ego – is the most important message that should be heard while commemorating the 75th anniversary of Polish Jews’ last stand.
Simcha Rotem is quite likely the last living fighter of the Warsaw ghetto. Earlier last month, he wrote a public letter to Andrzej Duda, the Polish President: “As someone who fought side by side with my Jewish sisters and brothers in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto against the Nazi Germans, I want to say that many sons of the Polish nation took an active role in the extermination of the Polish Jews during the Holocaust. They took part in deporting the Jews from their homes, they acted with brutality, and after the liberation they took part in murdering those who survived the Nazi killing machine, and who only wanted to return to their homes.”
It is most unfortunate that, 75 years after the annihilation of Polish Jewry, Poland still needs to be reminded about these tragic facts.