February 7, 2018 — Chicago, IL
This piece originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times
I was not brought up to love Poland.
My grandfather was born there, but he instilled no Polish pride in me. Like many survivors, he rarely spoke about his life in Częstochowa before World War II, or the conflagration that ensued. The only Polish words that I recall crossing his lips were curses.
I remember only one story. Returning to his house shortly after his entire family was murdered in the Holocaust, he knocked on the door and a former neighbor opened it and told him to leave or join the rest of his family in hell. My grandfather left Poland forever.
This is the heritage of many Polish Jews. When we remember Poles during the Holocaust, more often than not we may first think about the collaborators and murderers.
Yet the past is far more complicated. That past has come to the fore in the public controversy over a new law in Poland that will punish those who dare to publicly assert any Polish responsibility for the Holocaust.
True, no nation paid a heavier price for standing up to the evils of Nazism. Poland lost one-fifth of its pre-war population during the war. The bravery of the Polish army and air force, as well as the famed resistance, is legendary, and Polish codebreakers were indispensable in cracking Nazi codes and winning the war.
More Poles are honored at Israel’s Holocaust museum for saving Jews than the citizens of any other nation. The reward for this bravery and suffering was to be sacrificed at the end of the war and left as a Soviet vassal state. The Poles would have to wait another 45 years for their freedom, which they gained in 1989.
Since winning independence, the Polish people have written an impressive new chapter in their history. They are a loyal U.S. ally with troops deployed around the world in support of American armed forces. Poland has been a good friend to Israel and has taken remarkable steps to recognize its Jewish past, including the beautiful Polin Museum, which recounts 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish history in all its richness and complexity.
But President Andrzej Duda has signed legislation adopted by the Polish parliament that forbids any mention of the participation of the “Polish nation” in crimes committed during the Holocaust. The legislation also would penalize use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the sites where Jews and others were murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland during the war.
Israeli political leaders have criticized the legislation. They regard it as an attempt to erase history and deny Poland’s legacy of anti-Semitism. Even more insultingly, the legislation passed the Polish parliament’s lower house on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the United Nations and much of the world commemorated the six million Jews who perished.
The reaction from some on the Polish side has been no less venomous. Most outrageously, Marcin Wolski, the director of a state-run television station, said that the sites should be called “Jewish camps” since Jews were forced to operate the crematoria.
Signing this legislation is a mistake. It is a mistake because great nations wrestle with their histories rather than denying them, because Poles know better than nearly any other people about the fragility of freedom, and because proud Poles should fight with every fiber in their being any attempt to take away a measure of that freedom.
My grandfather would not have been surprised by all of this. His life experiences powerfully shaped his outlook on the nation of his birth. My experiences have been different and I am not ready to give up on Poland.
I have been present at the opening of American Jewish Committee’s office in Warsaw and heard the speeches of Polish leaders of political and civil society who were eager and willing to work with us. I have worked with Polish leaders in Chicago for years and seen their desire to heal the rifts between our two communities. Despite this setback, both communities need to find a way to move on.
In the end, regardless of what the law will state, we cannot tell the stories of our own histories without one another.
Daniel Elbaum is the Chicago-based Assistant Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee.