March 22, 2018 — Warsaw, Poland
This piece originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.
Much has been said and written about what has become the most serious crisis in Polish-Israeli and Polish-Jewish relations since the collapse of Communism in Poland in 1989. While the Polish Jewish community is at the center of this maelstrom, its voice is not considered enough in the discourse.
There are reasons to be worried.
My views derive not only from professional engagement, but also from personal experience. My father was Jewish, and most of his family perished in the Holocaust, most likely in Treblinka. After the war, my paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States and started a new life. But his wife, my grandmother, decided to stay in Poland. She felt strongly connected to the country, even after the antisemitic campaign of March 1968, when Poles of Jewish origin — as they identified themselves — learned that there was no place for them in Poland.
My maternal grandfather, a Christian, was a soldier in the Polish Home Army that fought the Germans. Sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner, he managed to survive. That prison experience, followed by post-war persecution by the communist regime, deeply marked his life and personality.
Thus, the difficult subject of history of Poland and the Polish-Jewish relations, in all its complexity, is something very personal for me, as it is for many other Poles.
Unlike the typical American Jewish story, being Jewish in post-communist Poland required me to find my own way of being Jewish, and, frankly, I am still searching. Lifelong engagement in Polish-Jewish dialogue is one way I express my identity.
I have spent hundreds of hours discussing this complicated relationship, antisemitism in Poland and the struggles of dealing with one’s own history. To do so I have learned to put my own pain aside to listen to the story of the other. The “competition in suffering” that sometimes dominates Polish-Jewish historical discussions will get us nowhere.
I have visited the death camps located in Poland many times and explained to many other visitors — fellow Poles as well as Americans and Israelis — why they were not “Polish” death camps. These conversations can be very difficult. Sometimes I feel there is no way Poles will understand the Jewish perspective or vice versa, that I will always be expected to apologize or feel ashamed for being Polish and living in Poland.
Still, the discussions are vital. They have a real impact on the attitudes of many people toward each other and on their views of the world. Poles and Jews have become closer over the past 30 years and that has made a huge difference in Polish society and in Poland’s relations with Israel and American Jews.
But the current crisis looms as a potentially stunning and tragic reversal from that positive trend.
Only a year ago, I stood in the auditorium of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, where more than 500 government officials, diplomats, journalists and Jewish leaders from across Europe gathered to celebrate the opening of the AJC Central Europe office. Everyone there seemed to sense the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship.
And now, the rapid adoption of the Polish Complicity Bill — but even more so, the layers of misconceptions and prejudice revealed by the discussion around it — pose a serious threat to this progress.
Whether the law will be implemented or overturned is now up to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, Poland’s highest court, which could endorse the law or send it back to the Parliament for amendments. Polish and Israeli experts have just concluded their first meeting aimed at finding a way out of the crisis.
While remaining hopeful that such a solution will be found, both sides must consider the long-term consequences of this crisis. The new law and the ensuing controversy over it has triggered an outburst of antisemitism unprecedented in democratic Poland. At the same time, while surely no one in the Jewish world — or outside it — can deny Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust as well as the suffering of the Poles during World War II, there is an undeniable need for more education about Polish history in those horrible times.
But as I am Polish, I want to focus on Poland. A sign of a mature, functioning democracy is the ability and willingness to confront the difficult past. This process, to some extent, did take place in Poland, after difficult debates that engaged the Polish public opinion, triggered by the books by Jan Gross (which brought attention to cases such as the Jedwabne pogrom in 1941). But it turns out that many here reject accepting a view of history that is not black and white. Also, while democratic Poland did meet a standard by which making public antisemitic statements was unacceptable, the current crisis demonstrates that this change did not go as deep as we hoped.
No one concerned about Poland — and certainly not the Polish government —should take lightly the letter from Poland’s Jewish community leaders voicing deep concerns about the growth of antisemitism and raising questions about the Jewish future in Poland. Many people who are friends of Poland express deep disappointment, convey a sense of being cheated about where the Polish-Jewish relations stand and even wonder whether it’s safe for a Jew to visit Poland.
But those who, both in Poland and abroad, have greatly contributed to Polish-Jewish relations know that there is also another Poland, one that, which despite its difficult past, confronts its history, cares about its Jewish heritage and celebrates the revival of its Jewish community. It is a country where thousands of non-Jewish Poles are dedicated to dialogue and fostering better relations.
It is a country where, as a good friend of mine reminded me, “it became a cool thing to be a Jew.” One of the best allies of Israel and the United States, Poland is a country whose history and culture have a lot to contribute to the world.
That Poland is still here, and it needs our support and attention more than ever. We need clear policies and actions on confronting antisemitism, and recognition of the importance of the voice of the Polish Jews. It is crucial to work together to stem the downward spiral and defuse the tensions so that the years of effort made by so many do not go in vain.
Agnieszka Markiewicz is director of AJC Central Europe, the American Jewish Committee office in Warsaw.