Polish society is strong enough to be able to address Poles’ role during the Holocaust

This affair would likely galvanise prejudice among both nations, but could just as well be a positive turning point for the relations between Poles and Israelis, and to some degree also for the place of the Holocaust memory in today’s reality in two societies that bare the scars to this day.

It was evening and we were strolling through the streets of Lisbon. N., my now wife, and myself. Our first trip abroad together. And, somehow, I made her cry.

Whether we wanted or not, the intersections of our nations’ historical paths have always been somewhere at the back of our minds. Not something that we tried to repress, but also not something that has occupied us too much. Maybe that’s what it’s like when one of us is Polish and one is Israeli. But that evening we were both surprised with what we knew, and mostly did not, about the historical narratives in our respective countries.

We in Israel have been brought up on the idea that Poles were an integral part of the Holocaust story, I told her. Whether Israelis voice it or not, we are not used to think of Poles as those who were on the right side of history during those dark times. And many Israelis, surely those who have only been to Poland as part of the Holocaust remembrance tour as high-schoolers, view today’s Poland through the Holocaust, not even World War II, prism. N. was upset with what she heard.

Maybe I wasn’t listening carefully enough in school, but when I met N. I knew rather little about the Polish chapter of World War II. I couldn’t recall anything about Poles heroically fighting the Nazi invaders, and while Janusz Korczak is a household name in Israel, the name of Jan Karski hardly rang a bell. Similarly, I certainly was familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but knew virtually nothing about the Warsaw Uprising that took place the following year.

Now it was our two societies facing off. And it was getting pretty ugly.

N. was shocked. Even angry. And we gradually started seeing the vast chasm between the versions of history we were each brought up on back home, the stories that have helped shape our collective perceptions of the other.

During our last three years in Poland, we have had the chance to face this gap more than once, and we are still learning how to address it. I guess this article is part of this process. But in January, exactly seven years after that conversation in Lisbon’s alleys, it was no longer just N. and me, two 30-somethings reflecting on bygone history lessons. Now it was our two societies facing off. And it was getting pretty ugly.

I realize that since the ‘ustawa IPN’ (also known as Holocaust law) had been approved, thousands of words have already been written in a bid to unpack this piece of legislation, its roots and its possible implications. In my view, the very fact that people feel the need for official censorship – including an imprisonment sanction – is wholly inconsistent with the idea of free speech in democracy.

Moreover, criminalizing factual errors is first and foremost a sign of weakness, an indication that we as society cannot handle falsehoods in a civilised manner. And this trend reflects a profound failure in education – but much more in civic education than in our history curricula. Because if we were to penalize every distortion of facts, whether intended or not, we would likely end up having more prison cells than classrooms.

That is exactly why I believe reducing the discussion to the practicalities of this law is missing the more important point. The intense exchange that has evolved – in Israel, in Poland and in between – has been about the underlying perceptions of ourselves and the others.

As such it became evident pretty quickly that this is no academic polemic. The discourse around the so-called ‘Polish death camps law’ is essentially a battle over narratives of victimhood. In the broader context, it has been a war of words between two societies where nationalism has grown increasingly mainstream in recent years, not least with overt or covert support from their governments and other conservative political forces.

It became evident pretty quickly that this is no academic polemic.

Yes, it needs be repeated – all concentration and extermination camps during the Holocaust were established and operated by Nazi Germans, not Poles. I tend to believe that for some Israelis it was the first time to learn that, in fact, the state of Poland did not even exist during World War II. With a few exceptions, all of these camps were located within occupied Polish territories.

It is important to point out that 3 million non-Jewish Polish nationals were murdered at the hands of the Nazis alongside Jews from Poland and beyond. And that is obviously immeasurably more than the numbers of Poles who aided the Nazis or killed Jews themselves.

But there is ample evidence that the latter also happened.

In other words, Christian Poles who attacked Jews were probably as few, or as many, as Christian Poles who helped save Jews. None were part of the mainstream.

But the point here is that today’s Polish society is strong enough to be able to address this part of history in a genuine and frank manner. The goal is not supposed to be to assume collective guilt, and certainly not by later generations. Rather, this is about recalling and reaffirming the values that underpin our societies. Because until we acknowledge these horrific incidents did take place, even after the war had ended, there is no way to ensure they do not repeat. And this is particularly timely in light of the surge of xenophobia, and specifically Islamophobia, in Poland, across Europe, and yes, in Israel too.

Polish society is strong enough to be able to address this part of history in a genuine and frank manner.

It is timely because xenophobia feeds on a fixation on a narrative of victimization in order to set us apart. And such narratives, and the politics that they breed, are enabled by the mainstream in society, the so-called ‘silent majority,’ either dismissing them as insignificant – or gradually accepting them.

I realize the Polish government has little appetite for engaging in any kind of soul-searching. In their view, it’s not that they are wrong, it’s other who simply don’t understand their position. The term ‘Polish death camps’ is obviously offensive for the entire Polish nation. But it seems to me that in the context of the Holocaust, Poles – Christian Poles, that is – have long had a sense of a second class victim, surely compared to their Jewish compatriots. Maybe sibling envy. There is no denying, as Israeli blogger wrote, that during World War II Poland was quashed by Russian Soviets and German Nazis in tandem and separately. And it is not difficult to understand, as he adds, how “a nation whose blood was spilled like water … would be enraged when it is attributed with crimes that were not committed [by it].”

The Law and Justice government is leading aggressive historical revisionism.

But in recent years, the Law and Justice government is leading aggressive historical revisionism, in the spirit of the populist nationalism that so charaterises it. The confrontational victimhood narrative it is promoting has emerged as a defining principle in Polish politics and primarily in Poland’s international affairs.

The recent debate in Poland about demanding war reparations from Germany, echoing the 1952 reparations agreement between Israel and Germany, is one such example.

The eruption of this dispute, and primarily the way it has been handled by politicians in both countries, seems to have unlocked dark prejudice and nasty stigmas that might have existed among surprisingly large portions of these two societies.

In Poland this law has emerged as a powerful trigger for a debate on Poles’ role during the Holocaust. Though, it was not the first time this topic surfaces. Films like Władysław Pasikowski’s 2012 Aftermath (Pokłosie), Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar winner Ida, or theatre plays like Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class (Nasza Klasa) have made important, bold attempts to touch on this thorny topic. But it seems the ‘ustawa IPN’ has been even more successful, perhaps because it stirred an international debate.

It stirred an international debate.

At the same time, it was particularly frustrating, and frustratingly familiar, to see the knee-jerk reactions from politicians, journalists and other commentators in Israel. I do share the opinion that this law should have been voted down by Polish legislators, but branding this move as Holocaust denial is simply lazy sensationalism that is both based on ignorance and propagating it. Racism has become increasingly prevalent in Poland, probably most evident in the Polish government’s consistent refusal to take in Middle Eastern asylum seekers. But this particular law does not deny crimes were committed against Jews.

At the end of the day, this law, whose stated objective is to defend Poland’s reputation, has actually helped reveal a truly ugly side of contemporary Polish society. And boy, do we Israelis know the boomerang effect of nationalist public diplomacy. The Israeli government has been incessantly pumping the Hasbara (public diplomacy) machine since years to fend off against the slightest criticism of its occupation of the Palestinian territories. And in Israel, as in Poland, efforts to mend the country’s overseas image are an integral part of the domestic conscience cleansing exercise. But, as at least some Poles now begin to understand, there is no PR guru in the world who can make a policy so blatantly unjust and immoral look good. There are just rationalizations at best.

There are just rationalizations at best.

And in fact, for me, as an Israeli who has spent his past three years in Poland, the ‘ustawa IPN’ affair is but the latest illustration of how these two societies are so incredibly similar. To some degree, it was like watching a cat attacking its reflection in the mirror. Not because Israelis and Poles are identical, but mostly because each of the two societies rather rarely gets to engage with the other and when they do, instead of recognising the similarity they see an enemy.

But this is also where I believe lies an immense opportunity for solidarity and cooperation, that are born out of a shared experience (and I’m talking well beyond World War II) as well as a number of cultural traits that is far larger than hardly any Israelis or Poles acknowledge.

Perhaps one place to start is by talking to each other. While the media in both Israel and Poland was instrumental in facilitating the exchange, this controversy was mostly brewing separately within each of the countries. But for me the truly thought-provoking insights, the most important debates, emerged in our conversations with Israeli and Polish friends and relatives.

One place to start is by talking to each other.

This affair would likely galvanise prejudice among both nations, but could just as well be a positive turning point for the relations between Poles and Israelis, and to some degree also for the place of the Holocaust memory in today’s reality in two societies that bare the scars to this day.

I know it’s already a cliche to say that there is no substitute to the unmediated interaction between people, to face-to-face meetings. But I think there is something we can actually do about that. There are Poles living in Israel and Israelis living in Poland, and some of them even speak your language. Go find them. And talk to them. You might start from the ‘ustawa IPN’ but you’re more than likely to drift away to sport, shopping, music, food, work, travel abroad and how the damn media is distorting reality. There is a chance you will argue. You will surely learn something new. And perhaps you will even fall in love. It happens. I can tell.