Thursday, December 31, 2009

Background analysis: Polish - Israeli Diplomatic Relations post '89

Poland was the first country from the communist bloc to resume diplomatic relations with Israel in 1986. Full diplomatic relations were re-established in 1990, followed by Lech Wałęsa’s visit to Israel only six months after being elected for presidential office in first democratic presidential elections in Eastern Europe. The hosting Prime Minister, Itzhak Shamir at the beginning refused to speak Polish to him, which he knew perfectly, but after a few days he gave up and started reciting to his guest the verses of “Pan Tadeusz” - the Polish national epic.

The second in line to upgrade Polish-Israeli relations after Lech Wałęsa, was Władysław Bartoszewski, who became the foreign minister in 1995. A special committee for relations with Jewish Diaspora was established. An intensified diplomacy between the two states began, more or less with the elections of 2005 and victory of Kaczynski twins’ nationalist party which allied itself with two extreme-right populist groups. Although the coalition was severely criticized domestically and abroad, both President Lech and Prime Minister Jaroslaw stressed the need for good relations with Israel and Jews. Indeed, Jarosław Kaczyński was the first foreign head of state that visited Israel after the II Lebanon War in 2006. In 2007 came the new government of centre-right Civic Platform, with Donald Tusk as a Prime Minister. During his and President Kaczynski’s visit to Israel in 2008, they agreed with Ehud Olmert to upgrade the diplomatic relations between the two countries to the highest, ministerial, level. Tusk also reiterated that Poland is Israel’s best friend in Europe. Olmert and Tusk also inaugurated the Polish Year in Israel, which boasted with dozens of cultural events all across Israel, bringing Israelis closer to the Polish culture. The effects were satisfying – almost 10% of adult Israelis had a contact with Polish culture during this year.

To learn more about the event, click here.

There are quite a few tangible effects of pro-Israeli policy in Poland. First of all, Poland was one of the sponsor countries of abolishing the UN General Assembly “Zionism is Racism” Resolution. Poland was one of the few countries that boycotted Durban II Conference and voted against the Goldstone report. It were Polish MEPs that sponsored the EuroParliament’s motion that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Polish government actively advocated upgrading the relations between EU and Israel. Polish-Israeli trade value is not so spectacular – the import-export value between the two countries in 2008 amounted between 436mln $ to 700mln $, according to different sources. This makes Israel Poland’s second biggest trade partner in the Middle East, right after UAE.

Monday, December 28, 2009

News Updates:

In Christmas edition of "Polityka", the newspaper reminded that apart from the war in Gaza earlier this year there were 6 other conflicts going on around the world which were much bigger in casualties than the Israeli operation in the Strip. "Polityka" numbered Afganistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and also the one that has already finished, namely the civil war in Sri Lanka.

The article appears only in a hardcopy edition.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

News Updates: "War with terror is never pretty" -

Marek Magierowski, one of the bloggers for Rzeczpospolita ("Commonwealth"), one of the biggest newspapers in Poland wrote on 15th of December about the false impressions of Israel among the international public opinion.

He reiterated that Israel has fought the terrorists for years and succeeded in most parts since there were no major bombings in any of the Israeli cities. However she had to paid a great price of losing the media war. In his opinion, the measures taken by Israel are for the majority of the world unacceptable, but at least she's doing it with "an open visor".

He also mentioned Tzipi Livni's arrest warrant in UK, stating the Ms. Livni can rely now only on her fellow countrymen, because outside of Israel supporting the "criminals" of Star of David is seen as not a good thing to do. Pointing out Israel as the main obstacle in Middle East process is once again trendy - reminds Magierowski. He calls an absurd, the British government's recommendation for retail sellers in UK to mark the products coming from the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, thus suggesting not to buy it.

'I'm curious if we could find a sign on Iranian carpets sold in London shops saying "By buying this product, you will fund the biggest sponsor of global terrorism'

Then he presumes that if today's criteria of a war crime would be applied to what the Her Majesty's Government was doing to Irish when fighting IRA, most of the British Prime Ministers of that time would be in jail.

For the original link, click here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Michnik defends himself in the court - wrote on Tuesday (8.12.2009) on the proceedings of the trial against about a dozen of diplomats and journalists, accused of defamation by Jan Kobylański, former Honorary Consul to Uruguay. The subtitle reads: “Adam Michnik does not revoke his statement published in „Gazeta Wyborcza about Jan Kobylański. – There is no doubt that this gentleman disclosed a Jewish family [to the Nazis – added by S.S.]. And the anti-Semitic language of his group is close to the Nazi one. – he said in front of the Judge.”

The plaintiff wants each one of the defendants to pay 100 thousand PLN to charity organization. Kobylański charged Michnik over articles published in Gazeta Wyborcza revealing Kobylański’s collaboration with Nazis, during the II World War.

Michnik used as an example the quotes from USOPAŁ declaration of the Former Consul Nazi sentiment, (USOPAŁ – Unia Stowarzyszeń i Organizacji Polskich w Ameryce Łacińskiej – The Union of Polish Associations and Organizations in Latin America, Kobylański is its CEO). For example, the Union called Władysław Bartoszewski, Righteous among Nations, Foreign Minister and Auschwitz prisoner, by names like
“a shabbesgoy”, “a jew”, “a traitor”, or an “anti-Pole”. Władysław Bartoszewski, during his term as Foreign-Minister, fired Kobylański from the office of Honorary Consul to Uruguay for his anti-Semitic comments.

Michnik also reminded the Court that the opinion on Kobylański given by the Committee for Prosecuting Crimes against the Polish Nation, finds him guilty of reporting a Jewish family to Gestapo.

Kobylański sued not only “Gazeta Wyborcza” “Rzeczpospolita”, „Newsweek”, „Polityka” but also Radek Sikorski, Polish Foreign Minister. The documentation of the articles, calling him e.g. „a notorious anti-Semite” has 100 pages.

The link to the original article - click here

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Background Analysis: The Reparations

Restitution of the private property nationalized by PPR (Poland People’s Republic) is a heated topic both among Poles and Jews. There has been a multitude of attempts to solve the problem, numerous Polish prime ministers, committees and organizations promised, and consequently worked on the appropriate legal acts, but none of them was put up to ratification. In September 2008, the Polish government led by Donald Tusk had drawn a final draft of a legal act which would finally put the reparations process into motion, but because of the global financial crisis which broke out the following month, all of the extra expenditure projects had been sojourned.
The Act of 20th February 1997 on the State’s relations with the Jewish Belief Communities in the Republic of Poland was the first act regulating the legal status of Jewish communities as well as allowing the communities to recover the lost property like cemeteries, synagogues, schools etc. The process of re-privatizing those properties is going relatively slow but is being carried on. The situation is much more complicated with the private persons’ properties. Poland is the only country of the Eastern Europe who did not authorize the compensations for the lost private property. It should be noted though, that only 20% of the private property nationalized in 1944-1962 by PPR is Jewish. The rest of the property was owned by ethnic Poles. The legal act which is being tried to be ratified in the Polish parliament is not about the re-privatizing Polish or Jewish property but Polish citizens’ property. There have been some important actors in the discourse, both Jewish and Polish, who took extremist position on this issue causing frictions and slowing down the reconciliation process.
The history of Polish-Jewish negotiations on restitutions can be divided into two eras: WJC era, and post-WJC era. WJC, World Jewish Congress, for years was playing a role of the representative of the Jewish side. It tried hard to obtain an agreement with Polish government, but the negotiations were dominated by threats, lack of will for concessions and controversy, which definitely deteriorated significantly public support in Poland for restitutions, and led to a conviction among the majority of Polish society that restitutions are solely a Jewish affair. The most controversial incident which infuriated millions of Poles was a comment made in 1996 by Israel Singer, the General Secretary of WJC, that ‘Poland will be humiliated on international arena’, if Polish government will not resolve the issue of restitution and will not meet the demands of 100% property value compensation. The hawkish policy of Israel Singer and Edgar Bronfman towards Polish continued, causing a plethora of arguments, rumors and accusations. By 1999, the American-Jewish groups, most notably WJC, attempted to condition the access of Poland to NATO on resolving the restitution issue. In 2001 “Gazeta Wyborcza” reported that the NY City Council wants to allow the boycott of Polish airlines at the JFK airport.
Although in years 2000-2007 nobody, apart from nationalist camp, advocated freezing negotiations with WJC as long as Israel Singer continues to be its secretary, newspapers expressed public’s unease with Singer’s radicalism. Witold Gadomski, a journalist of “Gazeta Wyborcza” rejected a general, out of the context of WJC, oversimplification of the problem in his article “Reprivatization – how to pay back the debts of history” (Gazeta Wyborcza, 12.07.2003):

In the historical aspect [of restitution issue], it is hard to justify the demands of the so called “displaced ones” – usually children and grandchildren of the old inhabitants of present Western Territories of Poland [Pomerania and Silesia]. It was not Poles that started the war and we didn’t decide of shifting the borders westwards – losing the lands east of Bug river and receiving compensation for it in the West. It is difficult to understand historically, why the lost property of Zabużanie [Polish population that lived in the regions that before 39’ were in Poland and now are in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine] should be paid for by III Republic of Poland. The republican agreements were signed by non-sovereign entities, PKWN [Polish Committee of National Liberation], that relinquished any reparation demands from USSR and did not represent the interests of Poland. The properties stolen 60 years ago, were nationalized by a Soviet state, so why today, Polish state and its taxpayers should pay for it? And what about the properties destroyed in Central Poland? What about the burnt villages, lost chances of growth? The Repatriants deserve respect and compassion, but one can imagine a situation when some grandson of Zabużanin managed his life pretty well in PRL [PPR – Polish People’s Republic], he collected the fruits of 80’s and 90’s privatization and now he demands a restitution of his grandpa’s property, which will be paid by a taxpayer whose house was burnt in Warsaw Uprising and later on was persecuted by the communist government.

There were 2 attempts of passing the appropriate law by Polish government, when Israel Singer was a secretary. First time, in 2002, the draft act was submitted by Jerzy Buzek’s government and was even passed in both chambers of parliament, but then was vetoed by President Kwaśniewski. The reason the President vetoed the act was the amendment added by AWS (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność – the remnant of Solidarity movement) deputies, which stated that the act applies only to Polish citizens, which obviously was in breach with international law.
The second attempt was taken in 2007 after the Restitutions Conference held in Warsaw, under the government of Jarosław Kaczyński. However it failed since the government coalition collapsed and new elections were announced. Before the conference, Polish Union of Property Owners and WJC issued together an appeal to Mr. Prime Minister to solve the problem of the lost property.
The same year saw a turning point caused by a scandal over Israel Singer’s alleged felony and mismanagement of Congress’s money. Edgar Bronfman (head of WJC) fired Israel Singer from the WJC and shortly after - resigned. The new CEO, Ronald Lauder adopted a much milder stance on restitutions issue, but the huge reputation blow that WJC suffered, put Lauder in no position to negotiate as a partner with Polish government.
The elections of 2007 were won by the centre-right pro-European Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) and Donald Tusk became the Prime Minister. He did not continue negotiations with WJC, but upon his visit to Israel in April 2008 in a meeting with Polish Israelis, he declared his willingness to pass the legislation.

There were many politicians before me who promised that they will give back 100%. If someone says that he will give back everything, it means that he would have to take it from somebody else. It will not be a property revolution.[…] If someone will apply to the state and will justify his claims, then we will be paying back for long, long years. (from: , “Tusk bez rewolucji własnościowej” 11.04.2008)

He also stated that the compensations will reach maximum 15-20%, paid back in cash, and because of complicated legal and ownership state of affairs a re-privatization of land will be virtually impossible. Donald Tusk also reiterated that the restitution issue is not a subject to inter-state negotiations but it is solely an internal affair of Poland. What seems paradoxical is that the project received more criticism from Polish claimants in the country than from the Jews in America and Israel. The Polish Association of Landed Gentry called the compensation rate “unacceptable” and demanded 50% instead. In September 2009, the act was drafted by the Ministry of the State Treasury and was submitted to the Lower Chamber of the Parliament for voting. The act was not put in to vote though, because of the credit crunch and government had to concentrate on saving the economy, rather than planning more expenditures.

Gazeta Wyborcza’s voice dominated in the ongoing debate. Its writers advocated a prudent and cautious resolution to the problem, based on equal rights of everyone involved. The only groups who tried to give an image of the restitutions as a purely Jewish affair, and therefore being alien and unnecessary or even harmful, were the anti-Semitic groups – the usual Radio Maryja, NOP (National Renaissance of Poland), JR Nowak and his friends, but those voice were marginalized from the mainstream media and could propagate their views only in closed isolated circles of Nationalists. There were cases when during a sermon priests would express anti-Semitism in a reference to the restitutions issue.

The issue is still not resolved, causing controversy, and leaving thousands of people with a feeling of injustice. However, the current government seems to treat more seriously the restitutions act than the previous ones. Hopefully, when the final end will be put to the financial crisis, Donald Tusk won’t forget to resume the efforts to pass the law. It would certainly wipe away the last grudge born ever since the painful and sinister past of Communist state-sponsored Anti-Semitism.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Polish perspective:

As I wrote before, the debate on Polish attitudes towards exterminated Jews is still in process. As a proof of it, I present here an article published last Friday (27.11.2009) in Rzeczpospolita newspaper. The translation is of my own to the best of my knowledge. Here's the link to the original article.

The forgotten heroes

The Jewish side starts to realize that the list of Poles, Righteous among the Nations, is not complete – the historian elaborates.

The researchers of WWII and particularly those who specialize in Polish-Jewish relations know very well the tragedy of Ciepielów. It is one of many stories that without a mythologizing and remaking could become a basis for a movie script. It is a story of a small place close to Lipsk, which (altogether 30 people) were murdered by Nazis for saving Jews.

The Kowalscy, Kosiorowie, Obuchiewicze, as well as Skoczylasy are for majority of Poles unknown till this day. They didn’t receive a medal of “Righteous among the Nations”. Who knows their story? Who knows that in the first days of December 1942, the German gendarmerie, in front of the neighbours’ eyes, murdered parents, their children, as well as the Jews that where hiding in their house? They died in torments, burnt alive in their own dwellings. The youngest child of the Obuchiewicze was 7 months. Despite of this tragedy the neighbouring villages continued to hide the ghetto escapees.

Mr. President of Republic of Poland, Lech Kaczyński awarded the members of those families with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta after the premiere of the documentary directed by Arkadiusz Gołębiewski and Maciej Pawlicki titled “The Story of Kowalscy” in the Warsaw movie theatre “Silver Screen”. They were but the heroes of Fighting Poland, the same as generals, general commandeers of AK (underground State Army): “Grot”, “Bór”, “Niedźwiadek” and their soldiers.

“Will be executed”

After the creation of the ghettos and their closures on the fall of 1941, Germans began creating legislation that was supposed to prepare both Jews and “the Aryan side” to the approaching time of Shoah (from June 1941 on the territories occupied in 1939 by Soviets, from July 1942 in other areas). The main purpose of the notices was to spread fear among the populace living on both sides of the wall. They began to appear on the towns’ and cities’ walls, signed by gen. Hans Frank or commandants of particular regions:

1. “Jews, who without an authorization will leave the designated for them district, will be executed. The same punishment applies to those who will provide shelter to those Jews.
2. Firebrands and helpers are subject to the same punishment as the committer, a deed intended will be treated as a deed committed. In lighter cases [i.e. crimes] the sentence maybe imprisonment or heavy imprisonment.
3. The rulings will be conducted by the Specials Courts”
That’s how one of the first notices sounded like – issued on 15th of October 1941.

Those regulations were repeated both in contents and in the places where they were published. Only the penalties were harsher since the shameful law did not work – despite that Germans proved that they treat those threats seriously. Punished were also those who knew about the Jews hiding in nearby. The examples of the rulings of German courts as well as the further rulings were supposed to terrorize Poles, deprive them of the instinct to help needy ones.

Polish nation, however does not accept orders. Any confinement of freedom becomes detestable for us. It is proved by many Polish and Jewish testimonies, which were written since 1945 till this day. There is also an evidence in the documents, those of the German special courts and the Polish ones collected after the war by the General Committee for Research of Crimes against the Polish Nations (see IPN’s recent work published within the series “Who saves lives?”: “Who saves Jews in times like these?... Poles helping Jewish populace during the German occupation”, edited by Aleksandra Namysło, Warszawa 2009 [Polish only]).

According to the calculations made by dr. Wacław Zajączkowski and the prosecutor Wacław Bielawski, which are till this day verified by IPN’s historians and NSDAP archivists, Germans have murdered at least few hundred people for the very fact of hiding the Jews. Other few hundred, or maybe even thousands were sent to concentration camps or were persecuted (e.g. arrested and tortured). According to IPN’s data, until July 2009, there were 4709 records of people persecuted, which – after another phase of verification – will become a credible list of persecuted.

Complicated conditions

Long decades after the war, the only testimonies that world public opinion could hear were mainly of the saved Jews. It is understandable that their focus was the experiences of the Jewish community, i.e. the Shoah. In order to learn about a Pole that saved a Jew, that Jew had to survive the war, afterwards he had to wish to show appreciation to his saviour, and ultimately know his identity and actively appeal to award him a medal. He also had to preserve his national or religious identity and recognize Yad Vashem Institute as a natural place to testify in. I skip other issues, much more complex, as lack of consciousness of the saved ones – e.g. children – living and being brought up in post-war Poland.

Only fulfilling of all of those conditions, from which the most important one was the first one (surviving the war), allowed the YVI to award a medal. There are about 6600 of Poles from 22000 names from all over the world. The Council for Helping the Jews “Żegota” was the only organization to be awarded with this medal […]. Most of the saved, number of which after the war was about 30-50 thousands among those who were dared to break the German law and leave the ghetto, did not fulfil all the pre-conditions – for variety of reasons.

Through Jewish eyes

When reading the Jewish memoires, one can quickly notice that the perspective of constant fear and tension (observing the world from the hiding through horrified eyes) did not allow the saved ones to objectively take interest of Polish space or learning about the scale of the help provided or even understanding of the tension which accompanied the day-to-day occupation reality on “the Aryan side”. Only few could write that they were saved by dozens of people, and each one of those people, if wouldn’t appear in the right place at the right time, would cut off the link of solidarity with the hiding one.

Władysław Szpilman, whose saviour – acc. to the popular version – was a German officer, wouldn’t survive a day in Warsaw before the uprising, if he wouldn’t find friends and strangers to help him out. “I was extremely depressed, when once again the Providence sent me a salvation in the form of Mrs. Helena Lewicka, sister-in-law of Mrs. Jaworska. She has never met me before, she saw me for the first time in my life, but when she found out about my so far experiences, she at once agreed to keep me at her place.” – he recalled.

Jews didn’t meet only good Poles but also “szmalcownicy” – blackmailers, but above all fearful people – as all of us – who withstood threatening lives of their family for a life of a stranger. The state of anxiety and negative relations “behind the wall” strengthened among the refugees a negative stereotype of Poles – the issue which was discussed by Teresa Prekerowa (“The Attitude of Polish population towards the Jewish refugees from Death Camps in Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec in the light of Polish-Jewish Relations”, “Biuletyn GKBCpNP”, nr XXXV, Warsaw 1993, p. 100-114) – as the murderers, greedy on money, jewellery or even shoes, hating and being hated.

Jews saving themselves, who evaluated this way the potential saviours and their own fragile dependency from Poles, often tried to find a way to their hearts through money. It gave them a more solid guarantee of survival, and simultaneously made them less dependent. Hiding someone was a contract, although exceptional because of the potential price – human life. Jewish accounts, like diaries of Fela Fischbein, proved an often wrong presumption that Poles were conducting some sort of trade, subject of which was a needy Jew. However, they traded with their own life.

Polish side, with its argumentation, was absent from those memories (and yet Polish family had to find a secret way to find means to feed additional persons, in secret from their neighbours. Money didn’t mean that the main motive for providing shelter was lack of disinterestedness or reflex of conscience.

Understanding the Polish space was also difficult due to the lack of knowledge of Polish homes, faith and culture, and even language. As Czesław Miłosz wrote before the war, Vilna was a city of two civilizations: Polish and Jewish one. But the elite of Jewish community was speaking Russian, and the orthodox majority spoke Yiddish or Hebrew. Furthermore, pre-war Jews from Polish Silesia spoke German more frequently than Polish. Only few percent of Jews stated that Polish is their mother tongue.

Jewish community lived its own life, religiously (an independent press, theatres or schools), part of communist Jews knew only their Polish counterparts, and the neighbours' business contacts usually generated frictions, rather than mutual understanding.

It seems then that the barrier between Poles and Jews – which became extremely important during the years of occupation – did not allow both sides to reach a broader understanding. It is even more so, since the most important issue became the survival of the next minute, day or month. It was only after the shared experience of suffering allowed to relinquish old prejudices. However after the war Poles did not gain independence, and some of the Jews actively supported the new occupants, the conditions of mutual acquaintance have significantly worsened.

Jews, who did not identify themselves with Polish aspirations and sensitivity, before the war were fulfilling their aims on family, social or political grounds in the extreme conditions of the war and looked at the Aryan side with fear and almost panic. After the war, the saved ones probably did not want to remember about the trauma they were through or anything associated with the years of occupation, including Poles – the alien saviours, who were becoming more and more distant memory.

Help came from the friends

Only polonized Jews, often Roman Catholics, who had Polish friends or living before the war in Polish families, shared with Poles in the time of occupation the same amount of feeling of security.

They perfectly realized, where the help came from: “I became genuinely curious when I learnt about the planned book on Poles saving Jews” – Mrs Barbara Marlow wrote to me, referring to the book that I prepare in IPN called “Good Neighbours”. – “My father, Leon Bregman, after obtaining a diploma in Law from University of Warsaw, had had his own import company of machines and greases from England, he was also active in the Assoc. of POW, Assoc. of Jewish Participants in the Fight for Independence of Poland in Warsaw, the Board of Warsaw Fund for the Handicapped of the Polish Army and also a deputy to the City Council of Warsaw […]. My father’s brother, Aleksander Bregman, was a well-known political journalist and in September 1939 he went to Romania with Polish government, from where he obtained Romanian visas for my father and brother. They left Poland in April 1940, not for Romania but straight to Yugoslavia, where Father, the reserve officer of the Army of Poland, at once reported to the Army, and my brother obtained a postponement [from the army service] until passing the final exams. My mother and I stayed in Warsaw and together with my father’s parents we were forced to go to the Ghetto in October 1940.

You mentioned the church of All Saints, which in this time was inside the ghetto borders. I remember it very well, it was our parish church (parents, brother and me have been baptized) and also because of gardening lessons in which I participated every day for 2 years. I left the ghetto in July 1942 together with my mother. The further story requires a longer description but I will add only that we received a lot of support and help from old and new friends in next 2 years. An old friend of mine Mrs. Stanisława Wedecka was our main protector, parents of my brother’s friend from prof. Lenart, his wife and sons kept in touch with us continuously. My mother lived for 18 months with Mrs. Irena Nowodworska, Leon Nowodworski’s widow, a man who was the dean of the Attorneys’ Council and one of the leaders of National Party, as well as with priest Leon Pawlina from Caritas [after the war imprisoned and died in unclear circumstances hit by a train – added by JŻ]
Whole two years after we left the Ghetto, our helpers made it possible for us to have an almost “normal” life i.e. I could live in the city centre, go out as usual, join the Scouts and see my mother, although we didn’t live together. As a scout I fought in Warsaw Uprising. After the war we managed to flee Poland and we could reunite with Father who was stationed with II Corps in Italy. My brother, Lieutenant-observer in 300th Squadron was killed in action in July 1944”. In a great, American-Israeli documentary, which was showed recently on tvn [Polish biggest private TV station], the main character was a son of a saved Jew, who after the years of silence breaks the barrier of reluctance towards Poles and Poland and forces his family (older and younger generation) to come to the “goy” country and see if their saviours are still alive. The story ended with a happy end. Mrs Mucha and her husband were awarded a medal of the Righteous among Nations. Mrs. Marlow’s saviours didn’t receive any medal till this day. Only in the recent days, IPN received a message that Yad Vashem awarded a medal to priest Marcel Godlewski, the pastor of the Church of All Saints parish.

Nuns and intelligentsia

Jews, who had survived the war and testified to the truth, are only a fraction of those, who took a heroic decision to try to escape the ghetto (400 thousand people were living in the Warsaw ghetto, from which 25 thousand had escaped). In order for Pole to help a Jew, the latter one had to escape from the ghetto or from the transport.

In Polish accounts, the motif of helping the needy ones appear quite frequently. This individual help was placed in a broadly understood Civic Conspiracy Fight of the nation, which was supervised by Stefan and Zofia Korbońscy. Nuns played a great role. Their homes provided a shelter for thousands of children, hidden among Polish orphans.

One of those places, where both lay people and nuns worked, was the House of Small Children of priest Gabriel Piotr Baudouin, directed by dr. Maria Wierzbowska. Nun Joanna H. Lossow on the other hand, the Franciscan Servant of the Cross, the Head of the Warsaw House and since 1942 also of the Association for the Blind near Krasnystaw, counted how many homes and persons were helping Jews, e.g. injured in 1939, or later on to children: “In this time, my work was mainly based on managing the House’s errands in German offices and collecting food for Laski [a village]. And there were people to feed, since apart from the locals, there were also injured soldiers, officers and cripples from September 1939, as well as refugees from Warsaw, among whom were Jews and a quite big group of children, who in the time of war were left without any care and for whom we established a boarding school, the so called Alojzki – named after the patron of the House, in which they were put”.

Similar memories referred to Polish families in both countryside and in urban area. Mrs. Miecznikowska, Warsaw, reminisced: “First we rented out the children room to two young men – Adam Kapłański and Bronisław Lewandowski. Both were in the underground. Mr Bronisław was a musician, the author of the famous “Żoliborz March”. And so our house – as most of the houses in our journalist neighbourhood, joined the conspiracy life of Warsaw. […] According to my brother – the first one to appear in our house was Mrs. Niewiadomska [In Polish "nie wiadomo" means “no clue”]. Obviously it wasn’t her real name, we never got to know her real name. We don’t know, neither me, nor my brother, from whose recommendation a big fat gentleman from Lublin came to our house and asked if he could rent the room for her. We, the children, were told that it his fiancée. This gentleman told my father: “She has to leave Lublin, it’s a small city, everyone knows her…” My parents agreed to rent out father’s cabinet to Mrs. Stefania Niewiadomska. She didn’t have a “good look”.

In 1941 the flatmates from the children room moved out. We were saying goodbye to so dear and young people with a great regret. Children room was vacant and awaited new roommates. A young, slim lady with straight hairs came to rent it out. Blue-eyed, chestnut hair was tightly queued. She wanted to rent a room for her and another one in nearby for her husband. The location of our house was suitable for her. She saw the gardens, two exits, a path connecting all the gardens, used for taking out garbage and bringing coal and potatoes for winter – and she decided to stay. Borowscy moved to our house. When we saw Mr. Artur, even we, children realized that he is not an Aryan. Short, energetic, dark-eyed, with a characteristic shape of nose, his looks were definitely disadvantageous. Despite that, the parents decided to rent them out the room”.

Krystyna Zabłocka, Maiden Name Skarżyńska wrote in a letter to the Committee for Remembrance of Poles saving Jews (all the quotes come from this collection): “Lidia Parecka, born […] in Tarnopol was a third-generation Catholic, but for Germans she was Jewish. Gestapo was looking for her after death of her parents, and in spring 1942 she was forced to flee to Lwów [Lemberg]. Sacre Coeur Sisters, by whom she was brought up, sent her to Sisters Niepokalanki in Nowy Sącz, where I was learning. After a few day stay she was sent to my parents’ house – Jadwiga I Stanisława Skarżyńscy, where she lived until the end of the war. To justify her stay she was introduced as a cousin of Armenian descent from Lwów. She was registered in Czchów County, where she worked as a gardening intern. She lived in one room with us”.

Out of Christian mercy

In thousands of testimonies we find common facts. Firstly, afraid of being killed the saved ones moved from one place to another. The circle of people of good will was growing and enhanced the chances to save a Jew. Secondly, in the place when a certain person was hiding (e.g. a nun’s house or apartment house, a landlords’ manor or even a whole village) all the locals learnt about the hidden one sooner or later. The possibility of keeping the hidden one in secret from the neighbours was in many cases simply impossible or even detrimental – e.g. in the villages, where the locals trusted each other and solitarily stood together against the strangers.

In many testimonies comes back the story of a stay of a “cousin” from the city and then it is admitted that no body believed in this legend. Obviously, the less you know the better. Countryside population protecting Jews was afraid of both strangers, who could disclose the hiding place or the hidden Jew himself, who usually was unknown and nobody had seen him and created a potential risk to the community.

In Polish testimonies, a Christian sensitivity dominates. I haven’t found a single testimony in which priests or nuns would refuse to help a needy human being, if it was an injured soldier, a guerrilla fighter or a Jew. Christian mercy constituted a foundation, which appeared every time when there was a necessity to make a decision. It destroys therefore an unjust and stupid myth of Christianity as a religion supporting racist hitlerism in its indeed pagan extermination of Jews, Gypsies, handicapped, homosexuals and second-in-line Slav nations or “unsuitable” for III Reich project.

“I entered the hut, I closed the shutters and doors and laid down. It seems like I fell asleep well - which happens really rarely to me -, since the knocking on my door in the middle of the night seemed to me to be a dream. It’s a night and someone’s knocking on my door! Startled, I started looking for the light switch on the wall, because I thought that I’m in my flat in Bielsko and I can’t orientate where’s the door, the window or the lamp. I hear Slovak words saying “Len Pomalu, len pomalu”[slowly, slowly]… Finally the doors open, flashlights are twinkling, two men put in two heavy luggage cases, Dr. Rajec, our district’s medic from Frydman, pays them with a shaking hand. The doors close, we’re alone. He, carrying a child, his wife and I. Horrible! Dr. Kuechel from Stara Wieś was taken last night and murdered in Czorsztyn, now it’s their turn. They are Jews… The doctor says that they would rest for a minute and then they would go to the forest… All of us shiver. Mrs. Elżbieta is yellow like a lemon, the doctor is all shivering, little two-and-a-half year Ewa sleeps on his hands. I shake, shiver in fever. My jaws shut, I feel bitter and dry in my mouth. I can’t say a single word out of my throat. We are doomed! Those who are ordered to transport the Slovak Jews to the border can come here any minute. The seconds pass and we drown in lethal, really lethal fear.

Suddenly, a strange calmness comes back to my heart, colour to my face, some wave of love floods my heart, love to those people, so curbed by anxiety. Courage, yes! Courage strengthens my heart. Those people in one moment become the dearest ones to me in the whole world. So I tell them calmly “The Forest has its ends, the winter’s coming. You’ll stay with me”… I realized that it was a God talking through me, they calmed down too. Doctor laid down the child; Mrs Elżbieta started to vomit with bile… They stayed and were alive, the next day they opened the case and gave me a tin can with their money. I told them “there are potatoes in the cellar and that’s where you can keep your can safely. They didn’t realize how holy to me is their life, so as my own, that I've put in danger for them!” – wrote Mieczysława Farysiak from Dursztyn on the Polish-Slovak border.

Two memories

The story of Kowalski family and their neighbours is a typical account of rural family fortunes. Numerous offspring, great love and hard work, few words are spoken at the dinner table, there are however a lot of deeds and feelings.

As in the other places in Poland, Jews were hidden in the small Ciepielów. Till this day the last man who remembers those times tells the story of tragic days of December 1942 with tears in his eyes. It’s a living history, which thanks to Maciej Pawlicki and Artur Gołębiewski can become – and should be– present for all of us. This movie may play a changing role. Indeed the only thing nowadays that both Polish and Jewish sides share is an opinion that Jews are not liked by Poles (obviously it doesn’t mean certain individuals, but generally,as a nation), that they were strangers with their customs. Poles bear a grudge against Jews that they failed to show solidarity with Poles before the war and between 1939-1941. Nevertheless, those two memories bore a solid list of Polish “Righteous among Nations”, which played a role of the only valid and authentic account of Poles saving Jews. Today, thanks to historical researchers, as well as mutual, flourishing relations between Poland and Israel, the Jewish side realizes more and more that the list is not complete.

Therefore the Polish side tries to raise a monument to honour Poles saving Jews, hoping that in near future the Righteous’ list will come closer to the actual list of Poles helping Jews during the Second World War

The author is a historian, advisor to the director of IPN, a professor of UKSW

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Background analysis: “The shock of Jedwabne” (the title of Adam Michnik’s article in Gazeta Wyborcza 03.16.01)

Up until year 2000, the national consciousness of the wartime was dominated by the “obsession of innocence” and the opinion of “country without Quisling”. The decades of absence of the Jewish voice in the society led to the formation of general conviction that Poles did not collaborate with Nazis at all; the image of the righteous nation that suffered more than anyone else in IIWW. It was only after the publication of Auschwitz findings, that Polish Catholic Primate in 1995 admitted that Jews suffered more than Poles.
Although the belief of “no-Quisling country” is true since, the en lieu underground, and London-based, in-exile government did not collaborate with Nazi Germany (many Poles take pride in it, hence fierce reactions to “Polish death camps”-phrase used in Western media), the myth of innocence was yet to be revised. The first voice which put this myth into question was the article published in Tygodnik Powszechny (“The Common Weekly”), a catholic intelligentsia’s newspaper, written by Jan Błoński in 1987 – 2 years before the collapse of communism – titled “Poor Poles look at the ghetto” where he wrote “I think that in a reference to Polish-Jewish past we should stop defending, justifying, haggling. Stress what we couldn’t do during the occupation or before. […] We should first say “Yes, we’re guilty.” Tygodnik Powszechny continues to be the voice advocating reconciliation and improvement in mutual relations until today. The article set the mood in the public discussion for the next 20 years and opened a box bursting with emotions, memories, accusations, rejections and intentions of reconciliation.
Probably the most important breakthrough moment in Poland were the findings of Jan Tomasz Gross, a Polish-American historian from the University of Princeton, on the murder of 360 Jews in the North-Eastern Poland village of Jedwabne in 1941 which was carried out solely by victims’ Polish neighbors. His research was published in year 2000 under the title “Sąsiedzi” (“Neighbors”) and caused a huge blow to Polish self-perception and historical memory. An incredible, self-imposed attempt to revise the myths of the past was put together in media, academia and among intellectuals and politicians. The storm caused by “Neighbors” resulted in opening the investigation of the “killings of Polish citizens of Jewish nationality”, conducted by the state-owned Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) in years 2000-2003 . The investigators came to a conclusion that the role in carrying out the atrocious plan’ of the 40 Polish men in Jedwabne killings ‘was substantial’, but came out of German inspiration . The investigation was dropped since “it was impossible to discover any living perpetrators, apart from those who were already sentenced by Polish judiciary”. Polish court found 10 men guilty in trials of 1949-1950.
In 2001, by the place of the barn in Jedwabne where Jews were burned alive, an official apology was issued by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the then President of Poland, in the presence of Shevach Weiss, the Israeli Ambassador to Poland and Rabbi Baker from NYC, a survivor of this tragedy. The official apology brought a major change to the perception of the Polish state, both domestically and in international public opinion. The ceremony was considered to be the first, but the most important step to reconciliation of both peoples.
On the other hand, it also caused a serious rejection from certain groups in Poland, which didn’t feel any responsibility to apologize, and caused an outburst of anti-Semitism, especially in the catholic-nationalist camp. J.R. Nowak, an extreme-right political activist, wrote a book called “100 lies of J.T. Gross” in which he accused him of anti-Polonism, treason and conspiring with “international Jewry” against Poland. A fierce hostility was found among the residents of Jedwabne – the mayor of the village didn’t attend the ceremony and his counter-candidate in elections was threatened by the members of the local council to be fired if he would attend. J.R. Nowak was awarded an honorary citizenship by the mayor for “fighting the lies against the people of Jedwabne”. After the closure of investigation, the city council of Jedwabne demanded a new investigation, but IPN refused.
Other, more moderate voices were raised stating that the head-of-state’s apologies were given too early, since the Institute for National Remembrance’s investigation was still not finished. Consequently the first reaction of Polish society was a hesitance to take the blame. JT Gross was considered an anti-Polish meddler. The perception of Jedwabne in the society is changing every year to more admitting then neutral or rejecting, although changing numbers are small. The shock of Jedwabne is still alive in Polish society and is still being confronted in many ways, especially in the media. The Jedwabne rejectionists are being consequently marginalized from the public debate and there were couple of cases where they were sued for anti-Semitism. In the following years after the ceremony of 2001, a book by Anna Bikont My z Jedwabnego (“We, From Jedwabne”) was published in which she describes the events of 1941 in more or less the same fashion as JT Gross. The book was awarded a Prize of the Great Cultural Foundation and nominated to 2005 NIKE Literature Awards (both Polish prizes) . What is interesting, Anna Bikont was never accused of anti-Polonism and was even ignored by nationalist camp, whereas US-based JT Gross was called the worst names. This phenomenon could be subscribed to the tradition of nihil novi - that the nationalist camp seems to take pride in – ‘nothing about us, without us’, which opposes any foreign interference or judgment on Polish nation. Until this day, the nationalist-fascist groups’ aim is to revise the “lies of Jedwabne”, and revoke the apologies.
The reason for such an opposition, which could be found in a big portion of Polish society, is a vehement denial of being put on the same side as Nazis. The mainstream Polish narrative in the post-war years was always referring to Nazis as barbarians guilty of the genocide of Poles. This narrative obviously had legitimate foundations but failed to acknowledge that at least some Poles, apart from being killed en masse by Germans, also helped their perpetrators kill Jews.
Jedwabne became a symbol in Poland. For some, it is the sign of repentance and catharsis of Polish society, for others - a fell lie which serves Poland’s enemies. Numerous researches show a significant change in the consciousness of Polish society, although not in a way that one could expect.


Background analysis: Historical Context – introduction

Before the II World War, Poland had had the largest Jewish population in Europe of ca. 3,5 mln people. The Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and of Polish territories under Soviet occupation in 1941 led to a massive, open extermination of Jews throughout Poland. About 180,000 to 240,000 Polish Jews survived the war, by hiding in forests, joining the guerilla forces or being saved by Poles. The post-war Stalinist regime classified much of the atrocities carried out by ethnic Poles on Jews during the war or blamed Nazis for committing those crimes. The total moral destruction and banditry in the society, widespread hatred towards communism, traditional Christian anti-Semitism which was associated with Jews, as well as fear, that the property would have to be given back to Holocaust survivors coming back home were used by the communist government to provoke anti-Semitic riots. One of those provocations, in Kielce in 1946 resulted in an infamous pogrom in which 42 Jews were killed and 40 were injured by communist soldiers, policemen and the civilian mob on the false accusations of blood libel. This event led to a panic among Polish Jews and resulted in about half of the Polish Jews leaving Poland mainly for Palestine or USA.
It is very important to state, that with the installation of communist regime in Poland, around one thousand Jews repatriated from USSR became prominent communist activist, working in the secret police, army, judiciary and administration. This number was very small comparing to the entirety of soviet apparatus, but was very noticeable and caused the perpetuation of the “Judeo-communism” stereotype, which concluded that Poland is ruled by its enemies and generated loads of hatred towards Jews and Communists, which as already said, both words were sometimes used interchangeably to describe the same people.
The Six-Day War of 1967, Prague Spring in Czech Republic of 68’ and student anti-communist protests of the same year, served as a pretext for the government to subdue and crush the remaining Jewish population, concentrating mainly on intellectual elites and students. The aim was also to distract the society from the events in Czech Republic and prevent any rise of opposition. In June 1968, Władysław Gomułka, the 1st Secretary of Polish Association of Workers’ Parties (the ruling party) gave a speech about the “Jewish 5th Column” that started a mass state-funded deportation of about 20.000 Poles of Jewish and some of non-Jewish descent, from which an overwhelming majority did not associate themselves with Jewish culture. Many of the deportees immigrated to Israel (many of whom live till this day in Ashkelon) and Sweden. The remaining Jewish population of Poland counted ca. 5-12 thousand people. The phenomenon of “Anti-Semitism without Jews” continued for the next 30 years.
The Jewish cultural and social life virtually ceased to exist. The diplomatic relations with Israel were called off in 1967; the old wounds and grudges of II World War and first years after it didn’t heal and were kept out of the public debate in Poland for over 45 years. On the eve of the collapse of communism in Poland the first voices in independent non-communist media rose, which advocated the reconciliation between Poles and Jews. In 1989, with the first semi-free elections in Eastern Europe, an open discussion about Polish-Jewish relations could finally commence. The rapid transformation of economy in Poland, which accounts for one of the quickest conversion to free-market economy in Eastern Europe, left hundreds of thousands of people behind, which were unable to adapt to the new reality. Poverty and general frustration with the omnipresent influence of Western culture, lack of understanding of the processes experienced by a newborn democracy, led those people shift to the far-right nationalistic camp, which traditionally in Poland was associated with anti-Semitism. Any attempt of reconciliation between the Poles and the Jews was dismissed by those parties as anti-Polonist and philosemitic filled with accusations of selling Poland to the enemy.
Simultaneously, the Jewish community has seen its revival. In Warsaw, the Chief Rabbinate of Poland was established with the regional divisions. An official Jewish Communities Bill was passed in the parliament in 1997 establishing official relations on the state level with the Jewish community. Pope’s John Paul II teachings influenced significantly the Polish attitude towards Jewry. The general anti-Semitism in Poland came to a much lower level than in the West. There are several issues in the Jewish-Polish relations which dominate the public debate, and which are going to be discussed in this blog.