A few months ago my friend Jonny Daniels brought then Polish finance minister Morawiecki to my home.
The purpose was to advance Polish-Jewish dialogue and relations. I was extremely impressed with the future prime minister. I found him warm, authentic, knowledgeable, and eloquent. He told me even then that the Polish people found it very unfair to be blamed for the Holocaust when it was Germany that was solely responsible.
The Nazis were to blame. He agreed, on the spot, to do a Facebook live discussion of this issue, which can be viewed on my Facebook page.
I told him we could not ignore that Poland has a history of antisemitism that dates back centuries. Yitzhak Shamir famously said, “Poles imbibe antisemitism together with their mother’s milk.” The prime minister took great exception to the comment and told me that Jewish life had also flourished in Poland for centuries. I was impressed with the prime minister’s willingness to speak off-the-cuff and with no notes on this very sensitive subject.
Now, just a few months later, I look at the deteriorating relationship between Prime Minister Morawiecki and the world Jewish community and I am saddened and shocked. I was convinced his premiership would bring about a renaissance of Jewish-Polish relations. He even told me at the time that Poland is Israel’s foremost ally in Europe. It would be hard to believe he has an antisemitic bone in his body. So why is this happening?
I published a column challenging Poland’s new law about the Holocaust. The PM wrote this moving and personal letter to me in response and I asked him if I could share it, to which he ultimately agreed.
He has now invited me to discuss the law and Polish-Jewish relations which I look forward to doing Gd willing imminently as I am, on my paternal grandfather’s side, of Polish-Jewish descent. The Jewish community and Poland must resolve the current impasse and work together to preserve the sacred memory of the six million murdered Jews of Europe, three million of which were Polish citizens annihilated in the Holocaust.
Here is the prime minister’s letter:
I would like to thank you for your article in Jerusalem Post and for all your kind words. I also have the best memories of our meeting at your house in New York. I remember our discussion about history of our countries–we have addressed all the sensitive and difficult topics. This is how dialogue should look like.
I appreciate your sincerity and willingness to mediate between Poland and Israel. I am deeply indebted to you for all the positive examples of your personal experiences from Poland. I find your opinion presented in the article very well-balanced and objective. Such voices are extremely important, especially nowadays.
Tensions between Israel and Poland deeply sadden me. An unfortunate lack of proper communication and unintended misunderstandings played a crucial role here. Poland is a firm ally of Israel, and amid the rising wave of antisemitism in Europe, our country is again the safe haven for the Jewish community–as it was throughout the 8 centuries before the World War II.
Personal experiences of Shoah are one of the most traumatic things imaginable, and the Polish legislation never aimed at preventing any discussion based on facts concerning this unspeakable tragedy. The Holocaust was a German-organized genocide on European Jews against which the legal Polish state institutions fought against–both on emigration in London and in occupied Poland. Anyone who helped German Nazis to kill Jews was a criminal and was subject to a death punishment by the Polish underground forces. This bill is supposed to protect this truth, as it is an important part of the truth of the Holocaust.
I would like to assure you that I will do my best to improve our relations and put importance on our common history of living and, unfortunately, enormous suffering, on Polish soil. Both Poland and Israel have the moral obligation to be the guardians of the truth of Holocaust because of their history.
No Jewish family, none of our Jewish brothers and sisters could be saved during the Shoah without some form of help from Polish families, from Polish neighbors.
If we consider that only around 300,000 Jews (i.e. 10 percent of their population in Poland) were saved from the Holocaust, then for everyone who fairly analyses the circumstances of World War it must be clear that several times more of Poles were involved in rescuing them.
Gunnar S. Paulsson, a Swedish-Canadian historian, investigated what helping Jews in Warsaw looked like (Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw). According to his findings, around 28 thousand Jews were hiding in Warsaw outside the ghetto–and they were aided by 70 to 90 thousand Poles risking their own lives, in Warsaw alone. About 11.5 thousand Jews from this group survived. Pars pro toto, these calculations show that there must have been much more brave Polish people who helped their Jewish brothers and sisters survive in other places of occupied Poland.
There is a structural difference between the alleged participation or compliance of Poland or Poles in the Holocaust, and the individual acts of particular Poles against Jews and such acts of particular individuals of any other national or ethnic origins, as well.
“I did not know a family in which Jews would not be hidden”-this phrase, very often used in Poles’ wartime accounts, is the key to understanding complicated Polish-Jewish relations. And it is confirmed by numerous Jewish accounts, too. Especially one of which is worth quoting: “I, Zygmunt Warszawer, do not reveal anyone of the Poles who helped me survive. I jumped out of the train going to Treblinka to burn. On the train my kid was suffocated. I went to Pielaczka hosts, he held me for four days and then I was walking from village to village: Kornacice, Gończyce, Leokadia, Sośninki, Łaskarzew, Izdebko and villages: Zygmunty, Romanów. All these people helped me. I did not nominate anyone for an award because America would go bankrupt. Every day I was at another mercy.”
Despite the sacrifices that millions of Poles made during the World War II, they are still being mistaken with theaccomplices of Germans (who are frequently being labeled simply as “the Nazis” without pointing to their nationality–contrary to Poles)–and it happens too often. In the recent years Polish authorities had to intervene ca. 1300 times when phrases as “Polish camps,” “Polish gas chambers” or similar were publicly mentioned worldwide. International experts agree that using terms as “Polish concentration/death camp” amounts to distortion of the historical truth of the Holocaust. And the phrase “polish death camps” itself is only a part of a much larger problem of blaming Poland for German Nazi crimes.
I’m grateful for your mediation attempt that could take place at the 6th Annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala. I am open to dialogue and I will do my best to reduce the tensions around us. I very much appreciate your invitation to the 6th Annual Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend it on the 8th of March, but I do hope that we will have another opportunity to meet and discuss the matter of Israel and Poland, and to commonly contribute to find the best solution of this unfortunate stance.
Please, come to Poland at your best convenience. I would like to talk to you about these terrible times. About Jewish feelings and Poles’ feelings. In my family, both on my mother’s side in Stanisławów and on my father’s side in Nawarzyce, I had very close examples of saving and rescuing our Jewish brothers and sisters. I would like you to hear their stories, too.
We may not let the truth to be blurred or taken away. Both our nations lived peacefully together for 800 years before. We are fighting for the truth only–nothing more, nothing less. This truth should be a firm foundation for another centuries of fortunate coexistence.