The Disabling Mode: Poles in Jewish Discourse

Ewa M.Thompson

Let me say at the outset that as I understand it, we are engaging here in a secular and not a theological conversation. We are meeting here as two ethnic groups, Jews and Poles - both Americans. It is the secular aspect of our identities that is the focus of our encounter.

From our American Polish standpoint, there are three segments of Jewish-Polish relations which need correction and further discussion. The first has to do with independent Poland between the two world wars. The Soviet-inspired interpretation of interwar Poland as a country fast descending into fascism is common at American universities today, but it is poignantly false. Until the outbreak of World War II, the party in power in Poland was that of Józef Pilsudski, beloved by the Polish Catholics and a friend of the Jews, as Dr. Abraham Peck pointed out in his presentation on March 1. While tensions between the majority population and the country's minorities increased in the 1930s, no anti-Semitic party ever gained power in free Poland, and Catholic anti-Semitism, although deplorable, was substantially different from what was going on in neighboring Germany, a fact which the March 1998 Vatican document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" also stresses. Until World War II broke out and Poland was overrun by Nazis and Soviets, Polish universities employed Jewish professors, Poland had a flourishing Jewish press, Jewish members of parliament, Jewish heroes such as Wilhelm Feldman.

As the Jewish American historian Joseph Rothschild wrote, "interwar Poland's faults and weaknesses were many...but .... Though badgered, the opposition parties operated legally...though harrassed, the... press remained independent and active; outspoken enemies of the regime continued to teach at the universities and to publish their criticisms; the autonomy of the judiciary from the administration was preserved." (East Central Europe between the Two World Wars, 72) Thus to say that pre-war Poland was ripening for the Holocaust is untenable. And yet, such false views have become entrenched in American discourse. On the eve of this discussion, i.e., on 28 March 1998, the Houston Chronicle printed the following in the note advertising our meeting: "The panel will cover the history of the Jewish community in Poland and the rise of anti-Semitism that lead to the Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp." The suggestion that it was Polish anti-Semitism that led to the creation of Auschwitz is an outrageous lie. For the first two years of its existence, Auschwitz was used primarily for the execution of Polish Catholics by the Germans. Over the years, Poles have suffered scores of such indignities with no attempt from the Jewish side to correct the mendacities of an anonymous provenance.

Polish Jews were not only victims of history, but also actors in history.

The second segment of the Polish story that has disappeared from Jewish memory is World War II itself. Few people wish to remember that Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and that the first two years of war brought unspeakable destruction to the Polish population and culture. The deportations of one and a half million Poles - mostly Catholics - to the Soviet Gulag traumatized the entire Polish nationand that happened before the Shoah. Polish Catholics were on the death lists of the Soviets just because they were Polish Catholics. Polish children were starved and gassed, Polish parents were taken to Germany and worked to death as forced laborers. The nation was brutalized to the point which I am afraid would have been incomprehensible to secure middle class Americans even if they learned about it from textbooks which they have not, for this section of history has been excised from American memory as well. Have we ever heard from Jewish organizations any words of sympathy for the unspeakable tragedy, suffering and losses that befell the Jews' Polish brethren in World War II?

It was in these conditions that the Shoah took place. True, the Shoah overshadows Polish suffering. But it does not wipe it out. Between three and four million Polish Christians were killed during World War II by two sides, Nazis and Soviets. In a book titled Maus, a Jewish American cartoonist, Art Spiegelman, presented the Polish people in World War II as secure pigs, who looked indifferently at Jewish suffering. That such a racist and mendacious book is taught in American schools and universities today is a great injustice to Poles. And this is happening today, even as we speak, and not in some remote point in the past; and it is perpetrated by educated and supposedly responsible people, teachers and university professors. This book is also prominently displayed in the Houston Holocaust Museum's bookstore.

In spite of the terror imposed on Poland in World War II, there was no systematic collaboration with the Nazis. None. Zero. There were no SS units composed of Poles. There was in Poland no Vichy government. You cannot find any document written by any member of the exiled Polish Government or the underground resistance that condones or encourages turning in Jews to the Nazis. This was rather exceptional in Nazi-occupied Europe, but it has been elbowed out of American Jewish memory.

The third segment of Polish history which needs correction in American Jewish memory has to do with the Polish-Jewish relations under the Soviet occupation in 1939-41 and then again, in the decade following World War II. A book published by Princeton University Press and titled Revolution from Abroad: the Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, says that when the Soviet army attacked in September 1939, it was met, consistently and repeatedly, by friendly Jewish crowds. After these greetings there took place arrests, executions and deportations to the Gulag of persons who were predominantly Polish and Catholic. Poles expect the responsible members of the Jewish community to recognize that there took place, in the first two years of World War II and after the war, a massive collaboration of Jewish Poles with the Soviet occupiers, a collaboration which contributed to numerous Polish Christian deaths and family tragedies. Joseph Stalin appointed Jakub Berman as the virtual dictator of Poland between 1945-1953. How many Polish Christian lives did Jakub Berman waste, only God knows. Sources speak of 30,000 Polish patriots who were arrested and killed under his supervision. Have we ever heard any Jewish organization condemn Jakub Berman and express sympathy to Poles who suffered under his terror for nine long years?

Polish Americans urge the responsible members of the Jewish community to recognize that Jews were not just victims of history, but also actors in history. They made choices, acted, and sometimes committed crimes. The crimes committed against the Polish nation by people like Jakub Berman in the years of Stalinism, between 1945-1953, are a blank page to most Americans, Jewish and Christian alike. They are now being slowly uncovered by the courts of independent Poland. It is too late to punish the perpetrators: many of them are dead, some have emigrated.* But those who committed such crimes cannot be recycled as victims of anti-Semitism. Being in denial of these issues is not going to build bridges between the two communities. I urge my Jewish colleagues to understand that I am mentioning these facts not in the spirit of accusation, but in the spirit of understanding. The responsible members of the Polish community understand Jewish fears, they understand that fear of the Right of which Professor Michael Wyschogrod spoke in his lecture on March 1, 1998. This fear of the Catholic Right undoubtedly contributed to the choice many prominent Jews made, of siding with the Soviets rather than with Poles. I think one area of Polish—Jewish cooperation might be the nurturing of the kind of the Polish Right that is not inhospitable to Jews, the kind of the Polish Right represented by Pope John Paul II. But in turn, the Jewish community has to understand Polish fears, Polish bitterness at that deafening silence surrounding the crimes of people such as Jakub Berman on the one hand, and on the other, the defamation of Poles in the American media by such individuals as Art Spiegelman, Alan Dershovitz and countless others.

That so many Jews lived in Poland for centuries was not due to the fact that Poles were anti-Semitic. It was due to the fact that the Jews found in Poland, by comparison to other countries, more willingness to tolerate the Other than in other European lands. As Iwo Pogonowski said in his book, Jews in Poland, it was in Poland that Jewry found its modern voice, it was in Poland that it built itself into a modern nation, it was in Poland that it experienced a historically unprecedented demographic growth (between 1340 and 1772, the Jewish population of Poland grew 75-fold, while the Christian population grew only five-fold). While the Holocaust decimated Polish Jewry, the offshoots of this tremendous growth and of this modern nation had already moved to other countries, to flourish and develop there. The role of Poland in preserving and strengthening the modern Jewish identity is something most Poles are proud to remember.

Many Poles have noted that there prevails in this country a nearly total impenetrability to Polish discourse among many Jewish intellectuals. The authority of hundreds and thousands of books, articles, movies, speeches and artifacts has weighed heavily on Polish ability to enter the discursive mode. The unwisdom of constructing a world view from which Poland and Poles have been excised need not be elaborated here. A monologue in a dialogic form is just another utopian scheme that will not work.

I would like to conclude with a quote from the Foreign Minister of Poland, Dr. Bronislaw Geremek, who said during a recent NewsHour interview: "When you see a man who is a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto becoming Foreign Minister of Poland, how does one dare to speak of Polish anti-Semitism?" Indeed. I hope that these discussions will enable us to look forward in a way that will be productive for both communities. On behalf of the Polish Catholic community in Houston, I would like to express my thanks to Bishop Joseph Fiorenza and to Dr. Abraham Peck for making these discussions possible.


*Chief Military Prosecutor Helena Wolinska who in 1950 ordered the arrest of the hero of Polish Resistance, Home Army General 'Nil' Fieldorf (subsequently executed); who also ordered the arrest of former Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski's father, left Poland with her husband in 1968 alleging that the reason was anti-Semitism. Efforts are under way to extradite her to Poland for questioning about the crimes of which she is accused. Rzeczpospolita OnLine, 15 October 1998, ; BBC, 27 November 1998.


This paper was read at a Polish-Jewish dialogue held in the Holocaust Museum Houston, 29 March 1998.

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