Struggling with the Past; Poles, Jews Coming to Terms with Awful History

Article excerpt

Byline: Natalia A. Feduschak, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

MAJDANEK, Poland -- Rachel Apt has traveled to Poland 15 times since 1993, nearly always leading a group of Israelis visiting this country's Nazi death camps. With each trip, she said, she has witnessed an improvement in Polish-Jewish relations.

It's getting better, but it is still not enough, said Mrs. Apt, whose groups often include religiously observant Jews. I would like for the Poles to see our country in order to better understand us and why we feel the way we do.

Nearly 65 years after the end of World War II, Poles and Jews are slowly coming to terms with an often painful shared past.

Recent years have seen the beginning of a discourse about Polish complicity during the Holocaust, as well as a belated recognition that many Polish citizens also risked their lives to save Jews during one of the darkest periods of European history.

It's a fascinating time now, said Agnieszka Chrabolowska, program director for the Warsaw-based Forum for Dialogue Among Nations Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to building understanding between Poles and Jews.

On the one hand, Poles, including those too young to remember the war, are beginning to have greater understanding of what happened in their homeland.

On the other, they are also recognizing the void left behind with the annihilation of a Jewish community that was, in many ways, an economic and cultural backbone of Polish society.

Poland was home to about 3.5 million Jews when Germany invaded its eastern neighbor on Sept. 1, 1939. By the end of the war, a community whose presence in Poland spanned centuries was largely eliminated.

Since the Nazis built the majority of their death camps in Poland, the country was dubbed by many in the West as being one large graveyard for Jews. About 3 million non-Jews also perished in Poland during World War II.

While places such as Auschwitz-Berkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor became etched into the Western consciousness as Holocaust survivors shared their stories, Poles remained largely ignorant of their past during the Communist era, Ms. Chrabolowska said.

It was not until the 2001 publication of Neighbors, a book by Princeton University professor Jan T. Gross, that the historical floodgates flew open.

Mr. Gross detailed how on July 10, 1941, Poles from Jedwabne, a town in northeast Poland, burned their Jewish neighbors - including women and children - alive in a barn.

The book's publication sparked shock and outrage. While some criticized the book as being unfair to Poles, it also sparked an intensive debate about Polish complicity during World War II.

It was a breakthrough in Poland, said Ms. Chrabolowska. It was a shock. Mr. Gross' second book, Fear Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, was published in Poland last year.

Mr. Gross, who was born in Warsaw in 1947 to a Jewish father and gentile mother, hit a nerve that was so great, it is virtually impossible to walk into a bookstore in Poland today without coming across literature about World War II and the Holocaust. …