The Israeli-Polish Dialogue

By Oz, Libi | Contemporary Review, August 2003 | Go to article overview

The Israeli-Polish Dialogue


Oz, Libi, Contemporary Review


THERE is something unique about the Jewish-Israeli-Polish connection, an emotionally charged connection. Poland is the place where about half of the world's Jews were murdered, but it is also a country marked by a thousand-year history of Polish Jewry. The Holocaust created a rift between the Christian Poles and the Jewish Poles, after long years of solidarity and coexistence.

Over the past few years, a new era in Jewish-Israeli-Polish relations has been evolving. Today, thirteen years after the fall of communism in Poland, democracy in that country is well-founded; Poland is a member of NATO, an active ally in the recent war in Iraq and has just voted to join the European Union. This is also a time when Polish society is starting to confront its World War II history, especially regarding the attitudes and behaviour toward the Jews. This public debate is taking place not only between diverse views inside the Polish society, but also between the Polish nation and the Jewish State.

Jewish-Polish relations throughout the centuries are more than amply described in literature. I would like, however, to focus on how Poles and Israelis, particularly members of the younger generation, view each other today, in terms of the mark left upon them by the past, their present relations and their vision of the future. Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, characterized the conflicting attitudes between Poles and Jews in the following way: 'The Poles were neither as good as they would like the world to believe, nor as bad as many Jews claim.'

Polish Ambivalence

Before World War II, Jews comprised about 10 per cent of the Polish population. By the end of the war, only 1 per cent were still alive. Poland's loss was double: with the extermination of the Polish Jews, their extensive culture in Poland also perished.

The fall of communism in Poland disclosed a great deal of previously censored data, which revealed, among other things, the dark side of Polish World War II history. This gave rise to ambivalent feelings in Polish society toward its wartime history. The Poles could not stay indifferent to the new information about acts of collaboration with the Nazis, nor to the Jedwabne incident, in which the Poles slaughtered their Jewish neighbours, the Kielce pogrom and their likes. At the same time, they claimed and still claim that occurrences like Jedwabne must not be seen as reflecting the Polish attitude toward the Jews, because in wartime people sometimes act in irrational ways. They wish to emphasize the fact that one out of five Poles helped the Jews in some way, and that there is no other nation in which the number of righteous rescuers is as large as in Poland. The Poles point to the example of their most famous countryman, the present Pope, who helped Jews when he was a young man in the war.

Though it is true that it was the Germans who conducted the tragic Holocaust, Israelis have a strong feeling that the Poles share the blame for what happened because they were indifferent to what they witnessed. Poles, on the other hand, do not feel they have any reason to feel guilty, since the Poles were themselves victims of the Germans. Those two views lead to misunderstandings among both groups and to mutually detrimental stereotypes. Both sides tend to adopt inflexible, judgmental and defensive attitudes toward one another.

Israeli sentiments towards the Poles come from several origins: the family, the schools and the annual 'Holocaust journeys' by high school students to Poland.

As a granddaughter of Polish-born Jews, I am affected by what I absorbed at home. My grandparents were part of the 500,000 Jews who left Poland at the beginning of the war. The last things my grandmother remembers from Poland are Polish anti-Semitism and the Nazi sanctions. Those images were so terrible that they left very little room for any other memories in her mind. Nonetheless, there is another, less emphasized side to the story: my father's aunt was rescued by three Poles who helped her escape and paid with their lives for their involvement. …

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