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Quo Vadis, Poland?

This post was originally published in Haaretz earlier this month.

My parents and I arrived from Poland in Tel Aviv a few months before the outbreak of World War II. The rest of our extended family remained in Poland, and none of them survived. Three of my grandparents, my mother’s six sisters and one brother, five of my cousins — all were murdered by the Germans. They were deported to the extermination camps from their various seats of residence — my town of birth Bielsko-Biala, Krakow, Makow-Podhalanski, Warsaw. I have visited Poland many times, and the presence of the Jewish absence in Polish life has constantly accompanied me. Books and articles of mine have been translated into Polish, I have lectured at Warsaw University, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the International Cultural center in this beautiful city. Recently I have been privileged to be elected as an external member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences. Though my current knowledge of Polish is scant, its language, history, culture and smells are not foreign to me.

It is for these reasons that I understood only too well the motivation behind the recent legislation on historical matters introduced by the current Polish government. I understood — but was also furious.

I understood — because no country in Nazi-occupied Europe suffered like Poland and no people — except the Jews — became a victim of the German murder machine. Poland was the only country in Europe which was completely dismantled by the Germans: its national and municipal institutions were liquidated, its army disbanded, its schools and universities closed; even its name was wiped off the map and the German-occupied regions of Poland were called by the strange name of “General Gouvernement.” Poland was the only country in Europe in which no collaborationist government emerged or surrendered to the Germans. Six million Polish citizens — three million Jews and three million ethnic Poles — were murdered by the Germans. If you add to this the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland which followed in the wake of the German invasion, you can understand why the Poles saw themselves primarily as victims and viewed the Hitler-Stalin alliance, expressed in the Ribbertrop-Molotov pact, as a replay of the 18th Century partitions of Poland initiated by Russia and Prussia.

It is because the Germans dismantled the Polish state and its institutions that they decided to set up their exterminations camps on Polish soil — Auschwitz, of course, being the most notorious of them. No thread of Polish authority remained in German-occupied Poland and all the country’s public assets were taken over by the German occupation authorities. In all the other countries in German-controlled Europe, Nazi Germany had to deal, sometimes in an extremely complicated way, with local governments which despite the fact of their being allies or had surrendered to the Reich, they still had to be taken into account, even if for purely tactical reasons.

It is for these reasons that Poland is so justified in insisting that the extermination camps should not be called, “Polish extermination camps,” as even President Obama once referred to them, but “German extermination camps in occupied Poland.”

But it is in this point when outrage can accompany one’s understating of the Polish sensitivity: while the Polish government is justified in its approach, it is making a major mistake in trying to use legal means to rectify this by making any reference to, “Polish extermination camps,” into a criminal offense: only non-democratic regimes use such means: the issue should be part of public discourse, historical clarifications, diplomatic contacts, education — not criminalization.

The Polish proposed legislation goes even further: it criminalizes any reference to any role Polish people had in the Holocaust, and on this occasion also refers to what it calls “historical truth” regarding the massacre perpetrated during the war by the Polish population in the town of Jedwabne against their Jewish neighbors. When the historian Jan Tomasz Gross published his study that it was not the Germans, but the local ethnic Poles who burned alive hundreds of the town’s Jewish population, this naturally caused a major crisis of conscience in Poland. Two Polish presidents, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Bronislaw Komorowski accepted these uncomfortable findings and publicly asked for the victims’ forgiveness; the latter even used language which addressed the most sensitive Polish aspects involved, declaring that “even in a nation of victims, there appear to be murderers.” Now the Polish government states that the issue is not collusively clear and has to be re-examined, calling for an exhumation of the mass graves of the massacre’s victims.

All this casts a heavy shadow on the policies and intentions of the current Polish government. Its views and ideology are an internal Polish affair, but if the Polish government aims to initiate a revision of Polish history and gloss over or deny its problematical aspects, then even those who identify with the justified Polish pain may raise some other questions which have until now been mainly overlooked because of the recognition of the terrible suffering of the Polish people during World War II. These are not trivial questions, nor do they refer to the behavior of individuals, but to Polish national decisions.

The first question concerns the timing of the Polish Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, when the Soviet Army reached the Vistula. The Poles justly point out that the Soviet Army did not come to the aid of the Polish insurgents and actually let the Germans suppress the insurgency unimpeded — one of Stalin’s most cynical moves.

But it is here that one may raise a haunting question: why did the Polish underground (“Armia Krajowa”) controlled by the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, strike at this particular moment, when the Germans were already retreating, eastern Poland was already liberated and the Soviet army was about to liberate Warsaw itself? The official Polish explanation is that while the Uprising was of course against the Germans, it had also another aim: to insure that Warsaw would be liberated by Polish forces, and not by the Red Army. In other words: this was not only an insurrection against the Germans, but also a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union.

If this is the case one may understand, though obviously not justify, the Soviet passivity in not helping the Poles. Yet the question still lingers: why did the Polish underground not rise against German occupation for more than four years? Why, for example, didn’t Armia Krajowa strike against the Germans during the Jewish Ghetto Uprising in April 1943? Why did the Polish underground not engage in disrupting the German systematic extermination of three million Jews, all Polish citizens? One sometimes hears arguments about how many guns the Polish underground sent — or did not send — to the Jewish Ghetto Uprising: but that is not the question. The question is why did the Polish underground just stand by when the remnants of the three hundred thousand Jewish residents of Warsaw rose against the German occupation. The German suppression of the Ghetto Uprising took weeks and on the “Aryan side” the Polish population of Warsaw saw and heard what was happening in their own city — and did nothing. It is difficult to know what would have happened if the Polish underground would have joined the Ghetto Uprising — not only in Warsaw but all over occupied Poland, where it prepared thousands of its members in numerous cities and villages for a possible uprising. Had this taken place, it would certainly have made it more difficult for the German SS troops to liquidate the ghetto. Moreover, had Armia Krajowa joined what was seen as a “Jewish uprising,” this would have been a powerful proof of solidarity with the Polish Jews.

It is a tough question. But is it totally unjustified to raise the moral dimension involved in deciding to start an uprising in order to prevent Warsaw from being liberated by the Soviets — but not doing anything to prevent the systematic murder of three million Polish Jews and help the Ghetto uprising?

This raises another question, equally suppressed until now. In the beginning of 1939, the British and French governments realized that their policy of appeasing Hitler had failed when it became clear that after putting an end to the remnants of Czechoslovak independence, Nazi German was turning against Poland. In the spring of 1939, Britain and France issued a guarantee to Poland against a German invasion. At the same time, the Soviet Union approached London and Paris suggesting a joint approach against German aggression towards Poland. This was a major shift in international relations — the first attempt to develop a common front between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers against Nazi Germany.

In July 1939 a joint Anglo-French military delegation traveled to Moscow to negotiate a possible Soviet-Western alliance against Germany. During the negotiations, the head of the Soviet delegation, Defense Minister Klement Voroshilov, asked the Western generals and admirals a simple question: in order to repel a German invasion of Poland, the Soviet Army will have to enter Poland; would the Polish government agree to the entry of Soviet troops into its territory in order to expel the Germans?

For weeks the Polish government evaded answering this, but eventually answered in the negative. As a minister in the Polish government then headed by what was called ‘the Colonels” said: “If the Soviet Army enters Poland, who knows when they would leave?” The tripartite Anglo-French-Soviet talks collapsed, and a few days later the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed.

One can well understand the Polish fear of the Soviet Union and of communism: on regaining independence in 1918, Poland found itself in a brutal war with the Soviets, and the Red Army reached the Vistula and was about to occupy Warsaw. Only French military help saved the independence of Poland and repelled the Russians.

And yet: at a crucial moment in 1939, it appeared that Poland feared the Soviet Union more than it feared Nazi Germany. One cannot know what, “would have happened if,” but; what would have happened if Poland would have agreed to the entry of the Red Army into its territory in the case of a German invasion? One cannot say categorically that World War II would not have happened, or that Poland would not have been occupied by the Germans, or that the Holocaust would not have occurred: these are all speculations. But it is reasonable to maintain that history might have taken a different course and — this is the point: that at a moment when a beleaguered Poland had to make difficult and tough decisions, the Polish government made one of the most fateful and catastrophic decisions in the country’s history.

Poland paid a terrible price for this decision: in one way or another the Polish refusal made Ribbentrop-Molotov possible, and the 1944 Polish Uprising caused the almost total destruction of Warsaw and the expulsion of its population by the Germans. To avoid a misunderstanding: in no way should this be viewed as an attempt to blame the victim — Poland. The moral and historical guilt lies with Nazi Germany and, in parallel, with the Soviet Union. But if the current Polish government wishes to undertake a revision of Polish history, these broader issues have also to be addressed: a nation and its leadership are responsible for the decisions they make and their consequences.

Recently I visited POLIN, the Jewish museum in Warsaw, initiated by then President Kwasniewski. I was deeply impressed not only by the richness of the materials and their wonderful presentation, but also by the sophistication and historical integrity underlying the whole project: it showed the history of Jews in Poland as an integral part of Polish history: without the Jews, Poland would not be Poland. Yet the museum also shows the darker side of this history, especially the emergence in the late 19th and early 20th century of the radical nationalistic and anti-Semitic party of Roman Dmowski, the Endecja. A non-Jewish friend who accompanied me in my visit said, “Now is the time to build a Polish museum with a comparable standard.”

This is right. But the way the current Polish government wishes to proceed is both wrong and unwise. It will greatly harm Poland’s rich and fascinating history as well as its presentation.

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Shlomo Avineri

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