In the Israeli-Polish war of words surrounding the events of the Holocaust, no side is backing down
The latest round of Israeli – Polish animosity regarding events that took place on Polish soil eight decades ago during the Holocaust was reignited this morning by blunt remarks delivered by interim foreign minister Israel Katz. Yesterday we reported that prime minister Netanyahu’s office had clarified that his comments with regards to Poles collaborating with the Nazis in the genocide of Polish Jewry were meant to say that SOME, not all Poles were engaged at such activities.
Today, FM Katz left no doubt as to where he stood on the issue. Using clear and unambiguous language he stated for the record that THE POLES, meaning all Poles have “suckled their anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk”. The official Polish response came soon enough. “It is surprising that the Israeli foreign minister comes out with such a racist and shameful comment, a comment, which is utterly unacceptable,” said Mark Magirowicki, Poland’s ambassador to Israel.
Now, Poland is considering entirely canceling its participation in the upcoming conference of Eastern European countries, an annual conference that is to be held in Israel for the first time. Polish participation in the conference was already downgraded to the foreign minister level and now Polish prime minister Mateusz Marowiecki warned that unless minister Katz apologizes, Poland will send no delegation of any kind.
Minister Katz’s remarks were a part of an interview he gave to a senior reporter now with Channel 13, Udi Segal. In the interview, Katz quoted the late prime minister Shamir (who was a Polish Jew) in characterizing anti-Semitism as endemic to the Polish nation and added: “the memory of the Holocaust is something we cannot compromise on. We shall not forget and we shall not forgive. In diplomacy, one tries not to give offense, but nobody can change history. Poles collaborated with the Nazis.”
While the Polish reaction was predictably harsh and the long-suffering Israeli ambassador to Poland Anna Azari was summoned for yet another reprimand, in Israel minister Katz’s comments received backing form a broad spectrum of the political landscape. Both the head of the center Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid and the co-chairman of the right-wing New Right party and minister of education Naftali Bennett opined that Katz’s remarks about the endemic nature of Polish anti-Semitism were grounded in fact and that the painful history of Polish collaboration with the Nazis cannot be whitewashed in order to maintain good relations with the modern state of Poland.
Based on these comments, it is highly unlikely that minister Katz will apologize for his remarks and at this time Polish participation at the conference seems unlikely. But what about the truth? Is it true that the Poles are suckled on anti-Semitism at their mothers’ breasts? As a Jew who was born in the Ukraine not far form Poland and having experienced Ukrainian anti-Semitism as a child before emigrating to Israel, I come close to saying yes, minister Katz was correct in his assessment. The current Polish twitter does nothing to refute it, either. On the contrary, much of it is rabidly anti-Semitic, even though the authors of the tweets, having grown in post-genocide Poland, have never met a Jew in their lives.
But then I remember Yanina, an elderly Polish woman from Krakow, who now operates a small diner in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. When we met, I immediately told her that I was a Jew and an Israeli and she could not have been nicer to me and my family. Yanina is a Pole. She is not anti-Semitic. It should be enough to have such an experience with a wonderful and utterly free of hate Polish woman to say no, the Poles are not endemically anti-Semitic. But then I remember why the Nazis selected Poland as the epicenter for their Final Solution. It was precisely the endemic anti-Semitism of the Poles that played a major role in that decision. I remember that Polish clergy, the people to whom the Poles look for spiritual guidance more than to anyone else, have never spoken out against the rabid anti-Semitism of the Polish Catholic Church. Polish bishops and cardinals were quiet, perhaps understandably so during the Nazi occupation. But then they were quiet during Poland’s years as a vassal state of the Soviet Union, a time when denouncing Nazi collaborators was not only safe, but encouraged. And they were quiet yet when Poland emerged from under the yoke of Soviet control thirty years ago, an event which was greatly facilitated by the Polish Pope John Paul II. John Paul spoke out on a great many things and was canonized by the Catholic Church, but had never admitted to the role his church had played in the genocide of the Polish Jewry and had never apologized for it.
There are thousands of Poles that as I write these lines live in Jewish houses, hang their clothes in Jewish armoires, even wear Jewish gold necklaces and diamonds. And the worst part of it is that they know. They know that this house they are living in came into their family’s possession when the Jewish family that owned it was ordered to gather at the town square and summarily shot or transported to a camp where it was starved to death or gassed. She knows that the diamond stud earrings that she we wears to work every day, the ones that her grandmother gave her, were worn first by a Jewish woman whose ashes are now scattered on Polish soil. Poles are living among the ghosts of three million Jews. Jews, whom unlike the Greeks, the Albanians, the Danes, and the Swedes, they did not try to save, but quite on the contrary helped slaughter and from whose disappearance they have shamefully profited.
The Polish Jewry was the shining crown of world Jewry. It was the repository of timeless cultural assets, in literature, in theater, in the plastic arts, in Judaism and Torah study, which will never be recovered. The few remnants like the Nobel Laureate for literature Isaac Bashevis Singer, like the great painter Marc Chagall, like the few great rabbis who managed to escape in the nick of time to Israel or to America, they all bear witness to the glory of what was lost.
,Until the Poles come to grips with the major role they have played in one of world history’s greatest tragedies, until the Polish president Andrzej Duda, prime minister Marowiecki, and the Polish bishops and cardinals stand up and, on behalf of the Polish people and the Polish Catholic Church apologize to the Jewish people for the thousand years of state and church directed Polish anti-Semitism that culminated in so many Poles willingly assisting the Germans in their project of Jewish genocide and so many other Poles financially benefiting from the annihilation of the Polish Jewry, there can be no true reconciliation. Every day that passes without such an acceptance of historical responsibility, without the proper accounting of all Jewish property that was stolen during the years of Nazi occupation and now resides in the hands of Poles, the same Poles whose recent ancestors participated in its looting, is another day that the Poles prove to the world that they do indeed suckle the poison that is anti-Semitism at their mothers’ breasts.
As a Jew, as an Israeli, as a man who has never known either of his grandfathers because they were killed fighting the Nazis long before he was I was born, I am tremendously proud that a Jew by the name of Israel Katz does not have to cower in front of any Gentile. That this Jew, this high-level Israeli government official can say firmly and unequivocally to the Polish nation and the Polish government: you, my friends, have a problem. You are infected with hatred and bigotry and your ancestors were accessories to genocide. Admitting it is the first step. Just do it.