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Poland’s Crime Against History

JERUSALEM – My parents and I arrived in Tel Aviv a few months before World War II began. The rest of our extended family – three of my grandparents, my mother’s seven siblings, and my five cousins – remained in Poland. They were all murdered in the Holocaust.

I have visited Poland many times, always accompanied by the presence of the Jewish absence. Books and articles of mine have been translated into Polish. I have lectured at the University of Warsaw and Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. I was recently elected an external member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences. Though my knowledge of the Polish language is scant, the country’s history and culture are not foreign to me.

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For these reasons, I recognize why Poland’s government recently introduced legislation on historical matters. But I am also furious.

The Poles understandably view themselves primarily as victims of the Nazis. No country in occupied Europe suffered similarly. It was the only country that, under German occupation, had its government institutions liquidated, its army disbanded, its schools and universities closed. Even its name was wiped off the map. In a replay of the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland by Russia and Prussia, the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact led to the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in the wake of the German invasion. No trace of Polish authority remained.

The total destruction of the Polish state and its institutions made Poland an ideal location for the German extermination camps, in which six million Polish citizens – three million Jews and three million ethnic Poles – were murdered. Everywhere else in German-controlled Europe, the Nazis had to deal, sometimes in an extremely complicated way, with local governments, if only for tactical reasons.

This is why Poland is right to insist that the camps not be called “Polish extermination camps” (as even US President Barack Obama once mistakenly referred to them). They were German camps in occupied Poland.

But the current Polish government is making a serious mistake by trying to criminalize any reference to “Polish extermination camps.” Only non-democratic regimes use such means, rather than relying on public discourse, historical clarification, diplomatic contacts, and education.

The government’s proposed legislation goes even further: it makes any reference to ethnic Poles’ role in the Holocaust a criminal offense. It also refers to what it calls “historical truth” regarding the wartime massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors.

When the historian Jan Gross published his study establishing that Poles, not Germans, burned alive hundreds of Jedwabne’s Jews, Poland naturally suffered a major crisis of conscience. Two Polish presidents, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Bronisław Komorowski, accepted the findings and publicly asked for the victims’ forgiveness. As Komorowski put it, “even in a nation of victims, there appear to be murderers.” Now, however, the authorities claim that the issue must be re-examined, even calling for the mass graves to be exhumed.

The government’s views and ideology are an internal Polish matter. But if it seeks to gloss over or deny problematic aspects of Polish history, even those who identify with Poland’s pain may raise questions that, in recognition of Poles’ terrible suffering, have until now been largely overlooked. These questions are neither trivial nor directed at the behavior of individuals. They implicate national decisions.

The first question concerns the timing of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. The Poles justly point out that the Red Army, which had reached the Vistula, did not help the Polish fighters and actually let the Germans suppress the insurgency unimpeded – one of Stalin’s most cynical moves.

But why did the Polish underground (Armia Krajowa, or Home Army), controlled by the Polish government-in-exile in London, strike at this moment, when the Germans were already retreating, eastern Poland was already liberated, and the Red Army was about to liberate Warsaw itself? The official Polish explanation is that the uprising against the Germans was also a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union, intended to ensure that Polish, not Soviet, forces liberated Warsaw.

That may explain (though obviously not justify) the Soviets’ refusal to help the Poles. Yet questions linger: Why did the Home Army wait more than four years to rise against German occupation? Why did it not disrupt the systematic extermination of three million Jews, all Polish citizens, or strike during the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943?

One sometimes hears arguments about how many guns the Home Army sent – or did not send – to the fighters in the ghetto. But that is not the question. The German suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took weeks; on the “Aryan side,” Poles saw and heard what was happening – and did nothing.

We cannot know the outcome had the Home Army joined the Jews – not only in Warsaw but throughout occupied Poland, where it had prepared thousands of its members for a possible uprising. What is certain is that the Nazi SS would have found it more difficult to liquidate the ghetto; moreover, joining what was considered a “Jewish uprising” would have been powerful proof of solidarity with Polish Jews. The key point is that highlighting the moral dimension of the decision to start an uprising to prevent the Soviets from liberating Warsaw, while ignoring the failure to act to prevent the murder of three million Polish Jews and join the ghetto uprising, can be legitimately questioned.

This raises another long-suppressed question. By March 1939, the British and French governments knew that appeasing Hitler had failed: after destroying Czechoslovakia, Nazi Germany was turning against Poland. That spring, Britain and France issued a guarantee to defend Poland against a German invasion.

At the same time, the Soviet Union proposed to the British and the French a united front against German aggression toward Poland – the first attempt to develop a Soviet-Western anti-Nazi alliance. In August 1939, an Anglo-French military delegation traveled to Moscow, where the head of the Soviet delegation, Defense Minister Kliment Voroshilov, asked the Western officers a simple question: would the Polish government agree to the entry of Soviet troops, which would be necessary to repel a German invasion?

After weeks of dithering, the Polish government refused. As a Polish government minister reportedly asked: “If the Soviet Army enters Poland, who knows when they would leave?” The Anglo-French-Soviet talks collapsed, and a few days later the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed.

One can understand the Polish position: on regaining independence in 1918, Poland found itself in a brutal war with the Red Army, which was poised to occupy Warsaw. Only French military support helped repel the Russians and save Poland’s independence. In 1939, it appeared that Poland feared the Soviet Union more than it feared Nazi Germany

No one can know whether Poland would have avoided German occupation had it agreed to the Red Army’s entry in the event of an invasion, much less whether WWII or the Holocaust might have been prevented. But it is reasonable to maintain that the government made one of the most fateful and catastrophic choices in Poland’s history. In one way or another, its stance made the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact possible, and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising brought about the city’s near-total destruction.

In no way should this be viewed as an attempt to blame the victim. The moral and historical guilt belongs to Nazi Germany and, in parallel, to the Soviet Union. But if the current Polish government wishes to revise history, these broader issues must also be addressed. A nation and its leaders are responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

Recently, I visited POLIN, the Jewish museum in Warsaw, initiated by then-President Kwaśniewski. I was deeply impressed not only by the richness and presentation of the materials, but also by the sophistication and historical integrity underlying the entire project: without the Jews, the exhibition made clear, Poland would not be Poland.

Yet the museum also shows the darker side of this intertwined history, especially the emergence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of Roman Dmowski’s radical nationalist and anti-Semitic Endecja party. A non-Jewish friend who accompanied me said: “Now is the time to build a Polish museum with a comparable standard.”

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My friend is right. But Poland’s current government is proceeding in a way that is both wrong and unwise. As Germany itself has shown, Poland can best protect itself by grappling with the truth.

Shlomo Avineri will be attending this year's Forum 2000 conference, The Courage to Take Responsibility, which will be held in Prague, Czech Republic, October 16-19.