“On what Poles and Jews don’t like to remember”

2 06 2007

Note from the blog’s editor: I decided to translate this text after having read comments posted to THIS (click) article. I would like to thank Nemeczek. All texts on this website, apart from this one, are current media reports.

Author: Adam Michnik (editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza daily, former leader of anti-communist opposition, human rights activist, Pole and Jew)
Source: dialog.org. (Lecture given in July 1995 in Krakow, on a conference entitled “Polish remembrance – Jewish remembrance”, first published in Tygodnik Powszechny of 16th July 1995)
Translation: MoPoPressReview (beta version)

* * *

The problem of Jewish remembrance of Poland is anti-Semitism. But the problem of Polish remembrance, is that Poles often encounter hostility from Jews.

My roots

My perspective is very specific, and that is why I reluctantly express my views on that mater. I always have a sense that my status is unclear. The status of Pole of Jewish origin rather than a Polish Jew. Moreover, such a Pole, who very much wants to be a Jew for anti-Semites and who always tells them “I am a Jew”. This is that specific kind of Pole. I don’t have complexes in pointing to anti-Semitism in Poland when I see it. That is why I am a Pole. This is my national pride, and my cultural identity. If I have done anything good in my life, I have done it within the Polish culture.

At the same time I have the feeling, forgive me my egocentricity, that all my grandparents died in Holocaust. No one asked them whether they were Poles, Jews or perhaps Ukrainians. It was decided for them that they were Jewish and that they had to die. It is my duty to repeat “I am a Jew”. Otherwise, I would be spitting on the ashes of my murdered family. And therefore I am a strange kind of Pole, who identifies with Poland, who doesn’t have any other identity nor cultural nor moral, nor ideological, but also who whenever hears anti-Semitic cliché, says “I am a Jew”. I hope I will have enough determination to keep doing so until the end of my life.

What our Jewish friends don’t remember about

When I repeatedly wonder where does such dramatic tension in Polish-Jewish relations come from, I notice that Jewish publicists don’t talk with that passion about any other nation but Poland. Not about Germans, not about Russians, not about Ukrainians. Why? Where does it come from? I think this is the unrequited love mechanism.
When we analyse the documents of Jews living in Poland – letters, diaries, and other documents – what we see in them is the love to the Polish ethos, to the Polish culture, to the Polish system of values. And that love was rejected. If I may, I will risk a thesis: the tension, the drama, the hurting on the Jewish side is the result of unrequited love mechanism. No one hates a man, like rejected wife or lover. And I think that is why there is the taboo in the Polish side.

Stanisław Krajewski wrote somewhere, that for two nations which see themselves as chosen nations, it is very difficult to coexist. We have had our Messianism, and Jews have had theirs. Jewish rabbi from United States, Mr Klenicki, said wisely that in the Polish-Jewish dialogue there are a lot of mistakes and vices on the Polish side, but on the Jewish side there is something what you could call “triumphalism of pain”: which means that only we, the Jews, have the right to pain, only we have the right to be the object of compassion as sufferers. While this is a perspective, which Poles will never accept. Poles have had their Auschwitz. Poles have had their executions, have had their martyrdom. To expect that the Poles will forget about this, is to not understand the essence of the Polish nation’s spirit.

I would also like to reply to several remarks that Mr Jean Kahn, made speaking before me. I see nothing strange in the fact that during a mass a Catholic bishop talks about the suffering and agony of Christ, that in every speech a bishop talks about Jesus Christ – because that is what the Catholic religion is about. And I see nothing strange in the fact that Polish bishops do not want to talk about responsibility for the Jews’ disaster in the joint letter with German bishops. Because whatever you can say about anti-Semitism in Poland and within Polish Catholicism, and you can say a lot, you cannot compare and name responsibility of Polish bishops for Polish Catholics’ anti-Semitism alongside the German bishops’ responsibility for the German Catholics’ participation in Holocaust. These are two very different things.

And one more remark to Jean Kahn. When you create an image of allegedly only country, with concentration camps during the war, and pogroms after the war, the whole thing perfectly clicks together: Poles are a specific nation, which just dreams to persecute Jews. And when I hear such a thing, I am very afraid of it, for hundred of reasons. But three are the most important. First: because it’s a lie. Second: because it’s not good to stick to lies. Third: I went through this subject in the Balkans, what people in Croatia say about Serbs, and what people in Serbia say about Croats. So all of this is just untrue.

Need for Church’s voice and a certain kind of sensitivity

I am not going to spare our Jewish friends unpleasant truths. But we have to remember about the other side too, and here I would like to be very frank. So when we think about where do anti-Semitic slogans come from in Poland, then at least partial answer has to be clear. Although the existence of “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly, although Jerzy Turowicz, although the priest professor Tischner, the Polish Church hasn’t yet come clear with its fault for anti-Semitism. That single pastoral letter, which no one even remembers, is not enough. And you have to say very clearly that there is one institution in Poland, only one, and it is the Catholic Church, which can and has to say it clearly, and painfully frankly, that anti-Semitism is a sin, a sin which you have to confess, and that everyone who commits anti-Semitic propaganda sins. Everyone who shouts “Gas the Jews” needs to know they have committed a sin against the Holy Spirit. You cannot be silent when faced with anti-Semitic language. Underestimating silence is a sign of permission.

I would also like to briefly talk about a specific aspect of Polish-Jewish relations, for our Jewish brothers as I think, not quite clear. Romain Rollan in “Jean Christopher”, Maria Dąbrowska in “Dzienniki” reflect on such a phenomenon: how does it happen that Jews in France, in Poland, try to be better French patriots then the French and in Poland better patriots then the Polish. These questions seem anti-Semitic, and at first are inconceivable. But hear I would like to address our friend, Mr Gershon Zohar, Israel’s ambassador: what would be the reaction of Israeli elites, if suddenly their Israeli literature was stormed by a mass of wonderful Palestinian poets, writing in Hebrew, and who are better poets then all Israeli poets? Wouldn’t that have caused some confusion within the public opinion in Israel? Here I want to somehow appeal to the sensitivity. I know this is not simple. Everything, which is new, is often shocking. Why does someone of different roots, different background, should suddenly be a star of Polish literature. He, who came from ghetto and not me who came from country estate? This is one of the phenomenons of the Inter-war period (1918-1939). I am not justifying, I am just explaining that this is a real problem, encountered by everyone of us.

Think before you accuse

Within the polish spirituality the Jewish subject is still basically taboo. Of course it is not a taboo for Polish anti-Semites, who keep repeating that the Jews are guilty for everything. It is a taboo for everything that is good and noble in Polish culture. Polish culture cannot cope with this, because it cannot cope with what professor Jan Błoński described first, and what I will name using my own ineffectual words – the Polish culture cannot cope with the phenomenon of “unfaulty fault”. Because it is not the Poles’ fault that Holocaust was on Polish soil. Yes, it is the Poles’ fault that anti-Semitism, pogroms and discrimination were here. But it is not the Poles’ fault that Hitler built concentration camps here, in which he murdered the whole Jewish nation. But this happened on Polish eyes. And a normal Pole, also a Pole of Jewish descent, cannot cope with this. How can we? Of course thank God for people like Władydsław Bartoszewski, but basically we were all leading normal lives and suddenly we closed our eyes because we couldn’t cope.

I cannot cope with this myself. If I was in a war situation: would I take two people to my apartment, who speak bad Polish, whom I don’t know, who stand out, whom probably my neighbours will identify, and for me helping them my wife and my 7-year-old son will die.. So I cannot cope with this, and I thank God it was not me who had to make such decisions. But I know one thing, and I agree with what minister Bartoszewski has said: that you cannot accuse people, due to the fact they have been afraid. Marek Edelman is of course right, when he says that in extreme situations giving up equals guilt. But he is allowed to say that, because he survived the hell of ghetto. However none of us has the right to say that, us who didn’t live through this. And who says that, is commiting a political manipulation, for very dirty reasons.

The stereotype of Pole vs Yalta

I have been reflecting many times, why in the world there is no such stereotype, that Russians are anti-Semites. There is no such stereotype. Or why today in Israel it is said that Holocaust was done by Nazis not by the Germans? It’s not that Poles didn’t have their fascists. We did. Every nation has them. And the fact that Hitler didn’t find here any Quisling or Laval I don’t see as some Polish merit. He probably would have found if he looked for. But it is a different matter. People are talking around the world about the Poles as anti-Semites, although they didn’t have their Laval or Brasillach, and they aren’t talking like that about the French, who had. Why? Because there had to be some way to justify Yalta. So that the West could say to themselves “There was such a nation, that did fight Hitler from the first day of war, but it was a dreadful nation, intolerant, and they have done much evil to the Jews”. This nation was then sold in Yalta to Stalin, and there had to be found a way to justify oneself for that. And it was very easy to say: Poles are such terrible anti-Semites, that giving them freedom would have meant that they would be doing pogroms. However Russia was then too powerful, to accuse it in such a way.

Here I see the harm done to Poland, and I identify with this harm. I am one of those publicists, who tell the worst things to their own nation. And maybe it legitimises me, to say here what I think, about the meanness that is being done and was being done to Poland. And there weren’t many people like Alain Finkielkraut. When Lanzmann accused Andrzej Wajda of anti-Semitism because of his film about Korczak, Alain Finkielkraut said that if Wajda is anti-Semite, then he is anti-Semite too. There weren’t many people like him, and I would like to thank him today.

We didn’t have the right to say anything

I think we will never have enough time to pay tribute to those, who during occupation were helping the death-facing Jews. Never. And a discussion on whether there was a lot of them or little is senseless. Whatever was their number, their existence is an empirical evidence of God’s existence. Because in times like those, to bring oneself to this kind of heroism means to be someone absolutely exceptional. And we can only pay them tribute and thank God that he sent them.
But I should say one more thing. An anthology of underground, resistance press, connected with the Warsaw Ghetto Rising was published. It has to said clearly: yes, in our Polish resistance there were any heroic attitudes, and that press proves that. But there also were foul, and anti-Semitic attitudes, and these weren’t rare. And the fact that we weren’t able to settle this tiny bit of our history is our moral responsibility for what is going on today. Such texts exist too. I agree with what Alain Finkielkraut had said, that this is a family secret, that this is the secret of my, your, every family on this soil, Polish family, Jewish family and Ukrainian family. And basically it is hard to live normally knowing what our parents and brothers went through.

An important element of that family secret, is what Mrs. Simone Veil said about the brutal manipulation of the communists (March 1968), who incorporated it, and then it became very hard to modify it, due to censorship and dictatorship. It is said sometimes, that it reflected the views of the Poles. Maybe. I don’t know. I know that no one asked Poles. No one has given them a chance, to democratically choose anti-Semitism. They all were gagged. And when they could finally open their mouths, it turned ambiguous.

It is not that the subject is difficult and painful, but the majority would like to annihilate, reject anti-Semitism, I wouldn’t say that. Too ofte I hear anti-Semitic slogans. But on the other hand, how many parliament seats did the parties with anti-Semite views get? How many? Zero. Zero seats. In sauch a reportedly anti-Semitic country. No seats with current electoral law, when every idiot who could scream loud enough got a seat.

Politics and anti-Semitism in Poland

I am the last person who wants to falsify anything. Different times, we have freedom and sovereignty. So: were there people who reported Jews? Yes, we have t say it clearly – there were. But it would be indecent not to mention underground resistance courts’ death sentences on them – which were usually executed. There were the underground courts, these people were condemned and their crimes were condemned. In what sense I feel responsible for these people? Me, who identifies with Poland and Polish culture? In the same sense, like I feel responsible for those Polish people who everyday murder or rape. I can’t be responsible for people, with whom I fight whole my life, whose enemy I am. I can take the fault for all my actions, but I can’t be responsible for the actions of Polish communists, who closed me in jail, because I didn’t want to share their faults. And we have the obligation to make that distinction.
Poland was an enslaved nation, it was a conquered country, and you cannot talk about Polish anti-Semitism from before the war, which was disgusting and vile, together with that dry pogrom in 1968. Because the dry pogrom, was in fact a pogrom on Polish democratic Intelligentsia under anti-Semitic slogans. It was then when that weird phenomenon has started, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in a country without Jews, anti-Semitism that wasn’t really aiming at the Jewish community, but at the polish democratic and freedom aspirations. I will say sarcastically: normal healthy anti-Semitism is such anti-Semitism that says “Adam Michnik is a Jew, and that’s why he’s hooligan”. Whereas the Polish refined anti-Semitism says “Adam Michnik is a hooligan, which means he probably is a Jew”.

I say that in Poland you get nominated to be a Jew. Well, I have deserved those offences, which I am not spared by the anti-Semitic press. But for what sins for example Hanna Suchocka was declared a Jew? She was good for everyone and so self-restrained. But it only takes to know the alphabe, to make someone a Jew on the political scene.
We will be talking about these matters for a long time. I am comforted however, that today in Krakow, although we argue radically, we talk about about painful things knowing that our adversaries too have the good will to reach the truth.

* * *


If you enjoyed this post why not visit Polandian, a collaborative blog on Poland.


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4 responses

3 06 2007
goose

A new book in English that might be considered required reading for Israeli students visiting Poland (and Polish students meeting with them):

Rethinking Poles and Jews
Troubled Past, Brighter Future

Edited by Robert Cherry and Annamaria Orla-Bukowska

“These probing essays make a profound contribution to enhanced understanding between
today’s democratic Poland and the Jewish people.”
—David A. Harris, Executive Director, American Jewish Committee

Since Polish Catholics embraced some anti-Jewish notions and actions prior to WWII, many intertwined the Nazi death camps in Poland with Polish anti-Semitism. As a result, more so than local non-Jewish population in other Nazi-occupied countries, Polish Catholics were considered active collaborators in the destruction of European Jewry. Through the
presentation of these negative images in Holocaust literature, documentaries, and teaching, these stereotypes have been sustained and infect attitudes toward contemporary Poland, impacting on Jewish youth trips there from Israel and the United States.

This book focuses on the role of Holocaust-related material in perpetuating anti-Polish images and describes organizational efforts to combat them. Without minimizing contemporary Polish anti-Semitism, it also presents more positive material on contemporary Polish-American organizations and Jewish life in Poland. To our knowledge this will be the first book to document systematically the anti-Polish images in Holocaust material, to
describe ongoing efforts to combat these negative stereotypes, and to emphasize the positive role of the Polish Catholic community in the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland. Thus, this book will present new information that will be of value to Holocaust Studies and the 100,000
annual foreign visitors to the German death camps in Poland.

Contributors
Eli Zborowski, Robert Cherry, Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, Thaddeus Radzilowski, Mieczyslaw B. Biskupski, Lawrence Baron, Shana Penn, Guy Billauer, Havi Ben-Sasson, Helene Sinnreich, Helene Sinnreich, John Pawlikowski, Antony Polonsky, Michael Schudrich, Stanislaw Krajewski, Joanna B. Michlic, Natalia Aleksiun, and Carolyn Slutsky.

About the Authors
Robert Cherry is professor of economics at Brooklyn College. Annamaria Orla-Bukowskateaches in the sociology department at Jagiellonian University, Krakow.

March 28, 2007, 272 pages
$75.00 Cloth 0-7425-4665-9 / 978-0-7425-4665-3
$27.95 Paper 0-7425-4666-7 / 978-0-7425-4666-0

5 07 2007
tovorinok

Hello

Great book. I just want to say what a fantastic thing you are doing! Good luck!

G’night

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