Poland’s nationalist president, Andrzej Duda, recently signed a bill making it a crime to assert that Poles were complicit in war crimes during the Holocaust. This is the latest flashpoint in a political debate that has been simmering in post-Communist Poland since revelations about the Jedwabne [pronounced Yed-wab-neh] pogrom appeared in the book Neighbors (2001) by Jan Tomasz Gross.
On July 10, 1941, some 40 townsmen locked more than 300 of their Jewish neighbors – men, women, and children – into a barn and burned them alive as German occupiers looked on approvingly.
In a highly controversial move, Poland’s president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, announced in 2001 that he would travel to Jedwabne on the 60th anniversary of the pogrom and offer a public apology.
On the day of this public historic reckoning, all but a handful of the Jedwabne’s inhabitants retreated to their homes, watching the procession of visitors from behind lace curtains. A sign on the window of the Sido Cafe read: “We do not apologize. It was the Germans who murdered the Jews of Jedwabne. Let the slanderers apologize to the Polish nation.”
At the site of the massacre, President Kwasniewski stepped up to the microphone and declared: “I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose who believe that one cannot be proud of the glory of Polish history without feeling, at the same time, pain and shame for the evil done by Poles to others.”
The second speaker, Shevach Weiss, the Israeli ambassador to Poland, recounted how as a child, he was rescued by Polish neighbors during the Holocaust. “Thanks to these people,” he said, “I am standing here before you today. I know also of other barns where Jews were hidden away...and saved as a result of the brave actions of their Polish neighbors – courageous and noble people.”
In fact, Poles constitute approximately one in four (that’s 6,600 of the total number 26,000 recipients) of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations, heroic Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
In the postwar period, Polish identity was defined in terms of victimization and resistance to fascism. That is why the Polish public reacted with shock and disbelief upon learning of the Jedwabne pogrom.
Like most Poles, Andrzej Kaczynski, a Polish journalist who attended the memorial ceremony, initially thought the Jedwabne story was fake news. He decided to conduct his own investigation and found:
“The townspeople spoke openly and without inhibition about how Poles had killed the Jews. But after the public learned about the massacre, they began to hide the truth, terrified that the world would learn about the murders. Exploiting this fear, anti-Semites came to Jedwabne and persuaded the people to defend the good name of Poland, and that is when they began to emphasize German participation.”
Resistance to identifying Poles as German collaborators was a point of contention in drafting the proposed text to be inscribed in the new stone monument to unveiled at the memorial ceremony. (The original Communist-era memorial, which stated that the Jews of Jedwabne had been killed by the Germans, had been removed.)
After weeks of negotiations between survivor families and Polish officials, a “compromise” was reached. The new inscription – in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish – would not identify the perpetrators, only the victims: “In memory of the Jews of Jedwabne and surrounding areas / men, women, and children / fellow dwellers in this land / murdered and burned alive at this site on 10 July l941.”
Missing from the ceremony was the primate of Poland’s influential Roman Catholic Church, Josef Cardinal Glemp, who demonstrated his opposition to the public apology by holding a mass “to include in our prayers other evil as well.”
His message: “Poles were killed by the Nazis for saving Jews, and suffered evil from Jews, among others, in the times of introduction of Communism in Poland. I expect that the Jewish side will examine its conscience and will have the strength to apologize to the Poles for those crimes.”
In short, if Jews were not equal victims, they would be equal villains.
The next flashpoint came in 2015, when President Barack Obama, in a speech praising Polish resistance hero Jan Karski, referred to a “Polish death camp,”unintentionlly striking at the heart of Polish sensitivity over being cast as perpetrators rather than victims of the Nazis. His faux pax provided Poland’s government with a pretext to introduce the new law.
So what is the truth about Polish complicity?
On the governmental level, Poland was not complicit in the Holocaust. On the local level, however, an unknown number of ethnic Poles murdered their Jewish neighbors both during the occupation and after, as in the 1946 Kielce pogrom that left 42 Holocaust survivors dead, touching off a mass migration of Jews from Poland.
Silencing speech about these and other inconvenient truths about Polish anti-Semitism smacks of Holocaust denial.