In late June of 1941, my father’s first cousins Moshe and Dvora fled their house in the tiny town of Kameny Most, about halfway between Slonim and Baranavichy in what is now Belarus. Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa days before, and their home stood almost on the German-Soviet line that had divided Poland in 1939. Now the Germans had marched into town. The boy and girl, then 15 and 16, reached the woods behind their house before the Germans arrived. Their parents and baby brother fled a minute later, but the Germans already were there. They couldn’t reach the woods and hid in the tall grass. A Polish neighbor pointed them out to the Germans, who shot them on the spot. Moshe and Dvora joined the partisan brigade led by the Bielski brothers, made famous in the film Defiance. Not long afterwards they returned at night, barricaded the neighbor in his house, set it afire and burned him alive. By the grace of God the teenagers survived the war and came to the new State of Israel and started large and flourishing families. I had the merit to arrive at Dvora’s deathbed in 2004 just in time to receive her blessing upon the American branch of her family.
I tell this story to make it clear that my family isn’t soft on Polish anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is a matter of the most profound importance, and Polish anti-Semitism is something I take personally. That is why it is especially irresponsible to accuse Poles of anti-Semitism falsely, as the Jewish Insider website yesterday accused Polish President Andrzej Duda. According to the website, President Duda told a group of Jewish community leaders assembled at the Polish Consulate in New York that hostile remarks by an Israeli cabinet minister about Polish anti-Semitism “were a ‘humiliation’ and were the reason for an increase in antisemitic attacks against Jews in Poland.” It is wrong to cry wolf under any circumstances, and reckless to cry wolf where real wolves might turn up.
President Duda never said it. I know he never said it because I was at the meeting. For an accurate account, see Rabbi Shmuley Boteach‘s note in the Jerusalem Post. President Duda, who has done his best to honor the memory of the three million Polish Jews murdered by the Nazis, remonstrated with his Jewish guests about the remark of Israeli cabinet minister Israel Katz that Poles “imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” Katz’s comment was a bigoted and regrettable outburst. One of the greatest friends of the Jewish people in modern times also was the most prominent Pole of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II of blessed memory. He declared–contrary to 2,000 years of Catholic precedent–that God’s covenant with the Jewish people never had been revoked. When my children were small, we vacationed in Rome, and I took them to Vatican Square on a Sunday morning, where the ailing John Paul II waved to the crowd from his window. I told my children that I wanted them to remember that they had seen with their own eyes this friend of the Jewish people. Sadly, not all Poles (and not all of the Polish Catholic hierarchy) emulate the great pope.
The wounds of World War II are too fresh for the Poles to examine their history dispassionately, and they have, in my opinion. a tendency to minimize the degree of Polish collaboration with the Nazis, to the point of making it a crime to state that the Polish nation collaborated with the Nazis (it is legal to say that some individual Poles did). This understandably has caused friction with the State of Israel. It provoked Israel Katz’ outburst. President Duda said with deep emotion that accusations of this sort “humiliated” the Poles, and said that if one is humiliated, one will get angry. He was angry, and he had cause to be angry. But he in no way blamed Katz or other Jews for anti-Semitic incidents in Poland.
Poland’s position in World War II was that of martyr, not perpetrator. Some Poles helped Jews despite a Nazi order to kill any Pole who did so. Most did nothing. Some collaborated. I know there were collaborators because my family killed some of them. The Poles who helped Jews–and there were many who did–risked their lives. As President Duda said, you can’t expect everyone to be a hero.
The fact remains that President Duda’s government is among America’s best friends in the world, and far more friendly to the State of Israel than most of its peers in the European Union. Jews will see the horrific period of Nazi occupation differently than the Poles. All the more reason, then, to approach the minefield of historical memory with caution and meticulous attention to the facts. There is still plenty of anti-Semitism in Poland, but you won’t find it in the office of the Polish president or prime minister. One can argue–as some Jewish representatives did–that the Polish government could do more to suppress attacks on the tiny remaining Jewish community in Poland. One can argue, as Rabbi Boteach did, that Poland could do more to defy the European Union’s hostility toward the Jewish State. Friendship between the Polish people and the Jews is fraught and difficult. But it is possible–with goodwill, calm heads, and persistence. President Duda reached out to advance that friendship. No good deed goes unpunished, not, in any case, by the loose tongues at the Jewish Insider.