Poles and Jews
To the Editor:
As a Polish subscriber to COMMENTARY who is neither a historian nor a journalist but is more or less typical of the younger generation of the Polish-Catholic intelligentsia, I would like to comment on Ruth R. Wisse’s article, “Poland’s Jewish Ghosts” [January]. My overall impression is positive; the article appears to be a major step forward in mutual understanding. Most of Mrs. Wisse’s observations are not only correct but keen and significant. I should like to complement them by presenting the Polish perspective, which is obviously very different from the Jewish one. . . .
Every Pole knows about the three million Polish Jews murdered by the Nazis; every Pole knows the names of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Treblinka, and Maidanek. I cannot recall exactly when I was told about the fate of the Polish Jews, but it was in my early childhood. . . . To tell the whole truth, I also heard from someone (not my parents) about ritual murders, but I can honestly say that I never believed these tales.
What is true, however, is that for a long time the Jewish perspective on the Holocaust was not presented in my country or was presented improperly, in an exclusively polemical manner. This obviously hindered discussion and obstructed the process of understanding. It is also true that unlike knowledge of the Holocaust, knowledge of Jewish culture and its contribution to Poland’s history is very poor, especially among the younger generation.
The problems of World War II and the Holocaust are perceived in Poland quite differently from the way they are viewed in America. In brief, the Poles admit the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust in a quantitative but not necessarily in a qualitative sense. The Poles in general consider themselves co-victims, since three million Polish Christians also died.
Mrs. Wisse’s remark about the bad conscience of people inhabiting former Jewish cities or quarters sounds strange to me. As far as I know, there is no such phenomenon in Poland today. . . .
While the existence of anti-Semitism in prewar Poland is widely recognized by the younger Polish generation, and several accounts of it, mainly by Catholic authors, have been published, the problem of postwar events is more controversial. For example, most people in Poland (including me) believe that the so-called Kielce pogrom in 1946 was staged by Communist security forces for propaganda purposes. . . . It is also believed that many “acts of abuse” toward the Jews were committed primarily out of anti-Communism, not anti-Semitism, since the majority of the Jews returning from the Soviet Union were believed to be (and many were) Communists. Numerous Polish Communists were killed at that time as well.
The “March events” of 1968 are also perceived differently in Poland from the way they are seen in Jewish circles in the U.S., although injustice done to people of Jewish origin by state authorities is generally recognized. For us, the persecution of the Jews, which followed the March events, was a typical example of what can be called “functional anti-Semitism,” i.e., anti-Semitism used as a tool to achieve goals which have nothing, or very little, in common with the so-called Jewish problem. . . . The number of non-Jewish victims of 1968 is large, and includes Catholic writers and journalists . . ., together with many scientists and students. There is a distinct “March generation” among the Polish intelligentsia, and these people were particularly strong supporters of the Solidarity movement in 1980-81. . . .
To understand the present state of Polish thinking in respect to the Jewish question, it is important to distinguish between the official government line and the prevailing views of various parts of Polish society. Mrs. Wisse’s article does a great deal of justice to this point, but a few additional remarks are necessary.
In the virtual absence of observant or affiliated Jews in Poland today, anti-Semitic propaganda is directed toward assimilated Jews, especially those engaged in anti-government activities (another example of “functional anti-Semitism”). Thus Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron of KOR, S. Blumsztajn, K. Modzelewski, and others of Solidarity, and dissident journalists like Stefan Bratkowski are some-times labeled “Jews” or even “Zionists” in propaganda newspeak.
The main source (but not the only one) of anti-Semitic propaganda in contemporary Poland is believed to be a group of people connected with the Ministry of the Interior. . . . It is pertinent to note that the intensification of this propaganda . . . coincided with an intensification of the assaults against the Polish Church in late 1984, which culminated in Father Jerzy Popieluszko’s assassination by the security police and the trial of his murderers. It is therefore very likely that both actions were intended as a concerted effort to harm the last officially existing independent institution in Poland, the Catholic Church, by direct action and by hurting its image abroad. This line was apparently later abandoned, in favor of attempts to woo Jewish opinion in Israel and the U.S.
Although certainly not all in the ruling circles in Poland are anti-Semites (Jaruzelski himself is probably not anti-Semitic), anti-Semitism in the militia and the security forces serves as a tool to keep discipline, and possibly to provide some sort of “psychological comfort” for those whose activities are clearly directed against vital Polish interests and physically against Poles. It is much more comfortable for these people to believe that their actions are directed against a “Jewish plot.” So it is unlikely that this brand of anti-Semitism will disappear soon.
I can understand Mrs. Wisse’s objections to the image of Poland as a country of exclusively Catholic heritage, as expressed in a quotation from one of Father Popieluszko’s famous “patriotic sermons.” Yet it has to be understood that the Polish-Christian past was deliberately diminished for years by Communist propaganda and Left-oriented scholars. Popieluszko’s words do not necessarily imply a negative attitude on the part of the Church to non-Catholic Poles and to the Jewish question in general. Indeed, this attitude is quite different today from what it was in the interwar period . . ., although I do not insist that the problem of anti-Semitism is nonexistent in Catholic-Polish society. . . .
One of the last points raised by Mrs. Wisse is whether the Jews in prewar Poland should have been regarded as Poles exactly as American Jews are Americans. However, citizenship as a criterion of nationality cannot be applied to Eastern Europe, otherwise we would have to assume that Polish-speaking inhabitants of Vilna changed their nationality no fewer than seven times during the first half of our century. Neither is ethnicity—Poles from Vilna are mostly ethnic Lithuanians, which is the reason there was continuous hostility between Poland and nationalist Lithuania.
The only reasonable criterion is therefore a sense of belonging to a national, cultural, and/or political community, however ambiguous this idea might be. . . . This concept, together with a commitment to human rights, also implies the right to free choice of nationality by an individual. By this criterion, the ethnically Polish Joseph Conrad was an Englishman, but the half-French Chopin was a Pole. . . .
Polish Jews formed a vital part of Polish society. But Polish and Jewish cultural/religious/political communities were separated (intermarriage was banned), and in some periods hostile to one another. It is now obvious to most Poles that a distinct Jewish nationality existed in Poland. To answer the question of whether Polish Jews were Poles or not it is necessary to decide first whether dual nationality is possible. Both Polish and Jewish nationalists rejected this possibility. Yet numerous examples confirmed it. Let me cite just one: Arthur Rubinstein, who in the absence of a Polish delegation at the opening session of the UN decided to begin his concert by playing “Poland Is Not Yet Lost.” He was a Pole. He was a Jew, too. There is nothing contradictory in this statement, at least not to my Polish mind. . . .
I do not intend to leave the impression that only assimilated Jews are regarded as Poles by the Polish intelligentsia. But some sense of belonging to Poland as a country (not a state), as a cultural tradition, pluralistic as it is, and as a cause, seems to be a necessary condition.
I am well aware of the fact that differences between Polish and Jewish views are great, the degree of mutual aversion still considerable, although not without many individual exceptions. I am not sure if I can convince anyone. But perhaps the presentation of these comments might be helpful in developing a degree of understanding and lowering the level of undesired negative emotions, which is especially important in view of many common points of interest. I am convinced that Mrs. Wisse’s article serves this goal as well. . . .
Because I am a Polish citizen and intend to return to Poland, I have to ask you not to reveal my name or address.
To the Editor:
I found much of Ruth R. Wisse’s article, “Poland’s Jewish Ghosts,” insightful and thought-provoking. Mrs. Wisse appreciates the extremely complex issues involved in understanding Polish-Jewish relations. But there are two issues which need to be addressed further.
The first concerns those Poles who assisted Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland, even under penalty of death for doing so. As of January 1986, 1,600 Poles had been honored by Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust. These Poles represent over 25 percent of the total number of persons receiving this honor. More than 20,000 Poles are documented as having risked their lives saving Jews during this time. . . . This is surely an important piece of information that would help readers understand more fully the multi-faceted Polish-Jewish relationship during World War II.
The second point concerns Mrs. Wisse’s statement that “many Poles still cherish the belief that Jews require drops of Christian blood for their bread and matzah and wine.” Such an authoritative statement by a noted scholar, published in a highly respected magazine, can profoundly affect readers’ attitudes toward the Polish people and Polish culture. I am sure that Mrs. Wisse is aware of the pernicious nature of stereotyping and of its role in generating prejudice and discrimination. . . . What is her evidence for this statement? Is it gathered from a current, validly conducted survey based on a representative sample of the Polish population? If so, is such a belief held by more people in Poland than in other nations? Exactly what percentage of the Polish population is “many”? Is it more or less than the estimated number of Poles who assisted Jews during World War II? . . . Without very strong objective documentation, such a claim could be construed as not only unfair but defamatory to the Polish people and to their heritage.
To the Editor:
In her excellent article, Ruth R. Wisse expresses her discomfort with the phrase “Poles and Jews” which became the motif of her visit to Poland. She found the phrase puzzling and even offensive “to a North American ear,” and asked how anyone could accept the juxtaposition. The members of her party—revisiting a Poland without Jews—all saw themselves as “Polish Jews,” as Polish as any other Poles. But this critical phrase—Poles and Jews—did not seem offensive to other members of the group, most of whom were Israelis. . . .
Mrs. Wisse writes that the phrase “Poles and Jews” obviously is not offensive to “other Poles,” who do not see and never have seen Polish Jews as being just as Polish as any other Poles. We must, however, go one step farther to find the reason for this sensitivity of the North American ear. . . .
History clearly would not share Mrs. Wisse’s feeling of offense, since it has long since shown us—though all do not yet comprehend—that indeed there are Spaniards and Jews; there are Germans and Jews; there are Poles and Jews; and it may even be the case (no offense intended, Mrs. Wisse) that there are North Americans and Jews.
Mrs. Wisse nicely documents how the Israelis in her group returned from their visit to Poland renewed and reinvigorated Zionists. If she returned puzzled and offended, could it be perhaps that even the most intelligent and perceptive “hyphenated” Jews of the younger democracies still have a lesson to learn from their own people’s history?
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
The letters of the anonymous correspondent and of Jerome Tobacyk are characteristic of contemporary Polish thinking about the Jews, the first in its intense absorption with the problem Jews represent, the second in its discomfort. One of the inadvertent effects of the Jewish historical consciousness is the pressure it exerts on European nations that contributed to and bore witness to the genocide of European Jewry. It would be fine if fear of Jewish “defamation” were now a deterrent force, discouraging enemies of the Jews from seeking to injure and eliminate them. Unfortunately, to date, the political opportunity offered by anti-Semitism is still more potent than the threat of Jewish memory.
Having wanted to deemphasize the issue of Polish anti-Semitism, I am forced by the defensive zeal of my correspondents to deal with it more fully. As Mr. Tobacyk notes, Jews are eager to honor those Poles who risked—and sometimes lost—their lives during World War II in acts of kindness and charity. He fails to note, however, that the risk of denunciation and reprisal from their fellow Poles severely limited these efforts. Indeed, the number of Poles honored at Yad Vashem would be somewhat higher were it not for those who pleaded after the war with the Jews they had rescued never to reveal the dark secret of their compassion lest they be punished for it by their neighbors.
If one of the two Polish correspondents admits to having heard about Jewish ritual murder, perhaps the second can draw his own conclusions about its statistical frequency. His request for sociological data on this question in today’s Poland is disingenuous. He may be interested to know, however, that I was frankly surprised by its evocation among young Polish scholars and intellectuals who had heard it “from somebody”—in one case from a grandmother—as a fact.
The thoughtful anonymous correspondent is also less than candid. His convenient explanation that the “so-called” Kielce pogrom was staged by Communist security forces does not cover the more than 350 returning Jews known to have been murdered by Poles in 1945-46; the gangs of Polish nationalists who dragged Jewish refugees from the trains to rob and beat them; the documented instances of local Polish residents in towns and cities who made sure by their harassment of Jewish returnees that none would resettle in their former homes. As it happens, I do have some firsthand evidence of bad conscience among Poles who took over Jewish property.
I believe that informed Jews in the United States and elsewhere fully realize that a faction of the Communist regime of Poland orchestrated the Jewish question in 1968 to quell internal opposition. But this application of “functional anti-Semitism” begs the question. What made it so effective, so useful? Polish historians today tell us that anti-Semitism in Poland from the beginning of this century was also “functional”—encouraging the peasants to organize in their own economic interests, strengthening the power of the Polish middle class, consolidating a Polish state against the incursion of Communism—goals, in the words of the correspondent, that “have nothing or very little in common with the so-called Jewish problem.” Anti-Semitism is the selection of Jews to serve these various functions; if it were not useful it would hardly be so popular, and vice versa.
But it was not only as a Jew that I raised certain questions about the nature of Polish Catholicism and Polish identity. The political posture of Poland is very important to all those who place a supreme value on freedom. Poland’s struggle for national independence and the struggle of its citizens for personal liberty are as painful as they are inspiring because one can offer so little effective assistance.
Yet the Polish will to freedom is also problematical. The question—as my correspondents know far better than I—has to do not only with the dream of independence from Soviet Communism but with the kind of society that will replace it. Will its Catholicism be liberal and relevant or repressive and vengeful? Will its nationalism be xenophobic and proto-fascist (as in the late 1930′s) or hospitable? It was on such shifts of religious and political policy that the fate of the Jews in Poland depended and on which their place in Polish historiography depends today.
Thus I neither said nor meant to imply that the American model of citizenship should be retroactively applied to interwar Poland, which was expected to respect, but not to integrate, its national minorities. Nor is it possible for Poland, given the current identification of church and state, to wish to follow the American model of separation. I used the comparison to show how poignantly unreciprocal is the identification of Polish Jews with their homeland. By an honest reappraisal of the role of the Jews in Poland, the Poles stand to gain not a return of the Jews—it is too late for that—but a healthier polity than they had during their last period of sovereignty.
I appreciate but resist Orrin Per-sky’s attempt to turn my concluding remarks into a Zionist manifesto. Though political Zionism grew in reaction to inhospitable European nation-states, it has long since transcended its origins, and needs no such argument as he offers. North American Jews indisputably enjoy the rights and fulfill the responsibilities of citizens, and Zion would not gain from any decline in their security. More than that: Israel can only thrive in a tolerant world, which is why the emerging attitudes of freedom-loving Poles are so important.