Europe’s Crumbling Myths – Laurence Weinbaum – Poland: Changing Holocaust Perceptions

For Laurence Weinbaum, director of research at the Institute of the World Jewish Congress, Jerusalem, the notion of moral restitution is a misnomer vis-a-vis the reception of the surviving Jews in Poland after the Holocaust. “There were many instances of murder and intimidation against survivors returning from concentration camps, the forests in which they had hidden, or their refuge in the former Soviet Union.”

He explains: “One does not know precisely how many Jews lost their lives in Poland after the Germans had been driven out. I say ‘driven out’ because many Poles did not consider the substitution of German occupation for Soviet rule – even if cloaked in ostensibly Polish garb and certainly more benign – as genuine ‘liberation,’ certainly not the way Jews did. The surviving Jews who came back were often the only survivors in their family. They returned to their hometowns, seeking relatives and to recover what remained of their belongings. In many cases they were greeted with hostility and often violence. Estimates are that, until the end of 1946, Poles murdered between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews. Although the largest pogrom took  place  in Kielce,  there were also smaller ones in other cities and towns and numerous individual acts of murder.”

Postwar Violence

Jews often faced terror. Some killings were organized, others spontaneous. “A Jew would return to his hometown to face squatters in his house who feared that he would repossess his property. In other cases, there was a reaction to rumors about Jews engaged in ritual murder. Many Poles, especially in the countryside and small towns, believed the blood libel. Mischievous children were traditionally told that a Jew would come and take them away – and the meaning of that threat was clear.

“Hatred of the Jews, who had received a death sentence during the war, was very deeply rooted. The violence only ceased toward the end of 1946 when the political situation stabilized as the country was brought under total communist control. These events earned Poles an enduring reputation as people who ‘ingest anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk,’ to quote an unguarded remark by former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was born in Poland, and whose father was killed by Poles during the Shoah.”

Weinbaum adds: “Even today, the background of these murders is not entirely clear. They took place in the context of a civil war and a general atmosphere of lawlessness. There is evidence that communist functionaries were also involved in the anti-Jewish violence, partly because, at least on the grassroots level, many were imbued with hostility toward Jews. On a higher level, it was understood that political capital could be generated out of this unrest by blaming it on reactionary forces.”

Weinbaum urges us to avoid painting a picture of all Poles as pathological anti-Semites: “Some Jews tend to distort history by blaming the Holocaust on the Poles, as Poland was the major killing ground of the Jewish people. But, irrespective of the attitude of Poles, it was the Germans who determined the venue of the machinery of destruction and the Poles were not consulted. Nevertheless, because we lost so many of our loved ones in Poland, irrespective of whether or not our roots were there (Greek, Dutch, Hungarian, Czech, and  Slovak Jews were also killed there), and because of the Jews’ long relationship with Poland, we are always concerned about events there. Many Jews of Polish origin put their pens to paper to express their views; and we cannot ignore the preponderance of Jews of Polish origin in Jewish public life. If one finds a swastika painted on a synagogue in Lodz or Cracow , the reaction abroad is much stronger than after a similar act in Greece or Estonia.”

Communism: The Antithesis of Jewish Culture

“The take-over  by the communists did not mean that anti-Semitism had disappeared. Popular antipathy toward Jews remained. This was reinforced by the prevailing notion that the Jews were responsible for imposing communism on the hapless Poles.”

Weinbaum offers a perspective: “The percentage of Jews in the Polish Communist Party – let alone among those who were significantly involved in imposing communist rule in post-war Poland – was small. First, there were few Jews remaining in Poland and, second, communism opposed Jewish interests. Communism bitterly opposed Jewish particularism, favoring the assimilation of Jews into the dominant culture, whereas the great majority of Polish Jews did not want this. Nevertheless, at high  levels in the Polish Communist Party there was a disproportionately large number of Jews. The communists came mainly from the urban intelligentsia, among which the Jews were relatively numerous. But, even without any Jewish presence in the communist movement, the Polish perception of both communism and the Jews would probably have been little different.”

There was no logic to this: “People still associate Jews with communism. One can do very little to dissuade them. Even today many Poles are convinced that Jews pull the strings in Poland, though hardly any Jews remain there. Poland is by no means the only place where this stereotype of Zydo-kommuna (Jewish communism) is cultivated, but there it has especially deep roots.”

Some Equality, No Future

“Communist rule gave the Jews in Poland some measure of civic equality, to the extent that we can speak of such a concept within the confines of a dictatorship. Jews were now able to work in the civil service and to study in institutions of higher education closed to them before the Second World War. At that time the number of Jews admitted to such institutions had been limited by a numerus clausus which increasingly tended toward a numerus nullus.”

Still, many Polish Jews felt that they had no reason to remain. “Due to subsequent waves of emigration, the number of Jews in Poland after the Second World War was in constant decline. Both  religious  and  Zionist  Jews  realized they did not have a future in Poland. The lure  of  Zionism  was  especially strong, as was the desire to be reunited with surviving relatives  who  lived abroad. Those who remained by 1948 or 1949 were mainly  very  assimilated Jews. Many did not want to be Jews anymore. They changed their names and moved to places where they were  unknown  and  did  not  have  to  reveal  that they were Jews.

“Jews who elected to stay in Poland and who still identified themselves  as Jewish were generally content with what Yiddish culture was available. This was, for the most part, ethnic folklore that would probably  have withered away in a generation. Under the communist regime there were a state-subsidized Yiddish theater and Yiddish publications, as well as schools in  which  Yiddish  was taught alongside Polish. The communists tightly controlled all of this. I have a schoolbook which  contains  tributes to  Stalin and the text  of  the Internationale in Yiddish.”

Financial Restitution

“Property rights of the returning Jews were dealt with in a discriminatory manner. The time period in which one could claim past belongings was limited. Inheritance rights were restricted to children and parents or spouses. Since so many families had been completely wiped out, Jews often had limited opportunity to reclaim  anything. Part of whatever property was regained was later nationalized by the communist government or sold at a pittance to finance sustenance or emigration.

“Most Jewish communal property was not restored to the Jewish communities, but ended up in the hands of the state or municipal authorities. Today, more than 50 years later, this is being rectified. So if we wish to speak of restitution – to the extent we can apply such a term in the face of the magnitude of the destruction in Poland – neither in a financial nor in a moral sense was there any serious attempt to right wrongs. From the moral viewpoint, this is not merely because Jewish property was stolen, but also because the history of the Polish Jews, especially their suffering, was also appropriated.”

Toward Honest History?

Weinbaum is convinced that the perception of Holocaust history has begun to shift in Poland in recent years: “A major element of this ‘evolution of memory’ is that the expression ‘Holocaust’ is being recognized as a distinctly Jewish episode. Until recently, the fate of Jews was tied up in the Polish historiography and popular perception as ‘Polish suffering.’ Until the collapse of communism, the notion that ‘six million Poles died in the Holocaust’ was enshrined in stone.

“Today it is generally recognized that some three million ethnic Poles perished, although even that number probably includes many victims of other ethnicities. This number was lumped together with the three million murdered Polish Jews to make up the figure of six million that every schoolchild learned. To us, ‘the six million’ were our murdered Jewish brethren. To Poles, it was the number of their countrymen killed in the war. Nowadays – at least in intellectual circles and among the better educated – this notion has been thoroughly discredited. Public opinion surveys demonstrate a trend toward recognizing that every Jewish man, woman, and child was slated for physical liquidation and thus that the suffering of Jews was distinct from that of the Poles.”

“Dead Jews Make Good Poles”

“In the past, written history always focused on the fate of the Poles. When Jews were discussed it was generally emphasized that they were part of the Polish nation – that they were Polish citizens, and even then they received scant mention. Paul Lendavi wrote an important book on anti-Semitism in Eastern and Central Europe, especially during the 1968 witch-hunt against Jews entitled, Anti-Semitism Without Jews. In it he noted that ‘dead Jews make good Poles.’ He meant that, after their death, the memory of those Polish Jews could be appropriated and capitalized on by Poland. During their life they had never been regarded by Poland as true Poles. In virtually every one of my lectures and articles on this subject, I quote his remark because it describes the situation perfectly.

“The Jewish past was only restituted after the fall of communism. Had one visited Auschwitz in the 1980s, without knowing anything about it, one would have concluded that the camp’s primary victims were Poles. One would have to read between the lines to figure out the truth. At the same time, the number of victims there was inflated. The communists spoke about four and a half million dead, while the real number was closer to one and a half million.”

Since then, a shift has occurred, culminating in a more honest history. Weinbaum believes the Holocaust message is slowly penetrating Polish society, along with a clear change in overall attitudes: “Allow me to share a recent, if not scientific, example of the development of this perception. I spoke to a group visiting Israel. They gave me a coffee table book about Poland. A page devoted to Auschwitz-Birkenau said unambiguously that the camp was primarily the place of suffering for the Jews. That would have been inconceivable 10 or 15 years ago.”

Exploding the Polish Myth

“The real watershed in perception was the revelation  that,  during  the  Shoah, there were mass murders of Jews by the Poles, of which the town of Jedwabne has become the symbol. What happened there received major attention only in 2000, though it was known considerably before. In June of that year the book Sasiedzi (Neighbors) was published. It was written by Professor Jan  Tomasz Gross, a Polish-born political scientist from New York University. A film with the same title by Agnieska Arnold was screened on television. Both caused a furious debate in Poland. Even if the number of Jews killed now seems less than the 1,600 mentioned by Gross his revelation that the murderers were local Poles and not Germans is an indelible stain on the country’s history. Similar massacres happened in other hamlets as well.

“Gross’ book exploded the myth that Poland was a land without quislings – and it did so in Polish for Poles. The Poles had perceived themselves as a nation of heroes, trampled upon by the Germans and Russians. They had not submitted to the Nazis the way other nations did. Poles generally believed that, aside from a handful of blackmailers, their behavior toward Jews was beyond reproach. With this, the Poles wrote a glorious chapter in their history. Poland had a vast underground movement and struggled against German – and later Russian – oppression. It did not produce a native fascist government like almost all other German-occupied or influenced countries. Poles are justly proud that they fielded more troops than France in the struggle of the Allies against Germany.

“Poles are also fond of comparing themselves to the neighboring Czechs, who did not suffer a great deal in the war. Indeed, other than the Jews, relatively few Czechs perished. Poles will gladly offer their view on the difference between the 1945 Czech uprising in Prague and the film about it: ‘The film lasted 20 minutes longer!’ But we must also recognize that Polish nationalism, at least its right­ wing variant, the so-called Endecja, was traditionally anti-German, and because of German irredentism against Poland, such an alliance between Germans and Poles was simply not feasible.”

Opposing the Germans and Killing the Jews

“Jews, of course, at least the great majority, have a very differen perception of the Poles. They see them as enthusiastic helpers of the Germans, who deliberately selected Poland as the killing field of the Jews and located the extermination camps there, because they knew that they could rely on a population of willing executioners infected with the virus of Jew-hatred. We should, however, not exag­gerate and keep emotion out of our perceptions. Anti-Semitism  in Poland has a long and multi-faceted history, but we should not generalize. History is sufficiently dramatic without  overstating  the  truth.

“The importance of the revelations about the Jedwabne mass-murder is that they demonstrate how one could perceive oneself as a loyal Pole, opposing the Germans, and at the same time murder or betray Jews. Various Polish underground fighters were also involved in killing Jews. They considered themselves patriotic Poles battling the Germans. Righteous Gentiles in Poland – whose heroism has received too little recognition from Jewish society – tell me that they, and all decent people, consider these people as traitors. The more important question, however, is how the broader Polish society viewed and views them.

“A few years ago it became known that some members of a mainstream underground movement, the non-communist Home Army, discovered Jews during the 1944 uprising and killed them. This was published in the country’s leading liberal daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, and precipitated a very emotional debate, in which the author (a non-Jew) was sharply attacked. The public discussion died down after a while. The Jedwabne debate is different. Every day, for several months, many articles were devoted to it. I no longer have enough space to store all the boxes of cuttings and printouts on the subject. When, in 20 or 30 years time, the history of contemporary Poland will be recorded, this debate will be seen as a watershed. Very slowly, Polish society is beginning to understand  that its past is more nuanced than it had believed. Poland was not a  nation  whose  wartime history was unblemished by shameful acts. Not all Poles behaved heroically; and some were guilty of genocide.”

The Catholic Church’s Ambiguity

“Another important issue is the Catholic Church’s perception of the Jews. Before the war, the Church was a repository of anti-Jewish sentiment. Many of its publications were full of vile anti-Semitism. The Church, for the most part, encouraged prewar anti-Semitism in Poland, based on propagating ideas such as that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus and the spread of communism. It also used economic  stereotypes, such as the crafty Jewish businessman who would always get the better of the honest Polish peasants.

“The Polish Roman Catholic primate Cardinal Jozef Glemp is still propagating these stereotypes and uses many anti-Semitic invectives. When asked about the sources of anti-Semitism, he said that the Poles could not compete in business against the smart Jews. When in 1989 a media storm erupted around the presence of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, Glemp said that fortunately none of the nuns had been killed in the scuffle with Rabbi Avi Weiss, who scaled the fence to lead a sit-in. His remarks made Poles believe that the rabbi had intended to murder the nuns.

“Outrageous statements about Jews – suggesting that Judaism and Nazism are two sides of the same coin and that Jews spread Stalinism in Poland – were Laurence Weinbaum also made by Henryk Jankowski, a well-known priest in Gdansk, who was very active in the Solidarity movement. Apparently he was also Lech Walesa’s personal confessor. He has accused the Jews of ‘satanic greed’ and said that Poles ‘can no longer tolerate being governed from Moscow or Israel.’ Once, when Jankowski attacked the Jews from the pulpit, Walesa was present and failed to respond. He claimed afterwards that he had not heard the priest’s vituperative remarks. Only under great pressure did he condemn those anti-Jewish utterances. Today Poland is a free country and people can choose from the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The Catholic Church feels threatened by that and some of its circles blame this on the Jews.

“There are also important changes in attitude. The Church now has an annual day of Judaism, when everybody can come and learn. Some clergymen are building bridges toward the Jews. Archbishop Jozef Zycinski of Lublin is one of them, Father Michael Czajkowski, a professor at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynksi University in Warsaw, is another. Both have condemned what happened in Jedwabne and have called for expiation. Thus, the Polish Church is not homogeneous vis­ a-vis its attitudes toward Jews. But these clergymen do not speak for the rank and file clergy or their parishioners and, more often than not, the Church remains at best ambivalent toward Jews and Judaism. Significantly, the ostensibly Roman Catholic radio station, Radio Marja, preaches an unabashedly anti-Jewish message and has even engaged in outright Holocaust denial. It reaches an audience of millions of Polish Catholics.”

New Perceptions

“Also with respect to museums and memorials there is a positive change. What is told nowadays is mainly honest history. The museum in Auschwitz presents a radically different view of history from that offered years ago. Anyone visiting understands that the primary victims were Jews. If the museum were under Jewish auspices, it would, however, be very different. Still, one must acknowledge that today there is significant Jewish input into what is going on there.

“More attention is also given to the postwar history of the Polish Jews. Non­ Jewish Polish historians have written a number of monographs on the subject. There are many books, magazines, and television programs about Jews, some of which are very outspoken. In serious Polish bookstores, the number of books on Jewish subjects is impressive. For a book to break even it has to be published in editions of several thousands. One can only wonder  who buys all these books. To what extent the average man in the street accepts what is written and shown is hard to say. Those who are reasonably well educated or well read must under­ stand what  happened.

“Yet,” Weinbaum adds, “there is still enormous ignorance around. When I was a student in Poland, about 20 years ago, almost nothing was published about Jews. The subject of Jews was taboo. An American colleague of mine found a Jewish cookbook in a bookshop in the mid-1980s. He was amazed, that  in a country where there were no Jews and no food, such a book was published.”

Europe, Israel – the Future?

“As far as Holocaust education is concerned, the situation has greatly improved, even though much remains to be done. Slowly the knowledge is permeating that there was a major difference between the fate of Jews and that of the Poles during the war. While the Germans intended to kill their intelligentsia and diminish the Poles’ status or turn them into slave-workers, they did not plan to wipe them out. In newly-published history books, the emphasis remains on the suffering of the Poles, but the fate of the Jews is not concealed. Perhaps that is the best we can expect from a book about Poles, by Poles, and for Poles.”

Negative stereotypes of Jews remain deeply ingrained in Polish society. Weinbaum notes: “One example I can relate only as an anecdote, though it seems plausible, supports this very clearly. A German friend, a non-Jew, who crossed Poland on a bicycle trip about 10 years ago, told it to me. He was looking for a place for the night in a small town. A very hospitable schoolteacher who spoke good German invited him to his home and they had a pleasant evening. The conversation turned at a certain point to anti-Semitism and the teacher said: ‘Unfortunately, there are still people in Poland who believe that Jews use blood for making matzoth or wine. How shameful. Everybody knows that the Jews stopped doing that at least a hundred years ago.'”

Weinbaum speculates on what influence Poland’s European Union member­ ship may have on the country’s attitude toward the Jews: “A few years ago one would have thought  this would be positive, as it would bring with it a certain degree of modernity and pluralism. However, considering the rise of anti-Semitism in Western Europe, such membership is unlikely to be a positive influence on Poland, certainly not in this regard.

“I fear it might, on the contrary, backfire and legitimize anti-Semitism again. A major problem in Poland has always been that it was legitimate to be anti­ Jewish. In polite company one could badmouth Jews. In recent years this changed and it was no longer clever to make anti-Semitic remarks in some circles, because it created a negative image.  This may now change  again. In Western Europe, again anti-Semitism,  often camouflaged  in disdain for Israel is rampant.”

But, according to Weinbaum, this happily has not extended to all  Poles: “Today Israel is presented in a better light in the Polish media than it is in Western Europe. There is some sympathy for Israel as a beleaguered country. During the Six-Day War, the communist state media made extreme anti-Israel propaganda and labeled Israel the aggressor. Yet the Polish perception was that the Arabs were trained by Moscow, while Israel was a country populated by Polish Jews. They saw this almost as a proxy war between Poland and Russia, ‘our Jews defeating  their  Arabs.'”

Weinbaum is optimistic that, in the long run, truth cannot be obstructed and a major historical momentum will sweep away the false narratives. He adds: “This is already happening, but the full process may take generations.”

Laurence Weinbaum was born in New York in 1962. He is the director of research at the Institute of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem and a lecturer in history at the College of Judea  and Samaria in Ariel.  He received his B.S. ( Foreign Service) and M.A. ( Russian and East European Area Studies) degrees

from Georgetown University in Washington, D. C., and his Ph.D. ( History ) from Warsaw University, where he studied under the auspices of the Fulbright Scholarship Program. In 1989 he came to Israel. Among his other publications is a monograph on relations between the New Zionist ( Revisionist ) Organization and the Polish government in the late 1930s. He is co-author of Die Jeckes – Deutsche Juden aus  Israel  erzahlen  [ The  Yekkes:  Recollections  of  German  Jews  in  Israel. j ( Cologne: Bohlau Verlag, 2000).

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