20 December 2010
The following article was first published by the 'Canadian Jewish News'.
Poland: A tale of two monuments
By Laurence Weinbaum
In 1938, following a meeting with Adolf Hitler, Poland’s ambassador to Germany Jozef Lipski, minuted his minister back home, that the Führer had spoken of solving the Jewish problem in Poland and Central Europe through mass emigration, "I told him," wrote the Polish diplomat, "that if he finds such a solution we will erect him a beautiful monument in Warsaw."
A short time later, Hitler and his countrymen solved the Jewish problem in Poland not through mass emigration but through mass murder. To be sure, there were not a few Poles who saw the Final Solution as the only beneficial aspect of an otherwise horrific occupation that ravaged their country, and some even lent a hand in the killing and plunder- even as other Poles, though far fewer in number, and at risk of their lives, sought to rescue their Jewish neighbors from certain death. Through it all, Poles had fought the Germans ferociously from the first day of the war to the last and paid an enormous price in blood and property.
After the war, and groaning under a hated regime imposed by Moscow, Poles did not build a monument to Hitler, yet many were satisfied that the Jews had disappeared from the landscape. Indeed, in successive years they did their part to ensure that the remaining Jewish remnant was successively diminished, whether through acts of antisemitism at the grassroots level and also in the corridors of power.
Over time even the memory of Jews was consigned to oblivion, excised from public consciousness and kept out of the history books — even as Poles slept in Jewish houses, ate off Jewish china, played Chopin on Jewish pianos and rocked their babies in Jewish cribs.
In the middle of October a group of Jewish intellectuals and activists was invited to Warsaw to take part in a conference organized by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs devoted to public diplomacy and Polish-Jewish relations. The exchange of ideas was free and frank and the Polish hosts could not have been more hospitable, nor more sensitive to Jewish concerns. There is no doubt that in the twenty years that have elapsed since the collapse of Communism, a new Poland has emerged — one in which the preservation of Jewish memory is considered a national priority, and is expressed in innumerable, and often unexpected and moving, ways.
Beyond the memory of the ever-present dead Jews, there are also live ones. In fact, one would be hard pressed today to find another Jewish community of its size as vibrant as that which exists in Poland. As the Warsaw mathematician and philosopher Stanislaw Krajewski, who did so much to revitalize the Jewish life asserts, these are “Polish-Polish Jews” (as opposed to Polish Jews living outside Poland) and are deeply rooted in the culture and country of their birth.
To be sure, as in the rest of the world, anti-Semitism has not disappeared. Just days after the end of the conference, an act of verbal violence, in which one professor at the Maria Curie Skladowska University labeled another "You Jewess!" was the talk of Lublin. Yet the very fact that such an incident was front-page news, and that some of the students reacted forcefully says much about the new ambiance in Poland.
Another example is the one-woman campaign against a bookshop in a Warsaw church basement purveying anti-Jewish screeds. Largely thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Zuzanna Radzik, a modern-day Polish heroine who began her struggle in 2001 when she was but eighteen years old, the Antyk bookshop was finally and unceremoniously ejected from the church premises.
Today, despite the existence in certain quarters of negative views about Jews, anti-Semitism is considered boorish and even shameful — at least in polite society. Moreover, no other post-Communist society has even come close to confronting its own culpability (whether through acts of commission or omission) and many of those countries bear considerably greater responsibility for Jewish suffering than Poland does. Today, whatever its shortcomings — including its failure to conclusively deal with the issue of Holocaust-era Jewish property — it is Poland that is Israel’s staunchest friend in Europe.
Paradoxically, until very recently, it was widely believed that Poland’s entry into the EU would actually strengthen the civil and pluralistic model of civil society and reduce anti-Semitism — and the Polish-born scholar Joanna Michlic claimed as much in her recent book on the evolution of anti-Jewish hatred. Strange to relate, a case can be made that positive developments in Poland have taken place despite what is going on in the EU and not because of it. Certainly, where relations with the Jewish state are concerned, the Western European paradigm is not one that we would want to see replicated in Poland or anywhere else for that matter.
On the last day of the conference, we were taken to see the site of the magnificent new museum of Polish Jewry that is under construction in Muranow — the vast housing estate that arose on the ground where the ghetto once stood, the place in which the most dramatic act in the history of the Jews of Warsaw was played out. The strikingly modern edifice, the work of two little-known Finnish architects, has largely been financed by the government of Poland and the city of Warsaw — and faces the emblematic 1948 ghetto monument built by Natan Rapoport.
Presumably, most of the visitors to the new museum, and certainly the school children, will know nothing about a very different monument that had once been contemplated...
Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, 48, is the chief editor of the 'Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs' and executive director of the Institute of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem. Together with a Polish historian he has written a book, forthcoming, on the Revisionist underground movement in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was a guest of the Polish Foreign Ministry.
We welcome any comments you may have on this article.
Comments are moderated and we reserve the right to edit or remove any which are derogatory or offensive.
The WJC is not responsible for the content of any comments.
Subscribe to our newsletter.