Memory and Guilt: Analyzing Poland’s Diplomatic Feud with Israel

If you’ve ever read “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, you’ll be familiar with the idea that in harsh conditions, when survival is on the line — we become monsters to each other, in a very literal sense. We stop communicating, begin disobeying rules, laws; We’re capable of the most despicable acts of torture, rape, murder, and genocide. But is Golding’s book simply a theory, or a shocking, grim reality of the human condition? After-all, history is painted with examples of this reality. Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of young boys stuck on a deserted island. The island symbolizes a Darwinian environment where morality disappears; a living hell which forces the savage in humans to step out of its cave. We’ve all got a monster hidden in us, and all it needs to become active are the right circumstances. If we are to seek real-world examples of such an Inferno, what better place to start than the hell of wartime, Nazi-occupied Poland?

Recently, the governments of Poland and Israel have been embroiled in a diplomatic conflict over a piece of legislation criminalizing anyone who “publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes.” Some in Israel are accusing Poland of Holocaust-denial and failing to accept partial responsibility; Poland claims it is defending itself and its interests against historically inaccurate phrases such as “Polish death camps” (Obama, in 2012) — which are damaging to its image.

A country which has perhaps endured the horrors of Nazism like no other during the war, Poland is absolutely right to consider itself mainly a victim; The tragic, fragile historical context in which many Poles died resisting the Nazis partly explains why the phrase “Polish death camps” evokes such irritation, and even anger in Poland. These words, uttered by Barack Obama in a 2012 ceremony honouring WW2 veterans, have ever since provoked a sort of moral outrage in the country — and understandably so. The phrase, which has also circulated in Western media, places Poland as a perpetrator rather than victim, almost suggesting that it was its government and population, rather than Nazi-Germany who planned, built and used concentration camps to mass-exterminate Jews (and others i.e Poles, gypsies, the disabled, ‘enemies of the Nazi state etc.) ’” In fact, “Polish death camps” invites the reader/listener to forget the at least 1.9 million (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) ethnic Poles who died in the brutal occupation by the Nazis. It also dishonours the men and women who gave up their lives resisting Hitler. This active resistance was also in opposition to Nazi war-crimes against the Jewish population in Poland: Julian Kulski, Warsaw’s mayor during the war, wrote the following in 1941: “Today’s information bulletin carries the underground announcement that any participation by Poles in anti-Jewish actions is traitorous and will be punishable by death,”.

In fact, more Christian Poles have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations (an award given by the state of Israel for acts of saving Jews from extermination) then any other demographic. You’ll also find plenty of stories online like the one of farmers Jerzy and Irena Kępeć, who provided shelter and hid 30 Jews during the war. Years after the war, the pair would recall in an interview how other villagers helped in different forms, be it “to provide a meal” or keeping “an open secret” to themselves. In the cities, the Polish underground encouraged Poles to help smuggle goods into Jewish ghettos while reports from Armia Krajowa (the Polish Resistance) helped alert the World of the unfolding Holocaust. Yes, Poland as a nation was both a victim and an active resistor to the Nazis. It is right to oppose narratives claiming or suggesting the contrary.

But there’s always a darker side to a story. Although 6,706 Christian Poles (far more than any other ethnic demographic) have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel, there were those who collaborated with and helped Hitler’s twisted vision of genocide. Edward Reinald, a Polish individual wrote the following letter to a Jewish family in November 1940: “On the basis of accurate investigation, we have determined the truth about your Semitic origins. In view of the above, we request that you deliver to the bearer of this note the sum of 2,000 zlotys) in a sealed envelope. … In return, we will destroy the incriminating evidence that is in our possession. Otherwise, we will immediately hand over the evidence to the German authorities.”. The Jedwabne massacre in the summer of 1941 when Poles burned several hundred of their Jewish neighbours alive is another case in point. Such acts of blackmail, collaboration, and murder were fueled by the horrific environment of wartime Poland. But they prove that perhaps dividing an entire, multi-million population into black and white categories of victim and perpetrator isn’t quite the rational, objective approach such a serious topic merits.

Nor is it sensible in the long-term for the Polish government to tackle the false-image of perpetrator in legal terms. There are other ways to tackle this problem. Yes, the law does refer to falsely blaming the entire Polish state for the Holocaust as its main motivation. However, it could potentially give the government a legal loophole to label any research, assertion or argument blaming Polish individuals/institutions as an attack on the Polish nation as a whole. This could, in turn, intimidate journalists, academics and politicians from pursuing arguments contrary to the Polish government’s position. Despite the outrage in Poland being understandable and justified, it almost seems like the government is using historical revisionism as a tool to advance its nationalistic agenda. The result thus far has been a diplomatic spat with Israel, and a deterioration of relations with the Jewish state’s “Big Brother” — The United States. With both sides unwilling to compromise, there seems no end in sight to the dispute.

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