The Museum of Polish Jews in Warsaw can play an important role
Filip Mazurczak talks to Professor Anthony Polonsky, the vice-president of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford and of the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Professor Polonsky is also the chief historian of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Filip Mazurczak: In 1968, Poland’s communist leader Władysław Gomułka started an anti-Semitic campaign, purging public life of Poles with Jewish origins. A dozen or so years later, the Israeli prime minister generated controversy by saying that “all Poles suck anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” This year, the Knesset was in session for the first time abroad in Poland and is now a strong ally of Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu says he feels at home in Warsaw. Is the age of political bad feelings between Warsaw and Tel Aviv over?
Antony Polonsky: Poland is one of the strongest supporters of Israel in the European Union and this is much appreciated in Tel Aviv. Cultural relations between Poland and Israel are also much closer. One would like to see more cooperation between the relevant authorities in the two countries on the content and itinerary of “Holocaust pilgrimages” in Poland, such as the March of the Living. Some progress has been made in this area but much more could be done. I believe an important role can be played by the Museum of Polish Jews in Warsaw, whose permanent exhibition is to open at the end of October 2014.
There is now a clearer understanding that the mass murder of the Jews during the Second World War was initiated and for the most part carried out by the Nazi regime in Germany and by the German people who largely followed its lead. It is also understood that the reason for siting death camps on Polish soil is that this was where most of European Jewry was to be found. In addition, it was far from the front and also away from Germany and Western Europe.
Professor Antony Polonsky
After the Second World War, a wave of anti-Jewish violence struck Poland, with 500 to 2,000 casualties. Sociologist Jan Gross believes anti-Semitism sparked this, while Marek Edelman, a veteran of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, claimed this was “pure banditry” that had little in common with ethnic hatred. What, in your opinion, unleashed this?
The violence was the result of a number of factors and “pure banditry” certainly played a role. More important was the fact hat the war didn’t bring an end to anti-Semitism or seriously compromise anti-Semitic ideology. The Nazis persecuted the Polish radical Right, the main supporters of anti-Semitism in Poland, as fiercely as they did all other manifestations of Polish resistance to their rule. In addition, anti-Semitism was deliberately encouraged by the Nazis and intensified by the long-standing identification of Jews with communism. This was reinforced by the belief in extensive Jewish collaboration with the Soviet occupying authorities in eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941, and by the presence of a number of people of Jewish origin in prominent positions in the post-war government.
In these circumstances, old superstitions could take on a new incarnation. The worst outbreak of anti-Jewish violence took place in Kielce in July 1946, when the 200 survivors of the pre-war community of around 18,000 were attacked by an angry mob, incited by rumors that a Christian boy had been abducted by the Jews, who needed his blood because their wartime experiences had left them anemic, a scientific update of the blood libel. In the ensuing mayhem forty-two Jews were murdered and another thirty were murdered in the vicinity of the town. There seems to be no way of establishing accurately the number of Jews murdered directly after the war. The present state of research confirms that 650-750 Jews perished in this way, but there were probably many more tragic incidents of which no written evidence has survived. Feliks Tych, former Director of the Żydowski Instytut in Warsaw estimates the number killed as around 2,000. I agree with him.
Over a decade has passed since it was revealed that peasants killed hundreds of their Jewish neighbours in the village of Jedwabne in 1941. Are Poles today more willing to admit to past wrongdoings against their Jewish countrymen?
Polish opinion is divided on this matter. One section of society accepts the self-critical approach to the Polish past and to anti-Jewish violence against Jews; another is more apologetic, seeking to explain or excuse such actions. It is my impression that the first group is at present in the ascendancy.
Poland has been a free country for twenty-five years and is a member of the EU and NATO. There has been much more contact with the West and, as a result, a better understanding of the Polish reality. The slow process of Poland’s coming to terms with its anti-Semitic past has also been appreciated in the West. Poland, in this respect is a model to the other countries of Eastern Europe.
During the Second World War, the Polish Home Army was suspicious of the Jewish Fighting Organization for its leftist tendencies, yet was friendlier towards the pro-Polish, conservative Jewish Military Union. Poland’s communist elites suppressed memory of the latter and celebrated the former. A quarter century after communism, has much previously obscured material become available to scholars of Polish Jewish history?
This a complex question and is the subject of an important monograph in Polish by Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum, Bohaterowie, hochsztaplerzy, opisywacze. Wokół Zydowskiego Związku Wojskowego (Warsaw: Stowarzyszenia Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, 2011). They show that, almost from the moment the fighting stopped, the history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May of 1943 has been politicized and instrumentalized. They show the role of the Jewish National Committee (Żydowski Komitet Narodowy – ŻKN), an umbrella organization which included most of the Jewish political groupings in Warsaw, with the exception of the Revisionists. The ŻKN was stressed at the expense of the somewhat smaller but equally militant Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy – ŻZW) and the youth movement Betar, which had their ideological roots in the Revisionist movement led by the Russian-born Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, a strong advocate of Jewish self-defense, until his death in 1940.
At times, too, among the revisionists in Israel and some in Poland who attempted to exaggerate their role in providing assistance to the ŻZW, history has also been falsified. The fascinating and path-breaking monograph by Libionka and Weinbaum is, in fact, two books. The first is a detailed examination of the sources to show how this process of falsification and distortion has continued in the seventy years since the uprising, while the second is an attempt to reconstruct the largely neglected history of the Jewish Military Union. I very much hope it will soon be translated into English.
A recent study shows that 0.5% of Poles have similar DNA to Ashkenazi Jews. Although the number of self-identifying Jews living in Poland today is small, do many more Poles have Jewish ancestry?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Rabbi Michael Schudrich estimates the number of Jews in Poland as 30,000 but clearly the number of people with some Jewish ancestry is much greater. I would like to see a scholarly study of the amount of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the nineteenth century and after.
People of Jewish origin continue to play a significant role in Polish life. This cannot really be described as a “Jewish” contribution. At the same time, there has been a revival of Jewish life since 1989.
The Museum of Polish Jews in Warsaw
About thirty distinguished Jews from around the world have proposed building a monument to Polish Righteous Gentiles in Warsaw. What is your position on the monument?
I think it is a question of what sort of monument it would be. I would favour a monument on Ghetto Heroes Square, but one that leads to reflection rather than to apologetics. Perhaps a fountain symbolizing the hope within mankind which the Rescuers evoke.
Jewish travel to Poland is criticized by some for focusing exclusively on the Shoah and ignoring centuries of Polish-Jewish history and culture, as well as for being hermetic and uninterested in Poland’s current inhabitants, Jewish or otherwise. Do you think that the Museum will change this?
My appointment as chief historian of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw is the culmination of more than thirty-five years of work on the history of Jews in Poland and Polish-Jewish relations. This remarkable museum with its striking building, located on the site of the first battle in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of April 1943, will not only make better known the complex history Jews in the Polish lands but will act as a major stimulus to its scholarly investigation in Poland, Europe, Israel, and the rest of the world. I feel very privileged to be part of the Museum team.
It is my certainly hope that this museum will contribute to the preservation and informed appreciation of the history and accomplishments of the Jews of this region and of their descendants all over the world. The Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews and Stalin’s efforts to eradicate their culture ultimately failed. There are still Jews in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and the rich culture the Jews created here remains a source of admiration and inspiration to both Jews and non-Jews, in Poland and across the globe. The Museum will certainly stimulate a much better understanding among both Poles and Jews of the importance of the Jewish past in Poland. Leszek Kołakowski has written: “We study history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.” This is the essential goal of the Museum and one which I am convinced it will be able to achieve.
Anthony Polonsky is the vice-president of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford and of the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also the chief historian of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Prof. Antony Polonsky’s three-volume work “The Jews of Poland and Russia” received the Pro Historia Polonorum Prize by Poland’s Senate in 2012 for the best book on Polish history written in a foreign language in the past five years, and this year he will receive an honorary doctorate from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.