Saturday, February 5, 2011

Jews' Defense of Poland

Berek Joselewicz by Juliusz Kossak 

Many Jews, in Poland and in the US, have worked very hard for Poland, and to correct false impressions of Poland. Below are just a few examples.

Rabbi Dov Ber Meisels (1798-1870) was a Polish patriot. He was arrested by the occupying czarist authorities and sent, in chains, to Russia for his patriotic activity. Michal Landy, a rabbinical seminary student, was participating in a demonstration for Polish independence on April 12, 1861. His fellow protestor was shot, and dropped the cross he had been carrying. Landy retrieved the cross and marched with it before being shot to death by a Cossack. Landy's heroic gesture served as partial inspiration for Cyprian Kamil Norwid's (1821-1883) important poem "Zydowie Polscy," or "Polish Jews." More recently, Dr. Janusz Korczak, who had suffered professionally from the anti-Semitism in interwar Poland, donned his Polish army uniform when he participated in Warsaw's response to Nazi bombing in September, 1939. These famous heroes and others like them are often invoked as symbolic of active Jewish service to Poland and the cause of Polish-Jewish relations.
Rabbi Meisels

Adam Michnik is a worthy successor to figures like Meisels and Landy. He was a key leader of the Polish movements that overthrew the Soviet Empire; subsequently he served as editor-in-chief of the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza (Sadler). In April, 1991 he gave a speech addressing anti-Semitism in Poland. The following excerpts are from the transcript.

"I can assure you that in Poland there are many people who have such courage [to condemn anti-Semitism]. There are in fact large numbers of them. I'll say more; these are the people who create the authentic, cultural values of Polish democracy and make up its spiritual core. Relations between Poles and Jews are still burdened by two stereotypes -- one Polish, and the other Jewish ... which says that each Pole imbibes anti-Semitism with his mother's milk; that Poles share the responsibility for the Holocaust; that the only thing worth knowing about Poland is just that -- that Poles hate Jews...I have always perceived anti-Semitism as a form of anti-Polonism; and, listening to Jewish accusations of Polish anti-Semitism, I've always felt solidarity with the great part of Polish public opinion that in every historical period was capable of opposing clearly, bravely and unambiguously the successive campaigns of hatred. Among my friends, one thing was always clear: Anti-Semitism is the name of hatred. But it was also clear to us that the stubborn categorization of Poland as an anti-Semitic nation was used in Europe and America as an alibi for the betrayal of Poland at Yalta. The nation so categorized was seen as unworthy of sympathy, or of help, or of compassion" (Michnik, "Plague").

A similarly stunning deflation of the Bieganski stereotype was delivered in the August-September 1983 issue of
Midstream, a Monthly Jewish Review. Polish-born author Henryk Grynberg mounted a sustained deconstruction of the Bieganski stereotype in his article "Is Polish Anti-Semitism Special?" "The common phrase 'traditional Polish anti-Semitism' is a platitude with very little historical justification," Grynberg asserted.

American scholar Harold B. Segel wrote:

As they are asked [about supposed responsibility for the Holocaust] the Poles find themselves newly victimized. Despite the magnitude of their own losses in the war, the Poles have had to live the later nightmare of suspicion of collusion in the Holocaust ... this second victimization ... fails to confront the realities of the German occupation for the Poles themselves (Segel,
Strangers 1-2).

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is just the most prominent of many Jews who have stated that Nazis placed concentration camps in Poland because the Poles would help them carry out the Holocaust. Peter Novick accurately deflated that canard: "Strip mines aren't located in West Virginia because of the local residents' failure to appreciate the beauty of unspoiled landscapes; that's where the coal is, as Poland was where most of the Jews were" (Novick 223).

Jerzy Kosinski was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust with the aid of Polish non-Jews. His novel
The Painted Bird has had huge impact in disseminating an image of Poland as a primitive, hateful place. It dramatizes the trials of a young boy in a thoroughly debased World-War-II-era Poland. Later in his life, Kosinski publicly expressed awareness of his book's reception. He began to speak of Poland with fondness and admiration and to harshly criticize Jews, especially American Jews, for anti-Polonism (e.g. Kosinski, "Second").

Kosinski repeatedly reminded his readers of "'the unbroken chain of Polish-Jewish relations'" and worked to exonerate Poles from charges of historical anti-Semitism (Gladsky 174). In fact, in the facts he adduces, that Jews found an important historical refuge in Poland unparalleled elsewhere, that Jews enjoyed high status vis-à-vis most Poles, that Poles suffered in World War II, and that his duty is to give expression to the "'Polish soul,'" or, alternately, his "Polish Jewish soul," (Gladsky 174-5; Kosinski "Restoring"), the mature Kosinski sounded very much like many non-Jewish Poles engaged in Polish-Jewish relations, the kind of Poles who are routinely denounced by anti-Polonists as essentially nationalistic, chauvinistic, and beyond the reach of the rational.

Eva Hoffman openly declared that her book
Shtetl was written to deconstruct anti-Polonism. Hoffman reported that her family did have "to escape hostile local peasants" but that they ultimately survived the Holocaust thanks to help from Poles. Some family members died as a result of betrayal by Jews. "My aim is not to absolve any more than it is to condemn," she wrote, "but it is, at the very least, to complicate and historicize this picture" (Shtetl 5-6).

Stanislaw Krajewski, mathematics scholar, Jew, Polish citizen, lectures on Jewish topics to Polish audiences, and visa versa. He also photographs, with his non-Jewish wife, Jewish cemeteries. When asked about a Western "stereotype of Polish anti-Semitism, sustained in popular consciousness by various kinds of publications, in which Poles in great numbers not only betrayed Jews to the Germans, but also assisted in their murder," Krajewski responded, "This greatly disturbs me, and whenever there is an opportunity I try to oppose this stereotype." People in the West can't understand the Holocaust in Poland, he said, "because they don't in general know what terror is." Further, he said, some "Jews throughout the world ... still haven't noticed that the Germans also intended to destroy and enslave the Polish nation."

Krajewski replied that since he is a Jew, "For me it's easier [to oppose anti-Polonism] and I always do it. I feel a responsibility, and besides, I get mad as hell when I hear that, after all, the Germans didn't build concentration camps in Poland without a reason" (Niezabitowska 26). While stating that "anti-Semitism has not disappeared" in Poland, Krajewski said in another interview that "I do not feel threatened in Poland. I have never met with a concrete threat. To give you one example: my wife and I have been traveling all round Poland for years photographing Jewish cemeteries, and not once have I felt threatened. I often tell this to my contemporaries, Jews from the USA, who have been told by their parents that a trip to Polish countryside presents a mortal danger" (Polonsky
Brother's 101).

Given the interpenetration of Polish and Jewish identities, sometimes it is not easy to assign one identity or another to those who oppose anti-Polonism. In 1984 Carmelite nuns moved into an abandoned theater near the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland. Jewish groups began to protest. A Catholic priest living in Israel, Father Daniel, spoke up. "You must understand that there was no anti-Semitic intention in the founding of the convent, no attempt to obliterate the meaning of the Holocaust," he said. Father Daniel went on to voice regret that Jews tend to forget that the Nazis killed three million Poles, including twenty-five percent of all Polish priests. Father Daniel sharply criticized Jewish American protestors at the convent. He called them "adventurers" and trespassers (Shapiro "Convent"). Father Daniel's comments are included here because he was born Oswald Rufeisen, a Jew, near the Polish town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz). He saved other Jews, survived the Holocaust, and eventually converted to Catholicism and became a priest.

Father Romuald Jakub Weksler Waszkinel is a Polish Catholic priest. He reported the discomfort he felt when observing Israeli schoolchildren on a Holocaust tour in Poland eyeing him angrily and defiantly. Father Romuald Jakub reported, "I would like to go up to them and say, 'I suffer in the same way that you are suffering' ... In Israel, wrong things are said about Poland." Given the pervasiveness of the Bieganski stereotype, one might be tempted to dismiss the priest's words as grandiose, even perverse. Father Romuald Jakub, though, lost his birth parents in the Holocaust. He was born a Jew, and was saved from the Holocaust by his Polish Catholic adoptive parents (the Waszkinels, who named him Romuald) at the request of his Jewish birth mother (Mrs. Weksler, who named him Jakub). With the end of Communism, many Poles discovered that they were of partial or total Jewish descent. Father Romuald Jakub understands himself "as the star of David with the cross inserted." Voicing an attitude that might be a motto for all of the Polish Jews who have combated Bieganski, Father Romuald Jakub said, "I am in the middle, and I know that what is needed is contact, understanding, and love" (Cohen, "Priest").

Persons who might be assigned multiple identities and who came to Poland's defense lived in former centuries as well. Jan Czynski (1801-1867) was a Polish Catholic whose ancestors included Polish Jews. His activities included fighting for Poland in the November Rising of 1830. After that uprising failed, Czynski lived out his life in exile in Western Europe. There he continued to work both to reform Poland, to make it a better place for all its inhabitants, and to improving Poland's reputation. Czynski founded journals, wrote novels, and formed organizations, always working toward the goals of increasing amity and cooperation among members of all of Poland's religions and social classes, increasing social justice and freedom in Poland, and countering the negative propaganda about Poland that the partitioning powers were disseminating in the West (Galkowski).

Of course, Jews who have never converted to Catholicism, or whose ancestors did not, have also come to Poland's defense. Elie Wiesel condemned the placement of crosses at Auschwitz. In response, Marek Edelman, at the time of this statement, the sole surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, said, "Poles, too, died in Auschwitz, and it's understandable that they should want to have their monument there. After all, Auschwitz is one giant grave" (Spiewak).

Edelman has denounced anti-Polonism on other occasions. Andrzej Wajda, a Polish filmmaker and winner of an honorary Academy Award for his entire oeuvre, made a laudatory biographic film about Janusz Korczak.
Shoah's director, Claude Lanzmann, was among the prominent Westerners who criticized the film as a typical expression of Polish anti-Semitism. Criticism focused on the final scene, which did not graphically depict the murder of Korczak and his orphans at Treblinka, but, rather, focused on Jewish renaissance in the creation of the state of Israel. Many Jews in Poland approved of this final scene and took strong exception to the film's negative reception outside of Poland. The film was praised in Israel as well. In response to the film's negative reception among Western Jews like Lanzmann, a disgusted Edelman said, "anti-Polish victory of Hitlerism" (Engelberg). Edelman has encountered hostility and contempt from other Jews because of such humanist views. In Israel, he was called a "house Jew" (Klein Halevi). At a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Israeli Prime Minister did not want to appear on the same platform with Edelman (Boyarin 306 ftnt 109).

In addition to the Holocaust, another bone of contention in Polish-Jewish relations is the role played by Jews in the Soviet secret police. Wladyslaw Krajewski, born 1919, was professor emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Warsaw. His father, nee Stein, was exiled to Siberia for his part in the 1905 revolution. While in exile he adopted the name "Krajewski" "out of nostalgia for Poland" (Krajewski "Facts" 94) He reported that,

When my wife and I were in the United States, we also had to argue with those who ascribe anti-Semitism to the Poles en bloc, to the Home Army, and so on ... [re: the role of Jews in the Soviet secret police] Jews are very unwilling to speak about all of this. In general, there is a prevalent stereotype among them, according to which they are always victims (as indeed they usually are). Many people in Israel, and more so in the United States, think that the terror was directed exclusively against the Jews during the German occupation (as indeed it was primarily directed against them). They are unwilling to believe it when they are told that large number of Poles also feel victim to German terror ... Such judgments result in large part from ignorance ... Such things are not said by the few Jews living in Poland, who are better informed about the German occupation of our country ... Auschwitz was originally set up for the imprisonment of Poles; only later were Jews sent there and the crematoria built (Krajewski "Facts" 103-5).

An American of Polish-Jewish descent rose to Poland's defense after a Polish-American scholar's award was withdrawn by the ADL. Dr. Joseph S. Kutrzeba wrote a protest letter to the ADL's national chairman. Dr. Kutrzeba identified himself as

"One who had lived through that infamous period [the Holocaust]; one who has steeped himself in the tragic literature of the era, and who has made two documentary films on the subject, performing a staggering amount of research in the process ... Joseph Kermisch, the eminent historian at Yad Vashem, and a friend of my murdered father, believes that the documented number of Righteous Christians in Poland could approximate 100,000 ... In my own case, it had taken the cooperation of nine persons to save my life, not including some twenty who'd aided me along the way. Only one has been recognized at Yad Vashem. Thus statistics.

"Time and again in my own research, I have encountered or heard about incidents of Christian Poles, not officially documented, who'd risked their live to save Jews. Only last week I came across a case of a former A.K. commander in the Kielce region who'd helped prepare fake I.D.'s for ca. 140 Jews. When asked by his grown son why he had never heard a bout this before form his own father, the latter replied, 'I didn't do this to gain recognition. I did this for my own conscience' ... A number of persons of some stature in the community – including yours truly – have labored for years, without any remuneration, to ameliorate Polish-Jewish relations and to effect a rapprochement between these two historically wedded people. We have worked, at times combating and bemoaning the generalizations uttered in some publications against Poles in general, condemning references such as 'Polish death camps' including some contained even in publications put out by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C." (Kutrzeba).

Another Polish Jew who has labored, on his own initiative, is Roman Solecki. Solecki posts, on the internet, texts of letters he has written protesting anti-Polonism. Below is an excerpt of Solecki's letter to the Simon Wiesenthal Center:

"I looked on your entry about Poland and was upset by: 1. a standing out note that 'anti-Semitism still exists in Poland.' It's true but it's also true regarding other countries including the USA. Why on a page which should show gratitude to those who risked their lives make such a negative comment? 2. On another page you write: 'The Righteous Among the Nations in Poland make up the largest number of such persons recognized by Yad Vashem per country of origin. However, while their absolute numbers might be the largest, by percentage the amount of rescuers from Poland is small indeed.' Why don't you give this number, like you do when referring to other countries? Why don't you explain that Poland was the only country where there was death penalty for helping Jews?

"You possibly compare the fate of Jews in Denmark and Norway (they were helped to escape to neutral Sweden) without realizing that a. the number of Jews in those countries was about 0.1% of total population; b. the distance from Denmark to neutral Sweden at Helsingor (Elsinore) is about 3 miles and that Norway shares with Sweden an over 1000 mile border so that the escape was relatively easy. Poland did not have neighbors willing to accept 3.5 million Jews. The only country that comes to mind, Sweden, was separated from Poland by about 120 miles of Baltic Sea. Even if such a transportation would be logistically possible, and it would be absurd to think so (Poland had a very short sea shore, small number of boats, and a developing economy where majority of people, including Jews were poor or very poor [Dr. Solecki later wrote: "I made a mistake saying: 'Poland had a very short sea shore.' That's true but the access to this seashore was eliminated at the first days of war so every sea transportation from Poland was impossible."], you can't seriously think that Sweden would be willing to increase its population by 50% of poor foreigners ... I urge you to make corrections in your site" (Solecki "Wisenthal").

In 1995, the
New York Times saluted countries that had come to terms with World War II and the Holocaust. On May 4, the Times ran a letter by Monica Strauss that took them to task for their omitting Poland from this coverage. Strauss wrote: "Poland, which only in the post-Communist era has been given the opportunity to re-examine its history, has made a courageous effort, particularly at the grass-roots level, to look at its role in the war and attempt a dialogue with the Jewish community. I myself experienced such an initiative last summer in the small town of Skoczow" Ms. Strauss recorded efforts by a Pole, Jacek Proszyk, to rescue and record Skoczow's Jewish history. She concluded: "For me, the chance to address the people of the town in the name of my father, who had fled more than 50 years before, was an act of healing neither he nor I expected to happen in our lifetimes" (Strauss).

In May, 2001, Israelis from Yad Vashem removed, secretively and without permission, Bruno Schulz murals from a town in Ukraine that had, before World War II, been in Poland. Some letter-writers to the
New York Times defended the removal. One argued that since Poles had not saved Jews during the war, they deserved to be robbed. A Times article argued that Poles were only interested in Jewish culture in order to get money from Jewish tourists (Bohlen). Maya Peretz wrote in to contest this position. Her eloquent letter, quoted in full, below:

"As a child Holocaust survivor from Poland, and a child of a Holocaust survivor, I believe that my mother and I should never forget that we were among thousands of Jews saved by Polish Catholics. Many in our situation seem to have forgotten and repeat the nasty slogans about anti-Semitic Poles.

"Poland today is not a country without Jews, and the revival of Jewish culture there should not be ascribed to desire for profit. We Jews also have an obligation to acknowledge what was done for us, not only to us, and be happy that many Jews who had horrible experiences in Poland may perhaps now not be afraid to admit that they are Jewish.

"Let's not use Bruno Schultz's name to slander the whole Polish nation, from which more rescuers were counted by both Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington than from any other country."
Janusz Korczak


  1. Danusha, thanks for posting this. Too often, we are told that Jewish and Catholic Poles had the worst of all possible relations. Your blog helps to set the story straight.

  2. "Your blog helps to set the story straight."

    If only that were true. But nobody is buying or reading "Bieganski" and very few read the blog.

    Those invested in conflict between Poles and Jews have the microphone.

    John, you are aware, as I am, of the many who kept fighting even though they knew they were doomed. They are my role models. I keep writing even though very few read.

    Your comment is much appreciated.

  3. John: "Too often, we are told that Jewish and Catholic Poles had the worst of all possible relations."

    John, just between you and me, here's part of the history of this material.

    I deleted it from the finished version of "Bieganski" because the book would have been too long otherwise. And it is not original material; I wanted to include quotes by experts attesting to what I knew to be true: Poland is essential to Jews; Jews are essential to Poles; love WAS a factor in Polish-Jewish relations.

    I included this material because many early readers really needed to learn it before they could understand the rest of the book. I was often asked, "Poles and Jews? What do they have to do with each other?"

    Here's how this material was received by one notorious university press' readers. (Notorious because of the shameful way this university press handled the book -- issuing a signed contract and then backing out when they realized that the book was "controversial.")

    They objected strenuously to this compilation of quotes. Why? This compilation of quotes reflected positive interaction between Poles and Jews.

    Apparently my quoting others -- rabbis, scholars, etc -- saying that there had been some positive interaction between Poles and Jews was proof, proof, that I was a typical Polish antisemite with a diabolical agenda.

    It was Alice-through-the-looking-glass time.

    Now, mind, these are not marginal people living in basements. These are tenured scholars. Frothing at the mouth.

    As you know from reading the book, "Bieganski" repeatedly mentions the dark times: Kielce, Jedwabne, Dmowski, the interwar period, etc etc etc, and repeatedly says that there is no excuse for that and that any and all antisemitism needs to be extirpated.

    That wasn't enough. It was enough for these tenured, powerful professors to veto the book for this reason -- because it cited other scholars and rabbis and historians and journalists and memoirists and average people saying:

    1.) I had Jewish friends, and I'm Polish

    2.) I had Polish friends, and I'm Jewish

    3.) Many Jews loved Poland.

    Can't say that. Can't say that. It's taboo.

    The behind the scenes saga of this book's road to publication is an academic grand guignol. Some day when I'm even older than I am now I'll tell it all, probably here on the blog.

  4. First get tenure, if you haven't got it already and a decent salary if you haven't got that already. Then tell the story.

    Why am I not surprised by your experience? The story of your Bob Lamming, Norman Finkelstein is on the same continuum. I am sure there are others.

  5. Peter Rechniewski -- too late.

    No regrets. Telling the truth is more important than living in fear of political pressure.

  6. Danusha, thanks again for this. I was looking for Grynberg's poems online and couldn't find any. Do you have access to some of them?

  7. I do not want to be provocative, but you are not discussing the elephant in the room that for every Pole who risked their lives to save a Jew in the holocaust, there were hundreds who were willing to betray them to the Nazis.

    The biggest danger to the heroic Poles who were willing to save Jews were their fellow Poles who would denounce them to the Nazis.

    New study estimates over half a million Jewish Holocaust victims were murdered by their Polish neighbors.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
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