“Facts are stubborn things,” sighed Antony Polonsky, a Brandeis University historian regarded as one of the pre-eminent experts on 20th century Poland and Polish-Jewish relations.
As Polonsky, a South African-born Jew of Lithuanian origin, reflected on the nation he has studied methodically and visited frequently since the mid-1960s, he lamented that the past, that jumbled accumulation of convenient and inconvenient facts, has been a source of contention between Poles and Jews for at least 60 years.
“Since 1945, Poles and Jews have been divided, above all, by their diametrically opposed and incompatible views of a shared but divisive past,” he told a conference here recently marking the 20th anniversary of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada.
In an interview, Polonsky – a scholar whose books, monographs and editorship of the journal Polin have shed light on Poland – ascribed the clashing views to an absence of mutual trust, which, he observed, was largely destroyed by a series of acrimonious events from Polish independence in 1918 to the present day.
Let us count the mutual grievances.
Poles have not forgotten that Jews welcomed the Red Army invasion of eastern Poland in 1939 and collaborated on a large scale with the Soviet occupiers. That accusation rings true, but Jews maintain that Soviet domination, for all its warts, was preferable to Nazi genocidal brutality.
Poles harbour bitterness over the disproportionate number of Jews who actively participated in the country’s postwar pro-Soviet Communist regime, and particularly in its repressive security apparatus. It is true that some Jews regarded Communism as an integrative force in a society rife with anti-Semitism, yet the vast majority of Jews were definitely not Communists.
Jews, for their part, recite a long litany of incidents that, they argue, set the tone for Polish-Jewish relations: the anti-Jewish violence that accompanied Poland’s attainment of independence after World War I, the intensification of anti-Semitism following the death of Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski in 1935, the widespread indifference of Poles to Jewish victimization during the Holocaust, the outbreak of pogroms in the wake of World War II, and the eruption of a state-sponsored anti-Zionist propaganda campaign that surfaced after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War and mutated into a full-blown anti-Semitic purge in 1968, resulting in the mass emigration of assimilated Jews from Poland.
Polonsky – whose books range from Politics in Independent Poland to The Great Powers and the Polish Question 1941-1945 – believes that the nadir in Polish-Jewish relations was reached in the period from 1944 to 1947, when Poland was occupied by the Nazis and then made the transition from capitalism to Communism. This was an era characterized by Nazi incitement, country-wide pogroms (of which the pogrom in Kielce was the most glaring example), a civil war that pitted nationalists against Communists and Jewish demands for the return of confiscated property.
Polish-Jewish relations were also battered between 1935 and 1939, when economic boycotts were launched against Jews and so-called ghetto benches were introduced at Polish universities. But even during these dark days, liberal Polish forces opposed such trends, Polonsky points out. As for the period from 1967 onward, Polonsky said, “Anti-Semitism had more support among Poles than one would like to believe.” Yet broadly speaking, Poles were more anti-Russian and anti-Soviet than anti-Semitic, he noted.
The burning issue that sets Poles and Jews apart today is the restitution of personal property, which is really both a Jewish and a Christian problem. “I want to see this issue resolved,” said Polonsky, ”but you need a very strong Polish government to do this. I don’t see why the Poles can’t deal with it.” Yet, drawing on a historical analogy, he is far from optimistic that all claimants will be satisfied, even in the event of a fairly equitable solution. “How many nobles in France got back their land after the French Revolution? None.”
Polonsky, however, is heartened by the fact that Poles are now willing to honestly examine “thorny and difficult” problems associated with the past. This attitude stems from a growing interest in Poland’s Jewish minority, which formed almost 10 per cent of its population on the eve of 1939 and constituted one of the most important communities in the Diaspora.
“There is a certain fascination with and nostalgia for Jewish culture in Poland today,” he said. “It has something to do with the longing for Poland’s pre-war multi-ethnic diversity.”
Poland’s “rediscovery” of Polish Jews occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s. Enrolment for lectures at universities on the history of Polish Jews surpassed expectations. Books on Jewish topics were snapped up. Plays on Jewish themes sold out.
“Similarly, at that time, the Catholic church and the opposition began to sponsor weeks of Jewish culture, during which school children and university students attended lectures on Jewish subjects and participated in the restoration of Jewish cemeteries. Catholic monthlies like Znak and Wiez devoted whole issues to Jewish topics, a phenomenon that has continued since the end of Communism in 1989. One of its most striking manifestations has been the enormously popular annual Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow.”
Under the impact of these developments, and a greater sense of self-esteem among Poles following the rise of the Solidarity trade union movement, Poles were no longer as hesitant to scrutinize touchy historical issues.
As Polonsky put it, “There was more of a willingness to examine the more controversial aspects of the Polish past and to consider more critically how Poles had treated the other peoples alongside whom they had lived, namely Jews and Ukrainians.”
In league with these developments, Poland’s younger generation voiced a growing feeling of shame over the events of 1968. “The realization set in that one of the consequences of those years, during which Polish society had allowed itself to be manipulated by crude anti-Semitic slogans, was to deprive Poland of most of what remained of its Jewish intelligentsia.”
Taking notice of what had happened in Poland, Jewish and Polish organizations in the United States established a task force “to overcome misunderstanding and promote mutual respect.” Out of this emerged an academic conference at Columbia University on the theme of “Poles and Jews: Myths and Reality in the Historical Context.”
Further conferences followed, culminating with a Hebrew University symposium attended by more than 300 scholars, including 80 from Poland. “This sequence of conferences created a new situation,” said Polonsky, who lately has been working on a three-volume history of Jews in Poland and Russia from 1350 onward.
“It created an international cadre of scholars interested in Polish Jewish history and provided them with a forum in which they could express their views.”
Thanks to these events, he observed, Poles and Jews may well be positioned to improve their historic relationship. “Apologetics will increasingly be replaced by careful and detailed research and reliable, nuanced first-hand testimony. It should be possible to move beyond strongly held competing and incompatible narratives of the past and reach some consensus that will be acceptable to people of goodwill and will bring about a degree of normalization both in Poles’ attitudes to the past and Polish-Jewish relations.”