Poland: Revisionism, Remembrance, Revival

  • July 29, 2016

"...the memories will stay with me long into the future."

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

The 75th Anniversary Commemoration of the Polish Pogrom at Jedwabne

The 75th Anniversary Commemoration of the Polish Pogrom at Jedwabne

In the closing days of my first year on the job as ADL CEO, I selected Poland as the site for my first international ADL leadership mission. Historical events in Poland will forever anchor the country to ADL’s founding purpose -- to protect the Jewish people. And contemporary developments give us cause for new concern.

A small group of ADL’s top national leadership joined me on this trip, including National Chair Marvin Nathan, to pursue three goals: (1) to demonstrate solidarity with the Polish Jewish community in the face of increasing Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitic political speech, (2) to commemorate victims of anti-Semitism, and (3) to witness the inspiring revival of Jewish life in Poland. This was my first visit to Poland – and the memories will stay with me long into the future.

Jedwabne

The urgency of the first goal became even most apparent the day after our visit concluded, when Poland’s Education Minister Anna Zalewska repeatedly refused to acknowledge during a televised interview that Polish citizens were responsible for killing their Jewish neighbors during anti-Semitic pogroms in Jedwabne and Kielce during and after World War II.  The controversy was the top story in the Polish press.

The ADL delegation had attended the 75th anniversary commemoration of the Jedwabne massacre just days earlier. Together with Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, leaders of the Polish Jewish community, and painfully few others, we mourned the hundreds of Jews, murdered by their Polish Catholic neighbors on July 10, 1941, while the town was under Nazi occupation. Most of the Jews were forced into a barn, which was then set on fire.

At the Jedwabne memorial with ADL National Chair Marvin Nathan

At the Jedwabne memorial with ADL National Chair Marvin Nathan

The events of the Jedwabne pogrom were largely unknown until 2001. While centrist Polish leaders have apologized to the Jewish community for the massacre, Polish nationalists have rejected Polish responsibility. They contend that accusations of Polish responsibility are smears against Poland’s reputation. The recent rise of the far-right in Poland led to the election in October 2015 of the Law and Justice party, some of whose government ministers had caused us deep concern, even before Education Minister Zalewska’s comments.

While the small Jewish community in Poland has suffered very few anti-Semitic incidents, the political atmosphere has noticeably changed in Poland with increasing anti-Semitic rhetoric on the far-right.  The controversy over Jedwabne is its symbol.  The week we were there a major news magazine, W Siece, put on its cover a burning barn and the headline, “Jedwabne: We need to investigate anew.”

Polish Paper

Speaking at the Jedwabne commemoration, in front of a small memorial on the site of the barn, moved me as much as anything else I have done in my first year at ADL. It was an incredibly powerful moment. I pledged on behalf of ADL to remember the victims, to protect that memory from distortion by those who would re-write history for their own political purposes, and to stand in solidarity with the current Jewish community against the challenges they face.

Speaking at the Jedwabne commemoration, July 10

Speaking at the Jedwabne commemoration, July 10

The next day we met with government leaders, including Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, and told them directly of our concerns. We expressed appreciation for President Andrzej Duda’s remarks at the commemoration of the Kielce pogrom, where he said “there is no room for anti-Semitism” in Poland and acknowledged that “ordinary [Polish] people were involved in the attack.”  But, we noted that no senior government official had condemned the burning of an effigy of a Hassidic Jew at a far-right demonstration just weeks after Law and Justice came to power.  We were disappointed in Foreign Minister Waszczykowski’s dismissive attitude toward the issue.

The ADL delegation meeting with Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski and ministry officials

The ADL delegation meeting with Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski and ministry officials

We reminded Minister Waszczykowski that ADL has been a leading voice against the defamatory phrase “Polish death camps” (which should be “Nazi death camps”), and we expected Poland’s leaders to speak out against anti-Semitic rhetoric or incidents to demonstrate that anti-Semitism is unacceptable in Poland.  Given the pervasive belief in Jewish stereotypes among the Polish public, as shown in ADL’s Global 100 survey, we underscored the importance of such condemnations.  From the Foreign Ministry, we left for Krakow and our visit the following day to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz

At Auschwitz, after a long tour of horrors, we stood in front of a pit where ashes from the crematoria were dumped by the Nazis as they implemented the Final Solution. We said Kaddish, but nothing else other than silence seemed appropriate. No other moment in the past year has so viscerally reinforced my commitment to ADL’s mission.

The ash pit and a destroyed crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Past National Chair Glen Lewy and National Commissioner Michael Sheetz.

The ash pit and a destroyed crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Past National Chair Glen Lewy and National Commissioner Michael Sheetz.

ADL’s education programs present our Pyramid of Hate with genocide at its apex. I had just seen another pyramid of hate, a mountain of shoes taken from thousands of Jews murdered over the course of just a few hours.

Shoe Exhibit - Poland

ADL National Chair Marvin Nathan at the shoe exhibit in Auschwitz

ADL National Chair Marvin Nathan at the shoe exhibit in Auschwitz

Pondering a cattle car at Auschwitz-Birkenau, I thought about Elie Wiesel, the unsurpassed master of bearing witness, who must have arrived at this spot in one just like it.  His passing on July 2 bereaved us all.

ADL delegation at Auschwitz-Birkenau in front of a cattle car used for deportations.

ADL delegation at Auschwitz-Birkenau in front of a cattle car used for deportations.

Krakow

The Jewish Community Center of Krakow is an hour from Auschwitz by car and couldn’t be farther by nature. The JCC is a scene of Jewish revival and of optimism. Jewish identity is celebrated, and young Poles with Jewish roots are affiliating with their heritage. Under the impressive leadership of its Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein, the JCC offers opportunities for all to connect, to learn, and to create community.

JCC-Poland

Over a delightful dinner, the ADL delegation heard from young men and women who are intent on rebuilding Krakow’s Jewish community.  The food itself – homemade, fresh and kosher – symbolized the community’s ethos of renewal. But their words made an even deeper impression on our group.  Though the community is very small, their sense of commitment bodes well for the future.

JCC-Poland-2

ADL’s Continuing Mission

Krakow is the home to the Jewish Culture Festival, attended by 20,000 people each year, and we saw minimal security at Jewish institutions in the city.  However, we know Krakow is not an oasis devoid of anti-Semitism. ADL can support the development of these small communities in Krakow, Warsaw, and elsewhere in Poland by keeping up the pressure on elected officials, law enforcement, and civil society leaders to speak out against anti-Semitism, to take legal action when appropriate, and in general to make clear to the Jewish community that they are equal members of Polish society, entitled to the same protections and respect as all other Polish citizens.

Through our regular conversations with leaders of the Polish Jewish community and with anti-racism watchdogs like the NEVER AGAIN Association, ADL can respond to concerns in solidarity and cooperation.  On this leadership mission, ADL’s leaders and local community leaders faced challenging issues together and at the end raised glasses l’chaim, to life. It should always be so.

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