Your editorial of Aug. 19 entitled “Does history matter?” recounts some of the terrain of recent right-wing Polish political machinations against an open, self-critical approach to Shoah research and discourse in the country. It is sad, unfortunate and, I dare say, stupid of many Polish politicians to think that avoiding rigorous debate will somehow improve the standing of Poland and Polish culture internationally.
I am a proud Polish Canadian, raised in an amazing, secular Catholic family, and now for the last decade-and-a-half (officially, anyway): a Jew. I love the choice I made and I love Judaism, however the world does look very odd from where I stand. I am often too Jewish for Poles and too Polish for Jews.
An artist by schooling and a software engineer by profession, I am not an historian. However, I have to be one just to muddle through my own life. Poland has always been a cultural floodplain between great powers. Most Poles, perhaps like most Israelis, have to be very finely tuned both to history and to current geopolitical rumblings. To be otherwise would be existentially precarious. Because of my conversion to Judaism, a significant portion of the last two decades of my life has been spent studying topics relating to Polish Jewish history, Polish/Jewish relations, Israeli history and contemporary Polish politics (especially as they relate to Israel, the diaspora and the history of the Shoah).
It is quite exhausting to sit between two communities that I love very much (the now thinly overlapping Polish and Jewish Venn diagram) and have to read occasional inaccuracies, such as the one sadly published in your fine publication in an otherwise excellent text.
When your editorial asserted that Poland is “the society that bears more blame for complicity with the Nazis than any other,” I got quite angry. It is simply not true. This claim is pernicious misinformation that Poles regularly have to dissipate. It is not true on the level of governance, nor is it true on the level of day-to-day street life at the time. Poland was the only Allied force to fight Germany from the very first day of the war to the very last. It never surrendered to Germany as did France. It never made any secret collaborative pacts with Germany as did Russia. Poland knew that Germany was planning the Shoah and it shared solid evidence with Allied command as early as 1942. That the Allies did not act upon this is another story.
Poland was a massive net contributor to the Allied war effort. One source I read suggested that over half of British wartime intelligence reports came from Polish field agents. The Polish army was very active outside of Poland as a key member of the Allied forces during the war, commanded from their government-in-exile in London. The Polish army under General Wladyslaw Anders in fact made a famous march all the way to Israel, where its Jewish soldiers were offered the option of decommissioning and settling down there. The Polish resistance effort was also very active throughout the war throughout occupied Polish territory, where they applied lethal punishments upon those who collaborated with the Germans – matching the brutality that the Germans applied to any Pole who provided shelter to their Jewish neighbours. It was a dangerous time for everyone.
To your editorial’s point about Poland’s historical reputational ranking, I submit here a few other societies that “bear more blame for complicity with the Nazis” than Poland: Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovakian, Danish, Finnish, Burmese, Thai, Iraqi, Russian, French. Oh, and German.
Perhaps some of these are debatable, others much less so. I certainly agree with your editorial that history is important and should be open to public argument.
We live in different times today. To remember is important and we must remember well, but we must also be nimble enough not to get stuck in the ruts of history. One of my favourite Polish Jews, Shimon Peres, once said: “don’t be like us. Be different…. I have very little patience for history. I believe that to imagine is more important than to remember.” In that vein, I would like to echo the words of another Polish Jew I admire. Julian Tuwim, one of Poland’s best writers. He dared imagine: “I believe in a future Poland in which that star of your armbands will become the highest order bestowed upon the bravest among Polish officers and soldiers. They will wear it proudly upon their breast next to the old Virtuti Militari.”
I, too, believe in a future Poland. With criticism, I imagine that it could be something very good indeed.