The outrage over the joint statement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, was entirely predictable after Poland ran a victory lap by publishing it in major newspapers in Israel and Europe, because the declaration entirely misses the point.
The complex role of Poland in the Holocaust can, in a way, be summed up by story of Simon Srebnik the opening segment of “Shoah,” the seminal documentary by director Claude Lanzmann, who died Thursday at 92.
Srebnik was one of only two survivors of Chelmno, a death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland – the location of all six death camps.
He, along with thousands of other living prisoners in Chelmno, was shot in the head as Soviet troops approached, but the bullet did not kill him.
Thirteen years old at the time, Srebnik was saved by a Polish farmer and treated by a Soviet doctor.
When Srebnik returned to the town of Chelmno 40 years later, the locals remembered him, because of his singing voice, and said they were glad to see him.
They said he looked like a corpse back then, and “they couldn’t help knowing” everything that was happening next door. “The Jews moaned, they were hungry,” one resident said. And yet, although the Chelmno residents knew the Jews were being starved and gassed, they said their suitcases – kept in the local church – were “full of gold,” and “they also had gold in their clothes,” and “valuables.” And the reason the Nazis wanted to kill them is “because they were the richest.”
The antisemitism then ramped up from one nasty trope – the greedy, gold-loving Jew – to another: the Christ-killers. “The Jews condemned the innocent Christ to death,” seemed like a pertinent detail to one, who contended that the rabbi of Chelmno claimed responsibility for Jesus’ death, and said this was punishment. “It was God’s will, that’s all!”
In other words, they were glad to see Srebnik alive – but he deserved to die.
It is understandable why Poland doesn’t like the phrase “Polish Death Camps.” No one wants to be blamed for genocide, even if it’s a geographically, but not politically, accurate term. The motivation for a law punishing people for calling Poland complicit with the Nazis is clear.
As the joint declaration points out, Poland was occupied by the Nazis. Unlike other countries, they didn’t have their own Nazi-collaborating government – the police excepted.
In fact, the Polish government in exile punished Nazi collaborators. Former prime minister Menachem Begin fought against the Axis Powers with the Polish Anders’ Army, which discharged him when he reached Palestine. There are also more Righteous Among the Nations from Poland than anywhere else.
But half of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Polish. The death camps were in Poland. During the Holocaust, in Jedwabne, Poles locked hundreds of Jews in a barn and then burned it - and them - down. There are many stories of Jews who returned to their homes after the war, and were murdered or threatened by Poles, a notable example being the Kielce Pogrom of 1946, which sparked by a blood libel. In 1968, following the Six Day War, the Polish government “purged” Jews from the military and their jobs, calling them a fifth column and pushing them to leave. Over 20,000 Jews emigrated from Poland in the subsequent years.
The joint statement is mostly accurate, but it skims over these facts, just like the Polish government has, and countless – though not all – Poles have.
Six months ago, I inadvertently gained notoriety in Poland, to the point that a study in Makor Rishon found a couple of days in which mine was the most-searched Israeli name in Poland, even more than Netanyahu or Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who vociferously opposes the Polish Holocaust censorship law. The reason was that I tweeted “Polish Death Camps” as many times as would fit in one tweet, to protest the censorship and distortion of history.
SINCE THEN, I have faced an interminable wave of social media harassment that ebbs and flows with the news about Israel-Poland relations. I’ve interacted with some wonderful journalists and other people from Poland, who may not fully agree with my position, but respect it, and I’ve heard from far more, thousands upon thousands of people, in the Chelmno vein. We didn’t do it, but you Jews deserved it – over and over and over again.
On Thursday evening, one Jakub Garbowski tweeted to me: “This statement...says that we didn’t created (sic) death camps. You know that, but you wrote it because you are propagandist of ‘Holocaust industry.’” That’s another version of a tweet that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since it bastardized my favorite Broadway musical months ago: “There’s no business like Shoah business.”
I’m not asking for pity. I’ve become adept at using the mute button. But I’ve become somewhat of an expert at the excuses Poland make for trying to whitewash history.
Nazis killed millions of non-Jewish Poles too. There were Jewish kapos, or “Jewish perpetrators,” as Morawiecki called them. Poland was taken over by communists after World War II. There were Jewish communists.
All of these statements are true. None of them address the actual problem.
By highlighting the incredibly courageous Poles who saved Jews and dwarfing those who savagely murdered Jews, the prime minister’s statement is technically accurate, but misses the point of why this outrage broke out in January and continues to simmer in July.
And comparing “anti-Polonism” to antisemitism is ludicrous. Who’s being assaulted on the street for being Polish in 2018? Meanwhile, antisemitism in word and in violent deed is on the rise.
Taken as a whole, the statement validated much of the dominant Polish narrative. And that’s in exchange for only adjusting, not canceling the Polish Holocaust law.
This begs the question of why Netanyahu agreed to all this.
It’s become clear in recent years that Netanyahu engaged in total realpolitik when it comes to Israel’s foreign relations.
After what has apparently been months of negotiations with Poland, the son of a historian apparently decided to compromise on history, in exchange for continuing good diplomatic and trade ties with Poland.
Netanyahu boasts that Israel’s position in the world has grown stronger and stronger under his leadership, and he’s right about that.
Some have pointed out that this statement with Morawiecki comes on the heels of a series of gestures toward authoritarian leaders.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party has been accused of fanning antisemitism and who has taken steps to limit freedoms for his citizens, is visiting this month. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who comes off as a cartoon villain writ large, comparing himself to Hitler, claiming to have thrown a man out of his helicopter, and pushing for extrajudicial killings of criminals, is also planning to stop by. A delegation from Myanmar, which the UN and US State Department say is ethnically cleansing its Rohingya Muslim minority, was in Israel Thursday.
Still, there’s a limit to the amount of self-flagellation Israel can engage in when the rest of the world isn’t really cutting ties with these countries or punishing them in any serious way.
A small country like Israel, isolated from most of its region and facing threats on all sides, can’t be too picky when it comes to building ties, even if it leaves a bad taste in our mouths.
So where should the line be drawn? For the one and only Jewish state, antisemitism is a good place to start taking a strong stand, as is the Holocaust.
That stand doesn’t have to be cutting diplomatic relations, but Israel cannot compromise on the truth here. Israel has a moral imperative not to let the world shrug off the scourge of antisemitism, past or present.
As Lanzmann wrote in his autobiography: “I did not make ‘Shoah’ in response to revisionists and Holocaust deniers: one does not debate with such people.”