An opinion on a dispute concerning the amendment of the Act on IPN

Thursday, 1 March 2018

When too many words have been said and raised emotions predominate, both Poles and Jews should take a deep breath. And then go back to the dialogue based on mutual respect, trust and truth. We are not enemies, but partners, allies and friends.

For several weeks now, the amendment of the Act on IPN, opposed, amongst the others, by the Israel government and Jewish communities, has remained on headlines. The Polish side responds and explains, but the dispute is inflamed repeatedly.

Therefore, for a moment, let us not focus on statements, comments, corrections, tweets, and videos posted on the Internet recently. Let us turn our eyes on Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the very heart of darkness. On the camp established by Germans for Polish political prisoners in the spring of 1940, which in 1942 became a centre of the Holocaust of European Jews. In no way these two tragedies do exclude or compete with each other. It was the perpetrators who decided that they occurred at the same place and time.

            The death factory, erected by Nazi Germany on the Polish territory incorporated by the Third Reich in the autumn of 1939, took lives of over one million Jews, about 75 thousand Poles, over 20 thousand Roma and Sinti people, and thousands of Soviet prisoners and representatives of dozens of other nations. This way, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the largest graveyard in the world, although no physical graves, in the literal meaning of that word, are visible there. And any man with even a trace of sensitivity understands that to sacred sites of ancestors’ graves, particularly, of innocent Victims of unthinkable bestiality, remembrance, respect and reflection are due. For a number of years, Poles and Jews jointly cared for remains of the former concentration and death camp, assisted, amongst the others, by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council under the Prime Minister of Poland. That care and cooperation are generally considered a role model for other nations all over the world.

            On the other hand, nearly 1000 years of history of Jews on Polish lands are commemorated at POLIN Museum in Warsaw – each day packed with visitors from Poland and from all over the world, and receiving awards in prestigious competitions. Its main exhibition shows bright areas of our coexistence - starting with a fact that for a few centuries, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was a home to the largest Jewish community in the world, enjoying protection and tolerance exceptional in Europe at that time, and, simultaneously, bringing a significant contribution to our joint cultural heritage and to economic development. However, that exhibition does not cover up issues such as anti-Semitism, dislike and hostility. It attracts and convinces, because it is honest.

A new and important place on the Map of Remembrance is Markowa, where the Museum of Poles Saving Jews, commemorating the Ulma Family, was opened recently. At the end of last year, an excellent exhibition on the Ringelblum Archive was opened at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Many years ago already, due to an initiative of the Jewish community in the U.S., a moving monument was erected at the site of the former extermination camp in Bełżec, and another one is being constructed in Sobibór, as a part of an international project conducted together by Poland, Israel, The Netherlands and Slovakia.

            However, much more is happening besides founding of museums and monuments. Since the downfall of communism, fascination with Jewish culture, tradition and history has been increasing in my country, in particular, amongst young Poles who discover traces of the old world destroyed by the Holocaust in their hometowns. Being a citizen of Kraków, I had watched a phenomenon of revival of the Jewish quarter Kazimierz from its very beginnings;  and seeing crowds attending the annual festival promoting the Jewish culture there, I felt like a witness to a miracle. With pleasure and hope we see the gradually recovering Jewish communities and organisations, small, but thriving and increasingly involving younger generations.

Yes, anti-Semitic incidents occur in Poland, similarly as, unfortunately, in other countries of the Old Continent. This should always put us on guard and stimulate whole Europe to decisive actions. Any manifestations of anti-Semitism are condemned by Polish authorities, but, definitely, we need to step up the fight against it, strengthening educational activities at the same time. However, anybody examining the cold hard statistics and facts will see that, fortunately, in our country anti-Semitism never reached the scale or forms as drastic as in other countries on our continent.

From the political point of view, the State of Israel is one of our very important allies. This view has not changed since 1989, despite political coalition reshuffles in both countries. Yet definitely during first two years of rule of the United Right in Poland, our political, military and economic cooperation has become even stronger. Poland maintains its position that the secure Jewish state is a guarantee of the world peace. This truth should be particularly emphasised this year, when we celebrate the 70th anniversary of establishing the State of Israel.

I could continue for a long time listing all the things that Jews and Poles can be proud of: the lively and fraternal Christian-Jewish dialogue conducted in the spirit of John Paul II, in which I participated myself; The International March of the Living and youth exchanges; the scientific and research cooperation... But it is not my intent to use the hail of words to drown out the storm raging around us at the moment. I would like to ask: what has happened that suddenly so many people forget about and disregard everything that brought us so close together in recent years? Why should we waste and squander it? What will we gain when we turn our backs on each other?

We sympathise with Jewish pain, and respect Jewish memory and sensitivity. We do not want to limit any research aiming at discovering the truth about the past. The moment of voting over the amendment to the Act on IPN was unfortunate, as it took place just before the International Holocaust Remembrance Day; and this was emphasised several times by representatives of our government. However, it should be clearly stated that we were truly surprised with the reaction of the Israeli government. We had grounds to think that changes introduced to the draft removed any doubts of our partners. It was the communication that failed, but this is not a time to search for those responsible or to blame each other. Reinstating our dialogue is much more important.

However, despite our mistakes, we have a right to be understood. We will never agree to misleading and offensive phrases of “Polish death camps” or “Polish Holocaust”. As Israel does everything possible to prevent denial and diminishing of the Holocaust, Poland will never allow falsifying of history, excluding us from the community of Victims and placing us in a position of organisers and perpetrators of German-led genocide.

To respond in advance to any possible criticism: we do not want to cover up any specific crimes committed by my compatriots. One would have to be either mad or a cynical liar to say that those disgraceful actions never took place. Historians continue to discuss the scale of both Polish help provided to Jews, and of szmalcownictwo and murders committed on Jews by Poles. Let us leave this problem to reliable researchers, who seek the truth without being affected by ideological heat.

 Today, looking at our nations, Polish and Jewish, it is visible that on both sides emotions and fears have predominated in recent weeks. It is understandable, after all, as the most important issues are involved: moral obligations towards the Victims, unimaginable pain associated with loss, fight for the truth, memory and identity of our nations, and sovereignty and the international image of the state.

And this is why we should continue to talk. Sit down, listen, and then present what is most valuable and sacred to both parties. In this reliable dialogue we will find a foundation for true understanding, away from political bargaining or a rotten compromise. Death and pain should not be used in any political games; however, this does not mean that, as some say, we are doomed to conflict.

There is an ironic saying that own tears are bitter, and tears of others are only wet. I would like to ensure you that we will never permit anybody to disrespect Jewish tears. And we ask for the same. Despite all differences we, Poles and Jews, can together weep over the graves of Victims claimed from our nations. And then sit and talk sincerely, as partners, allies and friends.

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