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SIDIC Periodical XXXII - 1999/2
Eastern and Central Europe. Jewish and christian societies in transition (Pages 2- 6)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Polish-Jewish Relations Thirty Years after Nostra Aetate
Muszynski, Henryk


With the kind permission of the author, SIDIC is pleased to present the following excerpts from a lecture presented by Archbishop Muszynski while in Tübingen where he was presented with the Dr. Leopold Lucas Award in 1997.

The Specific Nature of Polish-Jewish Relations

What constitutes the specific character, even uniqueness, of the Polish-Jewish relationship? For more than a millennium Poland was not just the second but the real Jewish homeland, says Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin of Chicago who, for more than a decade, has closely accompanied and strongly promoted the Polish-Jewish dialogue. He adds, “Although Jews now no longer live in Poland, Poland still lives within the Jews. For many of us, Israel is the physical homeland, but Poland is the mental/intellectual homeland.”1 Naturally, Jewish life in Poland was not free from tensions, prejudices, mutual distrust and animosities, which expressed themselves in various ways. Nevertheless, the old Polish-Lithuanian Republic of nobility with a king at the top was, like no other country, considered the Paradisus Judaeorum,2 and this mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries.
According to a well-known Jewish legend, even the Hebrew name polin for Poland relates back to an utterance of the Almighty. Not inconsequentially Schmuel Joseph Agnon (1888-1970) and Alexander Eliasberg (1878-1924) have recounted this legend at the beginning of their “Book about the Polish Jews” which appeared in Berlin in 1916. It accurately expresses exactly what Jan Matejko has painted. Schmuel Joseph Agnon recounts this legend, which has been ascribed to Mosche Isserles from Krakow, as follows:

This is a legend of our fathers who immigrated to Poland. Israel saw that the persecutions went on and on, that ever new difficulties befell them, that suppression became harder and harder and the domination of wickedness decreed ever new disasters for them. Now at a crossroads, they wondered which way they should choose to provide rest and peace for their souls. Then a note fell from the sky: Go to Poland! Upon arriving in that country they found a dense forest in which a tractate of the Talmud had been carved in every tree. This was the forest of Kawczyn (near Lublin). Then said one to the other: Look, we have come into a country in which our fathers had lived before. Why, however, did they call it Poland? The community of Israel spoke before the Holy One, may HE be praised: LORD of the world. If the hour of our redemption has not yet come in the night of the dispersion of our nation, stay here with us this night, until you lead us back again to the country of Israel.3

Around the end of the 18th century, however, the situation changed fundamentally through the partitioning of Poland. In three stages (1772, 1793 and finally in 1795) the “Polish-Lithuanian Republic of nobility, with a king at the top” was parceled out to its three neighbors. By November 11th, 1918 independent Poland no longer existed. For several generations Poles and Jews lived under Prussian, Russian or Austrian foreign rule, where general living conditions as well as the resulting relationships between the communities developed differently in each separate area. Only after WW I did Poland regain independence. Revived Poland was a state of many peoples4 in which the Jews formed the largest minority. Until 1939 Poland had the highest percentage of Jews in the whole world (about 3.3 million which corresponded to approximately ten percent of the total population). In many villages and small towns as well as in larger cities, the percentage was much higher - up to one-third and in some instances one-half of the population. (350 thousand Jews lived in Warsaw, as many as in all of France; about 200 thousand lived in Lódz, as many as in the whole of Czechoslovakia).

This Polish Jewry was, for centuries, not only numerically the largest Jewish community in the world but also “the cradle of modern Jewish culture”.5 Among the Jews of Poland originated the very intellectual heritage of everything that is contained in the term Ostjudentum (Eastern European Jewry). Among the Jews of Poland, in their teaching houses, were laid the fundamentals of modern Jewish science and education. Among the Jews of Poland, Yiddish attained its full development as a spoken language as well as a language of literature. Among the Jews of Poland, the modern age’s intellectual and religious currents had their beginnings, from modern rabbinical Orthodoxy through Chassidism, with its unmistakable spirituality, as well as the later secular, political movements.6

The effects of the Holocaust, the murder of the European Jews, were and and remain more tragic in Poland than in any other European country. In a certain sense they are also more tangible. Even reconstructing the coexistence of Jews and Christians, of Poles and Jews, immediately after the war was impossible and seemed inconceivable in face of the traumatic experiences of many Jews in post-war Poland. In retrospect one can occasionally hardly avoid the impression that these early post-war experiences had such a lasting effect on the relationship between Jews and Poles that nearly the entire Polish-Jewish history is now considered in their light.

While living Jewish communities which could have contributed to overcoming this tragic past were now missing, those who had survived the Shoah or returned back to post-war Poland were not welcome. This applies as well to the almost 200 thousand Jews who, after the occupation of eastern Poland by the Red Army in September 1939, had been deported to Siberia and were repatriated after the war. This is shown by the pogroms in 1945 and 1946, the backgrounds and circumstances of which can be elucidated only now that the corresponding archives have been opened,7 as well as by the multiple antisemitic campaigns of later years (above all 1956, 1968 and 1980/81), in which the Jews of Poland experienced the effects of a politically effected antisemitism.

Poles, on the other hand experienced “wrong and injustices” caused to them “by post-war communist governments, in which people of Jewish origin were involved as well,” as the Polish bishops formulated it in their pastoral letter. They of course immediately added: “We have to admit that the source of inspiration for their actions was, of course, neither their origin nor religion but communist ideology, through which Jews themselves also experienced many injustices.” Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that in Poland, too, the combination of communism and Judaism has become a widespread and current stereotype. It is obvious that circumstances such as these made the resumption of a dialog between Poles and Jews inconceivable.

The Shoah as a Polish Problem

Along with the numerous WW II victims whom Poland mourns, the Shoah, the murder of the Jews which happened for the most part on occupied Poland’s territory, constitutes the most tragic of the Nazis’ tragic “bequests”. It burdens Polish-Jewish relations in a measure which frequently makes all rapprochement and communication between Poles and Jews seem impossible. This terrible heritage became the inescapable fate of post-wartime Poland. For most Jews in the world Poland today is simply “the land of the Shoah”. “Jews see Poland today generally as ‘Egypt, the house of slavery’, from which one had to save oneself by flight in order to find refuge in the USA or in Israel. Those who did not make it perished. Everything that Jews experienced in our country is seen in this perspective. Certainly, one should never minimize the tragedy of the Shoah; however, how can one carry on a dialogue in a situation in which Poland and the Poles are made out to be worse than Germany and the Nazis?”8

This is not just a matter of Polish-Jewish concern; it is a problem which equally concerns all Christian-Jewish relations. Clichés are adopted uncritically and without examining their truth content, and they are often repeated without due investigation of their historical accuracy. As a result, radical allegations are frequently made in which the Poles are repeatedly accused, if not of the mass murder of the Jews, at least of directly having effected the extent of this genocide (so by William Styron, Jack Gardner, Herman Wouk, Gerald Green and others). Mark Hillel even expresses the opinion that the majority of Jews who survived the Shoah hate Poles more than Germans.9

Without having precise knowledge of the cruel terror and the limited possibilities under the German Occupation, Poles are accused again and again of having done too little to save Jews. Few people are aware that only in Poland the rescue of Jews and any aid given to them was punished by death. This death penalty affected not only the person who helped, but also their closest relatives and entire families. In utterly powerless rage and terror one very often had to face the death of a member of one’s own family. This is certainly no justification or basis for justification for the indifference which most certainly also existed in the face of the Jews’ terrible fate during the so-called “final solution of the Jewish question.” Nevertheless, before one raises such a reproach for general indifference, one should ask oneself what one could possibly have done to save Jews in this concrete situation. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who did the utmost possible to save Jews, once answered the question by saying: One could only have given one’s own life for them...Similarly, Tadeusz Mazowiecki said, when he spoke as the first non-communist prime minister of Poland to representatives of the World Jewish Congress: “No one can claim that he had done everything to save his Jewish brothers. Nobody in Europe or America can do that”.10 And at this point one may perhaps refer to the fact that most trees planted in the “Avenue of the Righteous” in Jerusalem’s memorial Yad Vaschem were permitted to be planted by Poles.11
Is it only due to thoughtlessness that people, particularly in the USA, speak of “Polish concentration camps”, and that the term polnische Konzentrationslager is also sometimes used in Germany? To Polish ears such manner of speech appears to put the responsibility for all cruelties and crimes committed there directly or indirectly on Polish shoulders. Sometimes one gets the impression that the greater the distance from the time period and the greater the geographical distance to the reality of the former concentration camps, the greater the belief that it was the work of the Poles. Naturally, the fact that during the war the concentration and annihilation camps were on German-occupied Polish territory, inevitably raises the question about joint responsibility for the genocide. However, does this justify the reproach of complicity which practically ignores the difference between cooperation, complicity and joint responsibility?

During the last decade a passionate debate took place in Poland and between Poles on this topic. It followed the publication of the Cracovian professor of literature Jan Blonski’s article in the influential Cracovian Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. Under the topic “Biedny Polacy patrza na getto (The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto)” he wrote about the “sin of omission”.12 the voices contributing to the discussion have meanwhile become softer, this is not the place to deal in more depth with this controversy. In this regard I refer to the interim review that Jerzy Turowicz, the nationally and internationally highly regarded chief editor of the aforementioned weekly, gave a quarter of a year into that debate which precisely described the problem.13

The previously quoted statement from the Polish bishops’ pastoral letter indicating that the Shoah “had not come about through our will nor our hands,” received severe Jewish criticism. The fact that this criticism was not from lone voices reconfirmed that the conviction that the Shoah had been the work of Poles is deeply rooted in the consciousness of many Jews. I will illustrate with but two examples the extent to which this dominates every discussion about the Jewish-Polish relationship.

In the beginning of February 1988 at an international congress at Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the History and Culture of the Polish Jews, the Polish-Jewish relationship at the time of the Shoah was an intensely discussed problem. How could it have been otherwise? Although the Polish delegation was ready to grant that “we share in the guilt that we did not do enough for the rescue of Jews,” 14 almost all Jewish conference participants held the opinion that Polish antisemitism and not occupational conditions was the reason so few Jews were rescued. In May 1994, also in Jerusalem, at a meeting of the International Liaison Committee for the Relations of the Vatican with the Jews and Jewish organizations, Prof. Hans Hermann Henrix, among others, reported on the state of preparation of a document on the Shoah.15 Although the contents of this lecture were meant to be strictly confidential and exclusively for the information of conference participants, an editorial appeared in the next day’s Jerusalem Post headlined: Germans and Poles Ask Forgiveness for the Shoah.

Due to these and similar comments Poles not only feel misunderstood but also hard hit and deeply hurt. After all, were they not as a people one of the first victims of the racist ideology of National Socialism? It is a well-known fact that, even before the 1942 Wannsee plan of the so-called “Final Solution”, an analogous plan was already in existence for the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia. And the Polish intelligentsia were among the first victims of the concentration and annihilation camps. This has long been known and is undisputed among historians. Yet, inexplicably we are frequently ascribed the role of culprits and hangmen. I wish to also personally testify that during the German occupation we felt more a community of suffering with the Jews than a community of faith with the occupational power or in affiliation with a church to which the Germans belonged as well.

At that time there existed only two basic categories: the perpetrators and the victims. Jews and Poles were both on the victim side - perhaps not in the same manner and to the same extent as Pope John Paul II stressed during his two meetings with the small Jewish community in Warsaw:

Be sure, dear brothers, that the Poles, this Polish church, is in profound solidarity with you when she looks closely at the terrible reality of the extermination - the unconditional extermination - of your nation, an extermination carried out with premeditation. The threat against you was also a threat against us; this latter was not realized to the same extent, because it did not have the time to be realized to the same extent. It was you who suffered this terrible sacrifice of extermination: One might say that you suffered it also on behalf of those who were in the purifying power of suffering. (Warsaw, June 14, 1987 and June 9, 1991).16

Against this background of common suffering, many today find the antagonism among the victims completely unintelligible. This antagonism also formed the basis and to a large extent informed the decisions regarding the controversial Carmelite convent in Auschwitz. Jews stress, with good reason, the singularity and uniqueness of their fate and their suffering. However, this view frequently has scant regard for all those Poles who suffered the same cruel death according to the same law, on account of the same ideology and by application of the same collective liability and penalization as “helpers of Jews” and/or “rescuers of Jews”. The many thousands who paid for their readiness to help Jews with their own lives form the other face of the same Shoah. Yet very few are ready to recognize this today. Instead, when Poles today, collectively and in a Christian manner remember the Jewish victims of the Nazi period, Jews consider this an attempt to obscure the Jewish memory, to obliterate it, and even to adopt the Shoah and Christianize it. After the last common roll call of Jews and Poles before the final liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto the white and red flag and the blue and white flag with the star of David were hoisted side by side.17 The spilled blood that at one time caused Jews and Poles to fight together against Nazi terror no longer unites. Now it separates.

Therein lies the tragedy of the relationship between the two peoples. For this reason the 1990 pastoral letter of the Polish bishops expresses “our sincere regret for all antisemitic riots which - whenever and by whomever - were committed on Polish soil.” It declares, that “any expression of antisemitism does not agree with the spirit of the Gospel and - as John Paul II recently underlined18- ‘stands in total contrast to the Christian view of human dignity.’” However, it laments at the same time the reference by many to a so-called Polish antisemitism as “unjust” and “deeply hurtful”, especially when one links this antisemitism with National Socialist racial antisemitism.

In a 1936 pastoral letter Cardinal August Hlond had already warned against this “racial antisemitism originating in pagan roots, and imported from the outside.” The allegation that there exists a continuity between the two essentially different kinds of antisemitism, as to their essence and their sources of inspiration, has to be strongly refuted. Polish antisemitism had different causes of a religious, cultural, political, economic and also ethnic kind. It was, however, free from the racial hatred and disdain which formed the basis for the National Socialist ideology of Alfred Rosenberg. R. J. Weksler-Waszkinel writes: “If today there still exists in the Polish church antisemitism of any kind, it is a remnant from the past. It is an infection that must be treated patiently but also with every determination (infections are always dangerous)” because “antisemitism is anti-Christian and also always anti-Catholic.”19

No doubt one may say without exaggeration that there is no other country in the world (I do not want to speak here about Germany) in which one senses the immediate aftereffects of the Holocaust as much as in Poland. In Walesa’s words, Poland is “an earth branded with the stigma of Auschwitz” and will be such for a long time. Elie Wiesel, too, has admitted that the Holocaust has become an essential component of the Polish consciousness of life. In Poland and for us today the Shoah, more than 50 years after the war, is no theoretical matter. It is not a thing of the past but a reality with which one is confronted every single day. It is a “wound that has not healed and that still bleeds.” (Pope John Paul II).

I ask for your understanding if in my presentation I have recalled some painful and bitter events. I did not mean to waken to new life the ghosts of the past or to rip open unhealed wounds. I wanted to make two things clear: on the one hand, what we mean today when we speak about reconciliation between Poles and Jews; on the other hand, when faced with this problematic situation the reconciliation process cannot be conceived as a bilateral process between Germans and Jews and between Poles and Jews, but must be conceived, demanded, and realized as a trilateral process between Germans, Poles and Jews. Important steps towards this - which are by no means easy - have already been taken.

* Henryk Muszynski, metropolitan archbishop of Gniezno in Poland, is a biblical scholar and has been vice-president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference since 1994. From 1986 to 1994 he was the first president of the Polish Bishops’ Committee for Dialogue with Jews and Judaism. He was one of the authors of the 1990 pastoral letter of the Polish Bishops. With the late Cardinal Bernardin and Spertus College in Chicago, he organized, in the summer of 1988, a six-week visit to Chicago for priests, professors and seminarians from each diocese in Poland. (Bishop Muszynski’s lecture was translated from German for SIDIC by Fritz Voll.)
1 Byron L Sherwin, Duchowe dziedzietwo Zydow ploskich (The Spiritual Heritage of the Polish Jews) Warszawa 1995, p. 53.
2 For an introduction to this story see H. Haumann, Geschichte der Ostjuden (History of East European Jewry) München 1990 (dtv 4549).
3 S.J. Agnon & A. Eliasberg (Hg.), Das Buch von den polnischen Juden (The Book about the Polish Jews) Berlin 1916, p. 3. The point of this legend rests on a Hebrew play on words: The Hebrew name for Poland is Polin. If one splits the word in two and reads it as two Hebrew words, it can read po[h] lin which means, spend the night [with us] here, as one hears in the quoted legend.
4 Cf. J. Tomaszewski, Rzeczpospolita wieku narodów (A Republic of Many Peoples) Warszawa 1985.
5 S. Schreiner, “Im Schatten der Vergangenheit - zur Geschichte der jüdischen Gemeinschaft in Polen seit 1945" (In the Shadow of the Past - On the History of the Jewish Community in Poland) in: Judaica 46 (1990), p. 67-81, p. 67.
6 Cf. Sherwin, op. cit., p. 47 ff.
7 On the Pogrom of Kielce see the documentation of S. Meducki & Z. Wrona, Antyzydowskie wydarzenia kieleckie 4 lipca 1946 (The Anti-Jewish Riots in Kielce on July 4, 1946) 2 vols. Kielce 1992-94.
8 W. Chrostowski, “Zródla chrzescijanskich oporów wobec dialogu z Zydami I judaismem (Causes for Christian Restraint in Dialogue with the Jews)” in Maqom. Biuletyn Informacyjny IDKJ 1 (1996), p. 43-54.
9 Cf. S. Gadecki, “Relacje miedzy polskimi Zydami a Polakami - historia I perspektywy (Relations between Polish Jews and Poles - History and Future)” in Studia Gnesnensia 10 (1995). S. 41. On anti-Polish resentments mainly among American Jews see R.F. Scharf, “In Anger and Sorrow Towards a Polish-Jewish Dialogue”, in: Polin 1 (1986), p. 270-277.
10 Text in: Gazeta Wyborcza, Warszawa 1990, No. 132.
11 Cf. the extensive documentation by W. Bartoszewski & Z. Lewinówna. Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomoca Zydom 1939-1945 (He, too, is from My Homeland. Poles who helped Jews 1939-1945) Kraków 1969, and M. Grynberg, Ksiega Sprawiedliwych (The Book of the Righteous) Warszawa 1993.
12 Tygodnik Powszechoy, Kraków Jan. 11, 1987, No. 2, p. 1.
13 “Racje polskie i racje zydowskie (Polish Arguments and Jewish Arguments)” in Tygodnik Powszechny, Kraków Apr. 5, 1987, No. 14, p 1 f. This debate has been documented in: A. Polonsky (ed.), “My Brother’s Keeper?” Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, Oxford 1990. German, partially in: epd-Dokumentation 41/88 and in: G. Särchen & L. Mehlhorn (ed.), Schalom dem schwierigen Dialog unter entfremdeten Geschwistern. Polen und Juden - Juden und Polen (Shalom to the Difficult Dialogue Between Estranged Siblings. Poles and Jews - Jews and Poles) Magdeburg 1991 ( Sonderheft des Anna-Morawska-Seminars).
14 J. Turowicz, “O sprawach polsko-zydowskich w Jerozolimie (About Polish-Jewish Problems in Jerusalem)” in: Tygodnik Powszechny, Krakow 1988 No. 9, p. 1f.
15 L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican City, 1994,. No. 23. Cf. the report of Th. Krapf, “Fortschritte im jüdisch-katholischen Verhältnis. Tagung des Verbindungskomitees in Jerusalem (Progress in Jewish-Catholic Relations. Meeting of the Liaison Committee in Jerusalem) in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, June 2, 1994 (Fernausgabe [Foreign edition] No. 125).
16 Zydzi i Judaizm w dokumentach Kosciola i nauczania Jana Pawla II (Jews and Judaism in the Documents of the Church and the Teachings of John Paul II) Warszawa 1990 (Kosciól a Zydzi i Judaizm, Vol. 1). p. 198 f. Cf. Tygodnik Powszechny, Kraków 1987, No. 30. p. 2 and Tygodnik Powszechny, Kraków 1991, No. 25 p. 7.
17 W. Bartoszewski, “Gedanken zu den jüdisch-polnischen Beziehungen (Thoughts on Jewish-Polish relations)” in G. Särchen & L. Mehlhorn, p. 131-142, ibid. 138 f.
18 On occasion of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of WW II.
19 R.W. Weksler-Waszkinel, “Juifs et judaisme dans la reflexion de Jean Paul II” in Les oliviers de Saint Isaie 4 (1996), p. 41.


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