Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Poland has made news lately for an infamous “Holocaust Law” that criminalizes accusations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. The law has caused a deep rift in Polish-Israeli relations and its ultimate fate is uncertain. But even if it is permanently rescinded, the forces that brought it about are not going away.
Some are saying that Jewish tourists should boycott Poland to protest this law. Although I have major concerns about the law, I disagree.
Last summer I went to Poland with my congregation, and we saw a country struggling to come to grips with its dark side. But we did not see outright denial. For instance, in Warsaw’s spectacular new Polin Museum commemorating 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland, one display speaks with an admirable honesty about the topic, stating, in Polish and English:
“What was the attitude of Poles to the Jewish tragedy? Few chose to risk their lives and the lives of their families by trying to save Jews. Many were simply too preoccupied with everyday hardships of the occupation to concern themselves with the fate of Jews. Some Poles denounced Jews to the Germans or murdered them themselves. How did those on the Aryan side react to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? Some sympathized with Jews and admired their heroism. Most, however, were indifferent, while others made anti-Semitic comments.”
This hardly sounds like a whitewash to me. The museum was created by a unique partnership of the Polish government and the private sector, including Jewish groups. It has been praised universally and is part of an impressive and expanded array of memorials, museums and restored synagogues in Poland. As the Holocaust recedes into history, it is becoming even more important for Jews to visit these places. The Polin Museum also describes the vibrant Jewish life that preceded the rise of the Nazis, when Warsaw was the second largest Jewish city in the world, trailing only New York, and its cultural life was unrivaled. Even now, it is impossible to find a place on the planet that teems with the intellectual ferment that existed among Polish Jews between the wars.
In assessing the complicated historical relationship between Poles and Jews, let’s acknowledge that we share quite a bit with the Poles. While horrible things happened to Jews in Poland, horrible things — admittedly less horrible — happened to Poles in Poland, too. Jews also need to understand that many of the most violent anti-Semitic episodes on Polish soil over the past millennium — like the 1648 Cossack-driven massacre — were not perpetrated by Poles.
And what exactly is “Polish soil”? Poland has been sliced and diced by its neighbors more than just about any other place on earth — except maybe the land of Israel. With expansionist Russia on one side and aggressive Germany on the other (throw in the Hapsburg empire for good measure), I’m not sure we give Poland its due for standing up to oppression as often as it has.
Poles and Jews also share this: One can make a solid claim that the two biggest causes of the downfall of the Soviet Union were the worldwide Soviet Jewry movement and the Polish Solidarity movement. And just as “Jew” became a moniker of mockery in Europe, so did “Slav,” a term derived from “slave.” Poles, who are Slavs, have, like Jews, often been derided as an inferior race and ridiculed by the Archie Bunkers of this world.
As much as Poles need to understand the unique Jewish sensitivities regarding the Holocaust, Jews need to acknowledge that it would be a grave injustice to call Auschwitz a “Polish death camp.” It wasn’t. Further, Yad Vashem lists over 6,700 Poles among the Righteous Gentiles, and there were likely many more. While the percentage of righteous Poles among the overall population is very low, the question should not be why there weren’t more, but rather how so many could have had the courage to act so boldly at all, overcoming not only fear for the fate of their families, but also centuries of anti-Semitism propagated by the Roman Catholic Church.
Here’s something else Jews and Poles share — the concern for an alarming erosion of fragile democratic norms all over the world, through dangerous demagogic tactics of strongman leaders who pit one group against another. What’s happening in Poland is also happening in Hungary, and in both countries, my group confronted guides who were terrified to discuss the culpability of their co-nationals during the Holocaust. The rise of governments that refuse to accept responsibility for their past actions is only a symptom of the antidemocratic virus infecting the two countries now.
In Poland and Hungary, the far-right wing governments have consolidated power by following a familiar playbook. They demonize the press, co-opt the judiciary and direct the anger toward familiar scapegoats, as demonstrated by the none-too-subtle anti-Semitic billboard campaign in Hungary against George Soros; many of these billboards were touched up with blatantly Jewish graffiti.
This playbook is now being emulated in the two countries I love most — need I elaborate? — and its principle author is neither Hungary’s Victor Orban nor Poland’s Andrzej Duda. In the 21st century, this playbook’s author is Vladimir Putin. If Jewish tourists are looking for a place to boycott, how about Russia? No other country has been more responsible for the swirling hatred that is infecting our world, the suppression of free speech, the corruption of the press, the murder of innocents (see: Syria), the exaltation of the cult of personality and the as yet unchecked attacks on America’s most sacred institution, the unfettered right to vote.
President Trump has recently shown a great love for snake metaphors.Might I suggest that those tourists who wish to boycott a country direct their attention toward the head of the snake? I for one will not consider visiting the land of my grandparents as long as Vladimir Putin continues to spread his venom across the globe.
Poland’s Holocaust Law is wrong and should be opposed, vigorously — and in person.
Don’t boycott Poland.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.