by David Isaac
Tonight Israel begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Israelis do an admirable job keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. A private group this year is producing candles, each with a name of a victim, the years they lived and where they perished. They plan to light 11,000 candles in Rabin Square during memorial day and hope to light one million candles by the end of the year. (I will give another example of Israeli creativity in this regard at the end of this post.)
Certain to be a topic of conversation during this year’s commemoration is Poland’s new Holocaust Law criminalizing speech that implicates that country in Nazi war crimes. There have been calls for Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to pull out of the March of the Living, where Jews walk three kilometers to the gates of Auschwitz. The march, which will mark its 30th anniversary this year, is meant to symbolize the revival of a people reduced to ashes.
March of the Living in Poland. Credit: GPO
A Defense of Poland
Everyone was quick to jump down Poland’s throat when the Polish Holocaust bill first came to light. Frankly, it seems an outrageous act and deserving of condemnation. So I was surprised to see a defense of Poland in The Jerusalem Post. Its author, Matthew Tyrmand, is a Jew who lost most of his Polish father’s family in the Warsaw ghetto and Majdanek death camp.
His main argument is that the law has been misrepresented. It imposes criminal penalties on maligning the Polish state not individual Poles. Poland, he says, was the only country in Europe that didn’t cooperate with its Nazi occupiers, unlike Vichy France or Norway’s Quisling government. Tyrmand writes:
“The law explicitly states that the criminal action pertains exclusively to the allegation of Polish state complicity, not the complicity of individual Poles, some of whom, during wartime (and before and after, as any society will see) did atrocious things and are worthy of the historical condemnations that have been levied and will continue to be researched and highlighted.”
Tyrmand also says that internal jockeying within Poland’s ruling coalition, a faction of which wanted to embarrass the prime minister, purposefully put out the poorly written and intentionally ill-timed bill on January 26, one day before Holocaust International Day.
As Poland and Israel enjoy strong relations today, one wishes to see this issue clarified and resolved. Tyrmand points out that Poland abstained from condemning the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem while “every EU nation from Germany westward voted to condemn President Trump’s action.”
Tyrmand also says the Polish law is a case of a double standard. Other European states have similar laws on the books. Maybe so. But the fact is that criminalizing speech about sensitive historical issues is a terrible idea.
While the Polish government in exile did make it a crime to hand Jews over to the Nazis, Tyrmand’s argument that the Polish state didn’t collaborate is a bit weak. Unlike France, the Nazis didn’t set up a puppet government in Poland. Hitler had a different agenda for Poles, considering them untermensch (socially inferior people) and planning to use them as slave labor. Poland was therefore put under direct German rule and subject to the infamous Dr. Hans Frank. Had the Germans wanted to find cooperative Poles to run a puppet government they would probably have been able to do so.
The fact is that the Polish population helped in the liquidation of Jews. In 1985, when Glasnost led to the release of hundreds of thousands of documents related to wartime activity in Eastern Europe, former director of the Yad Vashem archives Shmuel Krakowski said: “Page after page records how ordinary people in German-occupied lands competed with each other and often surpassed the Germans in the killing.”
When the aforementioned Dr. Hans Frank noted a serious problem facing the Nazis — the question of how to separate Jews out from among the general Polish population — he was pleased to report that great success had been achieved thanks to the cooperation of all levels of the local population in identifying “non-Aryan elements.”
Historian Shmuel Katz notes: “Fundamentally, then, the story of the Holocaust is not the story only of the German Master Criminal who planned and controlled the mammoth complex operation, but of a partnership between the Master Criminal and his German team on the one hand and, on the other, a host of enthusiastic auxiliaries of various countries and grades, without whom the scope of the Holocaust would have been at least considerably diminished.”
My intention here isn’t to single out Poland for denunciation. In Holland, that most Western of European countries, only 27 percent of the Jewish population survived, as opposed to 60 percent in Belgium and 75 percent in France. And, yes, a major reason was the high degree of cooperation from the Dutch population.
I promised another example of Israeli creativity in commemorating the Holocaust. The following video features a group of 600 Holocaust survivors, children, grand-children and great-grand-children brought together to sing “Chai” (“I Live”) by Ofra Haza. The song starts: “I’m still alive / Hear me, My Brothers / I’m still alive / And both my eyes still look toward the light…”
As I listened to these lyrics, never more perfectly represented than by these singers, I recognized that the real takeaway from the Holocaust law controversy isn’t about Europe’s continuing guilt, of which there’s plenty to go around. The real takeaway is the story of hope found in Zionism. All of the singers, and their extended families, are in Israel. This is where they have the best chance to grow and flourish, without the ever-present fear of persecution from a hateful majority — whether that hate originates with a people’s leadership or the people themselves hardly matters.
It’s true that Jews face many threats in Israel. But at least they have an army, a government and a land. Those three elements put them light years ahead of their predecessors in the Diaspora — scattered minorities dependent on the goodwill (usually nonexistent) of their neighbors — a situation to which they must never return.
Theodor Herzl was right when he said: “I believe I have found the solution to the Jewish Question. Not a solution, but the solution, the only one.”
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Photo Credit: WW2InColor