Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Dispelling Israeli media’s stereotypes about Poland in the Holocaust - my letter published in Haaretz

The coverage by Israeli journalists of Poland's commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising gives no suggestion of the deep and reflexive context of contemporary Polish engagement with the tragedy of Polish Jews

Polska wersja artykułu p.t. "Czy da się inaczej myśleć o Polsce?" pojawiła się na stronach Instytutu Obywatelskiego tutaj

Relację na temat tekstu w Gazecie Wyborczej można przeczytać tutaj

It was disappointing for me to read Haaretz's characterization of Poland's official commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as resembling a big PR exercise. It was disturbing how yet another Israeli journalist prefers to conveniently remain locked in stereotypes about Poland without the will to move on and to recognize the change that has happened in Poland in recent years. Perhaps I should not be surprised. As I skip through the Israeli media archives the article fits perfectly the profile of the ‘story’ that is reported from Poland - dark, anti-Semitic and barbaric.

Let me be clear. It is not my intention to convince Israeli newspaper editors that Poland became entirely free from anti-Semitism and that there are no worrying cases of anti-Semitic views. The truth is there are. Sadly. And Haaretz (as does the Polish media) are right to single out each and every case of anti-Semitism.

Rather I am asking Israeli journalists to recognize that things have been changing in Poland in relation to Jews and as well as ways of seeing our past in relation to Jewish neighbours. I am not trying to argue that giving journalists a gift set that included dust from the ghetto's deportation point, the Umschlagplatz, and a book of Tuwim’s poems replete with spelling mistakes on the cover, are particularly apt. But to read about this ‘souvenir kit’ as one of the main features of the report from the Uprising's commemoration - the most profound act of Jewish resistance during the war – is too partial, and gives no suggestion of the deep and reflexive context of contemporary Polish engagement with the tragedy of Polish Jews.

With a little bit more openness towards the ‘profile’ of the news that is being reported from Warsaw, the Israeli media could have noticed that, for the last ten years, Poland has been openly discussing the role of Polish Christians towards Polish Jews during the war and the horrific cases of pogroms of Jewish neighbors right after the war. And this is not an easy conversation for a nation that for many years had seen itself only in terms of being the victims of the war – let us not forget that alongside 3 million Polish Jews, 2.5 million Polish non-Jews were killed by Nazis during war - and Poland was subsequently a victim of the post-war Yalta agreement that threw the country into the Soviet bear-hug.

In the context of these losses it is a painful, difficult, but necessary lesson from our own history that while we were the victims of war, we were also the oppressors. It is not an easy truth to accept, that, while the largest number of trees for the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem are for Poles, there were cases, and not just a few of them, in which Poles betrayed their Jewish brothers, murdered Jewish neighbors, and far too often remained silent in the light of the catastrophe of the Jews at the hands of the German Nazis.

If Israeli journalists were a little bit less fixed in their views about Poland, they could have recognized that the weeks before the 70th anniversary saw a wave of fresh writing about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, its fighters, the equivocal position taken by the Polish Resistance Army towards the Uprising as well as the difficult relations between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Aryan’ sides during the time of German occupation of the city. The Israeli media did not report on this important debate except for one interview with a Polish professor, a philo-Semite turned anti-Semite, who expressed a horrendous view about Jews being guilty of their own fate – and who has faced a justifiably wide-scale critical backlash in Poland.

Ordinary Poles, not just their government, are for the first time reclaiming the history and the fate of Polish Jews as part of their own history, both in terms of a tribute for the heroic decision of the Ghetto fighters to battle for dignity against German oppression, but also in terms of the recognition of our own sins that not enough has been done to help our Jewish neighbors. Slowly but surely, rather than relating to the distanced 'history of Jews in Poland,' we are talking about the history of our Jews. The queues in front of the newly-opened Museum of Polish Jews are just one symbol of that.

The Uprising ‘logo’ that Aderet ridicules in his piece has in fact a rich symbolic meaning: the yellow daffodil marked the private way that Marek Edelman, a legendary commander of the Uprising, paid tribute to the victims of the Ghetto. This is why so many Warsovians wear the daffodil badges as an act of remembrance and respect. Only days before the official celebrations, in a major grass-roots initiative, the people of Warsaw painted together a huge mural in the Muranow neighborhood, to commemorate Marek Edelman and his message that "The most important thing is life and once there is life, the most important cause is freedom, and freedom is worth dying for." But then again, perhaps the figure of Marek Edelman, so dear to the memory of Poles - both Christian and Jewish - but who strongly contested the Zionist project, and one of the Polish Jews who decided to stay in Europe, unseats the comfortable Israeli stereotypes about Poland - a place of Jewish death and not of a Jewish home. For Edelman, Poland remained his home.

I am writing this article as a Polish Christian, thinking about my Jewish family back in Israel, and concerned that what they read in Israeli press fuels their worst anxieties relating to the ancestral land of their parents. I hope that a day will come when they will read in Israeli newspapers, that, exactly like the case of our family, life is a little bit more complicated, and that the picture of Poland is a more nuanced one, than the simplifying power of stereotypes and prejudice. While condemning anti-Semitism of any kind, we, Poles and Israelis, must take mutual care and responsibility for the occasions that have the power to rebut the fear of the other, and reframe them in the spirit of openness and respect. Whether the event is big or small, let it begin healing the wounds.

Article was published in Ha'aretz on April 28th 2013

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