Realpolitik-Israel and Poland April 2023

By Stephen Schulman

Realpolitik as defined in the Chambers Dictionary 12th Edition is “practical politics based on the realities and necessities of life, rather than moral or ethical ideas”. This, I fear, in this case is precisely what is happening as a result of our present government’s lame attempts to bolster its deteriorating image and find friends wherever.

The annual “March of the Living” when many groups of all ages from Israel and abroad visit the death camps was suspended last year owing to the demands of the Polish government, to include an official government guide for each group whose task it was to present the officially certified historical narrative. Understandably, in light of the record of that government’s attempts to refurbish and create a squeaky clean past of being sole victims of Nazi war crimes and somehow sweeping under the carpet crimes of its citizens against its Jewry – amongst them making it a criminal offense for blaming the country for any crimes committed during the Holocaust – this demand was rejected and groups ceased to come. Moreover, legislation had also been passed making it virtually impossible to claim property restitution and the resultant condemnation of our previous government only led to a further deterioration in ties.

Poles Apart. It’s important that students visiting the camps in Poland are not side-tracked by Polish propaganda.(Yossi Zeliger/Flash90 Auschwitz-Birkenau)

Nevertheless, our esteemed foreign minister in his desire for mending ties with the Polish government and in his omniscience, seeing no need to consult the appropriate institutions and authorities connected to the Holocaust, has proudly announced a compromise and the drafting of an agreement with it whereby all groups, prior to visiting the death camps, are presented with its officially approved list of 32 sites (museums, memorials etc.) that lay emphasis on the country’s (i.e. ethnic Poles) suffering both under Nazi and Russian occupation. They will then, under the tutelage of a Polish guide, be obligated to visit one of them.

True Horror. Students visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, April 16, 2015. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The list itself contains dubious sites that, amongst others, glorify the heroism of Polish partisan fighters who were anti-Semitic and participated in murdering Jews. Many Polish partisan groups bravely fought the Nazis but many of them were also viciously anti-Semitic and murdered Jews who fled to the forests seeking safety. My late mother-in-law, who with the remainder of her family survived the Holocaust by acquiring forged documents and living in a village, recounted to me that one day, a group of partisans suspecting them of being Jews entered their home.

Hidden Truths. It’s unlikely that these young visitors next to a monument to partisan fighter Józef Kuras are aware of studies that have documented dozens of cases in which Polish partisans under his command murdered Holocaust survivors. (Credit: ARTUR WIDAK / NurPhoto via AF)

By a miracle their lives were saved when the gang was suddenly called away. One of the sites on the list, The Museum of the Cursed Soldiers in the town of Ostrolensk, 120km from Warsaw, commemorates the deeds of the partisan Józef Kuras a vicious anti-Semite known to have murdered amongst others, twelve Jews who in 1946 were trying to flee from Poland.

Whitewashing the Past. One of the listed sites that Poland would like educational trips from abroad to include is ‘The Museum of the Cursed Soldiers’, which commemorates the deeds of the partisan Józef Kuras known to have murdered Jews in 1946 while trying to flee from Poland.

Criticism has not been long in forthcoming. Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust memorial and museum, in a statement couched in the most diplomatic terms noted that the list contained “problematic sites inappropriate for visiting on educational trips.” It does not take much imagination to read between the lines!

The list has also received bitter criticism from academics.  Professor Havi Dreifuss, a historian at Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem, has said that the list was “outrageous” and that most of the locales on it “are dubious at best and controversial at worst.” Some of the sites “ignore documented aspects of Poles’ involvement in the murder of Jews,” whereas others “glorify Poles who were involved up to their necks in the murder of Jews.”

Up to their Necks. Tel Aviv University historian Dr. Havi Dreifuss who heads the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem says that some of the sites the Polish government want ‘March of the Living’ tours to visit, glorify Polesinvolved up to their necks in the murder of Jews.”

Jan Grabowski, an influential Polish-Canadian historian, was quoted in the report as saying that the list reads “like a Holocaust denier’s dream.”

Most importantly, in light of the present resurgence of anti-Semitism and of Poland’s abysmal record concerning the treatment of its Jewish citizens both pre and post World War II, it is only fitting and appropriate to create a balanced perspective by adding further sites to the recommended list: There is the southeastern town of Kielce where in July 4, 1946, a violent blood libel massacre took place when 42 Jews were murdered and 50 wounded. And lest we forget, Jedwabne where on the 10th of July 1941, 1600 Jews were slaughtered or burnt alive by their ethnic Polish townsmen and their possessions plundered. Moreover, as recorded in recent book by Mirosław Tryczyk, another 15 locations where pogroms were carried out by the local inhabitants could also be added.

Murdered by Poles. A pre-war photograph of Jews in Jedwabne. On 10 July 1941,at least 40 ethnic Poles in coordination with the Gestapo, carried out the killing of some 1600 Jews including women, children and the elderly, many of whom were locked in a barn and burned alive

Another place for the March of the Living participants to visit and that serves as a reminder of this enduring and lethal obsession would be to the south eastern town of Pruchnik where only last week, as part of their Easter celebrations, residents hung and burned an effigy marked with antisemitic stereotypes. The figure had a kippah (Jewish skullcap) on its head, “Judas 2023” written on its body and was beaten thoroughly before being hung and burned.

A visit to the Warsaw market would also be instructive. There, a vendor is happily peddling little statues of stereotyped ugly Jews fondling gold coins. The authorities see no wrong in this and the locals purchase them to bring good luck.

Unsurprisingly, our foreign minister has rebuffed all criticism and blames the intransigence and obduracy of the previous government for the crisis in relations with Poland that he is now trying so earnestly to restore. As a minister representing the interests of the citizens of Israel, he has a duty to rise above all the mutual recriminations, listen to the voices of the Holocaust survivors and take into account the knowledge of scholars. Only then should he sign off a final draft for approval.

A clip showing Jewish refugees waiting to leave Poland and crossing into Czechoslovakia following a pogrom that took place in Kielce, Poland, in July 1946. Forty-two Jews were massacred and about 50 more were wounded. The event touched off a mass migration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Poland (Click on the picture).

About the writer:

Stephen Schulman is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist youth movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. He was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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