The painful attempts of a Muslim to come to terms with Jewish history
Fiyaz Mughal of an organization called "Faith Matters" has written a very moving and interesting account of his visit to Poland, to learn about the Jewish community of the past and present, and of the history of the Holocaust. It has been posted on "Harry's Place" under the title "Most Roads Lead Back to Poland". This post started as a comment on his post, but it turned into an open letter to him:
Your post is a moving account of your experience. I'm touched that you were motivated to go, that you remain committed to finding out more about what happened to the Jews of Poland, and those of every Jewish community and that you wish to learn more.
I'm very surprised, though, at your underplaying the role played by mainstream Poles--not just those you label "collaborators" and the actual minute numbers, by contrast of those Poles who did anything of any sort to help Jews, and the relatively tiny numbers who were saved were no more than a few thousand out of a nation of many millions.
For every person who saves a life, it is as if they saved a whole world. So says the Jewish religious tradition. So each and every Pole who did try to help deserves honour and gratitude on the level as if they had indeed saved a whole world. Some paid for their humanity with their lives. That is why Yad Vashem has its "Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles" which commemorates those who did act in this way. I am very glad that they are honoured in this way.
Yad Vashem, though, does not recognise as "Righteous Gentiles" those who saved or hid Jews or forged passports for them because they were given money to do so by the desperate Jews they helped. Sometimes the sums of money they were given were huge. Nevertheless, if they saved lives, I believe they earned a right to be recognised. And of course, many of them argued that they wanted the pay for risking their lives--and some of them did pay with their lives. Saving a life or many lives is always a very great achievement, even if it comes with exploitation of the potential victims who were saved.
However, there are many, many historically reliable accounts that show that the number of Poles who took an active part in the roundups and the persecutions, or who actively celebrated and cheered when they saw the Jews persecuted beyond belief, slaughtered before their eyes, and taken away to the death that those Poles knew was coming to them when the Jews did not, is vast -- it is the majority of the Polish population. A huge number of these Poles simply looted the houses and such property of the Jews as was not taken by the Germans, and made them their own. When tiny numbers of those Jews who did survive tried to return to their homes, the overwhelming majority were driven away and threatened. There are numerous documented instances of these Jews then being murdered by the Poles who feared they might have to give back the looted homes. One of my cousins, a woman who had survived the camps, was murdered this way in Kanczuga in 1946.
There were also those who took part in pogroms which murdered en masse Jews who returned to their villages.
Many millions of Poles were terrified bystanders. They rightly feared for their lives. If they were caught helping Jews, they faced almost certain death or at the very least fearsome punishments, which would often include the murder or removal of their children. I can understand what make them bystanders. Who can be sure they would have not acted in the same way? I would like to think I would in such a position have done something. But I can't be sure because I've never had to face such a terror and I hope that none of us ever will. But at the end of the day, out of their very understandable fear, they stood by whilst their neighbours were persecuted, tortured, murdered and dispossessed. There are many people in Iran today who stand in such a position in relation to their neighbours, though they are of the same ethnic and religious group. They of all the people in the world today are closest to those of the Poles in Poland. An act of support or knowing concealing a person who has done no crime other than raising an entirely peaceful voice against a most brutal, lying and ruthless regime can result in hideous torture, death and the dispossession and arrest of their entire families. I wonder if you recognise the parallels.
What you have given here, Fiyaz, is a grossly distorted view of the role of the vast majority of the Poles in relation to the Jews under the German occupation. I would like to think that this is the result of historical ignorance, and that for some reason you have not read the main historically reliable histories of what happened and what the Poles did, as opposed to selective accounts written by apologists for the role of the Poles, the Soviet Union and even the Germans.
You also owe it to yourself if you are going to be committed to exploring the history of Poland in relation to its former Jewish population to exploring the history of Polish anti-semitism in all its depth, as well as such historical evidence as can be found for relationships of tolerance, as well as the rare evidence of genuine and warm appreciation historically by Poles for Jews and particularly for Jews, Judaism and Jewish culture. The role of the Polish Church in all this is something that will reward study.
However, before you do that, and in relation to the rosy picture of many, many Poles resisting the persecution of the Jews and of their being a small minority of collaborators, you will need, if you have not already done so to read the history of democratic Polish politics before World War II, when the newly restored nation first voted for its own representative parliament. You will need to look at the record of democratically elected majority parties which either had or voted for anti-semitic policies which pauperized religious Jews by insisting that all businesses had to open on Saturdays or Jewish religious holidays or close down. You will need to read how the Polish post Word War I democratically elected government refused to carry out the obligation laid on them to provide the full range of political rights and faciiities promised to the linguistic, religious and ethnic minorities of what became Poland, of which Yiddish-speaking Jews and Ukrainians were the main groups failed by the Poles.
You will also need to read the history of the Polish legislation, passed by the democratically elected parties of the Polish people in 1938 that proposed to strip Poles living for extended periods abroad of their Polish nationality. The vast majority of the Poles thus affected were Yiddish-speaking Jews, and it was done for the express purpose of ridding themselves of Yiddish speakers, as the debates and justifications of this law analysed by historians will show.
The notorious mass deportation by the Nazis of the Polish Jews of Germany which took place at the end of October 1938 was an action taken by the Nazis to ensure that they were not left with hundreds of thousands of hated stateless Polish Jews. My grandfather and uncle were amongst those taken--they were rounded up by the Gestapo in their Berlin home at 3:00am. My father escaped being rounded up by sheer luck and chance but had to spend the rest of his six months in Berlin in hiding.
And what did the Poles do about all these terrified and destitute Jews dumped by the Germans at their border? Why, their new law had come into force. They refused to take them in. They were left in a miserable camp in the no-man's land between the borders. Did these Jews threaten them in any way or say that they wanted to drive the Poles out of Poland and make a Jewish state in Poland? Of course not. But, unless they could find relatives or friends from amongst the Poles prepared to take them in, they were left in misery at the border camp--till the war came and they were taken off to their deaths?
Are the Poles responsible for the evils the Nazis did? No. But they bear some responsibility for their attempts to strip the diaspora Polish-born Jews of their nationalities (my grandfather and uncle had proudly chosen Polish nationality after WWI, although they lived in Berlin--they could have taken Austrian or German nationality.) They were both very proud to be Polish Jews. But in October 1938 it was only because they had cousins in Krakow who came out to help them that they were able to get away from the misery of the camp and live in the cousins' house in Krakow.
The action of the Poles in leaving in misery, destitution and terror those Polish Jews who had become stateless through Polish legislation which was aimed at getting rid of them is an abiding shame, and absolutely inexcusable.
It comes out of a very long history of Polish anti-semitism besides which the help given to Jews by a tiny but noble minority ceases to have all but token significance. The Poles still have some difficulty in dealing with this dreadful history. I hope you do not.
So, Fiyaz, it seems that you do have much further learning to do.But perhaps it is wiser to make sure you are better informed before you post an article which seems so historically under-informed that one could suspect it's biased in favour of a rosy view of the Poles.
And lastly, you conclude in your last sentence with the formula "as a Muslim", which seems gratuitously introduced, and with no further explanation. You may not be aware that on Harry's Place and other internet forums, Jews have come to recognise that this "As A" is a marker of false authenticity or representativeness which is not merited by the quaifications it would need to be representative.
I am a Jew. As it happens I am a proud Galitzianer (southern Polish) Jew whose father was born and lived till he was 22 in a shtetl there. As you may imagine, I have many, many relatives who were murdered (not perished, as if they were so much old rubber) by the German Nazis with the assistance of enthusiastic allies.
I know also that many innocent Poles were persecuted, starved and murdered too. Some had their children stolen. But a great many of those Poles were not innocent in relation to the persecution of the Jews. There are very large numbers, historically authenticated, who betrayed Jews to the Nazi regime. They sadly vastly outnumber those who helped the Jews.
In fact a number of bands of Jews were murdered by Polish Resistance fighters, and the majority of Polish resistance fighters did not help the Jews. That's why the heroic fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto had only tiny numbers of arms at their disposal. The Poles who rose against the Nazis when duped by Stalin and the Soviets into doing so had many, many more arms. There was one specific Polish gentile organization for the aid of the Jews. It included many women amongst its numbers. It is rightly remembered by love and gratitude by Jewish people for its heroic and selfless acts. But they were but a tiny minority who had to do as much to hide their acts from their fellow Poles as they did from the Germans.
But if I wrote "as a Jew" it would not give me authority. Nor would my murdered relatives. I will therefore never use the phrase "as a Jew", because it smacks of claiming something beyond being one individual who should not be taken to be in any way informative about Jewish opinion at large. I could write "as one, possibly unrepresentative Jew". Or I could write, because I think I can demonstrate it beyond doubt, "like most Jews who know their own history and religious tradition".
I write because I have taken the trouble to spend a great deal of time researching this history. That's why I claim the authority to write in as challenging a spirit as I have of what you write here. And I currently do my best to learn of the range and the dominant and minority trends in Muslim opinion in this country and elsewhere. If you care to look up my Twitterfeed "judyk113' you will see that I have greened my portrait. That of itself did not give me authority to write what I did above about the people of Iran, but I did feel that doing my best to follow both the official and the unofficial accounts of what came out of Iran after the election gives me at least the basis on which to claim some reliability for what I wrote.
So, Fiyaz, I'm just as suspicious and sceptical about anyone using the formulation "as a Muslim" as I am of someone saying "as a Jew". It has all to often been a marker of quite a different agenda, and one based on attempts to pass off unrepresentative views as typical or as having an importance beyond their own speaker's presence.
And one other piece of history intervenes in my response to your post. It is the history of the PLO under Arafat setting up some sort of ceremony where they would go and place wreaths at either Auschwitz or the site of the Warsaw Ghetto in mourning for the victims of the Holocaust. It was done at the time when they insisted that they had been made the victims of European guilt for the Holocaust, that European Jews have no connection to Israel or to Jerusalem. I am glad they did not as far as I am aware, invoke Islam in this ceremony, which utterly disgusted me, and I believe the vast majority of the Jews of the world. Of course they had and continue to have a retinue of some thousands of Jews (who would invariably invoke the As A Jew formula) who supported and continue to support those of them who wish to see an end to the State of Israel, and who wish to see all Jews removed from living in the occupied territories.
I hope, Fiyaz, you are sincere in your learning. But for the Jews of Islamic lands, most roads do not lead back to Poland. They lead back to the history of Jewish settlement and migration in those lands and in Israel, going back centuries. And although their relations with their Muslim neighbours were often cordial and rich, and were incomparably greater than those of Jews with the Christians of Europe, they nevertheless faced institutionalized discrimination and humiliation, and sometimes forcible exclusion expulsion and murderous attacks imposed by the Islamic laws under which they lived.
Never forget, indeed. It would be helpful to ensure first that we know every relevant thing we need to remember.