The Polish national anthem, in a glass-half-full kind of way, solemnly declares, “Poland is not yet lost.” These optimistic words, which do not actually sound very cheerful, especially when performed to the anthem’s depressing tune, were written by Jozef Wybicki in 1797, two years after the third and last partition of Poland between the great powers of the day: czarist Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
Poland, once an empire in its own right, never recovered. It did not become an independent state again until 1918, and then enjoyed independence only briefly, until Nazi Germany invaded it on Sept. 1, 1939, and proceeded to occupy and destroy it, aided by the Soviet Union. After the war, Poland, which had been reduced to rubble by the Germans, was once again devoured, when the Soviet Union occupied it and made it a satellite state, cut off from the non-communist world by the Iron Curtain. Only after the end of the Cold War did Poland re-emerge as a self-determining state.
As reported by Israel Hayom, the governing Law and Justice party in Poland has embarked on a strategy to promote certain glamorous episodes in Poland’s history, such as the anti-communist resistance after World War II, while aiming to suppress the discussion and research into less convenient topics, particularly how Poles helped massacre their Jewish compatriots during the Nazi occupation. The current nationalist government’s revisionist historical policies should be viewed in the light of the above history, which has informed how Poles have seen themselves and others throughout the centuries.
One obvious aspect of Polish history, which cannot be emphasized enough, is the prevalence of a virulent antisemitism that continues to haunt the country today. After World War II, the few Jews who had been left alive out of a pre-war Jewish population of over 3 million were met by Poles who had moved into their houses and overtaken their valuable possessions — many of which have not been repatriated to their rightful owners to this day, since communist Poland subsequently expropriated many of them. On top of all that, the Poles rained fresh pogroms on the heads of the Jewish concentration camp survivors, such as the terrible pogrom in Kielce in 1946.
Jan Tomasz Gross, the historian who more than anyone has revealed the extent of Polish war crimes against Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation, is being demonized by the current Polish government, with the president even threatening to strip him of a national honor bestowed upon him 20 years ago. The truth hurts, no doubt, but Gross has not relented, claiming that Poles killed more Jews than they killed Germans during the war, which is not an unreasonable claim at all, given the speed and ease with which Germany occupied Poland and the zest with which Poles threw themselves into killing Polish Jews, as documented by Gross in his book, Neighbors.
Antisemitism flared up again after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Poland decided to take the Soviet dissatisfaction with Israel out on the country’s remaining Jews — around 13,000 of them — by firing them from jobs, denying them the right to study at university, and various other forms of harassment. Consequently, nearly all the remaining Polish Jews left Poland between 1968 and 1972.
Yet, even in a country largely bereft of Jews — albeit with a burgeoning Jewish cultural industry, which profits from the country’s wealth of Jewish history — antisemitism persists like a plague for which there is no cure. In November 2015, a protest against taking in Muslim refugees at the western city of Wroclaw ended with the burning of an effigy of an ultra-Orthodox Jew holding the flag of the European Union. Antisemitic graffiti is not uncommon and even the Polish language has traces of it with some Poles using the expression “to Jew” as a way to communicate all things unsavory.
Polish society is very formal, and communication is always polite, with men being addressed as “sir” and women as “madam.” Not that long ago, it was still common for men in polite society to greet women with a symbolic kiss on the hand in the old-fashioned French way, from where Polish culture has traditionally taken many of its cues. So much more disturbing is the primitive undercurrent of antisemitism, which exists just under the polished veneer, as it has indeed done throughout history in all European societies.
Before embarking further upon the jingoistic course of historical enhancement, the Polish government might want to reflect on the tremendous debt it owes to the Polish Jews, for everything they brought into Polish culture and for the murderous way in which the Poles ultimately repaid them. They ought also to ask themselves if Poland itself is served well by glossing over the crimes that were committed in order to communicate a picture post card to the younger Polish generations. Viewed from Israel, the question that inevitably comes to mind is this: How dare they?
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.