Last summer, when I first saw a picture of a half-submerged menorah, a monument to the Kielce pogrom in Poland, something about it struck me as ominous.
My wife, Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, had just returned from Poland, where she served as spiritual leader for a Classrooms Without Borders Holocaust-related study seminar. Her group – students, teachers and lay leaders – visited Kielce, where on July 4, 1946, more than a full year after World War II, at least 42 Jews were murdered and 40 more were wounded, the result of a blood libel rumor.
It was hardly an isolated incident. In Jedwabne, on July 10, 1941, during the occupation, Poles murdered more than 400 of their Jewish neighbors by locking them in a barn and setting it on fire. In Starachowice, in May 1945, members of the Krayova (Home) Army – par tof the Polish resistance – broke into the house of a Jewish family and murdered them.
Similar acts occurred in other towns and villages, compelling thousands of Jews who had survived the Holocaust to flee the country, rather than try to return to their homes.
The Menorah monument was designed to symbolize Jews coming up from the earth, i.e. persevering. To me, though, recent events show it in a completely different light. The nine-prong candelabra seems to be sinking into the cobblestone, a Jewish Titanic in its death throes, posing a stark warning to the Jews of Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
The Polish parliament has passed, and Polish President Andrzej Duda has signed into law, a disturbing act that would criminalize claims of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Poles specifically object to the term “Polish death camps.”
Violation of the new law could result in up to three years in prison. It is unclear how the new law will affect Holocaust scholarship and research.
Nevertheless, critics of the law say it will have a chilling effect on discussions of the Holocaust, and the roles many Poles played in it.
Poland canceled a visit by Israeli Education Minster Naftali Bennett after he said he would tell the Polish people “the truth” about their connection to the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitic attacks have found their way into the Polish media. One of the country’s largest commercial radio stations suspended a journalist who wrote about the “war with the Jews.” The state-owned television station apologized to the Israeli ambassador for a tweet alleging that Jewish opposition to the law was part of an attempt to seize Polish property.
The new law doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Matt Goldberg, director of Louisville’s Jewish Community Relations Council, along with American Jewish Committee representatives, met with the Polish general consul in Chicago last October. The “number one issue,” Goldberg recalled, was the Jewish community’s use of the term “Polish death camp.”
This law is hardly an outlier. Similar acts already exist in Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, and more could be on their way.
We are witnessing a rise of officially sanctioned Holocaust revisionism, distorting the truth and making the teasing of fact from fiction harder than ever.
This is not an anti-Poland column. I have visited the country. I have met and talked to children and grandchildren of Poles who risked everything to save Jewish lives. (More than 6,700 Poles are named by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.)
One night, I literally danced in the streets of Krakow with young Poles at the annual Jewish Culture Festival. Things have changed since then, but I believe many of those young people remain outwardly thinking and don’t harbor medieval hatred.
The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that 70 Israelis and Poles – longtime advocates for closer relations between the two countries – just signed a letter to their governments, saying they refuse to be enemies. Posted online, it has since garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
It’s also important to remember that as many as 2 million Polish non-Jews died at the hands of the Nazis, and Poland was one of the few countries – others being the Netherlands, Denmark and Bulgaria – where resistance efforts were made to save Jews.
And yes, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek Chelmno, Belzec and Sobibor were all Nazi death camps located in Poland, not Polish death camps.
Even so, there were Poles who were complicit in Nazi atrocities: Poles who informed on hidden Jews, who drove trains to death camps … or worse. They have blood on their hands. Kielce teaches this.
No country is all good or all bad, and no country should forever sleep in the dirt for the sins committed by past generations.
Neither should they get to whitewash history.
So warns the sinking menorah.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)