Poland - Land Without Jews

by Michael D. Lissner and Barbara H. Urbach Lissner, Esqs.

This summer, along with our children Sam and Eliese, and Barbara's parents Sol and Ada Urbach, both Holocaust Survivors, we retraced the footsteps of Sol's life during the Holocaust in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Although we had made a similar trip in 1995, accompanied then by Barbara's brothers and their families, this years trip was made at the request of our children, now 17 and 14, who wanted to return since they felt that they had been too young to remember many of the details, or, more importantly, the significance of the previous trip. We were both surprised and extremely proud that our two teenagers would want to revisit their grandparents' past, rather than simply revisiting Disney World or Epcot Center.

While we knew that visiting the concentration camps of Poland and the Czech Republic would be an emotional experience, what we were all unprepared for was how disturbing the visit to Poland itself would be. For there, in the country in which a majority of the Holocaust's victims perished, site of the most notorious of the death camps, anti-Semitism remains alive and well at the bureaucratic level and denial of the country's role in the Holocaust is not only firmly entrenched but practically institutionalized. For our children, who have grown up in a democratic society free of any personal contact with anti-Semitism, this visit provided a visceral experience of what their grandparents lives had been like, something till now they had only heard of.

Rather than acknowledging its contribution to the horrors of the War, Poland, unlike Germany, continues to see itself as the victim of the Nazi occupation. Rather than making restitution for property stolen and wages lost, Poland, unlike other countries in Eastern Europe, keeps such legislation stagnating under discussion.

Yes, Poland was occupied and, yes, Poles were sent to the camps and died there. But no, they were not singled out for extermination as were the Jews. And what we discovered is that for many Poles, the large and vital Jewish communities that existed in Poland for so many centuries before being eradicated did not even exist. This ignorance is not necessarily due to malice or ill will on the part of individual Poles but rather stems from the rigidity of both the Church and the Polish government.

One of the places we visited was Kalwarie, not far from the town of Wadowice where Pope John Paul II was born and raised. There we went to see the major exhibit depicting life in the town from the 13TH through the 20TH centuries. What a shock it was to discover that, despite the fact that a thriving Jewish community lived there until it was wiped out 60 years ago, there was not a document or picture of any Jew or Jewish institution in the exhibit. Why was this, we asked the director of the exhibit, whose reply was that he had no interest in the history of the towns Jews. He did, however, refer us to the building that once served as the towns synagogue. Now a mere furniture showroom, this former house of worship had been used for decades as a horse stable! So much for the Jews of Kalwarie.

Sol's entire family - mother, father, three brothers and two sisters - had been slaughtered either during or after the March 12, 1943 liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto. He survived only because he was one of a group of 100 working at the enamel works of the Righteous Gentile, Oskar Schindler. Trying to locate his birth certificate, we were referred to the local Catholic priest, who is in charge of the town records. This man of the cloth refused even to speak with my father-in-law, let alone help in his search, unless Sol agreed to convert to Catholicism. So much for the attitude of the Polish Catholic Church towards the reconciliation so sincerely urged by the Pope himself.

And this denial of the existence of Polish Jews, or the unimaginable horrors systematically inflicted on them is not confined to the village cleric. Imagine our reaction when, upon entering Gross-Rosen (run during the war by the Ukrainian SS) we were greeted by a 60-foot high cross. Yes, further on there is, begrudgingly, a small plaque with a Star of David. The message is clear - maybe a couple of Jews were imprisoned here, but it was the Polish Catholics who paid the heavier cost. And the awful events which took place on the site of Krakow-Plasców (run by the infamous Amon Goeth) are now covered by beautifully maintained grassy expanses, where mothers watch their Polish children run and play. For all intents and purposes, this concentration camp looks as if it were simply a public picnic ground.

But that cross, and the beautification of the camps, represent much more than a religious usurpation of a tragedy. It represents the conscious denial on the part of the ruling institutions of Poland, like the Church and the government, that they were complicit in the Nazi extermination of an entire people. Compare this with the Czech camp of Theresienstadt, where the numbers of Jews who died or who were shipped to the camps of Poland to die, are admittedly smaller. There, however, the events that took place on that hallowed ground are fully acknowledged as is the fact that this was a camp for Jews.

Why can't Poland do the same?

This continuing, systemic anti-Semitism is representative of the institutions of Poland, if not of its people. The Poles themselves, particularly the younger generations, could not have been warmer or more welcoming to us. The Poles in their late 20's and early 30's, have come of age free of the constraints of Communism and able to enjoy the winds of democracy now blowing through Eastern Europe. They are also free to question the role of their country during the era of the Nazis, to acknowledge its historic anti-Semitism; and to challenge the statements of such inflexible bureaucracies as the Church. They are demanding a more truthful history of their country than the denial fed to them for so long.

Change is in the air. Poland is eager to be seen as an equal to its neighbors in all aspects: it has joined NATO; it anticipates joining the European Union in the near future; there is even discussion about the restoration of Jewish property lost or confiscated during the Nazi era, though this has not yet gone past the discussion stage. But in return for acknowledgment of Polands equality, the EU insists that Poland confront its past and its role during World War II. Such further change is inevitable.

Perhaps when the Polish government and its attendant bureaucracies are finally able to acknowledge the facts of its past - that Jews existed side by side with Poles for centuries; that Poland willingly, if not exactly enthusiastically aided and abetted the Nazis; that the Catholic Church continues to deny its role in encouraging anti-Semitism; that the Polish government still refuses to make restitution for the legitimate claims of its citizens - it will be fully accepted and warmly embraced as a nation equal to all others in its humanity and decency.

Until that day arrives, however, the memories of Poland which my children carry will be of a country that still denies that their ancestors even existed.

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