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Shoah’ and Poland

In response to:

The Life of Death from the December 19, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

When reading Timothy Garton Ash’s article “The Life of Death” [NYR, December 19, 1985] I was saddened to see how difficult it is for an outsider, even such an honest and well-informed observer of the Polish scene as Mr. Garton Ash, to understand the complexity of the Polish–Jewish relations and the true nature of the Nazi occupation in Poland.

In September 1985 in Oxford Mr. Garton Ash attended the discussion on Polish–Jewish relations as reflected in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, with the participation of scholars from the West, from Israel, and from Poland, and of Mr. Lanzmann himself. I also took part in this discussion; Mr. Garton Ash qualifies my intervention as a “rather shocking” expression of Polish nationalism. Well, it is a rather painful accusation when addressed to somebody who all his life has been fighting against nationalism (and anti-Semitism) in his own country. But my reaction to Mr. Garton Ash’s article is not motivated by my “wounded feelings,” the problem is much larger and more important.

I totally agree with Mr. Garton Ash that Shoah is a great film and a really haunting presentation of the terrible fate of the Jews in the days of the Holocaust. I also agree that the “Polish part” of the film is relatively secondary and marginal. But it was exactly this part that was the subject of the Oxford discussion, organized by the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies. And maybe—it was not so marginal, given that after the Paris première of Shoah, the conclusion presented in the French mass media was that the Poles had their share in the guilt and responsibility for the extermination of the Jews. (E.g., the title in the Paris daily Liberation: “La Pologne au banc des accusés“/ “Poland in the dock.”) In several interviews and statements Mr. Lanzmann himself has also practically subscribed to this opinion. Should defending ourselves against such a monstrous and totally gratuitous accusation be qualified as nationalism?

Neither during the Oxford debate, nor in my article on the same issue in the Kraków weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, which Mr. Garton Ash mentions in a footnote, did I deny the existence of widespread anti-Semitism in Poland; moreover I did not abstain from condemning it in the strongest way. And I did not say that today anti-Semitism is no longer a problem for the Poles, as it remains a problem for every Christian. What I do think, however, is that the conception and the execution of the “Final Solution” was exclusively the doing of the Nazis, and I do not see why anybody else should be burdened with co-responsibility for it. It was in this sense that I said, indeed, that the Polish anti-Semitism has nothing to do with the Holocaust.

Mr. Garton Ash says that the crucial question is that of the connection, if any, between the fact of Polish wartime anti-Semitism and the fact that the German extermination camps were located in Poland. He adds that Lanzmann’s film should provoke Polish historians to begin a serious examination of the whole subject. Well, Polish (and not only Polish) historians did not wait for forty years and they did not need Shoah to study the question. Nobody was ever able to present even the slightest evidence to show that the extermination camps were located in Poland because Poles were anti-Semites. It is quite clear why they were located in Poland: first, because it was there that the greatest Jewish community lived; compared to the three million Polish Jews, Jewish communities in other Nazi-occupied countries were only small minorities. Second, but not less important: the Nazis tried—as far as it was possible—to keep the “Final Solution” top secret. Poland was the territory best suited for this purpose, given its distance and its isolation from the West. The proof that the choice was right is that—as is well known—early and frequent reports on the fate of the Jews, sent to the West by the Polish underground, were quite often considered as untrue, and did not provoke any serious reaction.

If one says that Polish records concerning the help offered to Jews and the efforts to rescue them are probably better than corresponding data for any other Nazi-occupied country, given the conditions—then should it be qualified as nationalism?

One last question. Mr. Lanzmann, and many others, maintain that even today Poles are anti-Semites because they are Catholics. In the footnote Mr. Garton Ash mentions the fact that Tygodnik Powszechny (the Catholic weekly I am editing) has been “apparently” described by Mr. Jerzy Urban, the Polish government press spokesman, as “idolatrously philo-Semitic.” (By the way, why “apparently”? It is difficult to understand it otherwise than as an expression of doubt, if not disbelief, on Mr. Garton Ash’s part. Well, here is a precise reference: Mr. Urban’s article in the Warsaw weekly Tu i teraz, February 2, 1983.) Putting aside the exaggeration contained in the word “idolatrously,” Mr. Urban’s opinion is not unjustified. During the forty years of Polish postwar history there have been moments when out of all Polish mass media Tygodnik Powszechny was the only one to defend Jews and to condemn anti-Semitism. But I did not mention this fact during the Oxford discussion in order to “upgrade” my credentials; it would have been totally irrelevant. What was relevant, however, I think, is that if the leading and most influential Catholic weekly in Poland, which has close ties with the Church hierarchy and which has been shaping public opinion of the Catholic community since 1945, can be qualified as “idolatrously philo-Semitic,” it gives—I presume—some kind of evidence that something did substantially change in Poland as far as the Catholic attitude toward the Jews is concerned.

In the first part of his article, Mr. Garton Ash, while reviewing another film, Heimat by Edgar Reitz, is quite aware of the deep anti-Americanism of this German work. Why does he then underestimate the anti-Polish (and anti-Catholic) bias of Shoah?

Jerzy Turowicz

Kraków, Poland

Timothy Garton Ash replies:

I yield to no one in my respect for Jerzy Turowicz and his achievement in steering Tygodnik Powszechny through all the storms of Polish postwar history, making it, as I observed in an earlier New York Review article, “Poland’s best weekly paper.” Nor would I dream of accusing him of “nationalism” in the senses in which that term is customarily used in Poland. Nor did I. In the passage to which he refers I was, as I stressed, using the word in Orwell’s very special sense, and applying it only to his comments on this one particular subject.

Nor was my qualifying “apparently” meant in any way to suggest doubt or disbelief that Jerzy Urban had described Tygodnik Powszechny as “idolatrously philo-Semitic.” It merely indicated that while I had heard Mr. Urban quoted as saying this, I had not myself been able to verify the quotation. Yes, there is absolutely no doubt about Tygodnik Powszechny‘s unique record in countering anti-Semitism, and this is, as Mr. Turowicz writes, “some kind of evidence that something did substantially change in Poland as far as the Catholic attitude toward the Jews is concerned.” But that was rather my point. For if something substantially changed after 1945, then something else was there before. And I seized upon Mr. Turowicz’s remarks because they seemed to me to illustrate the difficulty, even now, even for a Catholic intellectual of his distinction, integrity, and longstanding opposition to anti-Semitism, of directly addressing this particular something.

I repeat: the specific period under discussion was wartime, not the prewar period to which Mr. Turowicz refers when acknowledging the partly religious roots of Polish anti-Semitism in his Tygodnik Powszechny essay. And the specific problem at issue was the anti-Semitism of Polish Catholic peasants, and the prejudices which, as Lanzmann’s film showed us, some of these peasants could still express even when face to face with the extermination of their Jewish neighbors, and still repeat into the camera today. Even if what we have here is nothing more than a certain continuity of prewar attitudes, in the terribly changed circumstances of wartime occupation, then this still seems to me to raise some profound moral and historical questions: questions, at one level, for us all, but also special questions for Polish Catholics.

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