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Poland and the Jews

The following was given as an address by Mr. Michnik in April at Central Synagogue in New York on receiving the Shofar Award “for leadership on behalf of justice, equality and commitment to the rights of the individual according to the finest tradition of Judaism and the Jewish people.”

I would like to confess to having a certain problem. What should a Pole who has never hidden his Jewish origins say to express his gratitude, and his reasons for accepting this great distinction?

During my entire life, I was, and I wanted to be, a Pole in the eyes of foreigners. That is how I always presented myself, here in the States, in Europe, and in Israel. In all the documents I have had to fill out, in the space for nationality I have always put down “Polish.” At the same time, whenever the malignant shadow of anti-Semitism loomed over Polish public life, I clearly and unequivocally acknowledged my Jewish origins and my grandparents’ membership in the Jewish nation. As a Pole, so far as anti-Semites were concerned, I always wanted to be a Jew. And I believe that I will have sufficient courage always to be a Jew for the anti-Semites.

I think about how to be a Pole of Jewish origin today, after the Holocaust was carried out on Polish land—the land that the Nazi executioners selected to be the cemetery of the Jewish nation. How can one be a Pole of Jewish origin in the country that lived through the pogrom against Jews at Kielce in 1946, the anti-Semitic excesses in 1956, the anti-Semitic campaign orchestrated by the Communist government in 1968, and, finally, the wounding anti-Semitic rhetoric of the last presidential campaign?

This is not the place to analyze the complexity of Polish-Jewish relations. Nor is it the place to remember that Poland sheltered multitudes of Jews for centuries. Or the place for a subtle analysis of the awakening of the national consciousness of both Poles and Jews, and the nationalism and chauvinism that were the pathologies of this consciousness and led to the transformation from coexistence between Poles and Jews to conflict.

Finally, this is not the place to remember the sad facts of the Second Polish Republic between 1918 and 1939, when so many Polish citizens of Jewish origin were mistreated and humiliated in the so-called classroom ghettos of the universities and the hate-filled campaign conducted by anti-Semitic factions of the Polish public.

However, it must be remembered that already then, during that noisy campaign, what was at stake was not merely Polish-Jewish relations. The brutal campaign against the first president of the Second Republic, Gabriel Narutowicz, accused him of relying on the support of Jewish political parties. It ended in his murder in 1922, revealing that the organized anti-Semites, who blamed Jews for every Polish misery and incited hatred and xenophobia, were in fact making an assault on Polish democracy and its representatives.

The murder of President Narutowicz was the Polish equivalent of the Dreyfus affair. What was at stake here, as in France at the turn of the century, was not only relations between the two nationalities but the shape of the state and the nation. In both France and Poland the question was whether the nation was to be open and the state tolerant and multicultural, or whether the state was to be based on authoritarian principles and nationalistic doctrine. And I think this has been the central question ever since. Whenever the shadow of anti-Semitism arose in Polish public life, it was an unmistakable signal that people with antidemocratic, intolerant views were on the political offensive.

Today Poland is a country without Jews; and when anti-Semitic opinions are expressed in Poland, Jews are not the issue, whatever the authors of the opinions themselves may think. The question is whether there will or will not be a Polish democracy.

Last year, two prominent Poles, heroes of the Polish wartime resistance movement, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski and Jan Karski, publicly opposed the common Polish practice of digging into people’s family history and classifying them by racial criteria. Their strong statement had far-reaching implications, and not only for Polish-Jewish relations. Theirs was the mature voice of that most beautiful of Polish historical traditions—the tradition of an open, tolerant society, a multinational commonwealth which did not burn its heretics.

What is anti-Semitism in today’s Poland? First of all, it is not unique. Aggressive anti-Semitic slogans can be heard today in Prague and Bratislava, in Russia and the Ukraine, in Hungary and in Romania. All these voices have a double edge. Each is a manifestation not merely of hatred of Jews but simply of a hostility toward the fundamental standards of European democracy. Anti-Semitism has become a code and a common language for people who are dreaming of a nationally pure and politically disciplined state—a state without people who are “different” and without a free opposition.

The explosions of anti-Semitic xenophobia in my country have recently provoked uneasiness and protest on the part of the most respected and distinguished representatives of Polish culture as well as the Catholic Church Episcopate and the president of the Republic. The Episcopate issued a special bishops’ letter in which—for the first time in the history of the Catholic church in Poland—anti-Semitism was unequivocally condemned. President Lech Walesa established a special council for Polish-Jewish relations. Clearly, these acts and initiatives, deserving as they are of support, do not solve the problem. For—I will repeat—the issue at this late date is not Polish-Jewish relations; the issue is the plague of anti-Semitism, which, though it only touches the margins of Polish public life, has, as we know from history, the tendency to spread.

Anti-Semitism is like a malignant virus which first implants itself in one cell in order to poison and kill the entire organism. What characterizes this kind of anti-Semitism is a strange fascination with blood and heredity, a morbid interest in the racial background of grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The attempt is, once again, independently of historical truth and the demands of logic, to divide Polish citizens, or citizens of any country, into the better, the “real” ones, and the worse—those infected by Jewish blood.

That is why the habit of ascribing Jewish forbears to political enemies has become a grotesque and tragic part of the political debate in post-Communist countries. One must discuss all this with utter openness and have the courage to call the disease by its proper name. I can assure you that in Poland there are many people who have such courage—there are in fact large numbers of them. I’ll say more: these are the people who create the authentic cultural values of Polish democracy and make up its spiritual core.

Relations between Poles and Jews are still burdened by two stereotypes—one Polish and the other Jewish. According to the Polish stereotype there has never been any anti-Semitism in Poland, and the Jews were never so well-off as they were there. In this stereotype, each critical voice condemning anti-Semitism is considered an expression of the anti-Polish conspiracy on the part of international forces who are filled with hatred for Poland. There is also a Jewish stereotype, which says that each Pole imbibes anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk; that Poles share the responsibility for the Holocaust; that the only thing worth knowing about Poland is just that—that Poles hate Jews.

The Polish stereotype produces among Jews, even Jews well-disposed toward Poland, an instinctive dislike of Poles. This stereotype makes any calm and clarifying debate on the history of Polish anti-Semitism impossible. On the other hand, the Jewish stereotype immediately arouses a sort of “secondary anti-Semitism” among Poles, because people who are completely free of anti-Semitic phobias feel accused of sins they’ve never committed. And having been accused of being natural anti-Semites, they feel hurt and perceive ill will on the part of Jews; and such feelings tend to preclude an honest dialogue with Jews about the past and the future.

It isn’t easy for me to talk about all this, because my judgment is far from impartial. Because of my own past—as a Pole of Jewish origin, engaged from early youth in the democratic opposition, fighting for the freedom of Poland and of each human being—I have always perceived anti-Semitism as a form of anti-Polonism; and, listening to Jewish accusations of Polish anti-Semitism, I’ve always felt solidarity with the great part of Polish public opinion that in every historical period was capable of opposing clearly, bravely, and unambiguously the successive campaigns of hatred.

Among my friends one thing was always clear: anti-Semitism is the name of hatred. But it was also clear to us that the stubborn categorization of Poland as an anti-Semitic nation was used in Europe and America as an alibi for the betrayal of Poland at Yalta. The nation so categorized was seen as unworthy of sympathy, or of help, or of compassion. That is why, for years and decades, we have stubbornly explained that anti-Semitic pathology doesn’t define Poland, just as Le Pen doesn’t define France, the John Birch Society doesn’t define America, the Black Hundreds don’t define Russia, and extreme Israeli chauvinism doesn’t define the state of Israel.

In the history of the relations between Poles and Jews, there have been better and worse phases. People have been injured and crimes have occurred. One must speak and write about all this honestly, and today, in a Poland free of censorship and police rule, we have every possibility of doing so. Such public debate will in my view contribute to creating a more real picture and to breaking through the stereotypes on both sides. I’ll never reconcile myself to the use of the label of anti-Semitism in order to smear the nation that, in 1939, was the first to say “no” to Nazism, the nation that, squeezed between two bandits, Hitler and Stalin, chose to make a tenacious fight for freedom; the nation whose citizens have had so many trees planted in the Holocaust Memorial in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. That is why I perceive labels of this kind as a personal insult. And it is why I’ll never reconcile myself to Polish anti-Semites gaining legitimacy by claiming to defend the honor of all Poles, whereas it is precisely they, the Polish anti-Semites, who besmirch Poland’s good name.

For I am convinced that the practice of assigning collective national responsibility for the sins or crimes committed by individuals or political groups always serves to justify those very groups and individuals. Whoever says that all Poles are anti-Semites helps to justify actual anti-Semitism. It is well known, after all, that wherever everyone is guilty, no one is guilty.

I am a Pole. I must explain now why I accepted an award created for Jews. I accepted it in the name of solidarity—solidarity with the ashes of the murdered millions, among them my entire family. Those people weren’t asked about their national background or identity. They were killed as Jews, because that is how they were categorized in the headquarters of Nazi anti-Semites. And this I must not forget. If I denied my origins, I’d feel like a person spitting on the ashes of the murdered.

And yet, I feel solidarity with something more than just the ashes of my murdered grandparents. I am not speaking of solidarity with Jewish history or with the Jewish religion, or Jewish traditions or customs, or with the Jewish nation, or the state of Israel. With what then? When I look for words to describe this complicated and intimate feeling, what comes to my mind is solidarity with the Jewish fate. The Jewish fate is the fate of a threatened people who have suffered many blows, who know the taste of humiliation, of defeat, and who have always faced hard choices. It is finally the fate of people who have been rejected and persecuted.

In other words, the Jewish fate is a certain condition, and if that condition is not understood, contemporary civilization, contemporary spiritual life, and contemporary ethics would be poorer in something essential. And it is just from this perspective, the perspective of a descendant of Holocaust victims, that I look at my country, at Poland. The Polish nation has built into its history the idea of a tolerant country—and it also has in its history the idea of itself as a wholly Catholic state. Today, these two ideas are set against each other. Right now, the argument about the shape of Poland cuts across all the political camps, all milieus, generations, and social classes. It also cuts across the members of the Catholic church and the members of Solidarity. In its essence, it is an argument about the meaning of Polishness and of a democratic order.

I accept this award as one of those who are for a tolerant state, a state in which there is room for many cultures, many different personal histories, and many points of view. I am for a country that will create a stable democracy; for an open society that will be able to protect itself against the invasion of barbaric hatred. Anti-Semitism is always the language of such hatred.

I speak for a therapy that will emerge from the effort to understand the disease. Such therapy, a permanent therapy, is what all countries need today. Hatred of another nation is always the sign of barbaric intolerance. Whoever mouths judgments that justify a general hatred of Jews or Poles, of Russians or Lithuanians, of Arabs or Kurds, is constructing the world on the model of hatred. And such a person will certainly fulfill the paradoxical biblical prophecy of Saint Paul: “The good that I would, I do not: but the evil that I would not, that I do.” A great Polish poet noted somewhere during the dark days of the Nazi occupation that just when a man thinks he can do nothing is when he can do the most.

I have a feeling that we can challenge hatred; and I accept this award as an encouragement to have the courage to oppose hatred.

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