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 …