Vladka Meed Part 9: Meanwhile, in Poland…
As you will remember from Part 8, Vladka and Benjamin left Poland for good upon as resurgent anti-Semitic violence made it clear that they had no future in the country of their birth. For, in the immediate post-war years, Polish Nationalists had finally achieved their dream: a Poland in which Roman Catholic ethnic Poles were the majority. But, this dream only came to fruition under Communist rule within the Soviet sphere is influence, not within the bounds of Polish self-determination. With the destruction of the Polish Nationalist underground during Operation Tempest, and the 1944 withdrawal of US and UK support for the Polish government-in-exile, the Communist regime could operate with interference from neither the West, nor the Polish Nationalist parties.
1946 ceremony memorializing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Yitzhak Zuckerman stands on the left-hand side of the speaker. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
As the 1940s rolled on, the Polish government set out to craft a narrative of the war years which downplayed the contributions of Polish Nationalists to World War II. Government officials memorialized the Jewish dead and set up monuments to their martyrdom, while persecuting Poles who had fought the Nazis as representatives of the Armja Krajowa and similar groups.
1948 unveiling of Nathan Rapaport‘s Ghetto Heroes Monument. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Memorial service at the 1948 unveiling. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Monument close-up. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In the eyes of those Poles who fought and/or supported the fight against the Nazis, this indicated nothing less than a Jewish takeover of the government, intended to suppress all memory of Polish action and oppression under Nazi rule. This led to a period of what was perhaps the worst anti-Jewish violence in the history of Polish-Jewish relations.
Between 1944 and 1947, Poles murdered between 1,500 and 2,000 Jewish survivors as they returned to their homes. Poles bombed the few remaining Jewish institutions in the country, and perpetrated pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. In Kielce, July 1946, a Polish mob attacked a communal residence set up for Holocaust survivors, murdering 42 and wounding more than 100 people. After the Pogrom, many Jewish survivors—like Vladka and Benjamin—concluded that they had no future in Poland, and left. The Jewish population of Poland shrank to under 80,000 individuals. When the government sentenced the perpetrators of the Pogrom to death, Poles protested, arguing that the Pogrom and others like it had been nothing more than Zionist plots to stimulate Jewish emigration. Anti-Semitic violence continued through the 1950s. Between 1956 and 1960, another 40,000 Jews left Poland. By the 1960s, only 30,000 Jews remained.
In 1956, an official named Mieczyslaw Moczar began to accumulate power. A member of the Polish United Workers Party and General in the Polish People’s Army, Moczar was influential in the parts of the government which controlled the police and security forces. In the 1960s, he became leader of the state-controlled veteran’s association, the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (the Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokracje, or, ZBoWiD), an organization with at least 300,000 members. At the same time, Polish political culture was moving away from the hard-line anti-Nationalist Stalinism of the 40s and 50s, to a climate more open to Polish nationalists. In this new climate, veterans of the Armja Krojowa and similar were now able to assert themselves in public. They took up government positions, many of them in the same departments which fell within Moczar’s sphere of influence, and, as the changing climate moved to the ZBoWiD, its ranks swelled as it opened membership to all veterans of Polish organizations which fought the Nazis.
Through his roles in the government, and in the ZBoWiD, Moczar built a power-base for himself made up of newly accepted and emboldened Polish nationalists and Home Army veterans. With this base, called the “Partisans,” behind him, Moczar launched a campaign to take control of the memory of the war years, pulling it from the custody of the earlier hard-line Stalinists into the hands of the Polish Nationalists. This meant pulling it away from a body which emphasized the plight of the Jews, to a body desperate for recognition of Polish action and victimhood.
The campaign began in earnest in 1966. In that year, the prestigious Wielka Encyklopedia Powszehna, the Great Universal Encyclpedia, printed an article which differentiated between Nazi labor camps, in which prisoners were worked to death, and death camps, which existed solely to exterminate prisoners, the majority of which were Jews. The state-controlled press picked up on this, and pundits from every corner of the country were incensed. They accused the Encyclopedia staff of erasing the history of Polish victimization during the War, while emphasizing suffering of the Jews. As a result of the controversy, a new article was printed, this one presenting all Nazi camps as inherently similar, and all existing to murder all victims equally.
In June 1967, days after the Six Day War, Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka, having noted that some of Poland’s Jews seemed excited about Israel’s victory in that conflict, made a speech warning of the presence of a “fifth column” in Poland.1 A little over a week later, he made a speech which containeing references to the consequences of the presence of a people with “two souls and two fatherlands” within Poland. The result, as intended, was a widespread perception of Polish Jews not as Poles (not that they every truly were viewed as Poles), but as untrustworthy “Zionist” agents. In 1968, an official named Tadeusz Walichnowski, one of the leaders of the Nationalist faction of the Polish United Workers’ Party, published a highly influential, best-selling books called Israel and West Germany.
In this book, Tadeusz Walichnowski accused the State of Israel of committing genocide under the tutelage of 1,000 former Nazis. This relationship between the Nazis and the Zionists, he argued, dated back to the pre-war years. The Zionists, he continued, needed the Holocaust to happen in order to build support for the creation of a Jewish State, and collaborated with the Nazis to make it happen. Therefore, the real victims of the Nazis were the Poles, while the Holocaust had been nothing more than a German-Jewish, I mean ”Zionist,” conspiracy against the Poles.
Ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 1968. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In March 1968, in a seemingly unrelated turn of events, the government banned a production of Adam Mickiewicz’s play Dziady, due to perceived anti-Soviet themes. Students at Warsaw University went on strike in protest, and the police—rife with Partisans—came down hard on the protesters, jailing or exiling many of them. Seizing on the moment, Moczar made his move. Taking the rage of 1966, the “fifth column” fear mongering of 1967, and the conspiracy theories of 1968, he tied them all together, and placed the blame for the student protests on Zionists.
In his framing of the situation, these Zionist agitators were representatives of an anti-Polish conspiracy in which agents, both at home and abroad, actively worked to to mutilate the memory of the war years, defame the actions of the Polish Nation, and erase wartime Polish martyrdom. Major actors in this conspiracy, he argued, included West Germany, historical institutes in Israel, and centers of “Zionist” activity in the United States—you know, like the organizations Vladka worked with while giving Holocaust lectures. Under Moczar’s leadership, police and security forces instituted a search for Polish officials of Jewish descent. Tadeusz Walichnowski created a card index of all those in Poland of Jewish descent, using a system potentially stricter than that used in the Nuremberg Laws to determine descent.
Beginning in March 1968 and continuing through 1970, across Poland Jewish employees were “unmasked” and dismissed from jobs. Afterwards, it was impossible for them to find work in Poland. Further, these Jews were only allowed to leave Poland under the condition that they give up their Polish citizenship. From there, the government gave them only one thing: an exit permit valid only for travel to Israel.2 As a result of this expulsion-in-all-but-name, another 20,000 Jews left Poland. The Partisans perceived this as “proof” of the Jews’ true, Zionist, allegiance.
The legacy of the Anti-Semitic Campaign lasted through the mid-1980s. In accounts of the war published between about 1968 and 1985, the fate of Polish Jewry during the war was presented as indistinguishable from that of the Poles. Even the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was discussed only in the context of Polish aid rendered to Jewish fighters.
By the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a new generation in Poland, one removed enough from the war that it could look back on Polish history not as something personal, but as something to be learned. Slowly, students and members of the intelligentsia became interested in Jews, Judaism, and Jewish History in Poland. The silence of the post-1968 era was replaced with a collective interest in a long-gone, multinational Poland past. This younger generation of Poles fely comfortable mourning the Jews, and Polish historians and intellectuals felt as though they were able to engage in dialogue with their Jewish and Israeli counterparts. However, this was not simply the product of a generational shift. In Ocotber 1978, Pope John Paul II, born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice, ascended from Archbishop of Krakow, to Pope. During his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow, he had been an important figure in parts of the Catholic community interested in learning about Jewish culture and history in Poland.3 As Pope, he visited Auschwitz and spoke specifically about Jewish victims of the Nazis, identifying them not as enemy nationals, but as the older brothers of the Catholic people.4 He pushed for interfaith dialogue, and remembrance of the specific Jewish experience of World War II.
In 1983, the Polish government, now long past the anti-Semitic campaign, and operating in a new atmosphere of inquiry and dialogue, arranged an elaborate commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The government invited thousands of Jews and Jewish organizations to attend. However, Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the ZOB, called for a boycott of the proceedings, arguing that Poland’s martial law and censored press went against everything the Uprising stood for. A state-organized mass commemoration of the Uprising, therefore, could never be anything more than a propagandic farce. As a result, an unofficial memorial ceremony was organizaed, with Edelman’s blessing, to take place a few days before the government’s. Several hundred people attended. Standing before the monument, they made and listened to hurried speeches, laid flowers, and said Kaddish. And then they were dispersed by riot police.
Days later, in front of an audience of thousands, a Military Guard of Honor laid a wreath at the base of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.
1983 memorial ceremony. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
This is not where the story of the Polish relationship with Holocaust history and memory ends, but that’s where I’m going to end the the present discussion. Because, in January 1978, right before new forces took hold of the the memory of Poland’s Jewish past, Vladka and Benjamin returned.
1 The “fifth column,” for those unfamiliar with it, is a form of xenophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted rhetoric used to target minorities, immigrants, refugees, outsiders, and anyway else deemed unworthy of membership in the nation-state. As applied to Jews, it cast them as inherently untrustworthy, loyal to each other (“International Jewry”) over any state in which they resided. It led to a lot of scapegoating during the Dreyfus Affair, the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Hitler-era American nativist line that Jewish refugees were German spies. After 1948, the trope shifted to convey that Jews living anywhere outside of Israel were loyal to Israel before all else. To illustrate how this works, allow me to give you an anecdote: at a grad school happy hour I toasted “l’chaim” before downing my shot. A colleague across the table sneered at me and toasted “Free Palestine” before downing his shot. This colleague was making assumptions about my politics and loyalties as a Jewish person despite knowing nothing about me or my politics. This is fifth column thinking. And then, of course, there’s our best friend, the cab driver. This all dovetails nicely with Jewish Conspiracy, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion type shit. To provide examples of how this applies to other groups, the 45th President of the US likes to insinuate that all Hispanic immigrants represent MS-13, and that all Muslims are anti-American terrorists. This is fifth column rhetoric in action. It’s gross and highkey ethnic-cleansey.
2 Subtweeting all of Eurasia and North Africa here okay like if you hate the State of Israel and do not want it to exist, then maybe don’t kick out your Jews and/or treat them so horribly that their only choice is go to Israel as a result of international immigration policies/your fucking exit permit???? I mean, I know why, but…
3 In the late 1970s, liberal, educated classes of the Polish Catholic community began to take an interest in Jewish history in Poland. One of their organizations, the Warsaw Club, organized annual Weeks of Jewish Culture. On these Weeks, they would pay visits to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and work on restoring its tombstones, attend lectures on Jewish culture, and participate in similar activities.
4 There’s a whole clusterfuck involving a convent opening in a former Auschwitz gas chamber because Lol Memory, but that happened outside of the 1946-1983 time frame of this post, so that’s a memory clusterfuck I will not be discussing here.