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Poland’s Historical Revisionism Law Threatens the Promise of “Never Again”

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The Polish Senate recently passed a controversial bill that is reverberating internationally. The bill will, by all indications, become the law of the land. It states, in part, that “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” with the exception that a person “is not committing a crime if he or she commits such an act as part of artistic or scientific activities.”

What I find more surprising than the act itself is the blatant and unapologetic magnitude of this officially authorized perpetration of historical revisionism, something usually undertaken in a somewhat less official manner.

While mislabeling “Polish Concentration Camps” needs urgent correction as “Nazi or German Concentration Camps,” and though history records numerous instances of Polish Christians standing up against Nazi tyranny by entering the ranks of resistance movements and by sheltering Jews from certain murder, many others fully conspired with the Nazi invaders in their lands.

What happens in Poland circulates around and through my consciousness and my soul like blood circulates around and through my body. So when I watched and read accounts of Polish residents marching on their 99th annual Independence Day last year throughout the streets of Warsaw on November 11 with upwards of 60,000 people shouting chants and carrying Nazi and white supremacist paraphernalia, where some marchers called for a “white Europe” and an “Islamic Holocaust,” of course I was deeply concerned, but not particularly surprised.

The Foreign Minister from Poland’s rightwing so-called “Law and Justice Party” said  following the march that the day had been “a great celebration of Poles, differing in their views, but united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland.”

To be perfectly clear, the rising tide of fascism demonstrated in Poland represents a larger movement gaining hold throughout Europe and the United States. We have long since passed the point where it is merely hyperbole to compare the rise and control of the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s to the rise and possible take-over of fascism throughout Western democracies and in some other countries around the world.

In both Nazi Germany and today, strong leaders whipped up dehumanizing stereotypes of groups they “othered,” resulting in the scapegoating of already-marginalized groups of people to blame for causing past problems and posing clear and present dangers to the state.

One day, when I was very young child in New York City, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon (Shimon) Mahler’s knee. Looking down urgently but with deep affection, he said to me through his distinctive Polish accent, “Varn, you are named after my father, your great-grandfather, Wolf Mahler. I lived in Krosno, Poland with my father, Wolf, and my mother, Bascha Trencher Mahler, and 13 brothers and sisters, and aunts, uncles, and cousins.”

Simon talked about our mishpocheh (family) with pride, but as he told me this, he revealed an obvious sadness on his face. I asked him if our family still lived in Poland, and he responded that his father and most of the remainder of his family were no longer alive. When I asked him how they had died, he told me that they had all been killed by people called Nazis except his mother, Bascha, who died of a heart attack in 1934. I questioned him why the Nazis killed our family, and he responded, “Because they were Jews.” Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.

In Europe, by the late 19th century CE, Judaism had come to be defined by the scientific community as a distinct “racial” type, with essential immutable biological characteristics — a trend that increased markedly into the early 20th century CE. Once seen as largely a religious, ethnic, or political group, Jews were increasingly socially constructed as members of a “mixed race” (a so-called “mongrel” or “bastard race”), a people who had crossed racial barriers by interbreeding with black Africans during the Jewish Diaspora.

If Jews were evil as thought by many, this evilness was genetic and could not be purged or cured. Jews converting to Christianity as once believed by some Christian leaders, therefore, could no longer be a solution to “the Jewish question.”

In European society, according to social theorist and author Sander Gilman (in Thandeka), Jews were thought of as the “white Negroes”: “In the eyes of the non-Jew who defined them in Western [European] society the Jews became the blacks.” Thandeka adds that “the male Jew and the male African were conceived of as equivalent threats to the white race.”

I truly value and honor the good Polish Christians who have taken on the important task of resurrecting, maintaining, and promoting Jewish culture in present-day Poland. I know many of these good people personally: those who are working at historical museums and in the schools throughout Poland who are researching and teaching about the rich Jewish-Polish culture to new generations.

Among the righteous during World War II, for example, were Krosno farmers, Jakub and Zofia Gargasz, who practiced the Seventh Day Adventist faith. They risked their own lives to shelter from Nazi troops and to nurse back to health a Jewish woman, Henia Katz, and her daughter. A neighbor, though, betrayed them, and Jakub, Zofia, Henia, and her daughter were arrested and sentenced to death on 26 April 1944. At the trial, Zofia affirmed that she and her husband took this courageous action motivated by their religious faith.

Hans Frank, the governor of the occupied Central Polish government decided to commute the death sentences to incarceration in a concentration camp. Jakub and Zofia survived the concentration camp, which was liberated by the Allies. Henia and her daughter did not survive.

Alexander Białywłos (“White Hair” in Polish) was born in Krosno, Poland on June 4, 1923. He was a member of a rather large Jewish family including his maternal grandparents, Chaim and Mala Platner, many uncles and aunts, cousins, and siblings: sister Mania, and brothers Solomon and Heniek. His parents, Mendel Białywłos and Leah Platner Białywłos owned and operated a glass glazing business out of their store located across the street from their residence.

Alexander had a good and full life for his first 16 years, until that fateful day of September 1, 1939 when Nazi German troops invaded Poland. Since Krosno was located not far from German-controlled Czechoslovakia, and it contained an airbase and rich oil deposits and drilling capacities, Nazi troops bombed and invaded Krosno soon after crossing the Polish border. Like many of the approximately 2700 Jewish residents, his family fled east, but finding no place to hide, many, including his family, returned home.

By 1942, Nazi troops had killed most of the Jews in the area, including members of my family. Near Krosno, Alexander’s mother, Leah, and sister, Mania, were taken and shot to death. His older brother, Solomon, was murdered in the nearby town of Jaslo. His eleven-year-old brother, Heniek, the Nazis transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and gassed. Except for a small number of remaining Jews whom the troops crammed into a small ghetto in Krosno, most others were transferred to Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration campus where only a very small handful survived.

Having technical and mechanical skills in glass making and repair, Alexander and his father, Mendel, were sent to the nearby airbase where they worked repairing airplanes until December 1943, when the Nazis cleared out the ghettos and sent all remaining Jewish residents to Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp just south of the town. On May 7, 1944, German soldiers forced prisoners into a “Naked Parade” for selection either to be sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, or for only a few, to be shipped to work details somewhere under Nazi occupation.

Alexander’s father, Mendel, was selected for Auschwitz-Birkenau. In his book, Alexander wrote:

“‘Be a mensch,’ were the last words that my father said to me before he was led to the death train and disappeared forever. We were standing on the Appelplatz assembly place in the Concentration Camp Krakow-Plaszow one early morning in mid-May 1944. Moments later, in complete clarity about his fate, he would be led off to the box cars of the train that was to take him, and others selected by the Nazi doctor, to Auschwitz. There he would be murdered in the gas chambers.   “I tried to give him the only thing I had — a small piece of bread I carried with me — as an expression of hope for his survival, even in Auschwitz. He said, ‘You keep it. I will not need it anymore. I do not care to live. I have lost everything, and if I live another ten years, I will eat another ton of potatoes.’ He pushed the bread back to me. It was the last time I saw him.”

Though he can only speculate how it happened, Alexander somehow turned up as #270 on a list of about 1,100 Jews transported to the factory of Oskar Schindler (what became known as “Schindler’s List”). Beginning in October 1944, Alexander and hundreds of other Jews worked at Schindler’s factory in Bruennlitz, which is today part of the Czech Republic. He often remembers Emilie Schindler, Oskar’s generous and compassionate wife, giving the workers extra food to keep their bodies and their spirits alive.

Rescue came on May 8, 1945 when the Russian army freed him and the others at the factory. Alexander immediately returned to Krosno in order to discover whether any family members had survived, only to find that only he, his Uncle Sam Białywłos, and his cousin Joseph Fruman had lived through the horrors.

Once back in Krosno, Alexander walked to the house owned by his parents where he grew up, but Polish people soon confiscated it after Nazis evicted Alexander and his family. Talking then with the current residents, one angrily quipped to Alexander: “Oh, we thought you would be dead by now and the Nazis had made you into soap.” He knew that Krosno was no longer his home.

“The story of my own cousin, Malka Fruhman, is perhaps typical of the fearful treachery of those days, when it seemed that qualities like trust ceased to have meaning. A [non-Jewish] friend promised to hide Malka, but this ‘friend’ instead turned Malka over to the Gestapo, who shot her without compunction. Many years later, Malka’s brother told me that Malka’s boyfriend, a man named Trenczer, located the traitorous friend in Krosno after the war, and avenged my cousin’s death.”

As I read these words, chills stung my entire body because I knew that I am most certainly related to this “Trenczer.” My Great-Grandmother’s name was Bascha Trenczer Mahler. I informed Alexander about this, and he asked me to tell him what I know about the Trenczer’s of Krosno. He did not realize that Bascher, whom he knew, was a Trenczer.

I asked Alexander to tell me more about this story. Evidently, Malka’s boyfriend, our Trenczer relative, was in the Polish army and fled east following the Nazi invasion. After the war, he investigated Malka’s death, and he found the women who betrayed Malka. He walked up to her and shot a bullet into her head instantly killing her. As someone who opposes the death penalty, I surprised myself when I felt a sense of righteous relief upon hearing how he “avenged [Alexander’s] cousin’s death.”

I recently looked up the word “holocaust” in the dictionary. Among the listings was the definition: “genocidal slaughter.” As I read this, the same nagging questions came to me as they did that first day Simon told me about the murder of our family, questions concerning the very nature of human aggression, our ability for compassion, and, to those generations following World War II, our capacity to prevent similar tragedies in the future. 

Tzadik in Hebrew means one who follows a path of righteousness, one who practices the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam of transforming, healing, and repairing the world so that it becomes a better, more just, and more perfect place.

Throughout my life, I have known only a few Tzadikkim, Jews and non-Jews alike, individuals who act in the world on a daily basis in ways that uphold the highest ethical standards while refusing to compromise their integrity, their humanity, and their compassion, even when facing difficult, often tragic circumstances. These individuals respond in the world thinking not for the acknowledgment or recognition they may receive, but they respond because it is just.

While we must never forget the righteous among the Polish people, we must not downplay or bury the evils perpetrated by other Polish citizen or forgive the so-called “bystanders’ who understood full well what was happening and colluded in their silence.

Jews have for centuries contributed much to Polish culture and society. Jews were an integral part of what it meant to be Polish. Unfortunately, from a height of over 3 million before the Holocaust, only an estimated 10-20 thousand Jews still live in Poland today.

Poland now finds itself at a crossroads of sorts, where long-standing official policies, church teachings, and personal belief systems conspire in the exclusion of Jews, while a still relatively small but growing segment of the population genuinely desires to welcome Jews back into the cultural, political, and social life of the country. The road the Polish nation decides to travel today will have implications for many generations to come.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press); co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press); co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge); and co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

February 1st, 2018 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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