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Sheldon Kirshner: The two faces of Poland

Sheldon Kirshner

An obscure village in a remote corner of southeast Poland, the kind you can drive through in less than a minute, was in the spotlight recently. On March 17, an array of personalities descended on Markowa for the official opening of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in the Second World War.

The ceremony, covered in minute detail by the Polish media and broadcast abroad in 11 languages, was attended by Poland’s newly elected president, Andrzej Duda, who praised Poles who helped Jews during the Nazi occupation, Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, who affixed a mezuzah on the museum’s door, and a contingent of Polish bishops and foreign diplomats, including the Israeli ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari.

As might have been expected, the event elicited local interest. Hundreds of townspeople gathered in an open field to watch the ceremony on a big screen outside the enclosed VIP area, where more than 1,000 people sat.

The multimedia museum, built at a cost of $2.9 million and financed by Markowa and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, honours the approximately 1,500 Poles who rendered assistance to 2,900 Jews in the region.

It pays special attention to Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, a middle-aged couple who sheltered eight Jews on their farm. When a Polish policeman informed the Germans of their whereabouts in March 1944, the Ulmas were effectively doomed. The Germans immediately killed them, their six children and all eight Jews under their protection.

Their heroism has earned them the posthumous designation of Righteous Among the Nations, a title conferred on Christian rescuers by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust research and education memorial in Jerusalem. As well, a beatification process now underway at the Vatican may well result in sainthood for the Ulmas.

The Ulmas knew they had jeopardized their lives by hiding Jews. In 1941, the German governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, issued a directive warning Poles they would face the death penalty if caught aiding Jews, who comprised almost 10 per cent of Poland’s population.

For Poland, the inauguration of the museum was a shining moment in its problematic relationship with its Jewish population and an opportunity to alter negative perceptions about Poles.

Fifteen years ago, the Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross wrote Neighbors, a book that sparked an impassioned debate in Poland. He had left in 1969, after a state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign that demonized and marginalized Polish Jews. Neighbors was about a pogrom that took place in the northeastern town of Jedwabne, during which a mob of anti-Semitic Poles, egged on by the Germans, herded at least several hundred Jews into a barn and set it alight in a frenzy of xenophobia and hatred.

During the late 1930s, anti-Semitism reached stomach-churning heights in Poland. Germany’s invasion in 1939 spelled utter disaster for its Jewish citizens.

This shameful incident shattered the carefully cultivated notion of Polish victimhood. With three million Poles having been killed during the course of the war, the Polish people regarded themselves as victims of Nazi aggression. But with the publication of Neighbors, they were suddenly thrust into the unsavoury role of perpetrators. The controversy was reignited this past winter when the Polish government, controlled by the right-wing Law and Justice Party, announced its intention to strip Gross of the Order of Merit he had been awarded in 1996.

To me, the idea of Poles as oppressors was not exactly new. As the son of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, I came to learn that Polish Jews generally did not have nice things to say about their Polish-Christian compatriots. My late father, David, and my mother, Genya, had experienced the sting of anti-Semitism in pre-war Poland and had never forgotten, or forgiven, the Poles.

During the late 1930s, anti-Semitism reached stomach-churning heights in Poland, a nation where Christians and Jews had coexisted in relative harmony since the Middle Ages. With the advent of Polish independence in 1918 — after decades of Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian imperial rule — hostility against Jews grew exponentially.

Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 spelled utter disaster for its Jewish citizens. Physical abuse gave way to ghettoization and mass murder, as Jews were deported to extermination camps. During the war, more than 90 per cent of Polish Jewry were murdered.

According to Feliks Tych, editor of Memory: The History of Polish Jews Before, During and After the Holocaust, the overwhelming majority of Poles were bystanders as the Nazi’s Final Solution unfolded with brutal efficiency. “Most Poles considered the Holocaust as an event that in fact did not concern them,” he wrote. Sebastian Rejak, Poland’s envoy to the Jewish diaspora, concurs with this assessment: “The vast majority of Poles were indifferent or inactive. You can’t expect most people to be heroes. This is normal.” Others actively collaborated with the Germans.

A tiny minority of Poles, however, acted decently and courageously, saving about 50,000 Jews. By Tych’s estimation, more than 200,000 Poles were involved in rescue efforts. Some were guided exclusively by altruistic motives. Others demanded money for expenses incurred. Still others were only interested in potential profits. Yet the fact remains that more than 6,000 Poles have been designated as “righteous gentiles” by Yad Vashem, a number that far exceeds any other country occupied and plundered by the Nazis.

Almost 1,000 Poles were killed by the Nazis for assisting Jews, said Marcin Urynowicz, a historian employed by the Warsaw-based Institute of National Remembrance, which designed the exhibit in the Ulma museum.

When the war broke out, Markowa, about 300 kilometres from Warsaw, was inhabited by 4,300 Christians and 120 Jews. The Jews and Poles mingled, but lived apart, constituting two solitudes, says historian Mateusz Szpytma in his book, The Risk of Survival.

Like the other residents of Markowa, the Ulmas witnessed the roundup and execution of Jews during the summer of 1942, when Operation Reinhard, the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews of Poland, was in full swing. As the hunt intensified, a group of desperate Jews approached the Ulmas for help, and they agreed to shelter them.

On March 24, 1944, German military police and Polish collaborators appeared at the Ulmas’ farmstead, having been tipped off by Wlodzimierz Les, a member of the collaborationist Blue Police. The Ulmas were summarily executed, along with their children and the Jews in hiding.

The simple museum in Markowa — featuring photographs, prints and documents — not only pays homage to their humanity and bravery, but also honours the estimated 1,500 Poles in the district who risked their lives and that of their families to help their Jewish neighbours.

Roman Romaniuk, vice-marshal of the Podkarpackie region, voiced the hope that the museum will inspire future generations. “We need positive role models,” he said.

Certainly, the exemplary behaviour of the Ulmas stands in sharp contrast to the manner in which the Poles of Jedwabne conducted themselves. Rejak acknowledged that the Polish government is using the wartime events in Markowa to accentuate the positive and polish its international image.

“We want to balance the picture more,” he said. “But I hope the museum won’t be used to claim there were only good Poles. History is too complicated to paint a country in only one colour. There are many colours in history. But there is a general feeling among Poles that Poland has been perceived through the prism of prewar anti-Semitism and wartime blackmailers who betrayed Jews. This image, in general, has dominated discourse about Poland.”

The new museum in Markowa, he suggested, may well be helpful in highlighting the humanitarian contributions of Poles in the rescue of Jews and in the realignment of Poland’s image in the world.

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