Mah Nishtannah? What makes this Yom HaShoah different from all previous Yom HaShoah commemorations? A little over three months ago President Andrzej Duda said that he would sign into law a bill making it illegal to accuse “the Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. In doing, so the President of Poland ultimately shed light on a thorn in the side of the Jewish people that has subconsciously been gnawing at them for over seven decades.
Right or wrong, many have been inclined to characterize the Polish people and the German people as polar opposites. The Poles are visceral; the Germans are cerebral. The Poles are all heart; the Germans are all heartless. After all, who else but a nation of cold and calculating Deutschen could systematically set in motion a plan to annihilate an entire people in the most efficient manner possible?
Wiedergutmachung is the German word for reparation. Like many German words, it is constructed from three other German words: wieder (again), gut (good) machung (making). For me, this three-origin term brings with it three sentiments as well.
Wiedergutmaching acknowledges responsibility. Responsibility is not taken lightly by humans. Adam refused to take responsibility for disobeying HaShem; Adam’s son, Cain refused to take responsibility for murdering his brother. Both father and son resorted to lame excuses: the former pawned the misdeed off on his wife; the latter feigned ignorance by countering – How should I know, am I my brother’s keeper? No different than Adam and Cain, the Polish government also is shirking responsibility. Like Adam, the Polish Government pawns the genocide off on the Third Reich; like Cain, the Polish Government feigns ignorance by countering – How can I be guilty of in-humaneness towards Jews, when I too was the victim of Nazi in-humaneness? Given the disingenuousness of the Polish government, even if Wiedergutmachung was a Polish word, the Polish Government could not bring itself to utter it.
Wiedergutmachung acknowledges contrition. Only when one is contrite, does one ask the question: “How can I set things straight?” Only when one shows remorse, does one turn to the aggrieved or injured and say: “I’d like to make it up to you. Please tell me how.”
Wiedergutmachung acknowledges that there is a desire for resolution and a quest for peace a need for closure. After its defeat, German leadership realized that that in addition to losing the war, they had lost the ability to ascribe value and respect to Jews and to a lesser extent others. German leadership also realized that an embrace, a hug and even a handshake on their part would be repugnant to most Jews. German leadership was well aware that there were no words they could offer, that could possibly set things straight. Even if they were to stumble upon magic words asking for forgiveness, those words would ring hollow in Jewish ears. Resolution, peace and closure could only be achieved through Wiedergutmachung.
Scorn the re-conciliatory German government as much as you like. Regard Wiedergutmachung as nothing more than expiation on the part of the German people, if you must. See any and all motives of Konrad Adenauer’s Germany as highly suspect, if that’s the conclusion you have arrived at. But admit if you will, that however flawed and self-serving Wiedergutmachung may have been, it was much more than the Polish government was ever prepared to do.
As we remember the six million, let us also keep in mind that over the years there has been protestation and excuses. On the other hand, there has been admission of culpability and Wiedergutmachung. Let us never blur the difference.