DOES THE POLISH PRESIDENT LACK POLISH?

I never met Polish President Andrzej Duda, but I have a great deal of respect for him.  “We have a right to our historical truth,” he said, after signing a law that would punish those who accuse Polish society of complicity in the Holocaust. I admire his candor. President Duda never mentioned anything about “the truth” when it came to the Holocaust; President Duda spoke about our historical truth.

I do not consider myself an expert when it comes to Poland, its people and its history, but there is one thing I do know. No different than the Jews, the Polish people see themselves as victims of Nazi inhumanity. There is a great deal of truth to the Polish self-image of victim-hood, in that the Nazis did regard Poles as sub-humans, albeit on a higher level than Jews. As far as a good many Poles are concerned, Polish complicity with the Nazis was academic. How can one be complicit when one is treated as an inferior many Polish people will argue? Therefore, there are any number of Poles who maintain that complicity with the Nazis is not up for discussion, in that it never happened.

Neither is the message of deicide, spewed for centuries by any number of Polish parish priests over the centuries, indicting all Jews for the death of their savior. That too is not up for discussion. If any generalization can be made, and generalizations typically are made when it involves war, it was Ukrainian peasants working in Auschwitz, Dachau, and any other Nazi death factory who were complicit in the Holocaust. Ukrainian peasants had far more blood on their hands than the Polish populace. Having been systematically starved to death by the millions a decade earlier, courtesy of Uncle Joe Stalin with his nationalization program, a good many Ukrainians were inured to suffering and death. Religion aside, it was any number of Ukrainians, and not Poles, who participated in the gross human injustice of shoving Jews into the gas chambers. As such, Polish President Duda was not wrong in speaking for the Polish people when he maintained that “We have a right to our historical truth.”

“Having a right to our historical truths” enables Polish President Duda to remind the world that close to 7,000 Poles have been awarded the distinction of righteous Gentiles at Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. No nation other than Poland can make that claim. Among those Polish righteous gentiles, there were those who ended up paying the supreme price for aiding, abetting, and harboring Jews. One such individual was Sister Marta, a Catholic nun who was executed by the Nazis for the “crime” of rescuing Jewish families from the Slonim Ghetto and hiding them in her monastery.
Last but not least, “having a right to our historic truths” reminds us that there is more than a modicum of ethnocentricity when it comes to wars. It is this ethnocentricity that defines how we refer to a war. To wit: The War of Independence that a fledgling Jewish nation was caught up in immediately upon proclaiming statehood in May 1948, is referred to by the Arabs in countries surrounding Israel as “Al Naqba” or “the catastrophe.” Put differently, what is arguably remembered as the proudest day in the twentieth century for Jews world-wide is recalled as the most calamitous day in the twentieth century for Arabs worldwide.  However much it may pain us, however justified we may be, it is simply not within our purview to tell the Polish people, or any other people involved in World War II, how to define the years 1939-1945. If the Polish government remembers World War II completely differently than the way we Jews remember World War II – if the Polish government subsequently passes a law to punish those who accuse it of complicity in the Holocaust – as a sovereign nation, they have that right, regardless of how wrong we Jews consider them to be.

HI HITLER

As one who grew up in a city heavily populated by Ukrainians, there was no love lost between the Jews and the Kapusta (Ukrainian word for cabbage) eaters. Despite many exceptions on both sides, there were a good many Jews who saw the ancestors of the local Ukrainians as “pogromchiks” who would ride into a shtetl and revel in the rape and carnage of “Christ Killers”. Similarly, a good many Jews saw the parents and grandparents of the local Ukrainians as eagerly assisting the Nazis by doing all of the dirty work in the Concentration camps. Here too, the Ukrainian henchmen were avenging their savior’s death. Given that most Ukrainians in my hometown were descendants of peasant stock, we Jews referred to them as prosteh goyim (crude Gentiles) in Yiddish, while in English, we resorted to the local vernacular and called them Bohunks.
It was therefore with more than with a modicum of interest that I read about Pope Francis affixing his signature to a decree affirming the “venerable” status of Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky. His Excellency’s claim to fame as far as I’m concerned, lies not in the fact that he served as the Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church for four decades, or that he served as the de facto political leader of western Ukraine, because of the government turmoil that existed; His Excellency’s claim to fame lies in the ambivalent view that Jews with knowledge of his participation in World War II, have of him. On the one hand, he is an angel from heaven, in that together with his brother Klementiy, he saved hundreds of Jews, among them, more than one hundred Jewish children from Nazi slaughter. It should be noted that not one Jewish child saved by Sheptytsky was lost to the Nazis or was lost to the Jewish people (through conversion). On the other hand, Sheptytsky is the devil incarnate for welcoming the Nazis, as they liberated Ukraine from Soviet rule. Because of the latter, Yad VaShem leadership refused to accord Archbishop Sheptytsky a plaque or signpost on the Avenue of the Righteous until 1995. Belated Righteous Gentile recognition notwithstanding, consider the following:
Andrey Sheptytsky’s welcoming the Nazis had nothing to do with the Jews. For him and millions of other Ukrainian nationals, the Soviets were the arbiters of man’s inhumanity against man. Soviet purge of religion aside, Uncle Joe Stalin systematically starved seven million Ukrainian peasants to death less than a decade earlier, in an effort to “nationalize” agriculture. The way Archbishop Sheptytski saw things; the Nazis were their enemy’s enemy and therefore friends of the Ukrainians. Never could the Archbishop fathom that the Nazis would be more inhumane than the Soviets. After all, what would be worse than stealing land from millions upon millions of peasants and then starving them to death?

However true it may be that hindsight is 20/20, hindsight greatly distorts one’s view as well. When Adolph first came to power, there were more than a few Jews in Germany who were fawning all over him. I have heard first hand, that our very own co-religionists were lovingly referring to him as Der shoner Adolph. Put differently, long before he devised the “final solution”, Adolph was seen as “the solution”! Before we excoriate others for rolling out the red carpet to the greatest enemy our people were ever cursed with, we would do well to beat our chests with an enormous chatati (I have sinned) in that there were those of us who also rolled out that very same red carpet!
Speaking of “final solution”, we would do well to realize that the “final solution” was a product of the Wannsee Conference which took place well over two years after the Nazis invaded Poland. Back in 1939, there were still those who were naïve enough to believe or to hope against hope that Hitler could be mollified, whether through the acquisition of Sudetenland or maybe even Poland.
Andrey Shepytsky was a priest, not a politician. One of the features of the vast majority of clergy is that they believe not only in a Supreme Being, but in their fellow human being as well, however naïve and foolish and even dangerous at times that may be. In September 1939, the Archbishop of western Ukraine simply couldn’t fathom that humans could undertake such diabolical, dastardly plans and come awfully close to succeeding.
As one, who by my own admission is no ardent supporter of Pope Francis, I extend to him a big Yasher Koach for his latest action concerning Andrey Sheptytsky. Such recognition, as far as I’m concerned, is long past due. This Wednesday marks the 150 anniversary of Andrey Sheptytsky’s birth. No doubt the descendants of those saved by Andrey Sheptytsky will thank HaShem for putting him on the face of this earth.