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.