When I was eighteen, I went to Poland on a program designed for Jewish teenagers to learn about and bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. It was a lot for a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors to take in. I clearly remember the day that we went to Treblinka, a Nazi death camp where most of my relatives were murdered. Our tour guide said something that haunts me to this day. He said that the murderers of the Holocaust victims committed their crime twice – once when they killed their victims and a second time when they attempted to erase all evidence of their crimes. The Nazis worked hard in the final months of World War II to destroy anything and everything that could tell the tale of their horrific crimes against humanity.
This week, however, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed legislation making it a crime to blame the “Polish Nation or Polish State” for culpability in the Holocaust, despite a furious reaction from Israel and warnings from the United States. Such a “crime” would be met with a fine or even imprisonment, whether committed in Poland or elsewhere around the world.
This law would whitewash and rewrite the narrative of the Holocaust, covering up the cruel and inhumane acts of many Polish citizens. Perhaps I should be quiet. Perhaps I should be intimidated and stop myself from saying what I’m about to say. But as many here in Israel are saying, “The blood of our relatives cries out from the ground,” a reference to Genesis 4:10 when God says to Cain after he refused to take responsibility for murdering Abel, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.”
I can hear those cries and I cannot remain silent.
Just to be clear, I understand Poland’s concern. Poland was invaded by Germany and fought valiantly against the Third Reich, a fight in which they didn’t stand a chance. Germany attacked with tanks, Poland came out on horses. More Polish men and women risked their own lives to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust than any other nationality, and each one (that we know about) is recognized and honored by name in Israel. Using the term “Polish death camps” in place of “Nazi death camps in Poland” is indeed unfair and misleading. But to say that the Polish nation had nothing to do with the extermination of three million of its 3.2 million Jews is irrefutably false.
Historians and Holocaust scholars have written about the role that the Polish people played in the murder of their country’s Jews, of how they aided and abetted the Nazi murderers. I am neither a historian nor a Holocaust scholar. But I am the granddaughter of Max and Sala Grinblatt (of blessed memory), formerly of Poland, survivors of the Holocaust, and in their lifetimes, advocates for those who were murdered by telling their stories so the world would not forget.
They spoke of anti-Semitism in Poland before the war, during the war, and most telling, after the war. Before the war, Jewish children were often beat up in school and adults were discriminated against, if not persecuted. During the war, many Poles pointed the Germans to the homes of the Jews, “returned” Jews who had managed to flee, and stole the possessions of Jews who were deported by the Nazis. After the war, they continued to persecute the surviving Jews, most notably in the Kielce Pogrom of 1946.
When telling my grandfather’s story through The Fellowship a few years ago, I wrote this:
The two brothers (my grandfather and his brother) tried to return home. But after one day back in their Polish hometown, they discovered that there was nothing and no one left for them. The only home they had ever known was gone forever. Caring former Polish neighbors pointed them in the direction of a neighboring town were other Jewish survivors had gathered, and indeed my grandfather found a cousin in that town. Yet, after some time there one of the most telling and tragic episodes of my grandfather’s saga occurred.
The survivors, all men, found shelter in a synagogue. They stayed there as they struggled to find food and continue to live. One day some of the local Polish residents decided to attack them. The assumption is that they feared that the Jews might try to reclaim their property which many Poles had already taken for themselves. The other possibility is that they were simply Anti-Semitic and felt that it was their job to finish what Hitler had started. But for whatever reasons, they broke into the synagogue, and began to murder the survivors causing my grandfather and the others to flee. As for the newly discovered cousin, he and my grandfather both thought the other had been killed. It wasn’t until 1980 that they discovered each other and were reunited.
While this episode pales in comparison to the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, it is so terribly tragic because it occurred after the Holocaust, and not by Nazis, but by citizens of Poland.
Not for nothing did my sweet, loving grandfather sadly and bitterly refer to Poland as “Pigland” after the war. He had been betrayed in the most heinous way by his own countrymen.
I am all for reconciliation. I am willing to forgive even as I promise to never forget. However, forgiveness has to be earned. Remembrance must be based on truth. I am deeply grateful to all of the righteous Polish people who stood with God and stood with the Jewish people during our darkest hour. May God bless them!
And yet, the blood of my relatives cries from the ground. The murdered Jews of Poland beckon us all to tell the truth – not just so that their own stories will be preserved but so that history will never again repeat itself.
Perhaps this message is one that the entire world must hear today: Those who do nothing to stop evil, when it is in their power to do so, are guilty. Those who aid terrorists and murderers are responsible for the death of innocents. We have a responsibility as a global community to pursue justice, to take responsibility for our past misdeeds, and to commit to creating a better future.