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Poles and their history through Englishmen's eyes

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This article is a polemics with articles published by Peter Fairless. The links to these articles are available below.
 
I have been visiting Poland for forty years now and although my initial reasons were because of family ties I have loved the country and the people since almost the first day. I have always found people to be warm and hospitable and humorous and romantic but not naive in believing everyone fits that description but then again is there any place in the world where it would? Perhaps its harder for people who have only known the country in recent years to understand, but to move from a system of security of employment, health and education but where shortages and queues, for everything from bread to beer to sausages to clothing was a daily occurrence, to a market economy with plenty of choice, as long as you have the money. That’s a quantum leap for people to make and one, which will inevitably create difficulty, confusion, frustration and blame.
 
The collapse of the communist system, brought about almost totally through the courage of Solidarnosc and its supporters, has also lead to difficulties in developing, articulating and pursuing fresh political and ideological stand points. Given the history of the last 70 years its no wonder that religion and nationalism have such a pull to certain sections of the electorate. With increased travel and access to new ideas and cultures this process of maturation and challenging the old as well as exploring the new will further help in that progression.
 
Peter Fairless warns of being short-changed and although my father has but that was an exception rather than the rule. Once more I have also experienced the problem in this country. People need to be awake to these dangers everywhere. Having said that I feel as comfortable, if not more so, in Poland, as in Britain. We all know there are areas where you have to be careful in Britain just as well as in Poland. Again it’s down to a question of degree and sometimes perception. Some people might be afraid of places like the New York Subway, Brooklyn, Harlem or the Bronx. I have explored those areas without any threat whatsoever.
 
I looked at the site originally because I was interested in a constructive view of areas other than the Old Town of Krakow with one eye to becoming a resident. What I got was an article that implied that Krakow resembled a series of no go zones where the people were very antagonistic. It just doesn’t ring true to me or look anything like what I have experienced for myself.
 
I don’t doubt that the incidences that Peter refers to are not genuine however there is an over reliance on anecdotal evidence which creates a totally skewed picture and lacks objective. This would easily be replicated in any other country. Britain being no different in this regard. There is a wealth of evidence to prove that these examples are exceptions rather than the rule.
 
It’s simply preposterous to suggest that Poles collaborated with the Nazi’s in World War II. In fact Poland was the only country invaded and defeated by the Germans that neither surrendered nor collaborated. Moreover, Poles made extraordinary and extraordinarily heroic contributions to the Allied effort to the victory in the war. To say to the Polish people (remember they fought from the beginning to the end of the War only to see their country handed on a silver platter to the Russians), “some of them actually joined the Nazis. Others reported the Jews to the Nazis to be killed, told about their hiding places, watched thousands of children die of starvation daily and did nothing” is hugely insulting and simply untrue. Continue reading to see who actually “did nothing”.
 
There is much that can be written about the barbaric treatment of the Poles by the Russians but we’ll ignore that for the purposes of this piece, along with the critical role of Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain and the crucial role of the Polish 1st and 2nd Armies in the Falaise Gap and Monte Cassino, the Jewish Uprising or the Undergrounds Warsaw Uprising (whilst the Red Army sunned itself on the other side of the Wisla or the arrest of Home Army (Armia Krajowa) soldiers who helped the Red Army only to be called collaborators – this from the biggest collaborator of all). 
 
The Home Army held out for a month against the Nazi’s in the Warsaw Uprising. Himmler remarked, “it was the most bitter struggle we have had since the outbreak of war”. Many thousands of the survivors from that Uprising perished in concentration and labour camps. Many of those were Jews who had been hidden by Polish Christians.
 
Over three million Jews lived in Poland prior to the invasion by the Nazi’s (or 10% of the population!). The second largest Jewish community in the world.
 
In the summer of 1942 one report from Polish Underground to the Government in Exile (which in turn informed the British and US Governments) reported, “The total number of Jewish victims now exceeds one million and is constantly increasing. Yet the world regards all these crimes, which are more terrible than anything that has ever happened in the history of mankind, with a calm eye. Millions of helpless people are being massacred and silence is maintained. This silence cannot be tolerated any longer”.
 
One underground Polish courier, Jan Karski, managed to smuggle himself into a concentration camp near Izbica, posing as an Estonian camp guard. He witnessed the killings first hand and made his way first to London and then Washington to make the British and American Governments aware of what was going on. 
 
The Poles proposed that the death camps and railroads leading to them be bombed and German civilians be targeted in retaliation. Ignoring the morality of bombing civilians this is hardly a passive and complicit response by the Poles is it? Not quite the same can be said of the British and US Governments though who happily belatedly condemned it claiming that only outright Victory by the Allies could aid the Jews.
 
In autumn 1942 the underground established the Relief Council for Polish Jews. Code-named Zegota it found hiding places for Jews outside the ghettos. It also provided them with money, forged identification papers, food and medical care.
 
After the war Zegota was one of only three organisations singled out by Yad Vashem (the Israeli monument to the Holocaust). Out of 19,000 individuals honoured by Yad Vashem 6,000 were Poles. Of the forty countries whose citizens are cited as “the Righteous Among Nations” Poland ranks 1st even though only in Poland were citizens and their families immediately executed if caught trying to help Jews. Israel Gutman, a former Yad Vashem official, estimated that 40,000 Jews were saved by Jews during the war. “This is no doubt a small percentage of pre-war Jewry but nonetheless, it’s a glorious human achievement”.
 
On the subject of where are the Jews. The Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich estimates that at least twenty thousand Jews live in Poland and that the two leading organizations, the Union of Jewish Communities and the Cultural and Social Association of Jews, each have about two thousand members.
 
Further he states that although the main government force, the Law and Justice Party, is not anti- Semitic, the coalition now contains an anti-Semitic party, the Polish Families League, whose leader, Roman Giertych, is deputy prime minister and minister of education. This poses many dilemmas for the Jewish community.
 
The attack referred to on a Shabbat at the end of May 2006, when Schudrich was punched and pepper-sprayed by an attacker in a Warsaw street who shouted, "Poland for the Poles” (a pre Second World anti Government slogan)" Nevertheless, he does not feel fearful in Poland.
Before 1939 there were approximately 3.5 million Jews in the country. Ninety percent of these had been murdered by the end of 1944. The exodus of almost all Jews from Poland took place in stages. After the war, the vast majority of survivors left for several reasons, often more than one.
 
"Many did not want to live in a communist country. Others did not wish to rebuild their lives in the places where their families were murdered. Yet others wanted to go to Palestine, which soon became Israel. Some of the survivors had relatives abroad.
 
He goes on to explain that since 1989, official Poland has been reexamining its relations with the Jews. There are three reasons for this. The first is the teachings of Pope John Paul II, which had a huge impact both on Poland and the Catholic Church. He did more to fight anti-Semitism than any other human being in the past two thousand years. To be evenhanded, one also has to say that the Church was the major force promoting this hatred during that period.
 
Although part of the Catholic hierarchy has changed its views, another part is still anti-Semitic. The situation is better than before World War II when over 90 percent were so, at a time when that was normal in the Catholic Church. The process of banning this legacy, which started in Europe in the 1960s, began in Poland only with the fall of communism in 1989.
 
In 1967, during the time leading up to and during the Six Day War, the Polish public was generally sympathetic towards Israel. A popular joke of that era based on the significant percent of the Jews living in Israel were from Poland stated "The Polish Jews won [the war] with the Russian Arabs" (Polscy Zydzi wygrali z ruskimi arabami). It was the political needs of Gomulka to strengthen his position by weakening the liberal fraction of the Polish United Workers Party by adopting an anti zionist (Jewish) position . Gomulka having been a prisoner of the Russians was now cosying up to them. Out of interest during this time he also banned the performance of an Adam Mickiewicz play for being anti Russian and anti socialist. All no doubt to proving what a good Stalinist he was.
 
Ray Wentland
 
Bibliography:
 
(1)     For you Freedom and Ours – Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud
(2)     In Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
 

Peter Fairless articles are available here:

• Where are all the Jews, anyway?
• Poles and a modern form of Dickensian Capitalism
Getting around
Where to live in Krakow?