"Remembering Without Taking Away: World War II and the Holocaust in Polish and Jewish Collective Memories."

By: Bart Bonikowski

November 6, 2003

Congregation Habonim, Toronto

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am incredibly honoured to be here tonight, as I was honoured to be at the March of Remembrance and Hope earlier this summer. That experience affected me in a profound manner. I know that its impact will stay with me for years to come.

The most transformative moments of my trip were those spent with people who endured the horrors of the Holocaust. The survivors' passion and drive were unlike those I've ever encountered in any other human beings. When my fellow participants and I would get tired after a long day and would begin complaining about the heat or the pain in our legs, these people pressed on; they marched on without stopping. Without the slightest sign of fatigue, they shared with us deeply personal stories with universal implications about human suffering, perseverance, and heroism.

My initial intention was to come here and tell you about those universal human messages. However, as I thought about the title of this evening's gathering - "The Holocaust Through the Eyes of Others" - I realised that I needed to readjust my vision and talk about my experience from my unique perspective as a Pole living in Canada. I know that this will not be easy - after all, Polish-Jewish relations have been far from harmonious throughout history.

I'll start by telling you a very brief story. A few months after returning from the March of Remembrance and Hope, I went out for dinner with a few friends, one of whom is Jewish. As we talked over dinner, someone at the table mentioned his childhood memories of being a scout. When I replied that I too was a scout in Poland as a young kid, my Jewish friend turned to me and asked: "Oh really? Did they teach you how to cremate?" Since I had never before been the target of such hurtful comments, I was at a loss for words. I immediately thought of the people who figure in my family history: my great-uncle, a Righteous Among the Nations, who saved the lives of Jews; another great-uncle, Stanislaw, who died after years of torture at the hands of the Nazis; and others who didn't save the lives of Jews directly, but who fought in the Polish Army trying to diminish the power of the Nazis. I also thought of the three million non-Jewish Poles who lost their lives during World War II, some on the fronts, some in camps, some in the bombing of cities. My friend's words stung deeply.

Once I regained my composure, I rationalised the situation by telling myself that my friend, who is a genuinely good person, meant no harm. Yet, I could not stop thinking about the possible underlying causes of her comment. I came to the conclusion that her words had less to do with maliciousness than with a specific interpretation of history. Perhaps her perspective was influenced by a history of violence or hatred experienced by her family at the hands of Poles. After all, such acts form an unquestionable part of Poland's history. But how are we to think about anti-Jewish violence or hatred in the context of Poland's historical role as the heart of Jewish culture; in the context of generations of Polish kids who have grown up on literature written by Jewish Poles, like Brzechwa, Tuwim, Slonimski, and Singer; in the context of Poland as the only country in Europe where tolerance made it possible for Jews to settle in large numbers; in the context of Poland as the only country in the world where hiding a Jew carried an automatic death sentence for one's entire family, a fact that did not preclude many Poles form saving Jewish lives, resulting in the highest number of Righteous Among the Nations? It occurred to me that what we need is a way of thinking historically without taking away from the memory of others.

To illustrate my point, let me provide an example of a frequent reaction of Poles to charges of anti-Semitism. The typical response to such charges consists of dismissive rebuttals such as, "Well, you know what? Anti-Semitism was worse elsewhere," or "It's actually the other way around: Jews hate Poles more than we hate them." Clearly, these are unacceptable answers. Certainly, anti-Semitism has existed elsewhere, but its precise extent is difficult to ascertain. And even if such statistics existed, the relative magnitude of anti-Semitic tendencies is really inconsequential. What matters is the unquestionable fact that Jews experienced anti-Semitism in Poland. The memory of their pain and suffering must not be diminished. The defensive answers presented by many Poles in fact take away from the history of the Jewish people.

In the same vein, to say that Poles are anti-Semites or that Polish scouts are adept at cremation is to perform the same operation, merely in reverse. Discussions of Polish anti-Semitism must not take away from Polish heroism, suffering, and genocide, much as discussions of Jewish history must not take away from Jewish heroism, suffering, and the Holocaust. And let me make one thing clear: the Holocaust and Polish suffering are not one and the same thing. Poland was a nation state attacked by Germany, a foreign power. As such, it had the means to fight back; it had a national army. The Jewish people did not. Instead, the Jewish people were bound for extermination solely by virtue of their ethnicity. The Holocaust and World War II are two different, though clearly related, historical events.

So how are we to proceed? How are we to reconcile these difficult issues? What I want to argue for is a more complex understanding of the past; for a discourse that does not take away. The suffering of a people, of any people, is a holy part of their heritage and critical discussions must not infringe on this fundamental right to collective memory.

What can complex thinking about history accomplish? For one, perhaps it can begin mending the rifts between the Jewish and Polish communities. The memories of our two peoples are not mutually exclusive - we can respectfully remember and talk about them both. Complex thinking of the past can also allow us to talk about other tragedies in a constructive manner. Thus, discussions of the Holocaust should not take away from the Rwandan genocide and vice versa. Deaths of thousands, let alone millions, are not comparable, for scale loses meaning in reference to mass murder.

If such a mode of thought is to succeed, we must emphasise the fact that the Holocaust is a sacred memory of the Jewish people. My trip to Poland helped me come into visceral contact with unspeakable horrors, horrors that I had previously only read about: six million innocent men, women, and children brutally murdered, tortured, humiliated. No one has suffered in the same way as the Jewish people and I sincerely hope that no one ever will. And no one has the right to violate the sacred memory of this tragedy.

Is a more complex understanding of history difficult? Most certainly. After all, these are highly emotionally charged topics. Moreover, historical events are inherently contentious. There simply is no clear path to achieving mutual respect. However, try we must, because only by complicating history and learning to not take away can we fulfil our human duty of learning from the tragedies of past generations. And I believe that hope exists. I experienced it during the March. There were many occasions during our time in Poland when we felt completely helpless. How could we possibly talk about social change and the prevention of future violence at the same time as we were confronted with images of horror, of brutal murder on an unimaginable scale?

Yet, just as we experienced moments of despair and hopelessness, we also experienced moments of optimism. One such moment, which left a particularly lasting impression on me, took place at the closing ceremony in Birkenau. Against the backdrop of barbed wire fences and ruins of crematoria, the survivors were getting ready to light the candles for Kaddish. Each stepped forward and read out the names of his or her family members who perished at the hands of the Nazis. One woman approached the microphone but was unable to speak. She stood in front of us and cried. Another survivor came up to her and said, "Wait, don't cry. Look! Look at them! They are here for you!" She was right. I looked around me and I realised that with me were hundreds of young people who wanted to learn, who wanted to remember, who wanted to prevent things like this from happening in the future. I gained hope by listening to them and by sharing with them my own fears and insecurities. I came to realise that this is the only route to hope. We must listen; we must welcome opportunities to become exposed to other cultures and to other peoples; and we must educate each other. Hope can only be realised through mutual understanding. Only through such an understanding can we promote knowledge and diminish hatred. And then maybe, just maybe, will we be able to say "never again"."

Bart Bonikowski
Trisha Lynn Cowie
Thierry Kagubarispch
A. Siddiqua Chaudhry

 

 

 

 
 
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