02 September 2005

Dirty Little Open Secret

Many Israelis come back to Europe as tourists, to see the old homeland of their parents and grandparents. One group had been touring Kraków and Małopolska, and a pilgrimage to Auschwitz was a painful but necessary part of the trip. On the way from Kraków to Oświęcim their rented mini bus broke down. Stranded and with the van irreparable, the driver walked out to a farmer he saw in the field by the highway. “Farmer, sir, you’ve got to help me – I’ve got a busload of Jews I’m taking to Auschwitz, and my bus has broken down.”
“I’m sorry,” says the farmer, “I’ve only got a tiny little oven.”

(a joke told in the Krakow area)

“What do you mean, Unia Wolności is full of Jews? There are almost no Jews in Poland anymore. Hitler killed them all, those he didn't kill left.”
“Mazowiecki is a Jew.”
“With a name like that? Surely, he’s Polish?”
“He’s a secret Jew (tajny zhid).”

(conversation with a bar owner, Krakow, 1998)

Anti-semitism is still alive and well in Poland. In most of the Western world, we’ve managed to marginalise this sort of hateful thinking. In Canada, you'd get dirty looks and find yourself a social leper if you spoke like this. This isn’t to say that anti-semitism doesn’t exist in North America, or Western Europe, but if nothing else at least it is not an accepted part of public life. The Poles have been anti-Jewish throughout their modern history
, and unfortunately it is a tradition that is still as strong as it has ever been.

Why is it that the Germans, who were the initiators and main perpetrators of the Holocaust, are now so much more tolerant and sensitive people? Why is it that in Poland there is still such vicious anti-semitism, even now that there are so very few Jews living there?

The Jews were not the only victims of Hitler’s racialist ideology. The slavic peoples were also Untermenschen, who were deemed worthy of only a marginal existence as slave labour to the Aryan race. After the conquest of Poland in 1939, the great bulk of the Polish intelligentsia – politicians, academics, and the officer corps – were arrested and interned. The first wave of inmates in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobidor and the other main German concentration camps were Poles. Over the course of the war, six million Polish civilians lost their lives in the camps, in forced labour, or by summary execution - about 50% of them non-Jews. Poles were not allowed to be educated – schooling within the General Government was limited to German schools for the Volksdeutsche (the local German population) and German colonists and occupiers.

Victims needn't feel shame. Victimhood is a part of the national consciousness here. The first few lines of their national anthem:

Poland is still not lost,
As long as we still live.
What the foreigner has taken with violence,
We will take back with the sword.

After the war, when Jewish refugees tried to return to the town of Kielce, they were killed by the local Polish inhabitants. The Nazis were bad, but at least they got rid of those dirty Jews.


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