Poland Offers a Sorry Apology 60 Years Late

What a strange and uncomfortable business it is, this

six-decades-late apology by the president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski,

for the raw and unprovoked murder of the 1,600 Jewish men, women and children

of Jedwabne by their Christian neighbors. It’s no surprise that this apology

angered the local priest, as well as Cardinal Józef Glemp, who raised the ugly

question of the extent of Jewish collaboration with the Soviets as the Germans

moved in. (Why wouldn’t Jews collaborate with the Soviets? They weren’t trying

to exterminate them.) Protesters and objectors across Poland were wounded in

their pride, believing in their nationalist hearts that their suffering under

the Nazis has been diminished and that they have been falsely dishonored. The

apology is an odd and not-entirely-wanted thing. It appears to me as if a skunk

has entered my house, and I am as afraid of it as it is of me.

The work of historian Jan T. Gross seems to have clearly

brought us the facts surrounding the 1941 massacre. German soldiers were in the

town, but they didn’t participate in the rounding up and burning of Jews in a

barn or the brutal beatings of those who tried to escape. This was done by

Poles. This comes as no surprise to most of us; we have long known that Polish

anti-Semitism ran wild in those years. When the German planes first flew over

Warsaw, unruly crowds of Polish youth rushed to the Jewish sections of town,

beating anyone they found. When Jews released from Auschwitz returned to their

town, Kielce, in 1945, they were killed 

by Poles who didn’t want them to reclaim their homes. Polish

anti-Semitism grew in the space between the rich landowner, his Jewish manager

and his peasants. It grew because the church taught it to generation after

generation. It was there in the 16th century, when Poles believed that Jews had

brought the plague to their towns, or that Jews were murdering Christian boys

in order to make matzo for the Passover ceremony. There is no news in this


It is also true that there were Poles who risked their lives

to save Jews. Some hid them. Others turned them in to the Gestapo. It is true

that some fought in the resistance and rescued Jews who had fled into the

forests to become comrades in arms. Other members of the resistance found Jews

in the forests and handed them over to the enemy. Jews who were hidden or

existing on false papers during those years were afraid of all Poles. Some were

friends, but many were not.

The president of Poland was careful to say that he didn’t

believe in collective guilt, but then he announced: “For this crime, we should

beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. I ask pardon in

my own name and in the name of the Polish people whose consciences are shocked

by this crime.” The problem is that Mr. Kwasniewski didn’t do it. Neither did

most of the Poles now living in Jedwabne. It is a stain on the national name,

but it is not a stain on the souls of the Poles who weren’t born yet, or those

who helped Jews, or those who suffered acutely from the German occupation. And

besides, you can’t apologize for someone else’s act any more than I, as a Jew,

can forgive it. It is only for the dead to forgive, and only for the ones who

poured the gasoline, the ones who took a child and smashed her against the

ground, to apologize. And if we imagine that apology-“I’m so sorry that I

locked the door and lit the match”-we see clearly that there are no words, no

apology, no forgiveness possible.

Adam Michnik, the Polish dissident writer, has both written

an essay in The New York Times and

published a letter to Leon Wieseltier in The

New Republic in which he argues for the many Poles who behaved righteously

in hard times. He points out that Jews acted as police inside the ghetto,

collaborating with the Germans in the extermination of their own kind. Mr.

Wieseltier replied that there were many more Poles who didn’t lift a finger to

save their erstwhile citizens. He states that there is a stain on Polish

identity that is not so easy to erase, and that ignoring or denying it will not

serve any desired end.

The Jewish view (and there is always more than one) is that

the Poles know exactly what we know. There is no debate that Poles suffered in

the war. Poles were rescuers, and if only more of them had tried, more Jews

might have survived. There is also no debate that the Jewish community of three

million souls was virtually wiped out and that Polish anti-Semitism helped

serve the Nazi purpose. The populace continued to ride the merry-go-round

outside the ghetto walls as the Jews starved within. It is no coincidence that

the camps were placed within Poland’s borders. The Polish priests who for so

long saw Jews as Christ-killers (which they are not and were not) did not

denounce from the pulpit what was happening before their eyes.

But I don’t want an apology. I don’t believe in collective

guilt. If I did, then I would be guilty for slavery and the slaughter of the

Native Americans and the deaths in My Lai. I, too, am connected to my country

and want to be proud of all its people, but they are far too diverse-our

history too long, our beliefs too different-for me to take responsibility for

everyone else’s actions. I am not the Ku Klux Klan, and I am not the Aryan

Nation, and I am not a toxic dumper or Baruch Goldstein. I believe it is

important for the Poles to know what happened and who among them turned beast

when the hour permitted. I do not believe it is important or sensible to

collect apologies from state dignitaries.

When we make other people feel guilty, they get very nasty.

They would much prefer to be victims than victors. Those who were harmed by the

Nazis certainly feel angry. The rescuers of Jews are bruised, as if their acts

didn’t matter. Look how even the decent Mr. Michnik feels called upon to talk

about Israeli misdeeds as if they were equal to Holocaust crimes. Guilt seems

to be something that people will squirm any which way to avoid. In this matter,

the Poles are just like everyone else, as I suspect they are in all

matters-which is not to say much for them at all. History should tell the story

as best it can so that the myth-makers and wishful thinkers are pushed to the

margins. But we cannot expect the Poles to beat their breasts because many of

them were brutal when allowed to be so. Since they so value their national

pride, they should build it on solid ground. They should never harm another Jew

or Gypsy or human soul for the next 10,000 years. In the meantime, my anger is

not sated by “I’m sorry.” My anger breathes with my breath, and nothing changes

that. Poland Offers a Sorry Apology 60 Years Late