A Quarter Million Trees Bearing Down Upon Us: How Poland Exploits its Righteous Among the Nations

Excerpt from the article:

In recent years, trees in the Jerusalem Yad Vashem garden have served as a primary device for repairing Poland’s image abroad. Or, more precisely, as we are reminded time and again, that half of the trees that commemorate Poles who saved Jews during World War II. These trees are then multiplied by the thousands of people who were involved in helping the Righteous become Righteous. When the number of Righteous and their assistants becomes high enough, a cry of resentment is directed at the Jews and the whole world, which insists on regarding Poles more as anti-Semites than as the saviors of their Jewish neighbors. When one is so busy multiplying trees, one has little time to closely examine the events of the Holocaust, and this perhaps explains why not many Poles understand why “the West” has such a poor opinion of Poles and their moral stance during the war.

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It is hard to imagine a better topic for discussion than the Righteous, if only one entirely avoids any mention of the non-Righteous. Limiting the debate to positive examples reduces the entire issue of Polish-Jewish relations during the war to a courteous exchange of pleasantries regarding Polish heroism. Thus it comes as no surprise that this topic is one of the key elements of Poland’s right-wing politics of memory, which has grown to an unprecedented scale after the Law and Justice party (PiS) won the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2015, and especially after the opening of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa. And no one would have a problem with any of this (because nobody denies the incredible level of heroism some Poles have shown) if only the debate allowed for the introduction of any arguments regarding that other side of history: the history of non-Righteous Poles who were often responsible for having turned the lives of many Jews into hell. The more research is being done, the more Poles appear to be responsible for the terrifying fate that awaited many Jews. However, there is no space for such debate.

The new politics of memory exploit the truly heroic Righteous in order to create a new image of Poland, but it also uses them to silence any inconvenient conversations that might hint at Polish guilt. Clearly, the Jedwabne pogrom is just the tip of the iceberg. The unquestioning exploitation of the Righteous and their sacrifice is a genuine threat to the moral fiber of Polish society.

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Translation: Aga Zano

Proofreading: Barbara Pendzich

 

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