Following last year’s squabble over ritual slaughter, this year we’ve been busy quarreling about the monument to the Righteous Among the Nations. As was the case earlier, this quarrel also failed to evolve into a serious debate on either the national level or within the Jewish community itself. We are not skilled in handling issues where controversy runs deep and the Jewish point of view is invoked to justify different stands on the matter. We cannot stomach disparate world views and still haven’t learned how to argue, though these are matters of existential importance if we are to solve other problems in the future.
Two points of view
Leaving aside all the misunderstandings, misinformation, and ignoble intentions, we have developed two basic stances on the issue of the monument. One, which I support (full disclosure:
I sit on the board of the foundation building the monument), boils down to the conviction that a commemoration is a due tribute to the rescuers. They deserve a visible sign of recognition and gratitude from the Jewish community.
In turn, the critics voice their concern that the monument will serve as an alibi for all the scoundrels, irrespective of the intentions of those who would build it – and they’re absolutely right. At the same time, they don’t deny that the Righteous deserve respect and remembrance.
An insolvable contention
We thus have two well-justified points of view that allow for contradictory conclusions. The first camp claims that providing an alibi for the scoundrels is overshadowed by the responsibility to remember, and to provide some sort of social education, while the other contends that providing such an alibi is so absolutely dreadful in itself that no reasons, however legitimate, will ever justify it. There’s no solution to this contention, as both sides take as their starting point the principles they share: neither do the critics perceive the Righteous as undeserving of the monument, nor do the supporters reject their opponents’ alibi claim. Both sides seem incapable of reaching a consensus, and I believe it is impossible that they ever will.
It’s essential that both sides recognize the Jewish credibility of the other. We, the creators of the monument, are being attacked with arguments that are simply unacceptable. Sigmund Rolat, the main sponsor, has been described as someone who has nothing to do with the Jewish community, whereas critics of the monument have been portrayed as representing Jews and the memory of them. The former statement seems short on empirical truth; the latter – unjustified. I’m of the impression that Sigmunt Rolat or Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland, who both support the erection of the monument, hold a mandate to represent some part of Jewish opinion. And they’ve never claimed to be taking the only permissible stand on the matter.
Distorting the truth
Those who oppose the monument maintain that its erection would only distort the truth by suggesting that rescuing Jews was the prevailing attitude at that time, whenit obviously was not. Of course, no one can claim that it was. What’s more, the Jews betrayed and murdered during the war by the Poles also deserve a monument, but it’s not Jews who ought to build it. The opponents claim further that the impulse to rescue Jews wasn’t representative, an opinion that would hold if we wanted to build a monument to commemorate the attitudes of Polish wartime society. But we don’t. We aren’t erecting a monument to Polish society, but to those incredibly courageous and heroic people who didn’t hesitate to challenge their prejudices, often acting against the attitudes and opinions held by those around them, and putting themselves and their families at grave risk to save Jewish lives. For me, this is a case of infinite heroism and empirical proof of God’s existence, for without His help, regardless if someone believes in Him or not, such madness would never have been possible. Erecting the monument is not our way of acknowledging the prevalent attitude of that time: we wish to express our gratitude to those who proved that it was possible to rescue Jews. I deeply fear that this will have more than just historical value. Should things in Europe turn nasty again, we have an obligation to remember about such attitudes toward our fellow human beings.
Not enough rescuers
It’s worth pointing out that this discussion doesn’t include the argument opposing the monument on the grounds that not enough Jewish lives were saved by the Poles. The opponents make the claim that rescuing wasn’t representative, which is different. They also predict that the scoundrels will be delighted to take advantage of the monument and say their wartime heroism has now been acknowledged by the Jews themselves. But it’s not the Righteous who are to blame for our failure, seventy years on, to show society the truth behind the events of that time. It’s solely our fault and we aren’t in a position to blame the Righteous for our failed social education. They did their job, we haven’t. ■
» first published in September 2015