POLAND'S foreign minister Radek Sikorski [full disclosure: an old friend of mine] has just been in Israel, where he gave an interesting interview to the Haaretz daily. It was interesting for three reasons: for what he said, for the questions asked, and for the comments. These give a vivid snapshot of the furious emotions still swirling around the issue of the Holocaust in Nazi German-occupied Poland. For some in Israel, the Poles still are loathesome Nazi accomplices. For most Poles, the mass murder of Jews was part of a wider and grimmer picture of totalitarian regimes acting in a destructive frenzy of aggression. Here is an excerpt of the interview, with comments from me in square brackets:
What is the meaning of the phenomenal renewal of Jewish culture in Poland today? Should we really accept the thesis, heard more and more, that Poland is a philo-Semitic country nowadays? [this an interesting reversal of the usual thesis that Poles imbibe anti-semitism with their mother's milk]"I am surprised at your surprise. The fact that a large portion of the world's Jews lived in Poland before the Holocaust needs to be taken into account. For generations, Poland absorbed Jews while they were expelled from other countries. [good point for Poland to make about Germany and Russia] The Holocaust that took place on our soil was conducted against our will by someone else. So what is happening now is simply that free Poland is returning to its natural self.
"Before coming to Israel, I reviewed statistics about anti-Semitism worldwide, and was proud to discover that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Poland was minuscule in comparison to most western European nations and the United States. And furthermore, it has been more than half a century since a murder with an anti-Semitic context has taken place in Poland. Poland is today renewing its tradition of tolerance and we are proud of this."
What is your opinion of the debate taking place now in Poland about what is known as the "third phase of the Holocaust," and books such as Jan Gross' "Golden Harvest" (set for release later this year ) about Poles who robbed Jewish property during and after the Holocaust? Does this testify to a new wave of self-examination in your country? [the Jan Gross book is a huge hot potato in Poland. His previous books dealt with a wartime pogrom at Jedwabne, and the post-war killings of Holocaust survivors at Kielce]
"I have a principle not to comment on texts that I have not read, but the last time I checked the definition of the Holocaust, it was said to be a phenomenon in which a state uses industrial methods to eradicate an entire ethnic group. Horrendous events took place in Poland; there were periods during the Holocaust when people behaved heroically and others behaved like scum, but the Holocaust was the creation of the German state. We mustn't be confused about that."
There is an ongoing debate in Israel about high school students' trips to death camps in Poland, with critics claiming these visits lead to radical nationalism among pupils. In Poland, criticism is directed at the focus on the camps, and the absence of emphasis on modern Poland and a thousand years of shared history. What is your take on these issues?
"Our two peoples experienced hell in the 20th century and [we] have not yet managed to heal [our] wounds. We visit Katyn in Russia to honor our dead [where more than 20,000 Polish officers and senior government officials were murdered in 1940 at Stalin's orders], and you come to Poland because the Nazis chose our land to commit their grisly crimes. [interesting link of Jewish suffering at German hands and Polish suffering at Soviet hands]
"One of the reasons we are in Israel is to reshape these visits. We would like them to emphasize the identity of the perpetrators and the victims of the Holocaust, so that the younger generation will not receive mistaken ideas about them. We also want young people to absorb the sense of modern Poland, tolerant and prosperous, in order to deepen understanding of the positive aspects of our relations. We would like to be seen as a place where one can live, not only die. [gentle criticism of Israeli polonophobia here]
"In the past I visited an air base in northern Israel, and saw a very well done documentary about a flypast of Israeli pilots over Auschwitz - a wonderful statement of victory over evil. But we want to ensure that the next generation of Israeli pilots knows who built Auschwitz and who operated it. Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu has promised me that such documentary films will correctly emphasize the facts." [please stop distorting our history]
This week's Economist has an article on a related theme, highlighting the popularity in Poland of the Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich.
One success Mr Schudrich cites is Poland's rigorous investigation of a pogrom in 1941 in Jedwabne (now marked by an official apology from the country's president). Another was more personal. In 2006 he was punched by a skinhead (he hit back). The attack brought condemnation from media and politicians alike: the thug was seen as the outsider, not the rabbi. Behind the scenes, Mr Schudrich works hard to rebut simplistic outside judgments, as in 2009, when Britain's Labour Party tried to brand the Polish allies of their opponents, the Conservatives, as anti-Semites
Again, the vituperative comments are revealing, including one reader who says that because the Economist is run by Jews, it won't tell the "truth" about communism. Given that we are probably the most dyed-in-the-wool cold warriors you could find in the mainstream media, and devoted a cover to Ronald Reagan when he died, headlined "The Man who beat Communism" I find that quite odd.
This week's European Voice column on the region highlights Poland's potential clout in the wider Middle East.
Arabic-language material on Poland is scanty: Wikipedia has no entry for Poland's ‘Takaful' movement (the rough equivalent of ‘Solidarity').
Yet Poland's credentials are impressive. It is the only big country in the ex-communist world that has a functioning system of law-governed political freedom (‘democracy' in shorthand). Russia, and now (sadly) Ukraine do not count. And Poland is one of the Big Six in the EU. Its heavyweight political leadership easily commands high-level attention.
Second, it has ‘street cred'. This is a country where mass protest, with a strong religious element, beat down an elderly military leadership that was trying to sustain an economically failing authoritarian regime. Some of Poland's leading figures (in both the main parties) were movers and shakers in those days too: they shook the system and moved Poland out from captivity into freedom.
Third, the leaders of Solidarity (unlike some counterparts elsewhere) made the most of their victory once they won it. They did not adopt a vindictive winner-takes-all approach (in retrospect, some think they were too soft on the old nomenklatura, but I think that minimising the risk of bloodshed by allowing some room for the losers was the right decision). Poles know how to organise a round table; how to deal with an over-mighty intelligence service or armed forces loyal to the old days; how to carry out economic reform; and how to turn a monolithic mass pro-democracy movement into a multi-party political system.
Fourth, the Polish leadership knows all too well how weak-kneed, lily-livered and hypocritical west European politicians can be. While the Poles were struggling to regain their geopolitical birthright as a sovereign state in the heart of Europe, politicians in Brussels, Paris, Bonn and London were worried about ‘stability'. If the dependable old commies left the stage, maybe ‘radicals' would take their place. In the West, people conjured up all sorts of ghosts from the past (and from their own imagination), ranging from ultra-nationalists and anti-Semites to strike-crazy syndicalists and (contradictorily) even rip-roaring low-cost capitalists who might disrupt the cosy world of west European business.
When Mr Sikorski has sorted out Polish-Jewish relations, perhaps he could put this issue on his to-do list too.