Rethink­ing Poles and Jews: Trou­bled Past, Brighter Future

Robert Cher­ry and Anna­maria Orla-Bukows­ka, eds.
  • Review
By – March 2, 2012

Pol­ish-Jew­ish rela­tions since the Shoah have been fraught with ten­sions and mis­con­cep­tions. Accord­ing to some Jews, not only was Chris­t­ian anti-Semi­tism respon­si­ble for this tragedy, but Pol­ish anti- Semi­tism in par­tic­u­lar should be sin­gled out for spe­cial con­dem­na­tion. This view main­tains that so many Jews per­ished dur­ing the Shoah because of the potent nature of Pol­ish anti-Semi­tism. That it meant death for a Pole to assist a Jew, that the Nazis also mur­dered many hun­dreds of thou­sands of Chris­t­ian Poles, that an orga­ni­za­tion, Zego­ta, was estab­lished to res­cue Jews, are not deter­mi­na­tive in this ver­sion of events. 

It is not pos­si­ble to review here the long and com­plex his­to­ry of Jews in Poland. That anti-Semi­tism is an impor­tant com­po­nent of this his­to­ry is unde­ni­able. But Poland is not unique in this. Whether Poland should be sin­gled out is the focus of this remark­able book of essays, Rethink­ing Poles and Jews. Con­sid­er­ing that Poland had the largest Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in Europe before the Shoah, 3.2 mil­lion, and that his­tor­i­cal­ly Jews were giv­en a mea­sure of reli­gious free­dom and even self-rule, it is not easy to rec­on­cile the present trou­bled rela­tions between these two peo­ples with those of the past. Like much of the cur­rent Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, the Holo­caust is the water­shed event. There is a before and an after. 

This much is clear. The death camps in Poland were estab­lished by the Nazis. Poles also suf­fered enor­mous bru­tal­iza­tion. Auschwitz, locat­ed near the vil­lage of Oswiec­im, was cho­sen as the site for the largest exter­mi­na­tion cen­ter because of the numer­ous rail con­nec­tions with the rest of Europe and because the largest Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in Europe was sit­u­at­ed in Poland. We know that there were Poles who were pas­sive, indif­fer­ent and who col­lab­o­rat­ed and even killed Jews. We also know that there were many oth­ers who risked their lives to hide and assist Jews. The sto­ry is com­plex, as is the rela­tion­ship between these two groups. The essays in this book attempt to demys­ti­fy the claims and charges made, to shed some light on an emo­tion­al issue and to pro­vide infor­ma­tion and per­spec­tive in our search for under­stand­ing and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. The edi­tors, Cher­ry and Orla-Bukows­ka, are to be com­mend­ed for their efforts. 

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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