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.