Monday, March 1, 2010

Aux Armes

Sitting on a bus going through the slushy Polish countryside, I overhear a conversation about the two Warsaw insurrections, that of 1943, and that of 1944.

Oops. what is that about? I grew up learning of only one insurrection, the insanely heroic, ill-fated Ghetto uprising of 1943. I interfere the Pole and the Englishwoman who are chatting behind me and ask them about the other one.

The Pole then tells me an amazing story: As the Red Army was nearing the Vistula, in 1944, the people of Warsaw decided to take arms against the Nazis, in hope that Russian aid was near.

The Russians chose to wait west of the river and let the locals "do the job". While they waited, 250,000 Warsaw residents died in battle or were murdered by the Nazis. After two months of strife. The Germans kicked everyone out of the city and burned it to the ground as an act of revenge. 80% of Warsaw was destroyed, the carnage was greater than that of any other European city.

Dramatic, ha? How come I've never heard of any of this? I'm 33 years old, my roots are Polish, my people's history is strongly interwoven with that of the Polish people, but none of it was ever told to me in class, in Yad Vashem, in conversation about history... It seems as tough the Israeli education system makes sure we see no one's disaster but our own.

Is it an accidental hole in our education? I doubt it. Keeping silent about the suffering of others, or belittling it to the point that it's "not even worth mentioning", facilitates portraying us as eternal victims and the rest of the world as antisemitic. I hate to say so, but ignorance is a political tool in Israel, as it is in many other places.

It works, too. If you ask most Israelis about the relationship between Poles and Germans during the Holocaust, they'll tell you the Poles are an antisemitic people who handed Jews in to the Nazis gladly. No word about insurrections, about the murder of multitudes, about Polish prisoners in the camps, about destroyed cities.

We are vaguely aware of Poles who protected Jews, the "righteous among the nations". i'm glad about that, but even that is a Jewish issue. We know nothing of the disaster suffered by Poland during the war. The first time I arrived in this country, after finishing 12 years of Israeli schooling, I was stunned, no one told me any of this, and for a reason.

Last summer I traveled through Galizia with a group of Israeli guides who show the death camps to groups of Israeli schoolkids. the tour, organized by the polish government, was meant to show the guides "Polish Poland" so that they can give students background on the country, not only from a Holocaust perspective. Jewish and holocaust sites were also featured by the Polish planners, but they were not the focus.

For the most part, the Polish sites were canceled by the Israelis, who cared nothing for them. On several days we ended up visiting only Jewish sites, especially the remains of old synagogues, sometimes four in a day. Those additions to the program were truly moving places, relics of the tragically lost world of Galizian Jewery, but focusing on them beats the purpose: to learn more about something besides our own history.

It is very important that we develop empathy, because we seek empathy. It is also important because without empathy, compassion is impossible, and in our situation in the Middle East we must develop a capacity for compassion.

Knowing of the suffering of others is the key to both empathy and compassion. The Israeli ministry of education, especially under the current minister Gideon Saar, consciously keeps that information away from students, and not only in the case of Poland. prefer unquestioned patriotism to these two qualities.

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Anonymous said...

The thing is that the two facts aren't exclusive: The Polish people were victims of the Germans, and the Jews were proactively persecuted by the Poles.

The Shoah wouldn't have happened in Poland w/out the eager willingness and active aid of the local population. It didn't happen in such magnitude in other countries under Nazi occupation.

Stating this doesn't mean the Polish people suffered any less. But when they present themselves as victims it is done to get rid of any guilt. You don't see the people of France or Sweden denying/ignoring/conveniently forgetting their role in the Shoah in a similar manner.

Anthea said...

Did you get to Warsaw on that trip? There is a museum (http://www.1944.pl/en/) commemorating the 1944 uprising. It opened in 2004 and is a terrifying, moving place. As I remember, also paid tribute to the Ghetto Uprising.

I went with three Norwegian friends. They have their own narrative of occupation and resistance, of collaboration and persecution of Norway's (tiny) Jewish community and the brutalisation of the Sami people under the Nazis.

Similarly, they knew that Poland (etc) had been occupied as well - but had no clue that one occupation is not necessarily the same as another.

I remember we left the museum, drained, almost silent. My then-boyfriend muttering: "Why are we taught that Norwegians were treated so cruelly during the occupation? Ours was nothing compared to this. Nothing."