An Imperfect Israeli-Polish Agreement, Holocaust Scholarship Facing Challenges, and Election Campaign in Poland
AJC Central Europe Director Dr. Sebastian Rejak wrote an op-ed for the leading Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza explaining why AJC supports the new agreement between Warsaw and Jerusalem settling debates over educational visits of Israeli youth to Poland. In his op-ed, Rejak argues that while the agreement is not perfect, it is better than diplomatic battles. Find the op-ed in Polish here, and in Engish below.
Also, in an interview for News24, AJC CE Director talked about the recent controversy sparked by government officials threatening to limit the freedom of research in reaction to statements by a well-known Holocaust historian. Rejak said that “more than a thousand scholars and civil society leaders have voiced their protest against threats by the minister of education and science to cut the budget of institutions whose research results he perceives as ‘anti-Polish’.” Rejak also said that unfortunately World War Two history is being instrumentalized as Poland enters its election campaign.
Poland-Israel: Better an Imperfect Agreement on Museums than Hostile Silence
By Sebastian Rejak
The agreement on educational visits of Israeli youth to Poland may not be perfect, but it is still worth applauding. Dialogue is always better than hostile silence or diplomatic battles.
March 22 Poland and Israel signed an agreement thanks to which the educational program will be resumed and Israeli youth groups will be able to come to Poland again. Why is this agreement important for both countries? To what extent is it an achievement? First of all, it marks an important step in putting an end to tensions that have characterized relations between the countries since 2018 following an unfortunate amendment to the Polish law on the Institute of National Remembrance which was an attempt at criminalizing Holocaust narratives that the Polish government saw as wrong. Fortunately, the criminal provisions were subsequently removed from the law. But the tensions only grew in the years that followed and there were few reasons for hope or optimism.
The lack of cooperation led last year to the suspension of Israeli youth delegations visiting Poland as the government in Warsaw wanted to review two issues. Namely, the educational program for these groups and the question of armed guards. On the one hand, it was obvious that it is only up to the government of Israel to decide what its educational programs will be. On the other hand, the Polish side wanted its points to be heard. A conversation then started that was certainly not easy but finally led to an agreement that, even if not perfect, is beneficial for both parties. Israeli youth delegations to Poland can resume with only the Israeli government deciding what it wants to teach its students. Israeli youth groups will be protected in line with the relevant Polish and Israeli laws – providing the same level of security they enjoyed in the past. Holocaust history remains the centrepiece of the educational program of Israeli groups, but can be accompanied by elements of a wider World War Two history, including the suffering of Poles under Nazi German occupation.
In this context, one cannot remain silent when Polish historians are being silenced for speaking openly about these complex and painful issues. I was outraged by the fact that Chair of the National Broadcasting Council has launched an investigative procedure in response an interview given by the renowned Holocaust scholar prof. Barbara Engelking. I was also shocked to learn that the minister of education and science is threatening the Center for Holocaust Research with cutting funds in reaction to professor Barbara Engelking’s statements made on April 19th. Chair of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research and past chair of the International Auschwitz Council, Prof. Engelking has for decades led teams of researchers who did a meticulous and outstanding job of uncovering the complex history of the Holocaust – a crime devised and perpetrated by the German Third Reich – with collaborators in all occupied Europe. Poland had no Vichy government, it had no Tiso or Quisling; it didn’t have its Arajs Kommando (a special Latvian police unit – Lettische Hilfspolizei – whose main task was to liquidate ghettos and carry out mass executions of Jews). Still, it has been documented beyond any doubt that there were Poles who played a role in rounding up Jews and even murdering Jews in many towns and villages. No one was forced to risk their lives, but neither were Poles forced to report on Jews or blackmail them. Professor Engleking rightly claimed that many Jews felt let down by Poles – but at the same times she underscored that fear was something natural and those who faced punishment for helping Jews should not be judged. Not by us comfortably sitting on armchairs. She also said that while most in the Polish society were adverse towards Jews during the war, the Polish residents of Warsaw, could do nothing more to help Jewish combatants in the Warsaw Ghetto. Yes, it is complicated, not only black and not only white – there are many of shades of grey.
But it’s up to historians to debate the facts, not government institutions. No government official should evaluate the quality of academic scholarship and make decisions regarding funding on the basis of whether his views are in line with those of scholars.
But let’s get back to the agreement. An annex added to it includes a list of museums and memorial sites in Poland that Israeli the youth groups are encouraged to visit. But – and this is an important “but” – each group is supposed to choose at least one museum or memorial site. Under the agreement no group will be obliged or forced to visit any particular museum or more than one museum. What is noteworthy, the list includes several museums that Israeli groups have visited for many years in the past including the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Warsaw Rising Museum and the Ulma Museum of the Polish Righteous. By far the most visited of these three has been the Polin Museum and I have no doubt it will remain so. I believe that visiting the Ulma Museum can also be beneficial for Israeli students who will learn about the circumstances in which some Poles were rescuing Jews. And yes – the museum makes it clear it was “some” Poles – not a million Poles. Is the museum’s core exhibition perfect? No. Does it overlook certain unpleasant aspects of what happened during 1942-1945? Yes. But then it is up to Israeli teachers accompanying the students to offer a wider perspective. And talk about the complex aspects of hiding and being hidden in an occupied country. And to talk about human beings who can act heroically or who can become criminals and others who simply stand idly by. It is even the responsibility of the teachers to address issues they think are not properly covered in the museum core exhibition and ask students: why do you think that is so? What are the untold stories?
A few museums also included in the annex are dedicated to the memory of the so-called “accursed soldiers” – Polish underground members who continued their activities even after the end of World War Two. These places may constitute a challenge for Israeli students since some of those “accursed soldiers” murdered Jews during and shortly after the war. Unfortunately one of them, Józef Kuraś (“Ogień”) has recently been honored by the National Bank of Poland with a memorial coin. I was among those who voiced protest against that. But these museums of “accursed soldiers” – let us repeat that – are not mandatory. Fortunately, no Israeli or Jewish group will be forced to visit them.
To sum up, the Israeli-Polish agreement signed on March 22nd is a breakthrough step starting a process of mending the once very good relations between the two countries – a process that will be beneficial for both in the long run. It is a document of good will that each party can see as its own success. And as long as it’s beneficial to both parties, it is a step in the right direction that, if followed by more gesture of friendship and trust, will set Poland and Israel, Israelis and Poles, back on the right track. Poles, Jews, Israelis will not agree on each and every aspect, each and every nuance of World War Two history. Our sensitivities will not always overlap.
Difficult conversations will always be part of a painful history between friends who need each other. Finding a path to rebuild this relationship through constructive dialogue and cooperation will benefit both parties. It will also benefit the relationship between Poland, Israel, and the United States – this strategic alliance has a role to play in Europe.
AJC has been engaged for decades in furthering Polish-Israeli and Polish-Jewish dialogue and will continue to do so out of conviction that difficulties with communication and agreements that may lack perfection are much better than hostile silence or diplomatic battles.
But we have to think outside of the box and do our best to rebuild this relationship rather than overemphasize the imperfections that we still see or what hasn’t yet been achieved. Let’s choose more hard work over more complaining. Let common sense prevail.