The tolerance must be mutual

By Wladyslaw Bartoszewski

June 1 2007

I am a Polish Catholic from Warsaw, now visiting Israel for the 15th time. I belong to an older generation of Poles, but have continued to write, engage in historical research, and take an active part in public and political life. In Israel, this generation includes personalities like Prof. Israel Gutman, of Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, and Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, highly respected in Poland since winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

My life experiences, along with the fact that I was named a Righteous Gentile 40 years ago, and have been an honorary citizen of the State of Israel for the last 16 years, gives me the right, perhaps even the duty, to express my thoughts on an issue that has great importance for future ties between Poland and Israel, and between Poles and Israelis.

The relationship is good - even very good. Poland and Israel are probably on better terms today than when Israel was established, and Poland certainly has closer ties with Israel than it does with many other countries. I think Israelis have reason to be pleased with Poland?s performance as an ally, in both the United Nations and the European Union. But what concerns me at the moment is not politics, but human relationships. It seems to me that we are facing a new wave of global intolerance and anti-Semitic belligerence masquerading as anti-Zionism. Declarations, veiled hints and outright invective against Israel, essentially anti-Semitic in nature, are becoming increasingly commonplace in Europe, even in countries that pride themselves on being stable democracies.

Poland is one of the countries still trying to lift themselves out of the deep rut created by years of dictatorships, from Stalin to Hitler, followed by years of repressive policies and trampling of citizen's rights. In March 1968, organized harassment of the Jewish community, for example, set off a large wave of emigration that left very few Jews in Poland.

For years, many Poles, myself included, have been trying to build bridges between people with different outlooks. I do not categorize human beings according to their faith in God, or lack of it. I do not categorize them by where their fathers or grandfathers came from, or by the language they speak. I use another set of criteria: honesty and trustworthiness. I simply ask myself whether I would leave the keys to my apartment with this person, or give this person my credit card. These are the only criteria that guide me in my life.

At the same time, I do not deny that I have preferences. The citizens of the State of Israel, for example, are closer to my heart than the citizens of, say, South Africa or Portugal. I have respect for these countries, but there is no emotional component in my attitude toward them. Like many Poles, I have a special affection for Israel. An increasing number of young people in Poland are starting to take an interest in Israel, despite the geographical distance between our lands.

Trust and friendship are essential for a better future. But trust and friendship (in that order - trust comes first, and later, perhaps, friendship) can only be built on the basis of tolerance for our sensitivities and our mistakes. The only form of tolerance that is unacceptable is tolerance for hatred and criminal behavior. Hatred feeds the stereotypes that have perpetuated discrimination against the weak in Europe for generations. Often, the weak were Diaspora Jews. Thus one would expect that people whose families came from the Diaspora would be hypersensitive toward stereotyping. The response to one negative stereotype will always be another negative stereotype.

In slightly under 60 years, Israeli society has painstakingly built an impressive country. We stand in awe of your accomplishments, and this is the spirit in which we educate our young people. By the same token, we would like to see your country free of rhetoric that is insulting to the Polish people, and certainly any slurs disseminated on an organized basis.

I am not targeting anyone individually. What I am talking about is a general grudge against the Polish people. Any Jew who has suffered at the hands of the Poles has the right to speak out, and the same is true for any Pole who feels hurt by the Jews. But it is better that we stop and think: What purpose does this serve? Is it not preferable to dwell on the good memories? That is my opinion, as a human being and one of the founders of Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, in occupied Poland in 1942.

On a final note, I would like to bring a very personal example. I am one of those Poles who was persecuted both by Stalin and by Hitler. I spent seven months in Auschwitz and six and a half months in communist jails, although I had committed no crime. Many Israelis, especially those whose families came from Europe, know what I am talking about, so that lengthy explanations are unnecessary. But it is worth pointing out that my persecutors were Polish Christians and the lawyer who defended me was a Jew.

So in my case, the stereotypes were reversed. I make a point of telling that to people who claim that the Jews of Poland felt differently about the Stalinist dictatorship than the non-Jews. We must not forget that the Jews were also victims of communist terror and forced to flee. Not only that, but one of Israel?s prime ministers, Menachem Begin, sat in Stalin's gulags. A marble plaque inscribed in Polish, Hebrew and English hangs at the University of Warsaw, Begin's alma mater, commemorating his life and work, and his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. I was the one who unveiled this plaque, together with Shevah Weiss, then Israeli ambassador to Poland.

Prof. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Polish foreign minister, is chairman of the Council for the Preservation of Memory and Sites of Martyrdom, and of the International Auschwitz Council.