Ha'aretz, May 23, 2008

Whoever controls the past

By Laurence Weinbaum

It was Orwell who observed that whoever controls the past controls the future, and whoever controls the present controls the past. That is why contemporary politics in Poland, a great repository of Jewish history, are of such interest and importance to Jewish historians. In recent months, a heated debate among Polish intellectuals and politicians was triggered by the publication of the Polish edition of Jan Gross' provocative best-seller, "Fear." In chilling detail, that work chronicled the killings of Jews in post-Holocaust Poland. In an earlier book, "Neighbors," Gross, a Polish-born American sociologist, published the story of Jedwabne - one of several hamlets in northeastern Poland where the local population murdered Jewish townsfolk in 1941. "Neighbors" drove home the point that Polish attitudes toward Jews were not nearly as benevolent as many Poles had believed them to be - and Polish society was severely shaken. "Jedwabne" became indelibly etched in public consciousness as a metaphor for local complicity in the destruction of local Jews, though in certain quarters it was seen as a Jewish attempt to besmirch the good name of Poland.

One response to the publication of "Fear" was the hasty translation into Polish of a work by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, the Polish-born academic dean and professor of history at the Institute of World Politics in Washington. At the center of that book, "After the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II," first published five years ago, is the "contextualization" or even rationalization of the post-war violence against Jews. According to Chodakiewicz, Polish violence against Jews must be balanced against Jewish acts of violence against Poles. Indeed, the very title of his work and his deliberate use of the word "conflict" would suggest at least some degree of reciprocity. Chodakiewicz, a Ph.D. from Columbia University, is one of a group of ethno-nationalist historians who maintains that Jews who served in Poland's notorious internal security organ, headed by Jakub Berman (a Jewish-born apparatchik), should be blamed for their acts as Jews. They contend that much of the violence directed against Jews was not anti-Semitic at all; it was simply a reaction to the transgressions of Jewish communists. To be sure, Jews acting on behalf of Moscow committed crimes for which they must bear personal responsibility, but clearly they were not acting to advance any specifically Jewish agenda. As such, the Jewish-born functionaries are no more or less to blame than the ethnic Poles who acted alongside them, but in far greater numbers. If anything, the communist cause was antithetical to Jewish interests, and most Jews with a strong national or religious consciousness beat a path out of the country as fast as their legs could carry them. The appearance of Chodakiewicz's work would not be so troubling if it did not bear the imprimatur of Poland's Institute for National Remembrance (IPN), a state-sponsored body charged with investigating crimes by both the Nazis and the Communists, the Germans and the Soviets - and their local henchmen. In recent years, however, there have been disturbing signs that the IPN has been diverted from its initial mission and has actually been used as an instrument to promote a Polish nationalist weltanschauung - and whitewash terrible stains on Poland's escutcheon. Indeed, Chodakiewicz and like-minded historians seem reluctant to forgive the Jews for Jedwabne and the Kielce pogrom, and are hard at work explaining why the murdered - not the murderers - are guilty. Of course, there is nothing very new in this approach. Such "deflective negationism" is a widespread phenomenon that can be observed across the length and breadth of post-communist East and Central Europe. However, Chodakiewicz takes this defense strategy to a dizzying new level, suggesting: "For several hundred years now, secular utopians have been bludgeoning traditional foundations of the Western civilization. Lately, the 'progressives' have focused on Poland as a substitute target for a larger assault on traditional American values. They have blamed Poland for anti-Semitism, including an alleged complicity in the Holocaust. This has succeeded because the secularists command the symbols and language of America's discourse." In other words, those who study the history of anti-Semitism in Poland, including the role of locals in the destruction of Jewish communities, are really attempting to bring down the United States. What is especially bizarre is that a historian with such twisted views would serve (until 2010) as a presidential appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. But America has always been nothing if not a land of golden opportunity. There are reasons to question the methodology employed by Gross, and eminent Polish scholars have done so - without encountering any suggestions that they had any intention other than to advance the cause of objective scholarship. Chodakiewicz's motivations seem less sanguine, and the fact that his wild assertions have received official endorsement is most disturbing. This is especially so because his book (even before it was translated) was trashed by many of his colleagues in Poland, including highly regarded authorities in the field. Those scholars severely chastised the unprofessional way in which Chodakiewicz used sources. Given the stinging criticism Chodakiewicz leveled at Gross, whose scholarship, he said, "eerily recalls Stalinist propaganda of the mid-1940s," this is especially ironic. Therefore, it would behoove those of us who count ourselves among Poland's sincerest well-wishers - those of us who feel intimately and inexorably bound to the land of our forefathers - to draw attention to this travesty of history.

Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, a historian, is chief editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, and co-author of a forthcoming book on the historiography of the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.