Bożena Szara

To Testify to the Truth

translation from Polish by Witold Liliental

He who saves one life - saves the entire world

(from the Talmud).

"The fate of European Jews during World War II is well known. One may not know the exact figures depicting the losses suffered by the Jewish nation, may not be able to name all the places of martyrdom or all the methods used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews, but everyone knows that these losses are immense. They number approximately five million people[i] and exceed 50% of all the Jews living in Europe during World War II. The country chosen by Germans to be the site of this crime was - Poland. Poland, in any case, was earmarked in their war plans (General Plan Ost) to be the next-in-line "object" of annihilation and no other European nation experienced the same degree of humiliation and the horrific suffering. No one else knows better the devious and most brutal methods utilized by the Nazis in hunting down and extermination of Jews, who tried to save themselves from death. Up to now, besides Polish works, there is no exhaustive literature throwing light on the attitude of Poles towards Jews, exterminated by the Germans on Polish soil. And now, in publications in the West and in Israel, voices are raised in accusation of Poles. The accusations made are those that the Polish community behaved passively and looked on with indifference at the extermination of Jews, and even that it cooperated with the Germans in this criminal act." Thus wrote Kazimierz Iranek-Osmecki in his book entitled; "Who saves one life... Poles and Jews 1939-1945", published in London in 1968.

Since the time that the book was published, not much has changed in the world of propaganda and information about the state of Polish-Jewish relations.

To this day, false information is published about crimes committed by Poles, who murdered Jews, to this day, the Western press uses materiel and photographs captioned as being from "Polish concentration camps", to this day funds and people are at the disposal of those who produce films accusing the Polish nation of extermination of the Jewish nation during World War II.

New light on the history of Polish-Jewish relations has been provided by the sensational publication of "Neighbors" by Jan Tomasz Gross. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance is still conducting an investigation into the crime perpetrated in Jedwabne. This investigation has not been completed and we do still have to learn all the circumstances of this human drama. We ask of ourselves and of others: how could such a terrible tragedy have happened? The discussion about Jedwabne is centered on the question of whether to apologize, how to do it, and in whose name? Nobody has yet asked to whom to apologize? This one answer seems obvious: to Jews. But then who are the Jews of today? Where do they live? Is it one common world? The same one in Israel, Hollywood, New York, in Kiev and Buenos Aires? - asks Marcin Meller in the June issue of "Polityka" in the report about the Diaspora - the "Dispersed People".

An answer to this could be provided by the speech rendered by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski at the ceremony in Jedwabne to commemorate the 60th anniversary of this tragedy.

"... We express our pain and shame, and we express our determination in striving for the truth to come out, for courage to overcome the bad past and our solid will to bring about understanding and harmony. Because of this crime, we should beg for forgiveness of the shadows of those who perished and their families, of all those who were wronged. For this reason, today, as a citizen and as President of the republic of Poland, I apologize. I apologize in my own name and in the name of all those Poles whose concience is moved by that criminal deed. In the name of those who understand that one cannot feel proud of the greatness of Polish history without, at the same time, feeling pain and shame for the wrong that Poles have done to others".

Journalists, social analysts, writers and moral authorities pose other questions: how can we testify to the truth so that future generations no longer dwell in mutual hate? How can we find the media and means to stop the spreading of false opinions about the "guilt" of the entire Polish nation for the crime of genocide on the Jewish nation? How can we temper the Western press to not publish materiel which is at odds with the truth? How can we reach the young generation with truth about those tragic times?

One answer is provided by the activity of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada. The aim of this body is to help bring about a better understanding of Polish-Jewish history and common cultural heritage and to promote real dialogue. This organization brings together mostly Canadian Poles and Jews but remains open to all who are interested in its goals. How to reach information about this activity?

The Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, active in Montreal since 1988 has recently opened its own web site in the Internet. In its preamble we read: "Many of the World's Jews have their roots in Poland. Centuries of coexistence and common cultural heritage form the basis of our activity. We try to promote a stimulating community, one in which our members and friends could freely exchange views and look for solutions to difficult questions. We believe that this will lead to mutual understanding, to the discarding of bias and stereotypes, harmful to both Poles and Jews.

We realize that the road to reach our goals is not an easy one, but even the smallest progress in this direction is a contribution to the activity of many other people who, in different places in this world strive to unite different ethnic and religious communities. This goal carries great weight and is difficult to attain when mutually foreign communities come into play. In our case, however, common history and Polish-Jewish cultural heritage allows us to believe that the activity of this Foundation, despite the difficulties, has chances of success and our efforts are not without sense".

The Foundation, opening the Internet web site, wants to reach Poles and Jews worldwide who are interested in the common history and cultural heritage. The Foundation, based in Montreal cooperates with the American Society for Polish-Jewish Studies in Cambridge, as well as with the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation in Toronto.

Members of the Foundation Council are people enjoying wide respect: Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Helena Datner, Marek Edelman, Ewa Hoffman and Czeslaw Milosz. Among its supporters are people of arts and science, writers, people from religious circles, as well as social activists from Poland, Canada, Great Britain, Israel and the USA. In the course of its activity, the Foundation has organized many lectures, seminars and meetings with interesting personalities. Among the guests of the Foundation were: archbishop Henryk Muszynski, rabbi Dow Marmur, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Marek Edelman, Konstanty Gebert, Agnieszka Holland, Jan Karski, Krystyna Kersten, Jerzy Kloczowski, Stanislaw Krajewski, Hanna Krall. The Foundation’s plans include, besides lectures and presentations, are publications of memoirs from the times of the Holocaust. The Internet web site is edited in three languages: Polish, English and French. It contains links where one can find interesting materials published in periodicals, information about books, interviews, as well as the newest articles from Polish and worldwide press. Those interested should visit www.polish-jewish-heritage.org. Political and social views and interpretations of facts described by authors published or quoted by the web site are not necessarily shared by the Foundation. In a bid to present different points of view to those visiting the site, without imposing censorship, its editors are not responsible for the opinions of the authors. In keeping with Canadian law, the Foundation does not publish xenophobic texts which could be classified as spreading hate, especially hate between ethnic communities.

The Editorial Board of the web site comprises: Irena Bellert, who is also the President of the Foundation, Krzysztof zieciolowski, Danuta Hiz, Wanda Muszynska and Anna Wrobel. The web site is technically developed by Dobrochna Drogowska. All persons working and cooperating with the Editorial Board of the web site do it voluntarily.

Bozena Szara is a free-lanced journalist in Montreal, Quebec and a producer of a weekly radio program in Polish ("Jedynka" CFMB 1280 AM)

Witold Lilienal is a member of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation in Toronto


[i] Kazimierz Iranek-Osmecki, whose words are quoted here, wrote his book over 30 years ago. Since then, most publications on the subject quote the number of Jews perished in the Holocaust as 6,000,000.