THE DISGRACE OF INDIFFERENCE
Translation of "HANBA OBOJETNOSCI"
by Hanna Swida-Ziemba published
first time in Polish
in Gazeta Wyborcza, August 17,
From the Web Editor
The article 'Disgrace of
Indifference' by Hanna Swida-Ziemba was published in
Polish four years ago (Gazeta Wyborcza, 18 08 1998).
According to the opinion of many respected, outstanding
writers, scholars and journalists, whom I've had the
opportunity to speak with when I was in Poland, it is
considered to be one of the most important texts in
the debate on crosses planted on the gravel area in
Auschwitz; it contains an excellent analysis of the
Polish society engaged in that controversy and the opinion
of the author herself - an outstanding, very sensitive
sociologist. Since I learned from the author that the
text had not been published in English up until that
time, we decided to publish it now on our Web site in
the Polish version from Gazeta Wyborcza and in English
due to the translation graciously offered by Danuta
Letter to the Editor from Danuta Hiz).
If the Poles understood and internalized
the dread of Holocaust, they would become painfully
sensitive to all expressions of anti-Semitism and react
to them immediately, decisively and vigorously.
The controversy about the cross
on the gravel area in Auschwitz is not a religious one.
It is about a place. The place which to Poles is the
site of a horrible concentration camp. To Jews, it is
the territory of their mass annihilation, the Shoah.
The controversy is intertwined with the events of the
Second World War and with the subsequent fortunes of
Jews on Polish soil. Evaluating the conflict from this
perspective, I want to justify my assertion that it
is the Jews who have the primary right to that symbol
of Shoah - in spite of the fact that many Poles also
History decided that the Holocaust
occurred primarily on Polish soil, and the great cemetery
of the Jewish victims remains in Poland. Most important,
however, is that during the war the tragedies of Poles
and Jews were occurring SIDE BY SIDE and - in spite
of the entire Polish martyrology - the situations of
the two nations were not symmetric: it was ours -that
of the Poles - that was relatively privileged. I think
that this fact, a consequence of Hitler's policy, constituted
the first spark of today's Polish-Jewish misunderstandings
that have revealed themselves, among others, in the
controversy about Auschwitz.
I think that the Jews as well
as some Poles wrongly see as the 'guilt' of Poles their
peculiar indifference to the Holocaust and their fear
to offer help. Experiences such as those of the Poles
during the Second World War (or perhaps war experiences
in general) have a dulling effect on sensitivity to
crimes, cataclysms and tragedies visited upon other
people, and even - frequently - to ones own dramas.
The dulling is a response of the organism to danger,
to helplessness: it is a psychological defense mechanism.
In an extreme situation, numbness becomes a condition
It should not be forgotten that what is now referred
to as indifference, at the time, concerned not only
Jews, but also the Poles who were jailed, shot, or exiled
deep into Russia.
It also concerned one's own fate
and that of loved ones. After short-lived shock and
sorrow, there followed a repression of those experiences
from consciousness which enabled one's preservation
of equilibrium, however unsteady, and a readiness to
fight for personal survival.
I will invoke my own reminiscences.
When the war broke out, I was not quite nine years old.
When it ended, I was fourteen. But the war accelerates
maturation and sharpens perceptive faculties. In Vilnius,
where I was born and lived throughout the war, the Shoah
took place almost in front of our eyes. The Ghetto population
was being liquidated in the Ponary forest, just at the
edge of the city. For the people with whom I was in
contact at the time, it constituted a shock - not an
indifferent matter. It was discussed a lot. Some women
wept. But the shock did not suspend everyday life. It
did not stop a birthday party. After a few weeks, the
experience wore off, the topic disappeared from conversations.
At that time, however, a similar reaction followed the
Polish dramas, including collective ones such as the
mass transport of people to the Russian exile, the killings
of hostages, the mass arrests.
Sometimes it happens that war
releases astonishing reflexes of solidarity - when aid
is possible, and especially when it does not endanger
one's own existence. But in moments of real danger or
helplessness, war neutralizes sensitivity and creates
attitudes of hardened ruthlessness. It is no wonder
that relatively few Poles directly participated in the
saving of Jews. The natural fear for one's own life
and that of one's family's intervened. It so happens
in human communities that only a small minority is ready
for heroism. Such an exceptional readiness was shown
by those Poles who endangered their own and their families'
lives to save Jews. And - taking everything into consideration
- they were not so few. I think that this understanding
causes Poles to treat as unjust, untrue and slanderous
some Jewish accusations of co-responsibility for Shoah.
And this gives a new impulse to anti-Semitism.
However, the anti-Polonism and
the grievances some Jews harbor against Poles originate
not solely in these guiltless Polish behaviors. During
the war, deeply offensive acts did also occur. Such
as exploiting the Jewish tragedy for one's own enrichment.
It is not blackmailers that I speak of: such hyenas
exist in every community and they surface in extreme
situations. The Polish blackmailers denounced to the
Germans not only Jews, but Polish underground activists
as well. I have in mind those average citizens who sought
profit when they offered to aid Jews. Also, certain
rightist underground groups, whose anti-Semitism survived
the Holocaust unabated. And the Nationalist Army (NSZ)
who - it was said in my parents' circles - were murdering
the Jews hiding in the forests.
In view of these facts, it is understandable that from
the perspective of Jews - so ruthlessly exterminated
- the natural and guiltless Polish attitudes could seem
ruthless and cruel as well. In her penetrating book
'Annihilation and Memory' Barbara Engelking writes:
'from the Germans the Jews expected nothing but persecution,
chicanery and terror. But in the Poles they wanted to
see companions, co-citizens united against the common
oppression. They believed the Poles to be on the same
side of a barricade, awaited their sympathy and solidarity.
The clash of such expectations with reality had to give
rise to feelings of regret, disappointment, even to
aggression. This could have become the source of today's
anti-Polonism found in some Jewish circles'.
I see, however, the main source of the present conflict
in the fact that a majority of Poles to this day have
not grasped the essence of the Holocaust; that the Holocaust
has not become for them a traumatic shock leading to
reflection, shaping their attitudes and actions. At
one time, this had been for me a painful surprise. Today,
I think some explanations are possible. The Poles had
had tragic experiences in their own martyrology which
affected many families. They also suffered the trauma
of the war's conclusion which - for many - meant an
irrevocable defeat due to the abandonment by the powerful
allies - in spite of so many sacrifices. Moreover, for
many, the martyrology and danger continued throughout
the years 1944-55.
Communities preoccupied with ongoing tragedies are
seldom ready to think about the fate of 'others'. not
immediately involved in those tragedies; even if these
'others' are co-citizens, acquaintances, neighbors.
The prewar conflicts between Poles and Jews-economic,
cultural, religious and the prewar Polish anti-Semitism-were
amplified by Stalin's additional arguments. Though it
must be remembered that the role of Jews in postwar
Poland resembled that of the Turks in Bulgaria, or Poles
themselves in the Lithuanian Republic.
In spite of all the above, today, after so many years,
and in a free country, there is no justification for
the attitudes many Poles harbor toward Jews. Nothing
can justify their self-satisfied, egocentric blindness
with respect to the Holocaust, which became evident
during the Auschwitz controversy. Hence, I would like
to induce at least some of them to reflect; to change
their perception of the Jewish problem and of the controversy
over the cross.
What was the Holocaust? Without doubt it was an unbelievable
crime, exceptional even in the world in which many terrible
mass crimes had taken place. It constitutes Europe's
XX century scandal which defies comparison. Not just
in the number of its victims but in the PRINCIPLE underlying
the crime. This principle weighed on those who perished
and on the survivors, and others who escaped Holocaust
due to where they were living or the time of their birth.
It must be stressed that Jews were not only annihilated,
they were also robbed of their very humanity. "The
final solution" aimed to wipe them out as if ridding
a city of rats. The German struggle was not with a real
or presumed enemy, did not result from war or revolution,
was not revenge or part of an inter-group fight. The
extermination of the Jewish 'race' was executed coolly,
according to a plan and use of all available modern
technology. Depriving the Jews of humanity found expression
in 'leveling' all who had 'a drop of Jewish blood'.
No matter what their nationality, religious persuasion,
irrespective of whether they were wise or stupid, noble
or evil; their world outlook, attitudes, opinions, life
style, age or gender did not count. Everything that
gives human dimension to a person - his biological state,
cultural conditioning and THE SUBJECTIVE CHOICE, an
essence of humanity - became invalidated.
There was no chance of defense. Jews were hunted as
one hunts forest animals, only more ruthlessly. The
aim was to eradicate 'that nation' to the last person
contaminated by that 'drop of blood', even from the
remotest ancestors. When someone was defined as Jew
- he became an 'insect', not a man.
All this was taking place in the very heart of the
Western civilization, in Christian Europe, with the
Catholic Church remaining silent.
How would the people who had been sentenced have felt,
while they were being annihilated, one after another?
How many Poles have used their imagination to put themselves
in the psychological state of the Jews who were perishing,
and of those few who survived thanks to Polish help,
but who, throughout the war years, were constantly aware
of the danger? People - endowed with consciousness,
sensitivity, reasoning, imagination, dignity - treated
A moment of reflection about the fate of our co-citizens
would make us understand that - in spite of its own
martylogy, our nation was highly privileged. Yes, we
were persecuted, but we remained human beings. We could
choose between heroism in the struggle against the occupier,
or efforts to survive or even to engage in betrayal.
Barbara Engelking describes this assymetry well: "Poles,
to fight the Germans, did not need Jews. But the Jews
trying to avoid death from the Germans could not do
without Poles. They were condemned to experience the
Poles' love of the neighbor, pity, decency, hatred,
indifference or greed." Also, "For Jews, the
wartime had no positive communal binding. Their war
(...) was a cursed time The Jews were not dying for
their country (...) Then for what? They were not even
dying, they were being slaughtered."
The lack of symmetry between our fates existed also
between the Poles who were saving Jews and the Jews
whom they were saving. The Poles knew that if they did
endanger their lives, it was their own heroic choice.
Although in fear, they could feel a moral satisfaction
from aiding another human being. The Jew in hiding remained
necessarily a 'dependent debtor'. He would die not for
moral virtues, but as a hunted animal, who - only because
he is 'biologically' himself - puts others. in danger.
In other words, the very possibility of saving Jews,
whether acted upon or not, constituted an element of
He for whom this assertion seems iconoclastic and difficult
to absorb should read 'The Black Seasons', a newly published
book by Michal Glowinski. The author, a professor at
the Institute of Literary Studies (PAN), a man of rare
wisdom, humility, distance and objectivity, was able
to write this book about his wartime childhood only
years later. He recreated its story in the fragments
which remained in his memory. He did it sparingly, in
an objective manner, and in beautiful language devoid
Reading it, we follow the experiences of a Jewish child,
a relatively privileged one. His family succeeded in
crossing to the Aryan side and survived. Himself, he
was ultimately rescued by the Sisters of the Order of
Servants of the Holiest Virgin in Turkowice, who hid
and saved over 30 Jewish children. I recommend this
book especially to those who were children during the
war and occupation. I myself could - thanks to this
book - once again, and perhaps more clearly - experience
this ASYMMETRY between Poles and Jews. Four years older
than the author, I am among those children who escaped
the gravest cataclysms. My closest family survived,
no one was arrested or deported, I was all this time
under my mother's care.
On the other hand, I was also a natural participant
in the Polish fate of that time. I lived through bombings,
street combats, deaths of friends and of more distant
relatives. I suffered terrible living conditions after
expulsion from our apartment, and anxiety about my father,
who, after the 1939 invasion, first disappeared and
later was obliged to hide (he belonged to the resistance).
I became acquainted with hunger and became gravely ill
from malnutrition. The house where we lived burned down,
together with all our belongings. In the end, I had
to leave behind my home town, Vilna, together with all
the intelligentia who did not want to remain in the
I had a taste of threat to life, fear of arrest, my
own and my father's poverty, humiliations and hunger.
Still, while reading 'The Black Seasons' I saw again
how very privileged I was - compared to Jewish children.
All throughout the war I held my head high. I played
with other children without fear that I may be found
out and killed: I did not have to deny my identity.
I could dream about a fight with the enemy and realize
it in a measure appropriate to my age. I also could
offer Jews a measure of help.
The Polish-Jewish conflicts may be variously perceived.
The drastic difference between our fates, however, a
difference of existential dimension which unfolded on
the same soil, ALONGSIDE ONE ANOTHER, demands that the
problem be viewed from the perspective of fundamental
I admit that bearing the drama of the war, including
the dreadful tragedy of the Holocaust, was beyond human
strength. Still, I believe, after the war it has been
a moral obligation of Poles to compensate the surviving
Jews through benevolence and helpfulness for the fact
that our fortunes during the war have been so different;
that, preoccupied with our own martyrology, we had not
been able to help those who were to perish; and that
some of our countrymen acted culpably. This is also
a moral imperative because we all belong to one human
family, and depriving a nation of human attributes dishonors
that very humanity
If we had at the time internalized the meaning of the
Holocaust, Polish-Jewish relations might have developed
differently. First, we would have been able to more
soberly evaluate the roles played by Jews during the
Stalinist terror. We would have noticed that many Poles
also participated in the apparatus of violence, while
there were many Jews around - decent and noble minded
- who had nothing in common with Communism or its apparatus
of terror. In the first postwar years, we would not
have irrationally and unjustly transferred our attitudes
toward the terror apparatus onto our attitudes toward
Jews. Second, perhaps the instinctive popular anti-Semitism
would not have emerged with such force. It revealed
itself in the Kielce pogrom, (this, even if caused by
a provocation, was possible only if the provoked people
already harbored 'potential attitudes' favorable to
it), as well as (partly) in 1956 and in 1968. Although
In March 1968 anti-Semitism was the 'official' party
line, it was condemned by a significant number of Poles.
But - unfortunately - it was also echoed in a significant
part of the society.
Suppose, however, that what knitted Jews and Poles
together in a web of mutual misunderstandings and conflicts
was a combination of external causes, and that the postwar
Polish behavior toward Jews was due to a disorienting
Communist influence. But now, we are living in a free
country. We are gaining an understanding of various
other problems, and the time is ripe to devote some
honest, deep thought to this matter as well. But instead
- today - we encounter grafitti 'Jews to the gas; some
priests insert anti-Semitic ideas in their homilies
(the Rev. Henryk Jankowski is a universally familiar
example); a tribute was accorded to the Nationalist
NSZ; today in the streets and in private conversations
anti-Semitic remarks can be encountered; openly anti-Semitic
political parties are being formed. And inexorably,
today the Auschwitz conflict arises.
Even if we accept that all this happens among a minority
of our society, it does so in freedom. It meets with
indifference from many Poles who are not anti-Semitic.
It is treated as 'folklore', non-threatening - unimportant
incidents not worthy of attention. A majority of the
Catholic hierarchy, even though not anti-Semitic, react
to these phenomena with uneasy restraint. In other words,
the atmosphere in Poland is as if the Holocaust had
never taken place on our soil. It all shows that the
inhuman dreadfulness of the Holocaust, to this day,
has not been absorbed by a great majority of Poles.
It does not occur to them that any sign of anti-Semitism
brings back the time of Shoah to those who survived
it, as well as to Jews and persons of Jewish ancestry
who had not been directly subjected to the Holocaust,
but whose psyche has been branded by it.
I will quote once more from Glowinski's book in which
the author recalls a postwar Polish school and the priest
who used to repeat in his religion classes that all
generations of Jews are responsible for Christ's crucifixion,
no exception. As a consequence, two boys beat Michal
up. The author's reaction says it all 'It was one of
these situations where I had the feeling that the world
is collapsing, losing its sense, that it, in its entirety,
is directed against me. This shock (...) had a deeper
meaning, because the attack demonstrated - I thought
- that I will be always alien (...) will find no place
for myself. I felt it as a continuation of the occupation,
which I still carried inside me'.
The experiences related by Glowinski can be taken as
a typical example of how the people targeted by the
Holocaust are affected by any expression of anti-Semitism,
even incidental. I believe, therefore, that if Poles
understood and internally relived the dread of the Jewish
fate they would become sensitized against such displays
and would react to them decisively and vigorously. The
dearth of such reactions demonstrates what I said earlier:
although our fortunes played out side by side, on the
same soil, the terror of the Holocaust failed to reach
a majority of Poles.
The conflict about the cross on the gravel area is
the clearest and the most drastic manifestation of this
lack of understanding. It touches a neuralgic spot -
the principal site of the Shoah. Moreover, in a place
symbolizing the 'cold' and 'pure' manner of extermination
by modern techniques which made it possible to kill
millions. This is the place where the most inhuman character
of the Holocaust was expressed. The presence in Auschwitz
of its Polish victims - incomparably fewer - could be
commemorated more discretely, without hurting the feelings
of the nation to whom the war dealt such an inhuman
fate. This is the only thing that we, as a society,
could do for the Jews - in memory of Holocaust.
Therefore, though I look for explanations for some
other Polish transgressions, in this case, I find no
defense. The problem is not just the emotionally and
mentally primitive fanatics who are devoted to the 'defense
of the cross'. This kind of people may be found in any
society. But the conflict has a wider and more general
reach. The government has for some time now consistently
'washed its hands. and so failed to defend the victims
of the Holocaust. The Church was long silent. Recently,
at the top of Polish Catholic hierarchy, Cardinal Jozef
Glemp declared that the large cross must stay on the
gravel area. What is more, the Jews who demand that
the cross be transferred to another location are called
'extremist'. Quite universally - in 'enlightened' circles
- it is argued that the clash is between two equivalent
claims, and that a solution must be found in a calm
spirit of compromise, with mutual respect for religious
symbols. In the end, a 'naive' question is asked in
its egocentric blindness: what do the Jews have against
a cross, which is a symbol of love and peace?
This question summarizes a group egocentrism that ignores
all but its own point of view. Only in Christian religion
is the cross is a symbol of love and peace. For unbelievers
and for adherents of other religions it is simply a
symbol that is sacred to a specific religion - nothing
more. But for the Jews, its predominant presence in
Auschwitz may legitimately evoke other associations
as well. And it is not important to inquire from the
Christian perspective (of the Polish Catholics) if these
associations are valid and fully substantiated. Because
respect for the mourning of the Holocaust victims requires
an unconditional acceptance of such an interpretation
of the symbols of Auschwitz as is accepted by the Jews
themselves. Because it is a great monument to the martyrdom
of their nation. Normal sensibilities would require
that their feelings and beliefs be honored. Do we, after
all those years, still fail to understand what happened
to the Jews, our co-citizens?
There is another important factor. After 1989 the behavior
of some Polish Catholics indicated that the cross is
not simply a religious symbol. It became a sign of 'appropriation'
of an area by a defined group, a sign of a territory
where all others are persons of second class, unwanted
intruders. And such is the signal conveyed by the gigantic
cross on the gravel area, which, due to its size, can
be seen from far away and dominates the entire Auschwitz.
It is an outrage to the Holocaust victims and to those
who want to honor them. The fact that the controversy
is about the size of the cross proves that the 'appropriation'
is the issue. In religious sense, the cross is an unchangeable
symbol, irrespective of its size. Thus, if the quarrel
is about the enormity of the cross, and more, about
erection of numerous other giant crosses, it certainly
is not the matter of honoring the Catholic victims of
murder, but it is about stressing that Auschwitz, in
Poland, is first of all a 'Polish cemetery'. That all
other victims are unimportant, and the feelings and
opinions of those who wish to honor them do not matter
to us. The presence of the cross is to bear witness
that the Holocaust is only a marginal issue for Poles.
It had to do with strangers, not ourselves.
How to discuss in this context the rights of 'both
sides' and search for a balanced compromise? Rather,
it must be stated that the indifference of Poles, Polish
government and the Catholic Church toward Jewish arguments
in this controversy becomes an inhuman indifference
to the Holocaust itself. And this alone, in my eyes,
constitutes our indelible infamy.
I have written this article with great difficulty.
It deals with a problem that concerns me deeply, that
is a source of shame and pain. The Holocaust tragedy
cannot be expressed in words. It asks for silence. But
the events have forced me to speak. I wish to bear witness
that on the Polish side, also, this perception of the
Auschwitz conflict can exist. I am sure that there are
many more people who think like me. Proofs are in the
posture of Krzysztof Sliwinski and in what the Rev Musial
said . The others are silent. Perhaps they are afraid
that what they say may be understood as a profanation
of the cross? Perhaps because it is so difficult to
find the words in which to state the evident truth about
events so tragic that they exceed human reason.
Professor Hanna Swida Ziemba
- a sociologist, teaches at Warsaw University. Last
year [ In 1997} she published the book 'A person internally