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THE DISGRACE OF INDIFFERENCE
Translation of "HANBA OBOJETNOSCI"

by Hanna Swida-Ziemba published first time in Polish

in Gazeta Wyborcza, August 17, 1998.

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 Hiz (See, 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 perished there.

 

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 of survival.
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 like vermin.


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 our superiority.


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 of affectation.
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 Soviet Union.


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 values.


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 enslaved'