A message to Poland: Great countries wrestle with their history, but don’t deny it

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A girl with an Israeli flag stands in between a barbed wire fences in at the former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during the ‘March of the Living’ at in Oswiecim, Poland on April 16, 2015. Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

I was not brought up to love Poland.

My grandfather was born there, but he instilled no Polish pride in me.Like many survivors, herarely spokeabout his life in CzestokowabeforeWorld War II, or the conflagration that ensued. The onlyPolish words that Irecallcrossinghis lips were curses.

OPINION

I rememberonly one story. Returning to hishouseshortly afterhisentire familywas murdered in the Holocaust,he knocked on the door and a former neighbor opened itandtold himto leave orjoin the rest of his family in hell. My grandfather left Poland forever.

This is the heritage ofmanyPolish Jews. When werememberPoles during the Holocaust, more often than not wemay firstthinkabout the collaborators andmurderers.

Yetthepastisfarmorecomplicated. That past has come to the fore in the public controversy over a new law in Poland that will punish those who dare to publicly assert any Polish responsibility for the Holocaust.

True, nonation paid a heavier price for standing up to the evils of Nazism. Poland lostone-fifthof its pre-war population during the war. The bravery of the Polish army and air force, as well asthe famedresistance,is legendary,andPolish codebreakers were indispensable incrackingNazi codesand winning the war.

MorePolesarehonored atIsrael’sHolocaust museumfor saving Jewsthanthecitizens of any other nation. The reward forthisbravery and suffering was to be sacrificed atthe end of thewarand left as a Soviet vassal state. ThePoleswouldhave towaitanother45 yearsfor their freedom, whichthey gainedin 1989.

Since winningindependence,the Polish peoplehavewritten an impressive new chapter in their history. They area loyal U.S. ally with troops deployed around the world in support of American armed forces. Poland has been agood friendto Israel andhastaken remarkable steps to recognizeits Jewish past, including the beautiful Polin Museum,which recounts 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish historyin allits richness and complexity.

ButPresidentAndrzejDudahassignedlegislationadopted by thePolish parliament that forbidsany mention of the participation of the “Polish nation” in crimes committed during the Holocaust. Thelegislation also would penalizeuse of the term “Polish death camp” to describe thesiteswhere Jews and others were murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland during the war.

Israeli political leadershave criticizedthe legislation. Theyregard it as anattempt to erase history and denyPoland’s legacy ofanti-Semitism. Even more insultingly, thelegislation passed the Polish parliament’slower houseon the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the United Nations and much of the world commemoratedthe six million Jews who perished.

The reaction from some on the Polish side has been no less venomous. Most outrageously, MarcinWolski, the director of a state-run television station, said that thesitesshould be called“Jewishcamps”sinceJews were forced to operate the crematoria.

Signing this legislation is a mistake. Itis a mistakebecause great nations wrestle with their historiesratherthan denying them, because Poles know better than nearly any other people about the fragility of freedom, andbecause proud Poles should fight with every fiber in their being any attempt to take away a measure ofthat freedom.

My grandfather wouldnot have been surprised by all of this. His life experiences powerfully shaped his outlook on the nation of his birth. My experiences have been different and I am not ready to give up on Poland.

I have been present at the opening of American Jewish Committee’s office in Warsaw and heard the speeches of Polish leaders of political and civil society who were eager and willing to work with us. I have worked with Polish leaders in Chicago for years and seen their desire to heal the rifts between our two communities. Despite this setback, both communities need to find a way to move on.

In the end,regardless of what the law will state,we cannot tell the stories of our own histories without one another.

Daniel Elbaum is the Chicago-based Assistant Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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