A yellowed letter from Poland in the 1930s.

Some nations, like Poland, try to use the law to whitewash their difficult history. But letters such as those by Zalman Bramson, written in Yiddish, contradict the notion that the Germans brought anti-Semitism with them when they invaded on Sept. 1, 1939. It was already there. And still is.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

True greatness comes from facing history

If Black History Month seems a grim tale at times, consider nations like Poland that try to squash negative history.

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“One can’t walk in the streets and the newspapers are not allowed to print the truth, because they are afraid that the Polish currency would be shaky. A Jew is not allowed to go out in the street at night because his life is at risk.”

You know the great thing about centuries of slavery in the United States? The big positive that gets overlooked, even during Black History Month, between Harriet Tubman and those wood cuts of tightly packed slave ships? I should probably draw this out, because a lot of readers are thinking, “What?” reaching for the cudgel of outrage. But there is one undeniably positive aspect to both slavery and the 150 years of oppression that followed. 


That we can talk about it now, honestly, openly, write and discuss, and contemplate our nation’s difficult and tortured past, unafraid. That is an undeniable greatness of America, one to be proud of. Because not every country can manage it.

Opinion bug


This week, in Poland, a verdict will be handed down in a libel case against two historians, Barbara Engelking, with Warsaw’s Polish Center for Holocaust Research, and Jan Grabowski.

The pair co-edited a book, “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland.” Lucky for them, they couldn’t be prosecuted over a 2018 Polish law that criminalized associating Poland or Poles with World War II atrocities — that law met with such international derision that it was reversed.

But the government still funds the Polish League Against Defamation, which sued the authors for recounting history that contradicts their sense of unmitigated national glory by suggesting that one individual credited with rescuing Jews also sent them to their deaths.

“In America, one’s life is safe. Here a Jew’s life is worthless ... My friend and I were in the garden, sitting on a bench, engrossed in a book. All of a sudden, several hooligans appeared holding sticks in their hands ...”

Like our own country for the past half decade, and nations around the world, Poland fell in the grip of resurgent nationalism. A shameful political philosophy that believes a country becomes great, not by actually doing great things, but through talk, threats and pressure. Their greatness is declarative — tell everybody “We are great!” Over and over and over.

Poland has a long history of anti-Semitism. It was anti-Semitic before World War II — these quotes in italics are from letters written by Zalman Bramson in the 1930s. During the war, while there was certainly heroism — the unprepared Polish Army did charge German tanks on horseback — there was widespread collaboration in the fun of killing off Jews, including my grandfather’s entire family and his brother Zalman.

The above paragraph is true, and the whole truth is far worse. Poles were killing Jews after the war, out of habit, when they tried to return to their villages. Sue me in Poland if you must. I know all excuses because I’ve heard them all — Poland was so tolerant in the Middle Ages! — from readers writing in, insisting Poland wasn’t anti-Semitic with such rage that they end up demonstrating the very Jew hate they think they are refuting.

People who deny their difficult history trying to look good end up looking worse.

“We found our legs and ran away. But they had success with another young man who fell into their hands. They caught him and gave him a terrible beating. By the time we had brought over a policeman, they were no longer there, and the young Jewish boy was, poor thing, lying in a pool of blood. Scenes such as this are not at all uncommon in Bialystok.”

Nobody sent a “Hey, we’ve killed your family” notice to my grandfather in Cleveland, signed either by the Germans or the Poles. From what I know of his neighbors, from his letters, I have a hunch. But I point no fingers. Part of history is saying what you don’t know. And what you do. Based on the evidence.

“The Holocaust is not here to help the Polish ego and morale,” said Grabowski, one of the authors being sued. “... which seems to be forgotten by the nationalists.”

Of course, forgetting is what nationalists do. Because the truth hurts them. Remembering is what a free people do. We are not hurt by our hard past. We are strengthened. The glorious and the ghastly.

We remember the past because it is a duty, a sacred, patriotic duty, a torch passed from the ghostly grip of those who came before to us, one we must guard and amplify and pass along to those to come.

If we let the flame go out, or replaced it with some false, feel-good sparkle, well, we know what that looks like. We’ve been there, and we’re not going back. Ever.

“... one must also eat, and a hard winter is coming. Remember to keep your promise. Don’t abandon us.”

• EDITOR’S NOTE: This column has been corrected from an earlier version. Engelking and Grabowski were co-editors of “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland.” Also, the law that criminalizes associating Poland or Poles with the Holocaust passed, but was reversed.

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