Copy of the letter sent by Dr. Michael Cohen, retired Patent Attorney, citizen and resident of Israel, on January 21st. 2004 to His Excellency Mr. Jan Piekarski, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Tel Aviv, Israel.
This letter is reprinted with the permission of Dr. Michael Cohen and was published at the website of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tel Aviv at http://www.polemb.org/jewish.htm
January 21, 2004
The Ambassador of Poland
Mr. Jan Piekarski Tel-Aviv
Dear Mr. Ambassador,
Motivated by the wish to communicate to you and through you to the Polish people some of my thinking and sentiments regarding the relationship between Poles and Jews, and by the desire to explain what makes me a friend of Poland, I am taking the liberty of writing to you personally. The immediate impetus for writing this letter stems from the fact that I have just finished reading Norman Davies' book "Rising '44 - The Battle for Warsaw" (Macmillan 2003). It is an excellent historical research, no doubt one of the first and most comprehensive of its kind, and it fills the reader with awe and admiration for a gallant and brave nation.
My wife and I visited Poland twice, the first time about ten years ago and again a year later. Each time we went on our own, i.e. not with a group, the immediate reason having been to visit some business associates (I am a patent attorney), but in truth our objects went far beyond (while herself a native of Israel, my wife's parents were both from Warsaw), and what we really had in mind was to get acquainted with the country and its people, and also to see sights related to the Holocaust. I do not wish to elaborate here on our encounter with and exposure to some of the remnants the Jewish Holocaust; any thing I might say in relation thereto would no doubt sound common and banal. I should like, however, to make some incidental observations which bear on the remainder of my narrative: while many people say with some justification that as a result of the Holocaust, Poland has become the greatest Jewish graveyard on earth, this has absolutely nothing to do with deeds or omissions of the Polish people. It was not the Polish people who devised, designed and carried out the annihilation of the Jews; it was not them who decided to locate the death factories and camps on Polish soil; no Poles were involved in any organized manner in the acts of slaughter;many compassionate and noble hearted Poles stood by many individual Jews in their misery,helping them to escape, hiding them, feeding them and saving their lives while risking their own; and last but not least, the Poles themselves were persecuted by the Nazis and put to death in the same death camps as the Jews.
The following story is in point. On our first visit my wife and I made a day tour from Warsaw to Treblinka. While we were strolling among the memorial stones and stone piles, we approached a group of three people walking at some distance. We heard that two of them were speaking English between themselves, whilst one of the two was speaking to the third man in Polish. We started a conversation and soon learned that the two English speaking gentlemen were father and son who
lived in England. The father Who was Polish had apparently served at the outbreak of the war in the Polish navy, and managed to escape to England where he volunteered to serve in the British merchant navy, at the time an extremely dangerous occupation due to the unrestricted German submarine warfare. Luckily be survived it all, and in true sailor fashion found himself an English girl whom he married after the war - The son was the product of that liaison, with English as mother tongue and but for a few words unable to speak Polish. In reply to our question as to the motivation of their visit to Treblinka, the father explained that the Nazis had murdered, among others, six million Polish citizens, namely three million Jewish Poles and three million Catholic Poles, and in commemoration he and his son were embarking every year in summer on a pilgrimage to the sites in Poland where it all happened. We were touched and impressed.
If for no other reason than sheer numbers, the Polish-Jewish relationship in the lands of Poland and Lithuania has always been quite remarkable. Because of the strong headed adherence of both parties to their respective cultures, conflicts of religious nature and inter-communal friction were bound to happen, anti-Semitism did exist and pogroms and persecutions did occur. During the period between the two World Wars the Polish government was even pursuing a policy of state anti-Semitism, manifested by various kinds of discrimination and aiming at inducing Jews to emigrate. Also, there is some evidence that during the German occupation Polish underground organizations in the countryside and forests and notably the Armia Krajowa (AK), often treated unfairly their Jewish fellow partisan organizations (in Warsaw the situation appears to have been different). And after the war, when reconciliation and reconstruction were called for, there were outbreaks of animosity towards the Jews. As a result of all this Polish Jews who came to Palestine during the twenties and thirties of the previous century, and also those who arrived in Israel after the war, unfortunately brought with them some ill feelings. For the sake of historic objectivity one must remember all these facts, but one must also strike a fair historic balance between the positive and the negative.
It was to the credit of the Polish people and their successive rulers that since the 15th century and for as long as Poland remained a sovereign state, i.e. until the partition and again after World War I, the attitude towards the culturally and religiously so different Jews was as a rule quite liberal and they were granted civic rights; and it was to the credit of the Jews that once in possession of such rights they contributed enormously to the economic, cultural, scientific and technological development of their host country which gradually turned their homeland. One may thus say that the Polish-Jewish coexistence was a marriage of convenience rather than of love, which worked grosso modo until the outbreak of World War II. At that time the Polish-Jewish coexistence suffered a terrible blow and turned into a common tragedy and disasters, with millions of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles having perished together with millions of Jews from other European countries. As a result and also in consequence of territorial modifications dictated by its alleged allies, Poland has been irreversibly changed both demographically and geographically.
The picture that emerges from Norman Davies' Book regarding the treatment of Poland by its Western allies and by the Soviet Union at the beginning of and during World War II, is one of deviousness and betrayal. The double faced treatment of Poland by Britain and France started already before the outbreak of the war. As will be recalled and as those who are old enough still remember personally, these Western allies had guaranteed Poland's territorial integrity, declaring that any use of force by the Germans towards Poland would constitute a casus belli and be countered in kind. Poland thus had justified expectations for Western intervention and assistance once fighting broke out, regardless of the notorious Nazi-Soviet (Molotov-Ribbentrop) pact of 1939; and it was indeed on that basis that Poland decided to resist the German attack and fight back, in spite of its grave military inferiority. However, when the Germans did attack Poland on September 1, 1939, the Western allies disregarded their guarantee and simply looked on without lifting a finger, Under these circumstances it was a near miracle and a manifestation of great valor and ingenuity that Poland managed to hold out for over a month, all the more so when bearing in mind that it was also attacked in the east by the Soviet Union, in keeping with the Nazi-Soviet pact. It is a historic irony that in spite of their predicament it were the Poles who at that time gave a kind of military assistance to the British rather than the other way round. Shortly before the outbreak of the war the Polish secret services provide the British with a sample or two of the German most secret Enigma encoding/decoding machine.
After the outbreak of hostilities and virtually under fire, Poles started a brilliant mathematical research program for breaking the Enigma encoding/decoding program. At some time the Polish authorities passed the project on to the British who worked on it intensively and with much ingenuity in the by now famous Barnes Lodge at King's Langley, Hertfordshire, bringing it after a while to a successful conclusion. The fact that in consequence the allies were able during the entire war period to read all military messages and diplomatic dispatches of the Germans, Italians and Japanese, was a most significant feat of the war conduct by the allies on the road to victory.
Even amongst close wartime allies politics and diplomacy may be rough, cynical ungrateful and perfidious, and it seems that these are indeed some of the attributes that might adequately describe the treatment meted out by Britain and later on also by the USA and Soviet Union to the Exiled Polish Government in London and its overt and covert fighting forces, at a time when the homeland was under occupation. Some of us still remember, while others have heard of and read about the invaluable share of Polish pilots in the British victory in the Battle of Britain; of the significant share Polish ground forces had in the fighting against the Germans and Italians in North Africa; and of the valor and distinction with which the Polish army fought in Italy and notably at Monte Cassino; to mention just a few examples. There was, however, no political reward and at the diplomatic front the Exiled Polish Government was pushed around with all of their wishes and aims for the re-shaping of Poland after the war having been overlooked, politely dismissed or shelved. For the Western allies accommodation of Stalin had top priority, and if the Poles had to foot the bill, then it was to be so. Accordingly, the road to Poland's full recuperation and reconstruction was to be long and tortuous.
In a way one may detect here a certain analogy between the foregoing and the treatment Britain meted out to the Jews in what was in those days Palestine. During the war years the small Jewish community in Palestine numbered only about 500,000 people and yet was able to provide technological and scientific support to the allied forces in the Middle East (including the Polish forces under the command of Gen. Anders who were at the time stationed in Palestine); to send over 30,000 volunteers to the British army who saw action in North Africa, Italy (including at Monte Cassino!) and Western Europe; and at the same time to keep inside the country contingents of territorial forces and of the underground in a state of readiness for the event that the German army under Field Marshall Rommel should make a break-through and reach Palestine. But similar as in the case of Poland, any political reward after the war was denied. Thus, when the scope of the Holocaust had become known and the Jews in Palestine presented to the British Government in London their claims for free Jewish immigration of the Holocaust survivors and for statehood, they were turned down. This refusal gave rise to an armed struggle, the submission of the matter to the United Nations and establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
When it all ended and the war was over, about 100,000 to 150,000 Jewish survivors emerged from the smoldering ruins in Poland, which amounted, of course, only to a small fraction of the over 3,200,000 Jews or so who lived in pre-war Poland. Nevertheless, when bearing in mind that the rescue of all these Jews was made possible by the extremely courageous conduct and action of hundreds of thousands of fine and empathic Polish people who, at the risk of their own lives (anybody caught by the Nazis in Poland hiding Jews was, as a rule, shot on the spot), took turns in feeding and biding escaping Jews, that number is quite impressive and there emerges a picture of compassion and humanity on a scale unequaled in any other occupied country. Most of the survivors and their rescuers must be dead by now and accordingly at the micro level many of the full individual stories of these rescues will probably never be told. At the macro level, however, there remains the epic saga of rescue, the assimilation of which should bring the two nations close together.
The story of the rising of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 has become mythical and while it is in particular cherished by Jews, it is also regarded as a milestone in general European history. Little wonder therefore that one of the first things we did when we came to Warsaw was to visit the various ghetto sites and other locations relevant to the Holocaust such as, for example, the so-cal1ed "Umschlagsplatz". We were guided around by our colleague, friend and host Zbigniev Kaminski who in 1943, at the age of 17, was a member of the underground AK, and as such was involved in the maintenance of operational contacts with the Jewish underground inside the ghetto, including smuggling weapons and supplies in, and on occasions some children out. When we eventually arrived at Nathan Rapaport's sculpture in memoriam of the Warsaw ghetto uprising we were moved to tears. We also believed that by that time we had seen it all until on the following day our friend Zbigniev began to tell us about another uprising of which we had never heard before. This was the first time we ever heard of the general Warsaw uprising of 1944, in which, after two months of most terrible and heroic fighting over 200,000 fighters and civilians lost their lives, the remaining population was expelled, and Warsaw was burnt and razed to the ground. Zbigniev himself was a platoon commander in the AK and our tour with him included the spot where he lost nearly his entire platoon, some of the sewers which served for communication and moving fighting units, as well as the Warsaw Rising Monument These were things of which we had never heard before nor, as it turned out when we came back home, had any of our friends. We felt as if becoming privy to a terrible secret. The whole world knew of course of the ghetto uprising one year earlier, but nobody seemed to have ever heard of the general uprising of 1944, and in fact to this very day the majority of people to whom we speak do not seem to know anything about it. And we wondered why this should have been so.
And then, ten years later, we got hold of Norman Davies' Book!
It is not my aim to summarize or discuss Norman Davies' book in detail but I wish to say that the book was to me an eye opener which made me realize that the story of the Warsaw uprising of 1944 together with the story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943 constitute together one epic saga that forms part of Western heritage; that they are milestones in Polish and Jewish histories; and that they ought to be told and taught thoroughly in Israel, Poland and the entire Western world.
When the AK commander, Gen. Tadeusz Komorowski, also known as Gen. "Boor", took the decision to start the uprising on August 1, 1944, he apparently had the backing of the entire AK and of the majority of the Warsaw civil population. The decision was of course motivated, among others, by an ever growing resentment of the Nazi occupation and a feeling of the kind "enough is enough". There was, however, also a strong political component in his thinking to the effect that the liberation of Warsaw by a joint operation of the AK and the advancing Red Army would strengthen no end the hand of the London based Exiled Polish Government to the detriment of the Soviet sponsored Lublin Committee. This was sound thinking and might well have worked had the Poles not been betrayed once more, similar as in 1939.
The spirit of betrayal could already be sensed before the outbreak of the uprising when it became evident that neither the British nor the Americans would go out of their way to support the uprising by air strikes and by air droppings of supplies and of Polish parachutists. Apparently neither of these two al1ies would do anything that might antagonize Stalin, and the latter, realizing the strength of his position in view of the Western allies' hesitation, took the strategic decision of severing his relations with the Exiled Polish Government in favour of the Lublin Committee.
It was a courageous decision by an intrepid General to go to war against such odds.
Soon after the beginning of the uprising the preliminary apprehensions became reality. The Majority of the British Government, the military and most of the secret services were against any intervention, with the exception of Churchill who gave orders for the airdropping of some war materials and other supplies. However, because of technical limitations of the transport planes of the day, German local air and air defense superiority in the regions under consideration and soviet refusal to cooperate, the few missions that were flown were disastrous and in the end result British help amounted to next to nothing. The Americans were mainly concerned with the fighting in Western Europe and the Pacific, and would not be bothered by the Warsaw uprising against Stalin's wishes. The soviets, finally, in addition to denying any support for British and American air missions which, as a result, materialized only to a very limited extent, halted viciously the advance of the Red Army under Marshal Rokossovsky, the so called "First Byelorussian Front"- At first, the First Byelorussian Front entered the suburb of Praga on the east bank of the Vistula, and there were even some sporadic and insignificant small scale incursions into a bridgehead across the river, mainly by soviet oriented Polish units under the command of Gen. Berling, but eventually the entire First Byelorussian Front including the Polish army units under Gen. Berling, withdrew from the scene and remained remote until it was all over.
The betrayal of the allies did not deter the AK, and the battles were cruel and ferocious. Against all odds fighting lasted for over two months during which the insurgents inflicted heavy losses on the German army and Waffen SS. It is noteworthy and relevant to this narrative, that towards the uprising numerous Jewish survivors of the Ghetto uprising who had been harbored by the non-Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw, joined the AK and took part in the fighting, many of them with distinction. The details of the heroic fighting in the course of the uprising as told by Norman Davies are amazing and in keeping with the model established by the Jewish ghetto uprising a year earlier It is also highly impressive how the fighters including female auxiliary forces and nurses, as well as the entire population, maintained throughout the hostilities their civilisation standards and held, virtually under fire, gatherings and events of spiritual and cultural nature.
It was yet another historical irony, that whilst the uprising did not gain official recognition and respect from the Western allies and the Soviets, the valor, intrepidity and capabilities of the insurgents did impress the enemy who, in distinction from the habitual Nazi "culture" vis-a- vis insurgents, chose this time, after slightly over two months of bitter fighting, to sign with the AK a formal bipartite surrender agreement and to accord them the status of Prisoners of War. However, true to themselves and their "culture", the Nazis would not leave it at that and the most terrible part was yet to follow; the entire population of Warsaw was expelled and the whole city was totally burned and razed to the ground. Had the Nazis won the war, the city of Warsaw would be no more.
All this, together with the very positive impressions of the country, its people and its culture, which my wife and I carried with us from our two visits, evoked in us feelings of respect and admiration for Poland and the Poles. We also feel that certain analogies in the respective recent histories of Jews and Poles, and the sharing of a terribly cruel fate during World War II, may, in spite of some discards, well be deterministic and serve as starting point in the emergence of a future communal destiny for Israel and Poland.
Prima facie it is somewhat difficult to understand why the tale of the 1944 uprising has never truly and properly been told before, and the apparent answer seems to be that each of the governments concerned had its own reasons for wanting to suppress the story or at least play it down. Thus, the British and USA governments had every interest that their ignominious, if not treacherous, conduct at the time should not become known for as long as possible. The Soviet Union on the other hand, who was not known for developing bad feelings and shame in regard to past deeds or omissions, had problems of a doctrinaire nature stemming from the fact that contribution of the Soviet sponsored People's Army (AL) to the uprising was minor at best. That doctrinaire attitude was forced by decree onto the post-war Polish communist rulers, with the result that for the duration of the communist
regime everybody in Poland denied the 1944 uprising with a near- religious fervour, and whoever inquired about the Warsaw uprising was referred to the ghetto revolt. Little wonder then that Israelis and others knew only of the latter, and had never heard of the general Warsaw uprising of 1944.
When the war ended, a Jewish community about 250,000 strong began to reshape in Poland, including Jews saved from the holocaust on Polish soil and repatriating Jews returning from the Soviet Union where they had escaped in 1939. Unfortunately, however, the reconstruction of Jewish life was marred by some violent incidents such as sporadic attacks of Jews by members of reactionary organizations, the pogroms in Krakow in August 1945 and in Kielce in July 1946, and others. As a result the majority of those who might have formed a post-war Jewish community left Poland for Israel. These new arrivals in Israel together with those Polish Jews who came during the period between the two wars, formed in Israel a large community of ex-Polish Jews who had all suffered personal1y in Poland in one or the other form, and this no doubt explains, although not necessarily justifies, the anti-Polish sentiments that have been prevalent in Israeli society.
As mentioned, in evaluating the longstanding relations between Poles and Jews one must take an overall comprehensive view and weigh one against the other the good and the bad, and one must also take into account the respective cultural traits of the parties which determined their mutual conduct. From such a perspective and having regard to all the foregoing, I am bound to say that on a personal level I feel very much attracted to the Polish people and their culture. On a national level I feel that the balance of hundreds of years of co-existence is quite positive and that the good experiences outweigh the bad ones. Bearing further in mind that as the State of Israel comes in the shoes of, among others, Polish Jewry, and having regard to Polish culture and to some beautiful intrinsic qualities of Polish people, I feel that Israel and Poland are destined to become close friends and allies.
I apologise dear Mr. Ambassador, that this letter has turned out to be a bit longer than expected, but I was so stirred by Norman Davies’ all revealing book, that I had the urge to communicate my thoughts to you.
DJ: Michael Cohen
Dr. Michael Cohen
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