Letter received February 3rd 2005


"Jerusalem, 3 February 2005
May I, from far away Israel, be permitted a few observations on Hans-Wilhelm Steinfeld’s presentation of Polish-Jewish relations and the passionate exchange of views that it has precipitated?
Mr Steinfeld might attract more support for his thesis if, instead of indulging in the platitudes and wild assertions which generally mark the claims of soapbox agitators rather than serious historians or journalists, he would simply state some facts (and analysis) which stand the test of scholarly scrutiny. Sadly, he has yet to do so.

Mr Steinfeld glibly writes of “Polish Nazis” in present-day Lviv and goes on to draw sweeping conclusions about antisemitism and Nazism in modern-day and pre-war Poland. As has been amply demonstrated in the debate in the pages of this newspaper, a small band of neo-Nazis in Lviv (which may or may not include persons of Polish origin) cannot be used as an appropriate (and representative) metaphor for the contemporary reality in Ukraine, let alone as a starting point to depict the historical complexity of Polish-Jewish relations in that city or elsewhere.
Called to task for his problematic reportage, Mr Steinfeld weaves together a number of disparate bits of information (some of them true, some partially true or simplified, and others utterly false) to substantiate his claim that Poles in Lviv, and all of Poland, were and remain Nazis (and antisemites).

Moreover, he relies on sources of dubious credibility (Leon Uris’ "historical" novel Mila 18 for example) and misquotes or distorts material from others. On the other hand, he passes over in silence basic sources such as the early monograph by the late Philip Friedman “The Destruction of the Jews of Lwow 1941-1944” which would run counter to his arguments.

For the record, and contrary to Mr Steinfeld"s claim, bad as the situation was in Poland in the late 1930s, antisemitic legislation was not enacted -- which is not to say that Jews did not suffer from many forms of discrimination, including the numerus clausus (and even numerus nullus) to which Mr Steinfeld refers, and occasional violence, whether at the Lwow Polytechnic or other institutions of higher learning.

But accuracy is not Mr Steinfeld’s strong suit. For example (but one) the fact that Marshal Pilsudski was mourned by Polish Jews, no less than by Polish non-Jews, his authoritarian tendencies notwithstanding, would certainly disprove the theory that the Polish leader was a Fascist or antisemite. Any examination of the Jewish press in Poland (whether in Polish, Yiddish or Hebrew) reveals an outpouring of heartfelt grief over his death, and words of genuine and heartfelt esteem. Most Jews regarded Pilsudski as a genuine patriot and their patron and protector against the antisemitism of the right-wing National Democratic (Endecja) party.

At that time, the Jews of Poland constituted the largest concentration of Jews in Europe (3.25 million – 10% of the general population) and a great and vibrant hothouse of Jewish creativity of every hue -- the center of Yiddish culture. In 1939 there were more Jews in Poland than Norwegians in Norway.
To be sure, antisemitism was rampant in pre-war Polish society and did not disappear with the defeat of Nazism. The fact that there were acts of killing perpetrated against Jews even after the war is well known. But, history is rather more nuanced than Mr Steinfeld seems to understand.

There is an enormous body of historical literature that reveals that the Polish reaction to the plight of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust ran the gamut from heroic rescue to cold-blooded murder (at Jedwabne and elsewhere) – and everything in between. What is clear is that the Polish attitude toward Jews during this period defies simplistic characterization. And it certainly does not justify the appellation “Polish Nazis.”

Despite Mr Steinfeld’s assertions, Poles were victims -- even if their fate cannot be compared to that of their Jewish neighbors, and even if they sometimes were accessories to the sufferings of the Jews. It should also not be forgotten that vast numbers of Poles, and on many fronts, in Poland and beyond its borders, lost their lives in the struggle against the Germans -- over 200,000 perished in Warsaw alone. Should they now be regarded as “Polish Nazis”?

There is no doubt that Polish society was guilty of crimes of both omission and commission in its behavior toward Polish Jews. But in that respect it was little different than the rest of Europe. Clearly as the epi-center of the Holocaust – and the country with the densest Jewish settlement and the greatest number of victims -- it holds a far greater place in Jewish (and non-Jewish) consciousness – greater even those countries in which the extent of local participation in the Final Solution was far greater.

A self-professed expert on Lviv, Steinfeld fails to mention the arrest and murder of many of the city’s most outstanding academics (mainly from the Jan Kazimierz University, but including professors from the Polytechnic and also the Academy of Foreign Trade). A good account of this tragic episode was written by Professor Eleasar J. Feuerman, an alumnae of the university, entitled “My Lost Professors of Medicine in Lvov: Remembrance of Early Victims of Nazis” which was first published in Polish in Paris in 1996, and which I later translated into English at the request of its author, chairman of the Department of Dermatology at Tel Aviv University.

In that article Prof. Feuerman recounts that in West Germany there were unsuccessful attempts to punish those who were responsible for the massacre of the Polish intelligentsia. Among the arguments heard in defense of the perpetrators was that the professors were of Jewish origin. In the German mind that was evidently some kind of justification. Significantly, Prof. Feuerman states that with very few exceptions the victims were neither Jews nor of Jewish origin. “My professors, like professors of other Lwow institutions of higher learning, were killed by the Germans because they were Polish men of learning, which was part of the Nazi plan to destroy the best and most enlightened representatives of Poland, the Polish intelligentsia.” Would Mr Steinfeld call those professors “Polish Nazis?”

In multi-ethnic Lwow, it was the Ukrainian population took the leading role in the destruction of the city’s Jewish inhabitants. A German report dated 16 July 1941, that describes the killings of thousands of Jews immediately after the Soviets fled, cited by Friedman, notes: “during the first hours after the departure of the Bolsheviks, the Ukrainian population took praiseworthy action against the Jews.”

It is interesting that Mr Steinfeld omits all mention of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews. My uncle Leon Bilgoraj from Katowice and his wife Lisa were hidden by Poles in a bunker in Lwow. Their son, my cousin Jan, was actually born in hiding in April 1943, 15 months before the Red Army ejected the Germans from the city. Sadly, the deeds of their protectors, Helena Lis and her daughter Wladyslawa were not typical of the reaction of Polish society whether in Lwow or elsewhere – but there were thousands of such cases and they cannot be summarily written out of the narrative.

Certainly, the blessed memory of Jan Karski (himself a graduate of the Jan Kazimierz University) -- the heroic emissary of the Polish government-in-exile who risked his life to convey, and later tirelessly disseminate, the news of the mass murder in Poland -- will always live on in the hearts of Jews, Poles and decent people everywhere. Was he a “Polish Nazi?”

It is an interesting reflection on the success of Germany’s post-war foreign policy that the world has become accustomed to referring to “Nazis” in place of “Germans” – and that in place of “Nazi German” we now find “Polish Nazi”. One can only wonder whether successive generations will associate the Holocaust with the Germans – and the first attempt to stem the German onslaught with the Poles.

Finally, given the vast body of knowledge that we now have at our disposal, it is most disheartening to see history presented in terms of banal and time-worn stereotypes masquerading in the guise of scholarship".

Dr Laurence Weinbaum

The writer is research director of the Institute of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem and an adjunct lecturer in history at the College of Judea & Samaria in Ariel, Israel. He was an assistant of the late Prof. Jan Karski at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are entirely his own.