Two of the most powerful books I’ve read by left-wing Jewish resistance workers and survivors, The Stars Bear Witness by Bernard Goldstein and On Both Sides of the Wall by Vladka Meed, are replete with tales of courageous solidarity from non-Jewish Poles at great personal risk, but also many tales of betrayal.
What Poland can rightly claim is that, across the whole territory of western, central and eastern Europe, though there were remarkable efforts to help Jews in Denmark, it was only in Holland and Poland that specific organisations among non-Jews were set up to assist the Jews in their time of greatest need. In Poland it was ZEGOTA, in which Irena Sendlerowa was very active.
But the moves by Law and justice in Poland have come under fire from another very right-wing government; one that practices racism, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation on a daily basis. This is Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel, which oppresses Palestinians, especially in the Occupied Territories, but also inside the Green Line, at the same time as it falsely presents itself as the legitimate guardian and gatekeeper of Holocaust memory.
Netanyahu, of course, comes from the Jabotinskyite Zionist political tradition that was very influenced by, and friendly to, the concept of fascism in the 1930s. It had members seeking to make deals with the Nazis on the basis of common ultra-nationalist and anti-British sentiment in the 1940s. Netanyahu would happily damn almost all Poles today as antisemites (one of his late associates – Itzhak Shamir – did just that, claiming that Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mothers’ milk), although Netanyahu would surely make exceptions for very right wing Poles who praise Israel.
One of his big fans here, Stephen Pollard, editor of the increasingly dreadful Jewish Chronicle, got himself in hot water a few years back with his fulsome praise of the Law and Justice politician, Michal Kaminski. Kaminski had condemned the Polish president at the time for apologising over Jedwabne, saying there was nothing to apologise for – at least not until Jews apologised for the role Jewish partisans and Jewish communists had played in this period alongside the Red Army. Kaminski had earlier been involved with Fringe far-right groups beyond Law and Justive, but was pro-Israel.
Israel’s claim to being the legitimate spokespersons on the Holocaust predates
Netanyahu and the Israeli-right wing’s hold on power. The Israeli Labour Party which held power from 1948-1977 assumed this role and offered their own distorted narrative about the Holocaust. in the 1950s Israeli educators, supported by their government, propagated the lie that during the Holocaust, Jews had ‘gone like lambs to the slaughter’ – a slap in the face to the dead as well as survivors who had performed incredible acts of resistance. The story of resistance did come out, partly at the Eichmann trial of 1961 but a new lie was built – that it was the Zionists alone who were responsible for resistance and they did so because they could see a future; they had a dream of building a Jewish future in Palestine.
An anti-Zionist, Polish Jewish socialist, Marek Edelman, one of the surviving commanders of the Uprising in Warsaw, Poland’s largest ghetto, had written The Ghetto Fights – the most searing, heart-wrenching description of the three-week long resistance there in the most unequal of battles – in Polish, in 1945. It was translated and then published in Yiddish and English in 1946. The Israeli state did not even invite Edelman to give evidence in Israel to the Eichmann trial. He was treated as persona non-grata because he remained true to his anti-Zionist principles.
It is disgraceful that the proceedings of the Eichmann trial were translated into dozens of languages, but not Yiddish – the main language of the victims of Eichmann and his fellow Nazis and their local helpers. Shamefully, The Ghetto Fights remained untranslated into Hebrew for 56 years, finally getting published in Hebrew in 2001, even though Edelman had made rights available to all.
Edelman’s book gave the lie to the Zionist narratives and claims about ghetto resistance both in terms of who was involved (anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Bundists and Communists as well as socialist Zionists) and what they believed they were fighting for. In an interview recorded in a later book, Edelman said “We fought for dignity and freedom. Not for a territory, nor for a national identity.”
Netanyahu’s government has also been doing pretty much what it accuses the Polish government of doing, with regard to Palestinian perspectives on history. It has written its own laws regarding “acceptable” historical memory. Since 2011 Israeli legislation has made mourning the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) publicly difficult for Palestinians and others in Israel. It authorises Israel’s Finance Minister to revoke funding from institutions that mark the country’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. Everything is done to make organisations fearful of doing so. I guess, with Netanyahu we should not be especially surprised at his hypocrisy.
While these two very obnoxious right-wing governments argue head to head, perhaps, in the 75th anniversary year of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, grass-roots activists should plan for how we can honour the memories of those who stood up to hatred, fascism and authoritarianism. How we can remember those who wanted to build, instead, a world of social justice, that respected freedom and equal rights for all. How we can link them to struggles for freedom in other places at other times, and how we can use use their specific struggle as an inspiration for our battles today.