Do you protest?
No, I congratulate. I congratulate the Polish government on proposing this law. For years our diplomats did not know how to defend Poland. They simply lacked the skills. The job of a diplomat is to be polite and diplomatic. They did not learn how to present arguments in defense of their country in an elegant manner, and too often they do not have the time or the knowledge to defend their country. I am speaking about diplomats who receive insufficient training, and are not prepared to defend Poland, especially against accusations of anti-Semitism. And I have said several times that for centuries Poland was a Jewish home.
But there is still anti-Semitism in Poland.
Those are sporadic incidents. But the fact that even president Obama used the phrase “Polish death camps” a few years ago is an embarrassment for Polish diplomacy. Today I congratulate the Polish government. In just seven days it achieved that that Polish diplomacy could not achieve in 70 years. Let me remind you that America was not convinced that it wanted Poland to join NATO. Our government sent Bronisław Geremek, a Jew, to take part in the negotiations. And he succeeded. I spoke with him in Los Angeles. Poland was foremost on his mind. Because he had a good grasp of things, he knew how to persuade others. Our diplomats do not have this grasp of things, and even if some of them do, they do not have enough courage to defend our country. I am saying “our” because I’m both a Pole and an American.
Why did Israel protest this law?
For a number of reasons. I am sorry to say, but there aren’t too many broadminded people in the Israeli government. I can frankly say that I am more and more embarrassed by Israel’s authorities. Israel does not have the right to interfere with the Polish government’s legislative proceedings. This is, of course, also a matter of money, because accusing Poles of the Holocaust permits claims of compensation and restitution of property. We should be grateful to Israel for its protest because people at large will finally hear loud and clear that there were no Polish death camps – only German, Nazi, Hitler’s death camps. We should not be worried that someone in Australia or New Zealand will be careless and lose his liberty for using in a quotation the description: Polish death camps. But the stronger Israel and others protest, the more the world will know that it is the Germans who were responsible for the Holocaust, not Poland, and not the Polish people.
“The fact that death camps were built in Poland is no accident – the Germans could count on the Poles’ help in exterminating Jews” – this is one of the voices coming from Israel.
Death camps were built in Poland because Poland was the biggest source of raw material to turn into cinder… We have to say it loud and clear: it was not Poland that cooperated with the Germans in the annihilation of Jews, it was the whole world. Poles did not capture Jews like the French, the Dutch or the Norwegians did. The Polish police did not arrest Jews, did not load them onto train wagons, it was not policing Auschwitz. The truth is that Poland suffered the most out of all the occupied countries. It was given away to the Germans by its allies and by the Vatican.
But there were anti-Jewish pogroms in Polish villages.
Yes, and no one can deny it, but those were criminal incidents, a criminal element. Like all countries, including Israel, have. What does that have to do with Poland and the Polish people? I know, I know, you will tell me again that there is anti-Semitism, that people say that this is all because of those Jews, those Yids.
An effigy of a Jew was burned.
That is progress. They used to actually burn Jews alive.
People shout: “Gas the Jews!”.
Those are the shouts of vulgar primitives. We should not pay attention to it. It is unfortunate but not that important.
Then what is?
We need to explain where Jews originated from and who they are. Poles need to know that Chopin’s mother came from a Frankist Jewish family, that Mickiewicz had Jewish roots, that most Polish Nobel Prize laureates were Jewish. I once met a lawyer in Kraków who said: “I could accept the fact that Jesus Christ was Jewish, but his mother, the Queen of Poland – that I cannot accept”. I have no idea whether he was serious or not.
In the early 1930s the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a department which was studying the possibility of relocating Polish Jews to Madagascar. Jan Karski worked in that department.
The forced relocation of people is not unheard of, even in recent history. Millions of Poles were relocated from Eastern Poland, which became Ukraine. Millions of Germans were expelled from the eastern part of their country and Poles moved into their place. Today Myanmar is expelling the native Rohingya people, while in Africa millions of people are being relocated and no one is particularly interested in that. But Madagascar was an incredible idea. Too bad it didn’t work out. We, Jews, would have had a much bigger, much more fertile and certainly much safer place than we do now. If that had worked out, the fascists would not have killed Jews, we would not have died in pogroms. We can take this reasoning further: if the Polish Church had said something positive about Jews once a month, a lot would have changed. If priests, who witnessed the pogroms, had told the people to stop the murders, they would have stopped and gone home without protesting.
But the world doesn’t blame the Church, it blames the Poles.
Because the Church is too powerful, it is sacred for Polish Catholics. The Jews should seek compensation from the Church and the Vatican. But most of our Jewish organizations do not want to raise that subject. I was recently speaking with father Tomasz Dostatni about the absurdities that shape the way Poles think about Jews – Jesus being killed by the Jews, the Jews killing Polish babies and using their blood to bake matzo, the Jews bringing communism to Poland, the Jews ruling the world because of their wealth. Luckily, father Dostatni has a far-sighted outlook on matters. He is not thinking about tomorrow, he is thinking about the next century. He is an exception – in most cases the Church is in conflict with science and the historical truth.
Large scale anti-Semitism existed in Poland before the war.
Three out of four Poles were illiterate or half illiterate. They could not afford a radio, they could not read. The Church taught them to hate the Jews. As children in the ghetto we were taught that the church was the last place to seek help. My family was saved by decent Poles, Catholics, simple people. My father was a Talmudist, a chemist, a mathematician and a merchant. The Talmud teaches that a merchant should keep one third of his money in merchandise, one third in real estate, and one third in cash. And that is how my father was conducting himself all his life. He remembered that his father kept his money in a Viennese bank and in 1918 lost everything; my father did not keep cash, he kept his wealth in gold coins. That is how he was able to pay those who helped us.
Where were you hidden?
In a six by twelve feet space underneath the cellar. We stayed there for 20 months. At first there were four of us – my mother, her uncle, my brother and I. Then there were eight. Our father and our mother agreed that they will try to save at least one person from each of their families.
How does one make the choice?
Those who happened to be nearby ended up in our cellar. My father also invited a doctor he knew and his wife. My father and his cousin joined us eight months before the Russians came. Out of eight people six survived. The doctor left a few weeks before the Russians entered the city. Some Ukrainians recognized him and the Germans killed him. My uncle was too weak and went into a coma. He died after the Russians came. At the age of eight I learned Jewish funeral rituals. A Jew’s body should be thoroughly washed because if he is going to meet God, he should be clean; he was a father, a brother, an uncle yesterday, he still deserves respect today; you cannot bury into the life-giving, holy ground anything dirty or infected. Just imagine – two thousand years ago Jews were in some way already thinking about the environment. After my uncle’s body was washed, it was wrapped in a sheet made of natural fabric, so it would decompose faster. Do you know why a sheet? Because it has no pockets, which means you cannot take anything with you and should give everything away while you are still alive… But I was speaking about the Poles who saved my family. Believe me, we never resented them for accepting money from us, for they also needed to buy food. My parents were well off and they were poor. We were destined to die, and they risked their lives hiding us.
Did you ever meet them in your adult life?
I never had the chance to thank them for saving my life. I can only express my gratitude through my actions. I went to Tarnopol, which is now in Ukraine. The house where we were hiding isn’t there any more. I asked the deputy mayor of the city to help me find the Knispel family. But I did not manage to find anyone. There were two children there: a 15-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter. They probably have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. I would have liked to thank them for their remarkable ancestors. I remember in 1945 my mother said that it is our duty to help the poor, look them in the eyes and thank them as we give them a gift. I was nine years old. Four years later I was celebrating my bar mitzvah and became a man. Only then did I ask why we should look the poor in the eyes while helping them. My father said that this way we let them know that we understand their plight and that we sympathize with them. I asked why we should thank them when giving them money or gifts. I was told that our responsibility as Jews was to do good whenever it was possible, and when a poor person gives us this possibility, we should be grateful. We should help the poor not only financially, but also spiritually. I’m telling you this because the world does not know or understand Jews.
And you understand them?
Some of them are hard to understand. But I understand Poland. I defend Poland wherever I am in the world, sometimes more so than Poles. I have been saying for years that we Jews should build a safe harbor in Poland. For this to be possible, Jews should contribute intellectually and financially to the country, just like in the past. Then they would feel Polish again. I think this is an incredibly important matter. I am speaking about the Jewish heritage in Poland. Of course some Jews, especially the Zionists, would like to forget that for centuries Poland was the most important place for the development of Jewish culture. The Polish aristocracy knew how to cooperate with the Jews and utilize their talents. All this changed in 1592, with the arrival of the Jesuits. The Church started pressuring the aristocracy to take away the privileges and the rights of the Jews and keep them on a short leash. Came Khmelnytsky and his uprising, then came the Swedes, 200 thousand Jews lost their lives, and two generations later Poland was weak and falling apart. This is all connected. There was an opportunity for Jews to become an important part of the Polish society again. I am speaking about the last 15-20 years. People who come to celebrate Shabbat at Beit Warszawa are teachers, professors, doctors, translators, musicians, lawyers, journalists, writers, et cetera. They are Jews who love Poland, who want to live in the Polish society and want to have a positive impact on its development. My dream is for all of us to live in agreement and harmony, and to respect each other’s values. Poland was the only and the last place in Europe where we could live and develop as a people. We were thrown out of England in the 13th century, and after that from almost every European country. In the 14th century Russia closed its borders to Jews. So we wandered. In Poland we were able to live in relative peace for centuries. Jews were an important minority in Poland, we became part of the Polish DNA. If you would test your saliva, it would turn out that you are 5–20 percent Jewish.
Are you 100 percent Jewish?
I have four children, my oldest son’s mother is Catholic. He had his genes tested and it turned out that he is 51 percent Jewish from Eastern Poland. This means that, being his father, I am a 100 percent Polish Jew. And a Pole who lives because he was saved by a Polish family. I would like you to write that very clearly. Polish family. Catholics. I am grateful to them and I feel like this gratefulness is the driving force behind my actions. I know for sure that Jews need Poland and that Poland needs its Jews. And I feel that the Poles and Jews who live here would like to be left alone.
Severyn Ashkenazy – entrepreneur, art dealer, the founder of Beit Warszawa, a Jewish cultural association
Translated from Polish by Martyna Trykozko.