The past several weeks have been crammed full of commemorations celebrating and memorializing events that have shaped Jewish lives. Whether it’s Yom HaZikaron or Yom Ha’Atzmaut, or Yom HaShoah or the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, significant dates on the Jewish calendar continue to impact others beyond the Jews who honor them.
As such, what should have been a straightforward speech of remembrance and reproach last month at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2015 National Tribute Dinner turned into a diplomatic fiasco. That speech, by FBI director James Comey, appeared as an April 16 op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Why I Require FBI Agents to Visit the Holocaust Museum.”
The piece began with Comey’s declaration that “I believe the Holocaust is the most significant event in human history.” He went on to explain how he requires every new FBI special agent and intelligence analyst to go to the Holocaust Museum “to learn about abuse of authority on a breathtaking scale” and “to see that, although this slaughter was led by sick and evil people, those…were joined by…people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church and gave to charity.”
Then came the part that became a bombshell. “In their minds,” Comey continued, “the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do…. And that should truly frighten us.”
Shocking? Not to those of us who know our history or to Holocaust survivors who came from the countries Comey mentioned. But the Polish government, losing no time in pillorying Comey for his statement, called in the American ambassador and demanded a retraction and apology.
Methinks thou dost protest too much. True, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were German Nazis, who also killed millions of non-Jewish Poles during the horrors of the war. But though a minority of Poles tried to help Jews, there is no denying the veracity of Comey’s words regarding the complicity of too many Poles in the systematic murder of Jews either through participation or indifference.
Polish discrimination against Jews predated and postdated the Holocaust. Though Jews lived in relative calm with their Polish neighbors for a thousand years, pre-World War II Polish anti-Semitism took the form of pogroms, boycotts, exclusion of Jews from welfare benefits, and severe restrictions on Jewish enrollment in Polish universities. And if the few Jewish survivors thought they might be welcomed back to Poland after the Holocaust, the massacre of 42 Jews in Kielce by a Polish mob in 1946 showed them otherwise.
Today Poland ranks highest in Eastern European anti-Semitism, with a 2014 ADL survey pointing to 45 percent of Polish individuals harboring anti-Semitic attitudes. Several months ago a Warsaw University study reported that over half of Poland’s young people accessed anti-Semitic Internet sites that praise Hitler and Nazism.
Despite efforts to revive Jewish cultural life in Poland, which has met with a measure of success and support from Polish officials, Poland still remains a virtual graveyard of its prewar glory days.
Some individuals would like to see that change. And they are starting with the actual graveyards that represent the vestiges of a massive and significant bygone Jewish presence in Poland. Following a recommendation, I uncovered a little known organization based in America’s Bible Belt called the The Matzevah Foundation (TMF).
Founded by Steven D. Reece, a Baptist minister, the goal of Matzevah is “remembering, restoring, reconciling.” Reece sees the road to reconciling through restoring Jewish cemeteries in Poland. To date, TMF has partnered with the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, the Rabbinical Council for Matters of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and the Jewish community of Katowice to restore Jewish cemeteries in Zambrow, Oswiecim, and Krzepice.