Confronting the Past – Yom Kippur 5779


A mammalian biology professor once assigned his international students a paper on elephants. The French students chose as his topic “The Cuisine of the Elephant.” The Italian student wrote on “The Romantic Life of the Elephant.” The German student wrote on “The Organizational Structure of the Elephant With Special Regard to Martial Impulse and Its Existential Implications for the Future of Animal Life.” The Jewish student entitled his essay: “The Elephant and the Jewish Problem.” It seems that when it comes to Jews, no matter the subject it somehow all relates to the problem of acceptance of Jews in the world.


In March 2018, with a parliamentary majority Poland’s Law and Justice [sic] Party, amended the Polish anti-defamation law that makes it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of crimes committed on Polish soil by the Nazis during the Second World War. The law signed by Polish president Andrzej Duda bans the phrase “Polish death camps” and criminalizes speaking of the “Polish nation” as “being responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” Properly speaking, the death camps in Poland were indeed managed and staffed by the Nazis. But the idea behind the law, namely, that Poles were innocent of any crimes committed against Jews and, in fact, were as much victims as Jews, is simply preposterous.


In 2016, Polish born historian Jan Grabowski published a book that scandalized Poland. Entitled Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German Occupied Poland, Grabowski chronicled Polish involvement in turning in Jews and murdering those who begged for help during the Holocaust. Of the 500 Jews who escaped deportation to Belzec only thirty-eight survived, the rest were betrayed or murdered by their Polish neighbors. Even many of those who helped Jews, Grabowski notes, extorted money from Jews and murdered those who did not pay. In 2017 Grabowski filed a lawsuit against a Polish website that savagely accused him of lies. The Polish court found for Grabowski. Polish anti-Semitism is one of the reasons the Nazis felt secure in situating the death camps on Polish soil. Grabowski’s book is yet another spike in the Polish soul, joining Jan T. Gross’ 2000 alarming book Neighbors that detailed the 1941 Polish pogrom in Jedwabne where the village’s Jews were burned alive by their Polish neighbors. And one of the most revolting historical events that occurred after the horrors of the Holocaust became known was the Polish pogrom in Kielce on July 4, 1946 when Polish soldiers, policemen, and civilians set upon Jewish survivors and killed 42.


Poles refuse to own up to their history because it is painful. In her 1946 book, Medallions, Polish writer Zofia Nalkowska wrote: “Reality is bearable when something prevents us from knowing it completely.” The reality of Polish complicity in and approval of the Nazi’s Final Solution is unbearable for Poles so Poles are trying in every way to prevent knowing it completely. In contrast to the German post-war policy of Vergangenheitsbewältigung that requires public debate on the ugly aspects of German history with a willingness to admit the sins of the past, the Polish response has been denial and threats. But it is only by confronting past sins and admitting to them can their repetition in the future be avoided.


What ails Poland as a nation is what ails many Jews: avoiding the painful but necessary task of looking deeply into one’s sins and taking the courageous step of confessing them. But that is precisely what is required of all Jews on Yom Kippur.   There is no man, says the Book of Ecclesiastes, who is altogether righteous and without sin. Human beings sin. But human beings have the capacity to rise above sinfulness. Yom Kippur calls us to that task. Let us heed that call.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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