Last night, one of my former classmates from when I studied Yiddish in Lithuania sent out a copy of a letter written by her teachers at the Jacka Kuronia Multicultural Humanist High School in Warsaw regarding the recent law against claiming Polish culpability in the Holocaust. She asked that we share the letter.
You can read the original Polish version here. The English translation hasn’t yet been published, so I’m posting it below verbatim.
We are writing this letter to you, our pupils, as well as to your colleagues in other schools. Although we are also researchers working within the field of history of World War II, this letter is not part of scientific debate. Neither is it an artistic intervention. We are writing this to you as teachers.
You must have seen it yourselves, since the media have been talking about it for a week now: a new law is to be signed by the President of Poland. The law’s essence can be summed up as follows: whoever attributes to the Polish nation, or to the Polish state, co-responsibility for any offense constituting a crime against peace and humanity, or a war crime, will be subjected to penalty. In this letter, as well as in future actions, we are going to break this law.
The concept of the “Polish nation” as well as the institutions of the Polish state (and all other “nations” and states) are co-responsible for the offenses constituting crimes against peace and humanity and for war crimes.
‘Nation’ is a spell capable of turning otherwise non-violent people into unscrupulous murderers convinced of their virtuousness. In its beginnings, early in the 19th century, the word “nation” contained a promise – that of liberating peoples from tyrannical power, of recognizing different cultures and languages, of a common struggle for freedom. But when the triumphant concept of ‘nation’ became bound to the state, when a rebellious call turned into an ideology of authority, not much was left of that promise. The power of the nation-state is based on establishing barriers between people and on the incessant decisions as to who belongs in the imaginary national community and is offered its protection, and who is excluded from it and thus defenseless. The nation-state uses the concept of ‘nation’ to endow its officials with the power to take control over the lives of its subjects and to expose those who are excluded, to death.
That is the lesson history teaches us – the history of Poland included.
It was the Polish state – the Second Republic – that, in 1938, organized a camp in Zbąszyń where thousands of its Jewish citizens expelled from Nazi Germany, who had been instantly deprived of their citizenship by the Polish parliament, were imprisoned. It was the Polish state, represented by the Minister of Education that in 1937 sanctioned the “ghetto benches”, thus dividing the students in university halls on the very basis soon to be used to section people off behind the walls of the Nazi ghettos.
During the war, the Polish state – i.e., the government in London – was for over two years unable to condemn crimes against the Jews, neither on the radio, nor in the clandestine press. Even as the government did so, as late as in June 1942, it still refrained from publishing an open and resolute appeal to Poles that would call upon them to impede the extermination. It did not react accordingly despite mass deportations to death camps and despite the pleas of Shmuel Zygielbojm and Ignacy Schwarzbart, members of the Polish National Council in exile. In March 1943, a few weeks prior to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, when two million Jews had already been murdered in the Polish lands, Schwarzbart appealed to the Council: “I feel aggrieved at the Ministry of Interior Affairs, I feel aggrieved for it still has not addressed, in the name of this community of fate […], the Polish society so that – in this horrendous disaster, in this dreadful tragedy – they would support, as much as they can and by means they have at their disposal, morally and materially support the dying Polish Jews”.
Today, institutions of the Polish state prevent people from telling the truth about what happened during the war. Dwellers of many cities, towns, and villages do know about the murders and looting committed by Poles on their Jewish neighbors, and they want to express their sense of guilt. The national ideology which had inspired the crime is now used to enforce silence. Numerous politicians and journalists are telling us that there was an innocent nation and single atrocities committed by individuals. The opposite is the case: there were individuals who behaved in virtuous or in reprehensible ways, and a “nation”: a concept that served as justification for the crime.
We are writing this letter on Friday, February 2nd. The media have shared the news of 90 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast. It was state institutions that had forced these people to seek illegal ways of reaching Europe, it was these very institutions that imprisoned thousands of others in camps very similar to the one in Zbąszyń. These things stem from national egoism and the mere concept of “Polish nation”; the Polish state’s policy claiming to protect the nation against “strangers” has its share in this crime as well.
There was no community of fate with those condemned to death, one in which Schwarzbart strove to believe. There is no community of fate with those who die at sea and suffer in camps today. It is ‘nation’ that makes this community unachievable.
‘Nation’ is what Polish authorities keep cramming into our heads and pushing down our throats. In the new history curriculum for high schools – after all, not so different from the old one – on a single page of the section describing educational aims of history lessons the word “nation” appears 6 times, the word “fatherland” – 5 times. It contains only one reference to “other” nations and states.
Apart from matters of nation and state, this kind of history as taught at schools has room for nothing. No mention of people crushed by nations nor of their lives and labor, nor of quests for alternative forms of living, alternative forms of community and pursuit of happiness.
Those in power use the concept of ‘nation’ to offer false pride, a false community, and false protection to those who very often are unhappy, bereft of hope, tired with work and burdened with mortgage. They use it to incite contempt, distrust, and hostility towards “strangers”, to authorize “sacred” egoism, to justify lack of empathy and partiality of views. They use it to suppress the search for truth.
You can see this every day as you look at politicians and listen to their childish, muddling, and all too often vile speeches aimed at stirring up, in you, some enmity towards the people you could and would cooperate with and befriend. It is you who are right; do not let anyone tell you different: each and every one of you is a thinking and feeling person, you are facing the future which you need to envisage and build together, and which has to be better than what you have been given.
Teachers at J. Kuroń Multicultural High School, members of the Research Group on Editing the Ringelblum Archive.