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Polish-Jewish Relations and the Armenian Genocide

Armenian News Network / Groong
July 30, 2001

By Jonathan Eric Lewis


When I attended former Turkish Ambassador Sukru Elekdag's denialist
talk at Columbia University this spring, I was struck by one of the
comments by an audience member.  Rather than engage Elekdag in a false
debate, the gentleman reminded the audience that Poland is only just
now undergoing a painful soul-searching about the roles played by
ordinary Poles in the implementation of the Final Solution.  He cited
the controversy surrounding the publication of Jan T. Gross's
Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Commmunity of Jedwabne,
Poland (Princeton University Press, 2001) and argued that it is up to
the younger generation in Turkey to similarly admit the sins of their
forefathers.

In this slim and highly readable volume, Gross, a professor of
European Studies at New York University, demonstrates that the
massacre of the Jews of the said town during the Holocaust was not
committed by Germans, but rather by Poles. The Jewish citizens of this
small town in central Poland were not killed by faceless, anonymous
German soldiers or by a cold bureaucratic system in July 1941, but
rather by their neighbors, persons with whom they had lived for
years. The crime was extremely brutal, with the vast majority of the
town's Jews burned alive in a townsman's barn. `Not anonymous men in
uniform, cogs in a war machine, agents carrying out orders, but their
neighbors, who chose to kill and were engaged in a bloody pogrom -
willing executioners.' Despite the trials of some of the perpetrators
in the decade after the war, it was not until the year 2000 that
Polish officialdom finally recognized the crime and sought
forgiveness.

Gross' work, although specifically dealing with the Jedwabne massacre
and the Holocaust, has a lot to offer to students of the Armenian
genocide.  While the crime he studies is specific, its implications
are universal.  How does one segment of a given town's population turn
on its other half and commit atrocities in front of all to see?  Why
does it take years for the crime to be fully studied and acknowledged?
And what can the actions of the Polish population tell us about the
roles played by Kurds and Circassians in the Armenian genocide?

While scholars have rightly demonstrated that the Armenian genocide
was a centralized and highly organized event, with orders coming from
Constantinople, the local populations in Eastern Anatolia played a
pivotal role in the destruction of the Armenian communities.  The
willing executioners of the Armenians were not just members of the
Ottoman gendarmerie, but also local Turks, Kurds, and Circassians -
persons who might have known and might have seen their victims on more
than one occasion prior to their crimes.  Both the Poles of Jedwabne
and the local populations in Eastern Anatolia engaged in a wholesale
plunder of their victims' property.  The prior humiliation of the
victims and the subsequent expropriation of their property were
fundamental components of the crime.

In his book, Gross asks us to view the Holocaust as a heterogeneous
phenomenon, at the same time part of a master plan and subject to
local circumstances.  He argues that `we must also be able to see [the
Holocaust] as a mosaic composed of discrete episodes, improvised by
local decision-makers, and hinging on unforced behavior, rooted in
God-knows-what motivations, all of those who were near the murder
scene at the time.'  Both the Nazis and the Ittihadists would not have
been able to carry out their genocidal plans without the explicit
support of local populations, ordinary townsfolk, peasants, and in the
Armenian case, Kurdish tribesmen.

One of the reasons that Turkey is so hesitant to admit the horrific
crimes perpetrated against the Armenians is that it was not just the
Ottoman government that committed the crime.  For without the active
complicity of local populations in Eastern Anatolia and Cilicia, the
genocide of the Armenians could not have happened as it did.  The
crime is still very much alive, for Kurds, Turks, and other Muslims
now live on the property of murdered Armenians.  While the government
was officially responsible, the ordinary people were highly complicit.

In the case of Jedwabne, Gross thinks `it's very probable that the
desire and unexpected opportunity to rob the Jews once and for all -
rather than, or alongside with, atavistic antisemitism - was the real
motivating force that drove Karolak [the main criminal] and his cohort
to organize the killing.'  The property and homes of Jedwabne's Jews
did not die with the victims; these homes and goods became part of the
collective plunder.  However, one must not overstate the degree to
which sheer criminality was the motivating factor in either the murder
of Jedwabne's Jews or the Armenians of Anatolia.  Indeed, one should
never forget that both anti-Armenian racism and anti-Semitism were
deep-rooted phenomena in both Anatolia and Eastern Europe.

It was not as if Jedwabne's residents did not know what happened in
their town; they knew all too well.  Similarly, it is not as if the
Turkish government doesn't know what happened to the Armenians; they,
too, know all too well.  Admitting the crime means admitting the
present; it means admitting that the present is based on the crimes of
the past.  This may explain why there are still voices in Poland that
refuse to accept the fact that Poles killed Jews during the Holocaust.
Before the Second World War, one-third of the urban population of
Poland was Jewish.  One can hardly understand the dynamics of the
post-war Polish urban economy without taking into account the fact
that it was based on the murder of much of the pre-war urban population!
As Gross reminds us with particular emphasis: `how can the wiping out
of one-third of its urban population be anything than a central issue
of Poland's modern history?'

The crimes of the Ottoman past are Turkey's present.  Echoing Gross,
how can the destruction of a huge portion of the Ottoman Empire's
merchant class be anything other than a central issue in Turkey's
modern history?  The lands, homes, and property of the Armenians are
now in the hands of those who have benefited from past crimes.  The
fear of having to pay reparations is but one of the many reasons why
the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the genocide.  National
pride is a factor as well, for it would mean having to admit that
Turkish history is not the glory that many have been taught that it
is.  It would likewise mean having to admit that the Ottoman Empire
committed crimes similar to, although not completely identical with,
Nazi Germany.  And, after all, what state would want its past to be
compared with Nazi Germany?

But all hope should not be lost.  Difficult as it is for them, the
Polish public is now engaging in a healthy debate and reassessment of
their country's past.  Younger Polish citizens demonstrate a great
curiosity in all things Jewish and the study of Yiddish is flourishing
on university campuses in Poland. Some Poles are even `rediscovering'
the fact that one grandparent was Jewish.  I myself have witnessed
first hand attempts at both Polish-Jewish and German-Jewish
reconciliation and must admit that immense progress is being made in
both areas.  Who would have thought that, some sixty years after the
Holocaust, there would be a sovereign Jewish state and that a
democratic Germany would be one of its closest allies?  I myself have
no doubt that the current German government, as well as the Polish
Foreign Ministry, are extremely sincere in their attempts to foster
reconciliation.

Both the government and people of Turkey can learn from the Polish
experience. The fact that occasional apologies to the Armenian people
are appearing in the mainstream Turkish press and that Taner Akcam's
books are being sold in Turkish bookstores are signs that the wall of
silence is slowly beginning to erode. One would have to be terribly
naive to assume that the authorities in Ankara are unaware that the
Turkish population is beginning, slowly, to be sure, to question their
government's denial of the Armenian genocide.

One of the main denialist tactics is to emphasize that Turks and
Muslims died during the war and were victims of war crimes. Yes, many
Turks died during the First World War and yes, many Poles, especially
the urban intellegentsia, were victims of the Nazi war machine.
However, neither the sufferings of the Turks nor of the Poles during
wartime nullifies the fact that both peoples engaged in horrific
crimes against humanity and then expropriated the properties of their
victims.

A full accounting of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would take
into account both the Armenian genocide as well as the forced
resettlement of Muslims onto their lands.  The fact that many Poles
were brutalized by National Socialism in no way excuses or explains
away the massive brutality that Poles inflicted on their Jewish
neighbors in Jedwabne.  By the same logic, the fact that Turks were
expelled from Southeastern Europe in the late nineteenth-century and
early twentieth-century in no way, shape, or form, negates the
Armenian genocide.

Admitting the past and asking for forgiveness are very difficult
things indeed. It has taken Americans years to come to terms with
their genocidal policies against the Native American populations. But
in order to build a morally just present, it can and, indeed, must be
done.  Just ask the Poles who have courageously begun to reassess
their own history.  Perhaps the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation
committee can learn something from the ongoing projects that involve
German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

However, there can be no reconciliation without a fair, accurate, and
historically just accounting for past crimes.  Without Willy Brandt's
courageous decision to kneel at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,
Jews would likely have not been as willing to come to terms with the
fact that there is indeed a new Germany.  In the long run, Poland's
coming to terms with its own past will pave the way for better
Polish-Jewish relations. Ankara should take notice of the debate
surrounding Jedwabne and act accordingly.


--
Jonathan Eric Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Emory University
and Research Affiliate at the Remarque Institute, New York University

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