As if Catholic relations with Israel weren't strained enough, a Polish bishop commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day last week by suggesting Jews had "stolen" their own genocide and used it for propaganda.
The uproar was instant, predictable and justified. Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek wanted to make the point that other people died in the Holocaust, too; but he made it without admitting that the main purpose of the Nazi extermination project was to purge the German Reich of Jews.
Here's what he said: "Undoubtedly, most of those who died in the camps were Jews but also on the list were Poles, Gypsies, Italians and Catholics. It should not be that one group steals this tragedy and uses it for propaganda purposes."
Whatever controversies he was chasing, Pieronek's remark exposes a deep rift in collective memory about the Holocaust. On one side of the former Iron Curtain — America and Western Europe — it's remembered as a catastrophe for the Jews, a focused attempt to wipe out a people. On the former Soviet side, including Poland, the concentration camps were a murderous wartime measure that swept up all enemies of Hitler.
The Holocaust was both: Pieronek isn't wrong that Poles, Gypsies, Italians and Catholics died in the camps. (As a Catholic bishop he leaves out homosexuals.) But the sheer number of Jews who were arrested and murdered by Nazis in a conscious effort to clean them out of greater Germany makes the Holocaust a distinctly Jewish disaster, and this "Final Solution" is precisely what Soviet propaganda left out of its postwar movies and books about Hitler.
Westerners grew up on Anne Frank and films about the Normandy landing; they've read Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi in college; they might have seen the cheap but hugely influential American miniseries The Holocaust. In the former Soviet Union, from Poland and East Germany to the Sea of Japan, what people learned about World War II was the heroic suffering of the Russian soldier.
Russia lost millions of sons in the war, and Stalin's army drove the Nazis from eastern nations like Poland. (It also liberated Auschwitz, the event commemorated on Holocaust Memorial Day.) But societies in the Soviet bloc also had a native anti-Semitism that Moscow's version of the war did nothing to soothe — which is one reason Israel swelled with so many former Soviet Jews after 1991.
Soviet war stories are striking. In Seventeen Moments of Spring, a legendary Russian miniseries from the 1970s about a Soviet mole in Nazi Berlin, a narrator explains background in dry, newsreel-style montages. A montage about Hermann Göring mentions the Holocaust and uses grim real footage from the concentration camps. "It was near Karinhall," says the narrator, referring to Göring's hunting lodge outside Berlin, "that a concentration camp was built, where, at Göring's sanction, experiments were conducted on sick old people and children."
Corpses are bulldozed onscreen, dying Holocaust victims stare at the camera, and Jews aren't mentioned. Elsewhere in the miniseries they are, but only in lists of victims that resemble Bishop Pieronek's.
A Polish bishop has every right to mention the staggering number of Poles who died in concentration camps, both Jewish and gentile (3 million and 1.9 million respectively). Before the war started Hitler swore to wipe out Poles to make "living space" for Germans in what he considered to be eastern Prussia. Instead he rounded up the Polish intelligentsia, including church leaders, to hobble resistance movements, and drafted young Polish men for war. Exterminating all of occupied Poland proved to be impractical.
A bishop like Pieronek should mention these things on Holocaust Memorial Day. But then he should also mention the fact that Poland still exists. A Jewish culture in Europe — from the Rhine almost to Russia — no longer does.
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