In our community’s consciousness, Poland, the site of Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, is the graveyard of the Jews. Like so many other places in Eastern Europe, Jewish life flourished in Poland until it was crushed by antisemitism, unfiltered hate and violence. When World War II broke out, there were 3.3 million Jews in Poland, the second-largest Jewish community in the world. Eighty-five percent were murdered in the Holocaust. The pallor of death and the stories of unimaginable evil haunted our postwar communal perception of the Polish people and their government.
At the end of the Cold War, Poland made a quick turn toward the West. But even with that move we saw a disturbing shift in Poland away from democratic ideals like protection of minorities, and a pronounced move toward populism and authoritarianism. So, it was disappointing but not surprising that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party eroded the free press, attacked independent courts, molested the LGBTQ community and turned increasingly anti-Europe. And in the process, Poland also poured cold water on its relations with Israel. Just last August, Poland passed an offensive anti-restitution law that would block Jewish property claims from World War II and the communist era, defying strong opposition from Israel and the United States. We joined many in the West who worried where Poland was headed.
Then, in the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, Poland shifted again — taking on the mantle of “the West” and “Europe,” and rallying support for Ukraine. Some 2.5 million Ukrainians have escaped to Poland, more than any other of Ukraine’s neighbors. And Poland has outpaced the United States and Western European countries in sending weapons to Ukraine, in advocating for Ukraine’s immediate admittance to the EU, in envisioning a permanent American base in Poland of up to 40,000 troops and transferring MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian air force, something the United States has opposed. Then, last week, Poland’s prime minister, along with the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovenia, rode a train to Kyiv in a very public effort to bolster Ukraine’s morale.
If any country knows what it’s like to be sliced and diced and put out of business by its larger neighbors, it’s Poland. So when Poland sees what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine, it may have a genuine fear that it could be next. But no matter what is driving its actions, Poland now wears a white hat and has reached a new level of international involvement and attention.
Today’s realities force our Jewish memory through a mind-bending shift in our perception of Poland – similar in many respects to our changing perception of Ukraine. But with Poland it’s different, as we see Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, himself an illiberal leader, calling for support against Putin, another illiberal leader. If not for the enormity of Putin’s threat, we might ignore the plea. But we can’t. For now, Poland and Morawiecki are our friends, and enemies of our nemesis.