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Debate Over Guilt : Poland: The Ghosts of Its Jewish Past

May 16, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

CIECHANOWIEC, Poland — Matilda Kadyuschewic Meisler, my grandmother, died here in 1921, but it is impossible to find her grave now. The Jewish cemeteries of this little crossroads town on the Norzec River in the farmlands of northeast Poland are not empty, but they have no tombstones.

Stanislaw Krynski, the 30-year-old director of the local museum, has assembled a dozen or so Jewish tombstones neatly and prominently on the lawn alongside his museum, a former palace of the nobility.

"The Germans ripped out all the stones and used them to make roads and walls," he said. "We found some of these stones last year when we knocked down the old post office building to build a new one. A farmhouse burned down not long ago, and, when the firemen came, they found a couple of tombstones in the ashes."

Last Jew's Death

Ciechanowiec was once a small center of lumbering and textile manufacturing. Before World War II, according to Krynski, it had a population of 5,000 to 6,000, of which 3,000 to 4,000 were Jews. Now, the population is 4,500, none Jewish.

"It's a pity that you did not come before," Krynski said. "I knew an old Jew in this town who probably remembered your family. But he died last year. Now there is no Jew in Ciechanowiec."

Krynski, a serious man with a faint smile, showed us the traces of the past. Some antique wooden houses of the 19th Century lend the town a genteel and calming air. The old town market dominated by Jewish shops that my grandmother knew before she moved to Bialystok and married life, has made way for a neat and sterile administrative and commercial center, with few things to buy. A synagogue, the only one in town still standing, is now used as furniture factory warehouse.

Pine-Covered Cemetery

A mass grave of executed Jews is marked by a low fence; another mass grave of executed Jews is unmarked and strewn with dead branches and refuse; a Jewish cemetery is now covered by young pine trees.

"I can assure you that there is not a piece of stone there," Krynski said of the cemetery. "I have walked over every foot of the ground searching."

Polish intellectuals are caught up these days in an anguished debate over guilt. The ancient Jewish culture of Poland was demolished under the Nazi German occupation of World War II. Before the war, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, 10% of the total population, a Jewish community larger than any other in the world except that of the United States.

The overwhelming majority were killed during the war. After the war, almost all the survivors fled--from their memories, from Polish pogroms and from official anti-Semitism. Perhaps 6,000 Poles practice Judaism now or identify themselves as Jews.

No one accuses Poles of designing or operating the gas chambers of the Nazi camps such as Auschwitz, where several million Jews were exterminated on Polish soil. But the debate about guilt is going on nevertheless in the pages of Tygodnik Powzechny, the Roman Catholic weekly that is Poland's most influential newspaper.

The debate began in January when Jan Blonski, a literary critic, commenting on two poems by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, concluded that the Poles, many of whom were anti-Semitic, had a "co-responsibility" for the genocide that took place on their soil.

Distinction Drawn

"Nobody in his right senses can maintain that the Poles--as a people--took part in the genocide," Blonski wrote. But he then drew a distinction between participation and what he called co-responsibility.

"You can be co-responsible," he said, "without actually lending your hand to a crime--first, by omission, or by failing to counteract firmly enough. Who can honestly say that counteraction was firm enough in Poland?

" . . . Had we acted more wisely, more nobly, more like Christians, then the genocide would probably have been more inconceivable, more difficult to carry out, and would certainly have been opposed more boldly."

Blonski called on Poles "to purify our land" by "acknowledging our past in the light of truth."

The article provoked a furious counterattack. Jerzy Turowicz, the editor, recently summed up the tenor of the letters of protest: "Not only Jews but also we Poles were murdered during the occupation; we first had to save ourselves; we saved the Jews and helped them whenever possible; we carry no blame. . . .

"Some of our correspondents even claim that there was no anti-Semitism in Poland, and if it did exist, it was justified."

An angry article of rebuttal to Blonski came from Wladyslaw Sila-Nowicki, a 74-year-old lawyer who was an adviser to Solidarity, the now-outlawed free trade union movement.

"What could we do?" he said. "Attack the concentration camps with the forces we had? To suffer enormous losses and doom all those in the camps? Let no one lecture us about unfulfilled moral duties, and let not Mr. Blonski say, as he did in his extremely harmful and untrue piece, that we came close to the crime of genocide."

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