The past several weeks have been crammed full of commemorations celebrating and memorializing events that have shaped Jewish lives. Whether it’s Yom HaZikaron or Yom Ha’Atzmaut, or Yom HaShoah or the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, significant dates on the Jewish calendar continue to impact others beyond the Jews who honor them.
As such, what should have been a straightforward speech of remembrance and reproach last month at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2015 National Tribute Dinner turned into a diplomatic fiasco. That speech, by FBI director James Comey, appeared as an April 16 op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Why I Require FBI Agents to Visit the Holocaust Museum.”
The piece began with Comey’s declaration that “I believe the Holocaust is the most significant event in human history.” He went on to explain how he requires every new FBI special agent and intelligence analyst to go to the Holocaust Museum “to learn about abuse of authority on a breathtaking scale” and “to see that, although this slaughter was led by sick and evil people, those…were joined by…people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church and gave to charity.”
Then came the part that became a bombshell. “In their minds,” Comey continued, “the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do…. And that should truly frighten us.”
Shocking? Not to those of us who know our history or to Holocaust survivors who came from the countries Comey mentioned. But the Polish government, losing no time in pillorying Comey for his statement, called in the American ambassador and demanded a retraction and apology.
Methinks thou dost protest too much. True, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were German Nazis, who also killed millions of non-Jewish Poles during the horrors of the war. But though a minority of Poles tried to help Jews, there is no denying the veracity of Comey’s words regarding the complicity of too many Poles in the systematic murder of Jews either through participation or indifference.
Polish discrimination against Jews predated and postdated the Holocaust. Though Jews lived in relative calm with their Polish neighbors for a thousand years, pre-World War II Polish anti-Semitism took the form of pogroms, boycotts, exclusion of Jews from welfare benefits, and severe restrictions on Jewish enrollment in Polish universities. And if the few Jewish survivors thought they might be welcomed back to Poland after the Holocaust, the massacre of 42 Jews in Kielce by a Polish mob in 1946 showed them otherwise.
Today Poland ranks highest in Eastern European anti-Semitism, with a 2014 ADL survey pointing to 45 percent of Polish individuals harboring anti-Semitic attitudes. Several months ago a Warsaw University study reported that over half of Poland’s young people accessed anti-Semitic Internet sites that praise Hitler and Nazism.
Despite efforts to revive Jewish cultural life in Poland, which has met with a measure of success and support from Polish officials, Poland still remains a virtual graveyard of its prewar glory days.
Some individuals would like to see that change. And they are starting with the actual graveyards that represent the vestiges of a massive and significant bygone Jewish presence in Poland. Following a recommendation, I uncovered a little known organization based in America’s Bible Belt called the The Matzevah Foundation (TMF).
Founded by Steven D. Reece, a Baptist minister, the goal of Matzevah is “remembering, restoring, reconciling.” Reece sees the road to reconciling through restoring Jewish cemeteries in Poland. To date, TMF has partnered with the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, the Rabbinical Council for Matters of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and the Jewish community of Katowice to restore Jewish cemeteries in Zambrow, Oswiecim, and Krzepice.
I asked Pastor Reece why a Christian would spend his time and resources restoring Jewish cemeteries in a country, far across the ocean, that saw three million of its Jews wiped out.
“It’s very simple,” he answered. “Love. Love of neighbor, love of God. From a Jewish perspective, caring for a cemetery is the highest expression of charity. It’s beyond tzedakah. It’s the ultimate expression of love and kindness. It breaks down barriers and opens the way for dialogue, which is what I am pursuing – dialogue, forgiveness, reconciliation. The latter is a long time away, but dialogue is possible.”
Reece acknowledges that his work elicits “glares” from many local Poles who retain a “residual anti-Semitism without ever having met a Jew.” Still, he takes issue with Comey’s allegation.
“I disagree,” he says, “because that would imply that Poles were collaborators, and they were not. They were not like Vichy France. Yes, there was Polish anti-Semitism, but by and large it’s very offensive for a Pole to be equated with a Nazi.”
The German invasion and brutal occupation of Poland during World War II make it easy for Poles to assume the role of victim. However, distinguishing between casualties of war crimes and victims of an unprecedented and vicious systematic genocide needs to be a point of the dialogue Reece seeks to pursue.
The need for such dialogue becomes essential as both Christians and Jews increasingly find themselves under attack by common enemies. Suddenly, shared experiences and concerns create shared perspectives.
Last week at a joint event with the World Jewish Congress commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Nazi death camps in Geneva, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, admitted that the humanitarian agency “lost its moral compass” during the Holocaust. And, he warned, “we cannot guarantee that a humanitarian catastrophe of the extent of the Holocaust will not happen again.”
Maurer also noted that “ ‘Never again’ resonates with difficulty because of what we see and experience on the ground every day…throughout the Middle East, Africa and even right here in Europe.”
Faced with mass executions and oppression in countries invaded by Islamic radicals, Christians are fleeing their homes and coming under attacks reminiscent of those suffered by Jews. And on the cultural and political front in Western countries, Judeo-Christian values and church teachings are routinely denigrated in the courts, the media, and academia.
Non-Jews like Comey and Reece are righteous because they have no agenda besides doing the right thing. Christians who are less motivated would do well to learn from their example. We can start with honest dialogue, but we need to achieve honest reconciliation to successfully battle enemies that challenge us both.