Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, rejected an offer from the nation’s government to attend a ceremony honoring a partisan group that has faced accusations of anti-Semitism and collaboration with Nazi Germany.
The group is one of several World War Two-era anti-Communist fighting units that have become heroes to some in modern-day Poland, particularly in ultra-nationalist circles. Known as the Brygada Świętokrzyska, the group’s complicated historical record made the government’s actions in celebrating them controversial.
In an open letter to Veterans’ Affairs Minister Jan Kasprzyk who initiated the event, Rabbi Schudrich called the invitation “an insult.”
Rabbi Schudrich told Hamodia that he felt compelled to speak out against the ceremony as a means of shining light on what he sees as an unfortunate trend in Poland.
“The country is going in the wrong direction,” he said. “Political pressure is pushing the government’s hand to rehabilitate people who should not be rehabilitated and the fact is that many in these units killed Germans, Communists, and in some cases Jews with equal gusto.”
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has a long reputation of clashes with Jewish groups over what has been seen as attempts to build a purely positive national narrative of Poles actions during Nazi occupation. As they lead up to elections this coming fall, many posited that the move to honor the brigade is one of several attempts to secure the vote of ultra-nationalist elements and to head off efforts of smaller extreme parties that could potentially siphon off votes.
The decision to honor the brigade drew criticism from many in Poland including from survivors and descendants of the central resistance group, the Home Army.
The ceremony, held in honor of the 75th anniversary of the brigade’s formation, was held this past Sunday, but without the participation of President Andrzej Duda. Several other high ranking officials were also absent. Rabbi Schudrich credited the President’s office and some other government officials including Minister Kasprzyk himself, for being receptive to the concerns raised by him and other critics of the ceremony.
The brigade was part of the larger National Armed Forces (NSZ) which fought Nazis and both Soviet troops and Polish communist units. A press release prepared by the Polish government in advance of the event lauds the brigades’ struggle against Nazi German forces as well as against divisions of Ukrainian and Turkestanis who collaborated with them.
It offers a brief discussion of its activities against communist units, some of which contained Jews, but denied that Jews were targeted.
“In the whole of the Brigade’s history, there has not been a single case of its soldiers murdering Polish Jews due to their ethnic origin. It should also be noted that Poles of Jewish origin served in the ranks of this formation,” it says.
The statement also deals with the brigade’s controversial move to collaborate with Nazi forces to allow a retreat from advancing Soviet armies. It is this move that has drawn accusations of collaboration especially from the Home Army, which was directed by Poland’s government in exile in London.
Yet, adding to the brigade’s complex legacy, while out of Poland, it liberated Holiszów, a concentration camp, freeing hundreds of Hungarian Jewish women who were held there and later linked up with General George Patton’s 3rd American Army.
NSZ units in general have been accused of attacks on Jews, some for their affiliation, real or perceived with communism.
While acknowledging the complexity of this given brigade, Rabbi Schudrich reinforced his opinion that choosing to honor a group with what is widely seen as a spotted record bespoke a dangerous trend in Poland’s attitude towards its history.
“I’m not saying that we have to condemn [the brigade] either, but the move to honor them is a cherry-picking of history in a way that will inevitably lead to a distortion of the facts,” he said.