All four of my grandparents were Polish. My family must have lived in Poland for hundreds of years. But in the early 20th century when Poland was part of the Russian empire things got difficult for Jews.
Growing Polish nationalism often spilled over into anti-Semitism. My grandparents left before their situation became too dangerous.
Then, in 1939, when Poland was a free and independent nation with 3 million Jews the Germans invaded and established their most notorious death camps on Polish soil.
Many Poles were happy to wave goodbye to their Jews and took part in their extermination. Poles also happen to be the most well represented at Yad Vashem, the memorial and museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, with the highest number of any nation recognised as Righteous Amongst the Nations. So, for many Jews, Poland and Poles provoke contradictory emotions.
This tragedy for the Polish people has seen the death of a controversial President who recognised the contribution to Polish history of the Jewish people and the ties of that history, often difficult, sometime murderous but also, often, mutually beneficial. David A Harris has written:
I first met Lech Kaczynski when he was Warsaw’s mayor. He was eager for the renewal of Jewish life in Poland. He felt a kinship to Jews, whom he saw as an integral part of Poland’s fabric. He said it was impossible to understand Poland without comprehending the Jewish role in its life. That’s why he was supportive of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and why he was instrumental in launching it. I later met him many times as president, most recently in February. A man of passion and principle, he seldom minced words. He knew where he stood and he didn’t try to mask his views from others.
Poland and the Jews have a troubled history and anti-Semitism is still an undercurrent, but great strides have also been made in Warsaw and Krakow, for example, to revive and celebrate Jewish culture. The Late President was an important factor in reconciling Poland with its Jewish history.
The Polish people’s dignified and moving response to this immense tragedy has been very impressive. The new Poland is becoming a major force in Europe and the world; a pivotal nation between the West and Russia. Poland will survive these terrible events and emerge stronger and an even prouder nation.
I send my heartfelt condolences to the Polish people in this hour of distress. I honour the memory of President Kaczynski and those who perished so ironically a few miles from the scene of one of the most heinous war crimes of World War II.