Life is the Most Important Thing

It was like this: a Jew was leaving the ghetto and a crowd of people was standing there, including two racketeers. There were only two of them, and it was only those two who did what they did. The rest turned their heads away.


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Polish-Jewish memory... There is no uniform Jewish memory. You have the memory of a Jewish policeman who escorted his wife to a transport and the memory of a Jewish policeman who managed to keep his wife and child alive. You have the memory of a child who was kept in a convent and the memory of a woman who lived undisturbed on the so-called Aryan side. And then, you have the memory of those who suffered daily extortion, the memory of those who fought, and the memory of those who escaped and hid in the countryside. All these people have different attitudes towards the past.

So, there is no uniform national pattern of the Jews’ attitude towards the Poles. And the same is true of the Poles. Mr Karski’s and Mr Bartoszewski’s attitudes differ. You have the attitude of those who sheltered Jews and the attitude of a mother who lost her son because he approached the Ghetto wall. You have the attitude of those who fought in the Warsaw Uprising and those who did not; those who were in the Home Army together with their Jewish friends from secondary school and those who were not. You have the attitude of those Poles who read the left-wing press and those who read the right-wing press. The same goes for the cultural sphere. You have Gajcy’s attitude and you have Borowski’s attitude, etc.

So let us not talk about patterns or the nature of national memory. Let us not talk about national memory at all, because if we do, we must talk about Croatian memory, Serbian memory, Cambodian memory, Biafran memory, etc. These are things that do more harm than good, especially under totalitarian systems.

First of all, we have to remember what the Holocaust really was. It is not true that it was purely a Jewish issue. It is not true that it was just the issue of those few, or those dozens, or those hundreds of racketeers. It is not true that it was the issue of those one or two hundred thousand Germans who personally participated in the killing. No, it was the issue of Europe and of the European civilisation that built the death factories. The Holocaust was a defeat for civilisation. Unfortunately, this defeat did not end in 1945. We must remember this. Everyone must remember this. Memory is political. Politics shapes the memory of a society, group memory - irrespective of whether it’s this group gathered here, or an occupational group, or a national group. It is all shaped by politics. And totalitarian politics affects memory much more forcefully. Nazi propaganda was brilliant; it forged a memory based on murder, because Goebbels was a propaganda genius. This unfortunate legacy has stayed with us to this day.

And what is happening in civilised Europe today? All these phenomena are offshoots of Nazism. What are the Red Brigades or the Black Brigades? What does it mean: five thousand poisoned in the Tokyo subway? It reflects contempt for human life, and this is precisely the change that the Holocaust has wrought in our consciousness. More than 200 years ago, Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that human life was the most important thing. So, the experiences you recount here - whether a Pole sheltered a Jew or not, or a Frenchman sheltered a Jew or not - are of no consequence. The important thing is that the murder was done before their very eyes, before everyone’s eyes. It is not true that the Germans did not know, and it is not true that when only 3,000 Jews returned out of the 100,000 who had been deported; the French were unaware where the rest had gone. We always have a tendency to turn our heads away from unpleasant things.

It was like this: a Jew was leaving the ghetto and a crowd of people was standing there, including two racketeers. There were only two of them, and it was only those two who did what they did. The rest turned their heads away and did not want to look, because it was very unpleasant. But they remained witnesses, and a passive witness becomes an accomplice. In extreme circumstances, remaining passive is a crime.

In extreme circumstances even fear is no excuse, and remaining passive really does become a crime. During the war, the whole world was passive - not just Europe. Britain was passive and America as well, although it had no reason to be afraid. Roosevelt considered the Holocaust to be the cost of war borne by the Jews, the same as the cost borne by the French or the Russians. He said that, as soon as the war ended, Jews would no longer be murdered.

But it was not the same thing at all. The death factories used for mass murder introduced contempt for human life. And this contempt for human life has survived to the present day. Some of the best alumni of a French university were responsible for the Killing Fields in Cambodia. The same happened in Rwanda. Fortunately, in the case of Rwanda, France stood up to the murderers and sent in troops to defend half a million people. This was the first time such action was taken. We should remember that the first sin of omission was Hitler’s reincorporation of the Saarland. This was the beginning of weakness, the beginning of the fear of fascism and power. Today, if we do not overcome this fear, we will continue to face terrorism and genocide. We have to remember this.

Who can stand up to power? In the last half-century, young people have demonstrated on several occasions that they can. They proved it in America by helping to end the Vietnam War, and they showed it in France in 1968 by changing lifestyles; the same happened in Germany. Something has changed since this rebellion of youth. Not long ago, young people forced a French minister to resign. So, they constitute a real force, while we are a lost generation. But young people once again need to be taught that life is most important thing. Convenience comes second.

This text appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny No. 29/95; Marek Edelman presented it during the “Jewish Memory, Polish Memory" colloquium held in June 1995 by the French Institute in Kraków.

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Artykuł pochodzi z numeru TP 13/2010

Artykuł pochodzi z dodatku „Żydownik Powszechny (English)