(September 1, 2019 / Israel Hayom) Eighty years ago, Germany invaded Poland and the world changed forever. To mark the outbreak of World War II, high-level dignitaries from 40 countries traveled to Warsaw, Poland, to participate in special memorial events on Sunday, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, who hosted the events, sat down with Israel Hayom for a lengthy interview to discuss how his nation was coping with the effects of the deadliest of all wars, during which the Nazis murdered six million Jews, including 3 million Polish Jews.
Duda says the traumatic effects of the war are very much felt today in his country. He also insists that Poland never collaborated with Nazi Germany.
The following is a transcript of the interview, which was edited for clarity.
Q: Eighty years ago Germany attacked and invaded Poland, leading to World War II in Europe. Eighty years later, what does this day mean for Poland and for you personally?
A: It is one of the saddest and most tragic dates in the history of the world. One has to remember that for 123 years, there was no Poland. It was divided between its three neighbors—Russia, Prussia and Austria—and it disappeared. The Poles tried to regain their independence in three bloody uprisings. After World War I, in 1918, Poland finally regained its independence, reappeared on the map of Europe and developed dynamically until Sept. 1, 1939. You can only imagine what Poland would have become if this Nazi German invasion hadn’t taken place.
This day started a conflict that claimed the lives of six million Polish citizens, in fighting but first and foremost murdered by the Nazis and the Soviets. Among those six million, and this has to be stressed, were three million Jews of Polish nationality who were the victims of the German-perpetrated Holocaust. For me personally, September 1 is the most tragic day in the history of the Polish nation as a whole. Remember that after the war, we became part of the Soviet sphere of influence, we were betrayed in Yalta, and for the next 40 years we were not a sovereign country. That was the Poland I was born in. I can say that to this day we can witness the negative effects of WWII, both socially and economically.
Q: Could you be more specific on that?
A: You can see the effects of the war today especially in the economy. Poland and Warsaw were totally destroyed by the war. Of course, we have rebuilt Warsaw with our own hands and own resources—but not as it was before the war. If you take into account that for 40 years we were living behind the Iron Curtain, you must realize what kind of an economic situation we inherited.
You might find it hard to believe but in 1986, my father, who was at the time teaching at a technical university, had a monthly wage of $13. We are still not as well off as people are in Germany, France, or the rest of Europe. We are still trying to make up for the time and resources we have lost. One of the side effects is that many Poles, especially young ones, go abroad to look for work and a better life. World War II dispersed Polish society throughout the whole world. Many didn’t return to Poland. We can simply say that we have lost them, and among them, a lot of talented and intelligent people.
Most of all, we have lost six million of our citizens, including three million Jews. Jewish life, which was flourishing in Poland before WWII, simply disappeared. It is an important element of the tragedy Poland experienced during and after the war.
Q: What would you like the Israelis to know more about regarding the Polish experience during WWII?
A: First of all, I would like Israelis and Jews from all over the world to come and visit the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It’s a museum of our history. There is no doubt that WWII was one of the most tragic periods of Polish history, perhaps even the most tragic, because of the loss of three million Polish Jews and another three million Poles who were not Jewish. Every Polish family lost someone in that war.
I would like the Israelis to remember that before these tragic six years, Poles and Jews coexisted peacefully throughout 1,000 years of joint history. They were part of one nation. The Jewish culture was part of the Polish culture. I would like young people in Israel to be aware of this long history and to know that Poland was where many Jews found a peaceful place to live. “Polin” means “a place where you can rest.” [In Hebrew, Poland is pronounced “Polanya” or “Polin,” which transliterated into Hebrew mean “here God dwells/rests” and “here (you should) dwell/rest,” respectively.]
Poland has the greatest number of Righteous Among the Nations, despite the fact that only in Poland was any assistance to Jews punishable by death under the German occupiers. Not only were those individuals who were helping the Jews executed, but also all the members of their family. There were tens of thousands of such families. The Israelis, who ask why Poles didn’t do more, should bear in mind that it was really a dramatic situation and that the death penalty was unavoidable for every person who assisted the Jews. Those Poles who were assisting Jews, hiding them and supporting them, were heroes because they were risking their lives and the lives of their families.
The efforts to save Jews were also undertaken on the political level. The Polish government-in-exile and the Polish underground movement were dispatching couriers, like Witold Pilecki and Jan Karski, who revealed to the world what kind of atrocities were unfolding in the German concentration and death camps. The Polish government-in-exile and the Polish underground formed Żegota, an organization whose only aim was to assist Jews in Poland and help them survive. They were doing it because Polish citizens were at stake. It was something normally done to save Polish citizens.
Those who were targeted by the German-perpetrated Holocaust fought for Polish independence, they served in the Polish military between the world wars. They actively participated in the process of rebuilding Poland. They were great engineers, poets, architects, the creators of Polish culture. They saw Poland as their homeland. We remember that and all the places in which they were murdered.
Q: On the other side, what would you like the young Poles to know about the Jewish experience during World War II?
A: Actually, young Poles are perfectly aware of what happened because in Poland we focus on the history of the Holocaust and pay special attention to all the anniversaries—like those of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, of the liberation of Auschwitz, and of the martyrdom of the many Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. It’s an obligatory item on the curricula of Polish schools to visit Auschwitz. When school children visit Warsaw they usually visit the POLIN Museum, too. Furthermore, the Polish state takes care of sites where the Holocaust took place and spends vast sums to ensure that they are preserved.
Q: Do you see a risk of a renewed war in Europe today?
A: The risk is always there. Just look at what is happening in Ukraine, with the Donetsk area being occupied, and Crimea annexed. People are being killed in this conflict all the time. The most important thing is to react politically in such a way as to ensure that no party benefits from starting a conflict in the world today. Basically there is a dual-track approach to that: First, we should try to create economic conditions ensuring welfare to everyone so that no one is willing to wage a war; second, if someone starts to behave aggressively, then the international community has to react quickly and decisively. We shouldn’t forget that such an attitude was lacking before WWII.
Q: The German invasion of Poland was facilitated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which assured Germany would not be attacked by the Russians and divided Poland between these two dictatorships. Is the world aware of the way the communist Soviet Union is also responsible for the outbreak of World War II?
A: We should say it loud and clear—the Soviet Union at that time was an ally of Germany, which attacked and invaded Poland. I have no doubt that without the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which guaranteed that the Russians would invade Poland from the East, the Germans would have thought twice and would have been afraid of invading Poland. This pact was one of the main reasons for the war.
Q: Poland was reoccupied after the war and couldn’t negotiate independently with Germany. Poland was a too young a democracy when further negotiations took place after the fall of Communism and the reunification of Germany. Are there still unresolved issues between Poland and Germany?
A: In the light of the horrible destruction during the war—Warsaw was ruined as revenge after the Warsaw Uprising—it is not surprising that a lot of Poles still have the feeling that we were not compensated, as a society or individually. People believe that reparations are still an open issue. This is an issue that should be discussed, and this discussion is going on at the level of the Polish parliament. It contains two dimensions: historical and legal.
Q: Since we’re talking about reparations, could you explain to Israelis the Polish position on restitution?
A: Let me reiterate: We have not received any compensation or reparations from those who started the war and destroyed Poland. This should be the starting point of this whole discussion. That is to say, we were not the instigators of World War II. We were the victims, we were attacked and we were destroyed. We were not the aggressors and we never collaborated either with German Nazis or with the Soviets in any institutionalized way. The Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany. This situation changed when Germany attacked Russia.
As far as the property is concerned, let me describe the situation after 1990 when Poland became a sovereign and independent country. The process of restituting property that had been taken illegally started and it is still ongoing. This issue concerns all those who lost property, irrespective of their nationality.
Q: How can Poles and Israelis develop a joint historical narrative regarding World War II?
On both sides, those who look at history in an objective and reasonable way are developing this kind of honest narrative. It seems to me that there are enough such people. But of course, other voices are also heard, and unfortunately, these are very often harmful voices. For that reason, I stress that during WWII there was no institutionalized cooperation whatsoever between Poles and Germans. I also stress the fact that entire families in Poland were punished with death for helping Jews. This is important for the assessment of the situation in those times. It’s easy to be courageous when nothing threatens you.
The Holocaust targeted the Jewish nation. Part of this nation was part of our national community. Therefore we consider it as part of our national memory.
That’s why we find it very important to jointly pay tribute to the memory of those murdered. For this reason, I joined Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on the March of the Living. But, please remember that when we talk about the concentration camps, we need to bear in mind that Poles perished there as well, next to the Jews. In Poland, almost every family lost a member.
Even in Katyn, where thousands of Polish officers were murdered by the communists, there were Jews. They were representatives of the Republic of Poland. The chief rabbi of the Polish Army was among them, and last year I decorated him, posthumously, with the Order of the White Eagle to mark the centenary of Poland regaining its independence. I did it precisely in order to stress the joint elements of our two nations and the value of the Jews to our society.
Q: France and Great Britain were quick to react by declaring war on Germany after it invaded Poland. However, it took both countries a long time, too long, before they became really engaged in the war. Poland was left alone, despite mutual defense treaties it had with other countries. What lessons are to be drawn from this experience and are they relevant for today’s reality as well?
A: Historians, especially military historians, stress that if France and Great Britain had not only declared war on Germany but also attacked Germany in response to the German attack on Poland, WWII would have come to a quick end and the Germans would have had to defend their own territories. If that had happened, we wouldn’t use the term “WWII” but rather “the Polish-German War.”
However, things happened differently and this is a tragic lesson which also demonstrates the importance of allied cooperation. This also has to do with NATO and our membership in this alliance, and Article V [the part in the NATO’s founding treaty in which members of the organization vow to defend each other from aggression]. We always stress this element: It is not enough to declare certain actions, concrete action must follow.
Q: The world is now marking the 30-year anniversary of the successful anti-Communist uprising that had its beginning in Poland’s Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in 1981. What has changed since?
A: I was eight when the movement began, back in 1980. It’s a history I still remember well. When I look at it from the perspective of 40 years I can say that I am very proud. I am proud because I am sure that to a great extent thanks to Solidarity not only Poland but other parts of Europe have changed and regained liberty. In June 1989 I remember myself, a secondary-school student, 17 years old, running in the streets of Kraków asking people to vote for Solidarity.
Those were not fully free elections at the time, they were controlled by the communists. The biggest success was that Poles turned out to vote en masse, and voted against the communists. It became clear that the Poles rejected communism. It started a positive change. This rejection was not expressed with guns or use of violence but through legal voting. We started the movement in Europe, which is referred to as the Autumn of the Nations, which led to the liberation to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
I also feel proud of what we have achieved since. We must remember what was the starting point, in 1989. We were a poor society. A big price was paid by members of our society for the transformation. Not all reforms have been painless or successful. However, the Poland that we have today is the result of a huge effort of immense work and sacrifice by the people here. I do not want to omit or belittle, of course, the contribution of foreign investors, who invest their money here. I am grateful to them for creating jobs here. However, Polish people are the ones working in these jobs.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.