Building bridges and mending fences with Poland

Building bridges and mending fences with Poland


Although it was not been widely publicized outside Poland, a deadline has quietly passed for the Polish government’s offer of compensation for property left outside its present borders in connection with World War II. This is not related to restitution for property confiscated in Poland by the German Nazi and post-war Communist regimes. Rather, it is compensation offered for property left behind when Poland’s borders were shifted west after the war. Poland’s eastern territories were taken over by the Soviet Union in exchange for new western territories taken from a vanquished Germany. I was part of a team that processed approximately 250 applications and I had the opportunity to talk to many elderly survivors – mainly Catholic – about their wartime experiences.

This little-known fact presents an opportunity for the Jewish community to build bridges and mend fences with the Polish community, which also finds itself in exile throughout the world, and frequently in close proximity to Eastern European Jewish neighborhoods. It is estimated that 1.7 million Poles were deported to Siberia. Among them were hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews, especially refugees from Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, who were deported eastward by the Soviets in 1940-41. That we know from documentation that is widely and popularly available. What is less known is that tens of thousands of Polish allied soldiers and refugees passed through British-occupied Palestine during 1941-46, including 6,000 Jewish soldiers in the Polish Army – many of whom stayed behind to help create and defend Israel, including future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Nearly 1,000 Jewish orphans (the “Tehran children”) also came to Israel in this process.

The stories that are emerging from those who lived in the eastern borderlands of Poland, mostly Catholic children in September of 1939, sound remarkably like those of the Jewish children whose testimonies many of us heard in Jewish schools when we were growing up.

Romuald Lipinski was a 14-year-old schoolboy when Nazi soldiers pounded on his door in the middle of the night, giving his family 10 minutes to clear out toward the Soviet border, never to return to their home. Like so many boys, Lipinski would join the army-in-exile of Gen. Wladyslaw Anders in Siberia, and would eventually be part of the Polish army, which, together with the British Army, fought decisively in the Battle of Monte Cassino. His regiment was instrumental in driving the Nazis out of Italy – a victory for which Lipinski would be decorated as a hero.

“It broke our hearts when our land was lost to the Soviets – we felt totally betrayed by our own allies. We helped win the war against Hitler but lost our homeland to Stalin. But even though we never could return home after the war, we never forgot our Polish homeland,” says Lipinksi.

A deportation survivor and resident of Northport, Fla., Marie Gaffney recalls, “The Soviet troopers came with guns drawn in the dead of night and dragged us out into minus-40-degree [Fahrenheit] temperatures, with only a few small bundles of our belongings in my father’s hands and me in my mother’s arms. They deported us to harsh labor camps in Siberia and seized all our property. Our homes are gone forever, but at least this is a symbolic recognition of the injustice we suffered.”

My own mother, who was the same age as Romuald Lipinksi at the time, fled to Siberia with her brother in the days before the Lodz Ghetto was established in the winter of 1939. They were arrested and thrown into the Soviet jails – the infamous gulags – where my mother’s brother died and was buried in a potter’s field. Mom never realized she was a “survivor” because she did not experience the Nazi concentration camps. It was only after the war, when Mom came to Toronto and became a speaker for the Toronto Holocaust Center, that she realized how significant her little-known story was. Only then did she feel clear of the guilt that she had felt her entire life over surviving when her older brother, whom she had so admired and had depended upon, died. Only then did she realize that she, too, was a survivor.

It is up to our generation to create the dialogue with the people with whom we coexisted for nearly 1,000 years. We share a history, geography, and culture. Now that we Anglo-Polish Jews (who ended up in the UK, USA/Canada, and Australia/New Zealand) and Kresy Poles (who come from the Kresy region of Poland – the eastern borderlands) have been exiled from our Polish home, we have a common “new” language and a perspective. We share the feeling that the clock is ticking and soon our eyewitnesses will be gone. We know that the time is now for the story that needs to be part of the complicated historical account of World War II.

Jews have always been “Na’aseh v’Nishmah” people (from the biblical reference at Mount Sinai: “We shall obey and we shall hear”). Merely knowing that the story is complicated is not enough. The time has come, before our children become too old to learn from us, for us to shape the future and help others who have not been officially recognized for their loss and grief.

Anyone can be an activist. Join a Polish-Jewish dialogue group, or start one. Examine the intrigue, twists, and turns that have been the trademark of relations between neighbors by reading a book like “Between the Pages” by Erin Einhorn, and seeing movies like Andrze Wajda’s “Katyn,” which was part of the Wajda retrospective presented by Lincoln Center. (See page 31.) It will be widely distributed sometime soon. A British-made documentary, “A Forgotten Odyssey,” is another excellent source of information.

While many Jews belong to genealogy groups such as, they may not know that they can also join the Kresy Siberia Group online, an international special-interest group of more than 750 survivors of the Soviet persecutions and their second- and third-generation descendants. Its objectives are to research, remember, and recognize the persecution of Polish citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds by the Soviet Union during World War II. Many volunteers on the list are helpful in translating Polish and Russian documents.

In short, it is not enough for us to visit the death camps and continue to teach our children the horrible fate suffered by our people there. We must also remember the country that was so beloved by the generations before us. It is so much harder to build the bridge than to cut ties. It is our turn to build a better tomorrow.