The Establishment of Israel and Destruction of Poland

Some 20 people braved record cold yesterday to watch two new documentary films screened at the Gallery Theatre in Chicago as part of the 31st annual Polish Film Festival in America. You could blame the low turnout on the weather, but I suspect that even a balmy autumn evening would not have produced much of a crowd. How many people want to watch yet another downer movie about the Holocaust, another tedious film about ravaged Poland during World War II?

I am here to testify that Poland and the Birth of Israel and Warsaw: A City Divided are neither downers nor tedious. Having done a sizeable amount of reading and viewing about Polish history, I was unpleasantly surprised by some of the previously suppressed or ignored documentation revealed in these eye-opening films.

While the rest of Europe ignored or complied with Hitler’s plan for the annihilation of Jews and Poles proudly announced in Mein Kampf, the government of Poland between the two world wars supported Jewish efforts to establish the nation of Israel. Poland and the Birth of Israel documents the facts of those efforts, pointing out that the largest portion of the founders of Israel were Polish Jews. For a thousand years Poland tolerated and at times even welcomed Jews being evicted from other parts of Europe. By World War II Warsaw had the second largest number of Jewish residents of any city in the world, after  New York City. Polish and Israeli historians talk about the support by the Polish government of both legal and illegal emigration of Jews to Palestine, about financial and military aid to them, about the Kibbutzim in Poland, and the training of young Jews to fight. Meanwhile, the British were refusing to send arms to Palestine and the Germans were arming the Arabs.

Based on 10 minutes of newly discovered 8 millimeter film footage shot by a Polish amateur filmmaker, Warsaw: A City Divided sheds new light on the Nazis’ carefully planned creation of the Warsaw ghetto and the annihilation of the entire city and the systematic murder of its inhabitants. Ghetto survivors and witnesses recall their devastating memories as they revisit the streets where they once lived. The most moving image in the entire film is perhaps not the footage of Varsovians desperately struggling to survive but the empty blue-lit tram car that glided through the city on the evening of January 27, 2018, the International Day of Remembrance, bearing a Star of David to remind the Polish capital’s residents of the Jewish neighbors who were murdered in the ghetto and in extermination camps.

Specious arguments over the Holocaust persist: Why didn’t the Jews resist? Why were the Poles so anti-Semitic? The fact is that there was a great deal more resistance than collaboration on the part of Poland, Jews and Gentiles alike declared sub-human by the Nazis. Bigger questions remain: Why didn’t the Allies come to the defense of Poland, not even by bombing the rail lines that took millions to death camps? Why did the government of France capitulate to the Nazis? Why did Russia sign a nonaggression pact with Germany that sealed the fate of Poland? Why does so much Holocaust history omit the fact that Poland was the only country whose government never capitulated to the Nazis and the only German-occupied country whose citizens were subjected to the death penalty for harboring Jews?

Those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. These two films contain plenty of those history lessons.

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