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Polish-Jewish Relations and the Armenian Genocide Armenian News Network / Groong July 30, 2001 By Jonathan Eric Lewis When I attended former Turkish Ambassador Sukru Elekdag's denialist talk at Columbia University this spring, I was struck by one of the comments by an audience member. Rather than engage Elekdag in a false debate, the gentleman reminded the audience that Poland is only just now undergoing a painful soul-searching about the roles played by ordinary Poles in the implementation of the Final Solution. He cited the controversy surrounding the publication of Jan T. Gross's Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Commmunity of Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton University Press, 2001) and argued that it is up to the younger generation in Turkey to similarly admit the sins of their forefathers. In this slim and highly readable volume, Gross, a professor of European Studies at New York University, demonstrates that the massacre of the Jews of the said town during the Holocaust was not committed by Germans, but rather by Poles. The Jewish citizens of this small town in central Poland were not killed by faceless, anonymous German soldiers or by a cold bureaucratic system in July 1941, but rather by their neighbors, persons with whom they had lived for years. The crime was extremely brutal, with the vast majority of the town's Jews burned alive in a townsman's barn. `Not anonymous men in uniform, cogs in a war machine, agents carrying out orders, but their neighbors, who chose to kill and were engaged in a bloody pogrom - willing executioners.' Despite the trials of some of the perpetrators in the decade after the war, it was not until the year 2000 that Polish officialdom finally recognized the crime and sought forgiveness. Gross' work, although specifically dealing with the Jedwabne massacre and the Holocaust, has a lot to offer to students of the Armenian genocide. While the crime he studies is specific, its implications are universal. How does one segment of a given town's population turn on its other half and commit atrocities in front of all to see? Why does it take years for the crime to be fully studied and acknowledged? And what can the actions of the Polish population tell us about the roles played by Kurds and Circassians in the Armenian genocide? While scholars have rightly demonstrated that the Armenian genocide was a centralized and highly organized event, with orders coming from Constantinople, the local populations in Eastern Anatolia played a pivotal role in the destruction of the Armenian communities. The willing executioners of the Armenians were not just members of the Ottoman gendarmerie, but also local Turks, Kurds, and Circassians - persons who might have known and might have seen their victims on more than one occasion prior to their crimes. Both the Poles of Jedwabne and the local populations in Eastern Anatolia engaged in a wholesale plunder of their victims' property. The prior humiliation of the victims and the subsequent expropriation of their property were fundamental components of the crime. In his book, Gross asks us to view the Holocaust as a heterogeneous phenomenon, at the same time part of a master plan and subject to local circumstances. He argues that `we must also be able to see [the Holocaust] as a mosaic composed of discrete episodes, improvised by local decision-makers, and hinging on unforced behavior, rooted in God-knows-what motivations, all of those who were near the murder scene at the time.' Both the Nazis and the Ittihadists would not have been able to carry out their genocidal plans without the explicit support of local populations, ordinary townsfolk, peasants, and in the Armenian case, Kurdish tribesmen. One of the reasons that Turkey is so hesitant to admit the horrific crimes perpetrated against the Armenians is that it was not just the Ottoman government that committed the crime. For without the active complicity of local populations in Eastern Anatolia and Cilicia, the genocide of the Armenians could not have happened as it did. The crime is still very much alive, for Kurds, Turks, and other Muslims now live on the property of murdered Armenians. While the government was officially responsible, the ordinary people were highly complicit. In the case of Jedwabne, Gross thinks `it's very probable that the desire and unexpected opportunity to rob the Jews once and for all - rather than, or alongside with, atavistic antisemitism - was the real motivating force that drove Karolak [the main criminal] and his cohort to organize the killing.' The property and homes of Jedwabne's Jews did not die with the victims; these homes and goods became part of the collective plunder. However, one must not overstate the degree to which sheer criminality was the motivating factor in either the murder of Jedwabne's Jews or the Armenians of Anatolia. Indeed, one should never forget that both anti-Armenian racism and anti-Semitism were deep-rooted phenomena in both Anatolia and Eastern Europe. It was not as if Jedwabne's residents did not know what happened in their town; they knew all too well. Similarly, it is not as if the Turkish government doesn't know what happened to the Armenians; they, too, know all too well. Admitting the crime means admitting the present; it means admitting that the present is based on the crimes of the past. This may explain why there are still voices in Poland that refuse to accept the fact that Poles killed Jews during the Holocaust. Before the Second World War, one-third of the urban population of Poland was Jewish. One can hardly understand the dynamics of the post-war Polish urban economy without taking into account the fact that it was based on the murder of much of the pre-war urban population! As Gross reminds us with particular emphasis: `how can the wiping out of one-third of its urban population be anything than a central issue of Poland's modern history?' The crimes of the Ottoman past are Turkey's present. Echoing Gross, how can the destruction of a huge portion of the Ottoman Empire's merchant class be anything other than a central issue in Turkey's modern history? The lands, homes, and property of the Armenians are now in the hands of those who have benefited from past crimes. The fear of having to pay reparations is but one of the many reasons why the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the genocide. National pride is a factor as well, for it would mean having to admit that Turkish history is not the glory that many have been taught that it is. It would likewise mean having to admit that the Ottoman Empire committed crimes similar to, although not completely identical with, Nazi Germany. And, after all, what state would want its past to be compared with Nazi Germany? But all hope should not be lost. Difficult as it is for them, the Polish public is now engaging in a healthy debate and reassessment of their country's past. Younger Polish citizens demonstrate a great curiosity in all things Jewish and the study of Yiddish is flourishing on university campuses in Poland. Some Poles are even `rediscovering' the fact that one grandparent was Jewish. I myself have witnessed first hand attempts at both Polish-Jewish and German-Jewish reconciliation and must admit that immense progress is being made in both areas. Who would have thought that, some sixty years after the Holocaust, there would be a sovereign Jewish state and that a democratic Germany would be one of its closest allies? I myself have no doubt that the current German government, as well as the Polish Foreign Ministry, are extremely sincere in their attempts to foster reconciliation. Both the government and people of Turkey can learn from the Polish experience. The fact that occasional apologies to the Armenian people are appearing in the mainstream Turkish press and that Taner Akcam's books are being sold in Turkish bookstores are signs that the wall of silence is slowly beginning to erode. One would have to be terribly naive to assume that the authorities in Ankara are unaware that the Turkish population is beginning, slowly, to be sure, to question their government's denial of the Armenian genocide. One of the main denialist tactics is to emphasize that Turks and Muslims died during the war and were victims of war crimes. Yes, many Turks died during the First World War and yes, many Poles, especially the urban intellegentsia, were victims of the Nazi war machine. However, neither the sufferings of the Turks nor of the Poles during wartime nullifies the fact that both peoples engaged in horrific crimes against humanity and then expropriated the properties of their victims. A full accounting of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would take into account both the Armenian genocide as well as the forced resettlement of Muslims onto their lands. The fact that many Poles were brutalized by National Socialism in no way excuses or explains away the massive brutality that Poles inflicted on their Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne. By the same logic, the fact that Turks were expelled from Southeastern Europe in the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century in no way, shape, or form, negates the Armenian genocide. Admitting the past and asking for forgiveness are very difficult things indeed. It has taken Americans years to come to terms with their genocidal policies against the Native American populations. But in order to build a morally just present, it can and, indeed, must be done. Just ask the Poles who have courageously begun to reassess their own history. Perhaps the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation committee can learn something from the ongoing projects that involve German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish reconciliation. However, there can be no reconciliation without a fair, accurate, and historically just accounting for past crimes. Without Willy Brandt's courageous decision to kneel at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jews would likely have not been as willing to come to terms with the fact that there is indeed a new Germany. In the long run, Poland's coming to terms with its own past will pave the way for better Polish-Jewish relations. Ankara should take notice of the debate surrounding Jedwabne and act accordingly. -- Jonathan Eric Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Emory University and Research Affiliate at the Remarque Institute, New York University