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Judith Goldstein's Remarks at the Opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

Warsaw Speech, April 21, 2013

I must admit that it is a humbling and daunting experience to be part of this distinguished panel, in this new, stunning institution dedicated to the History of the Polish Jewish people and at this time, as we are together to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In this place, one feels ever closer to the tragic and ever-unfathomable history of resistance and catastrophe. That history has immense significance to Poland, Warsaw, Jews throughout the world and, if I might say to me in a personal way, as the grandchild of grandparents who left Lomza in 1904 to emigrate to the United States.

I have been asked to describe the educational dynamics of Humanity in Action.  It is an international educational organization that has organized programs in Europe for the past 15 years, including in Poland for the past 8 years. The pedagogy is based on several concepts: 1) peaceful pluralistic societies are often what we humans desire but all too often don’t know how to live with; 2) some degree of equity between majority and minority populations is critical to stable democratic societies; 3) connecting past and present is essential to be informed and capable of leading responsible and civically oriented lives; 4) Europe experienced an orgy of economic, political, cultural, religious and moral destruction in the 1930s and 1940s under assaults by German and Russian totalitarian states; 5) resistance is required—an obligation and responsibility of civilized people—against extremists who pit one group against another, seek to degrade, terrorize and destroy one group to elevate or purify another; 6) university students and emerging professionals are the most promising group to think boldly, act courageously and profit from looking at complex issues through international dialogue;7) the younger generations, with some help from us, might be able to make more collaborative, protective and peaceful societies than we have done.

The first programs started in 1999 in Denmark and The Netherlands consisting of 40 Fellows. Now fifteen years later, Humanity in Action has organized annual programs in six European countries: Bosnia Herzegovina, France, Denmark, Germany, Poland and The Netherlands. We have outstanding staff in each of these countries such as Monika Mazur-Rafal and Magda Szarota, who promote innovative programs, especially in the area of disability rights and social campaigns. The organization as a whole has raised over $18,000,000 from foundations, individual donors including Senior Fellows, governments (and most notably the Dutch government) and businesses. The organization remains independent to sustain its unique educational approach. However, in the last year, we have for the first time made partnerships with two internationally acclaimed institutions: the Council on Foreign Relations and the New School. We maintain full control of the content and implementation of the programs.

Starting in late June, for five weeks the programs mix nationalities to approach issues relating to diversity and minorities, past and present, through multiple international perspectives. The 20-25 Fellows in each national program have to think collectively outside the national box of their own personal and domestic experiences. The Fellows engage in rigorous seminars, site visits, discussions and debates—frequently inspired by outstanding figures who serve as models of engagement and resistance. At the end of four weeks, the Fellows form international groups to develop projects such as essays, framing social campaigns and simulation educational tools to share with a broad public. Each of the Fellows is also required to produce an action project over the ensuing 12 months—again to share with a broader public. 

We expect the Fellows to work hard, make strong friendships and remain committed to the need to protect vulnerable minorities and sustain democratic states. Over the years, we have dedicated resources into building a strong network of Senior Fellows who stay committed to these goals after the initial summer programs. We provide ongoing educational programs such as study trips and international conferences, subsidize action projects and maintain a deep commitment to mentoring Fellows to help them realize professional success. 

Humanity in Action is not a Holocaust oriented program, although World War II and the Holocaust form the basic historic reference for each of the European programs. It is not a Jewish program, although it focuses on the Holocaust and continuing anti-Semitism. But Jews are only one of the minorities along with Roma, Muslims and blacks who find acceptance in present day Europe problematic. The debates and discussions in the programs about these tensions are often difficult, given the sensitive and complex nature of minority issues, varying historical perspectives and even prejudices—hidden or recognized—that inform so many personal and national attitudes. 

We are constantly asked what is the rationale for the particular set of five small and large countries—from Denmark to Poland—joined together in Humanity in Action. There are several common threads. All of the countries were transformed by the Second World War and Holocaust—in one case as the instigator of catastrophe, in the others as victims of aggression. In every country there were perpetrators who joined forces with the lethal Fascists and Communists; in every country there were bystanders; and in every country there were resisters who protected the vulnerable. All of these countries struggle to reconcile with their actions during the Second World War and the Holocaust. The countries draw upon a mix of historical analyses, myths and rationalizations made up of memories and, to be sure, current political and cultural assumptions. All of the countries must deal with contemporary challenges of pluralism, especially in regard to Muslim populations. All except Poland: a country bereft of its former diversity.

In meeting our educational objectives we seek guidance from historians such as Timothy Snyder.  A few years ago he and Tony Judt engaged in a series of insightful conversations as Judt endured a debilitating and fatal neurological disease. The result of the encounters is the recently published Thinking the Twentieth Century.  The two men had much in common as historians deeply committed to Central Europe. They asked each other about the contemporary state of historical knowledge (sadly limited, they opined) especially about the Second World War and Holocaust.  

 “History’s fundamental ethical responsibility,” Snyder said, “is reminding people that things actually happened, deeds and suffering were real, people lived thusly and their lives ended in such and not other ways. And whether those people were in Alabama in the 1950s or Poland in the 1940s, the underlying moral reality of those experiences is of the same quality as our experiences, or is at least intelligible to us and therefore real in some irreducible way.” Not an easy task. In fact, Judt said that it was Sisyphean since “cultural and political currents flow” against accuracy molding history to present needs. As if that were not challenge enough, Judt cited another one: “We are not merely historians but also and always citizens, with a responsibility to bring our skills to bear upon the common interest.” 

Historical accuracy and that common interest are at the heart of Humanity in Action’s challenging educational obligations. Our task, as a responsible educational organization seeking to engage Fellows, one by one and as a collective in the complexities of these histories, is to focus on historical truths and probe the mysteries and models of moral behavior of those who protected the vulnerable. At times these efforts are more difficult than others. This year, for example, it is particularly important for us to pay attention to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising as well as the flight and rescue of Jews in Denmark. 

The Danish and Polish commemorations raise the question as to how Humanity in Action should bring these two profoundly different histories into some meaningful perspective for the Fellows in our international network. Denmark, having saved almost 98% of the Jewish population, is often regarded as the redeemer of human good, the epitome of individual and collective resistance when elsewhere in Europe anti-Semitism, indifference, hatred and greed prevailed. Poland, having lost 3,000,000 Jews is frequently dismissed as an indelibly anti-Semitic nation and the burial ground of European Jewry. Seventy years later, Denmark is revered and Poland sometimes reviled. Yet, we must resist making comparisons by recognizing the antithetical conditions in the two countries.

The Polish history is undeniably bleak. The German and Russian invasions of Poland in 1939 were brutal and ferocious as the Poles fought for weeks against overwhelming power. After the country succumbed, the Polish resistance movement mounted guerilla warfare in Poland and a political war with a government in exile in London. The Germans, in terrorizing control of the country, first captured, imprisoned and killed Polish intellectuals. The country bled under a brutal German government, driven by a frenzy of racial hatred. In fact, the Germans sought to destroy the Polish nation and people who were regarded as inferior Slavs. From 1939-1945, Jews in Poland were extinguished on Polish soil along with Jews from every other occupied European country. And yet, despite the fact that the Germans brutally punished resistance by Poles, Catholic or Jewish, and despite a history of severe anti-Semitism in the 1930s, thousands upon thousands of Poles sought to protect Jews. In Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, 6332 Poles are recognized as Righteous Gentiles. 

The Danish history is almost the opposite. The German invasion of Denmark in 1940 was essentially uncontested and swift.  For the next three years the King remained in his relatively stable occupied country while the Danish government continued to govern under the light hand of German authority. The King and government discouraged acts of sabotage on the part of a small, besieged resistance movement. However, the Danes effectively established limits to what they would accept at the hands of the Germans by threatening resistance if the approximately 7,000 Jews in Denmark were isolated or punished. From 1940-1943, they led seemingly normal lives, no different from their Christian neighbors. In the summer of 1943, as acts of sabotage became more frequent, the Germans lost patience with the arrangement that had protected the Danes from a harsh occupation. The German ended the model protectorate and moved against the Jews. In October 1943, 7,000 Jews in Denmark fled to Sweden aided by their Christian countrymen.  Four hundred and seventy-two Jews were captured and sent to Theresiensdat for the duration. In an agreement with the Germans, Danes were protected from deportation to the death camps in Poland. At the end of the war, Danish Jews were welcomed back in Denmark, a community that survived, with the great majority of their homes and businesses in tact.

How should we make sense of the differences? A small country of 5,000,000 on the northern German border in contrast to Poland, a vast territory to the East—the “bloodlands” according to Timothy Snyder? Is it just a question of number: 3,000,000 Jews in Poland and 7,000 in Denmark? Or the teachings of a liberal Danish Lutheran Church and a conservative and often anti-Semitic Catholic Church? A Danish culture of inclusiveness within the infrastructure of a developing welfare state while there were large minorities in uneasy relationship to Catholic Poland? A country of Danish neighbors who respected each other and a country of neighbors who lived behind walls of suspicion and fear in Poland?

Again, Snyder and Judt provide some insights. Judt  told Snyder about the world of his grandparents in Eastern Europe. “People like my paternal grandmother, growing up in her shtetl in Pilviskiai in southwestern Lithuania, knew nothing of the world around them.” Judt said.   “Like her, they knew the shtetl, they knew the imperial regional capitol of Vilna, a largely Jewish city—and then the world (to the extent that this meant anything to them). Everything else—the region, the surrounding population, local Christian practices and the like—were little more than an empty space in which their lives were fated to be played out. It is frequently observed today—and true withal—that their Christian neighbors (Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles, Slovaks, etc.) were miserably informed about the Jewish communities in their midst. They cared little for them and harbored ancient prejudices in this regard. But the same was largely true of the Jews in their feelings towards “the goyim.” The relationship between Gentiles and Jews, to be sure, was profoundly unequal. But in this respect at least there was a certain symmetry.” Judt concluded: “Indeed, it was precisely that interdependence of mutual ignorance which would account for the ease of ethnic cleansing and worse in central and Eastern Europe over the course of the twentieth century.” 

Building upon our historical knowledge and memories of the War and Holocaust, Humanity in Action seeks to inform each of our Fellows, that we have not escaped the “ease of ethnic cleansing.” We also know that “interdependence of mutual ignorance,” is equally potent in our present world, despite the internet and our accelerating forms of

communications. Humanity in Action builds upon a base of vigilance, historical knowledge and willingness to act. 

This panel has illuminated different kinds of resistance on the part of three extraordinary Poles. They prepared, with fervent belief for a future that would be free of the barbarity and evil of their times. During and after the war, Raphael Lemkin shaped  international law to try to prevent future mass atrocities and genocide. After the war, Jan Karski dedicated his penetrating professorial mind to promoting a Poland free from Russian

ideology and oppression. Emanuel Ringelblum, trapped in the Warsaw ghetto and then forced into a death camp, ensured that the history—the endurance, courage, richness and tragedy of his Polish Jewish world—would  be known to future generations. 

Each man obsessively resisted the madness of totalitarian and racist hatred. We must approach these different histories in honest, deliberate ways that draw from the strength and wisdom of these three men. We look for inspiration and guidance from people such as Karski, Lemkin, Ringelblum and the thousand of Polish and Danish individuals who resisted the nihilistic theories and actions of despotic regimes. And, in this city, we seek to gain moral and spiritual strength from those, who in the devastation of the Warsaw ghetto, fought evil 70 years ago.

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