Virginia Barton

Poles wrestle with wartime consciences

Catholic Herald, 1 June 1990         


Review: My Brother’s Keeper? ed. Antony Polonsky (Routledge, £30).


Why on earth should post-war Britishers bother about a book that is sub-titled Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust? Because, in Rafael Scharf’s words:


“. . . what is at issue here is a great, common cause of universal significance. The extermination of the Jews on Polish territory was a crucial event in history, marking a crisis of Christianity and the crisis of our civilisation . . . Those events cannot be forgotten or ignored, they will weigh  upon future generations for all time. What lessons will human beings draw from this, how will they face up to it, conscious of the enormity of evil which they are capable of perpetrating . . . ?”


polish-flag (2)This long quotation from the Introduction to My Brother’s Keeper? is a pointer to the contents of the book, a book I believe to be one of the most important published in 1990.

In 1978 an article was published in a Polish Catholic weekly by Professor Jan Blonski. It was called The Poor Poles look at the Ghetto (the title of a famous poem by Czeslaw Milosz) and it sparked off a vigorous and far-reaching discussion concerning the Polish response to the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis on Polish soil.

It has been a very public discussion, much of it taking place within the pages of that Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny.

My Brothers Keeper? contains articles from there and other publications. It also includes interviews and papers delivered at conferences. The English reader will not find the discussion difficult to follow, even if his knowledge of modern Polish history is scanty. The invaluable introduction describes the climate in which the Blonski article was written, and Professor Polonsky outlines the recent historical background with an admirable understanding and evenhandedness.

It is essential to grasp the historical background  before approaching the central issue of this book. This issue is a most profound moral dilemma. What some Poles are asking themselves is: could they, should they, have done more to succour their Jewish neighbours? Are they guilty of neglect? Guilty not so much of what they did do, but of what they didn’t do?

It’s a fundamental dilemma with which we are all familiar: remorse after the event, of the “if only” variety. Or even the ultimate challenge – usually by those not involved in the drama – that one could only have done enough for one’s neighbour if one laid down one’s own life for him. Some indignantly repudiate such an idea, maintaining they did all that was possible in impossible circumstances. It adds up to a state of mental torture very difficult to live with.

As one reads on in fascinated horror and admiration at this baring of souls, one asks oneself over and over, what if it had happened here? What would my reaction have been? And, of course, such a dilemma is not confined to the past. There is a wide range of racialist “antis” going on under our very noses, injustices that call for our urgent response.



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