T he new Polish Holocaust law is most troubling for Israel’s secular leadership, which still clings to the belief that the Jews are a “normal” people among the peoples of the world. But really, given Poland’s record, why would we expect anything different?

Really, why should we care if the government of Poland makes a law in an attempt to wash their national conscience clean? Do they hope that this way they will settle their account with the Jewish People? Do they believe that if they outlaw talking about, or even thinking about, the Holocaust, they will erase their nation’s crime as an active partner in the genocide of Europe’s Jews, who were brought to their deaths on Polish soil?

And does the State of Israel, through its American-backed public protest, mean to correct the law in order to educate the Polish people to acknowledge their guilt and thus repent of their deeds? Legislation notwithstanding, the average Pole will still carry anti-Semitism somewhere in his psyche. (I heard from my father that in prewar Warsaw, where he was born, the Jews would say that thousands of miracles happened every day in Poland — because whenever a Jew stepped out into the street in chassidic garb, any Pole who set eyes on him would be seized with a rabid desire to beat him up and leave him bleeding.)

The new Polish law is most troubling for Israel’s secular leadership, which still clings to the belief that the Jews are a “normal” people among the peoples of the world, and it’s understandable that the government should be up in arms against this attempt to deny any responsibility for the extermination of millions of Jews. But we, who are supposed to view life from the perspective of the Torah, ought to be free of the fictitious belief that Am Yisrael is simply one nation among many and subject to the same rules as all the others. We know that we are “a people that shall dwell alone,” and we know the halachah that Eisav bears perpetual hatred toward Yaakov. We are not a “normal” people, one nation among many, and therefore we needn’t be shocked if the people of Poland decide to wash their hands of complicity in the Holocaust. Until the kingdom of Mashiach is established, this is the type of thing we can expect to see.

Actually, the Poles do have a point: True, the death camps of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, and the rest were built in Poland, but they were not Polish camps — they were built by the Germans. Still, why did the Germans choose to sow death for the Jews on Polish soil? I imagine the people of Poland might have difficulty answering this question, so let me offer them a bit of help. The Germans thought through every aspect of the genocidal plan they were determined to carry out, and they realized that the social climate of Poland was ideally suited to the plan’s success, shocking and extreme as it was. They knew that in Germany, an open campaign to slaughter the despised people in such an uncivil manner wouldn’t go over easily. In Poland, though, it could be done with much less trouble.

And furthermore, was there not widespread, active cooperation among the Polish people in the operation of the German death camps? Agreed, it wasn’t only the Poles. The camps were also guarded by Ukrainians and other scum of the European continent. But did they not carry out the actual mass murder of Jews at the orders of the German authorities? According to the testimonies, Poles killed some 200,000 Jews on their own initiative, with no coercion at all on the part of the Germans, but because there was a general, unspoken agreement that Jewish blood was now free for the taking. It was party time for the anti-Semites. How many Jews who fled to the forests disguised as non-Jews were exposed by Poles and gleefully handed over to the Gestapo?

To be sure, we must acknowledge that there were many who went against the flow. Tens of thousands of Jews were saved by courageous Poles, some of whom gave their lives rather than stand by indifferently in the face of such evil. Still, the heroism of that brave, courageous, and idealistic minority doesn’t wipe out the fact that the prevalent social climate in Poland enabled and even encouraged the genocide of European Jewry.

I REMEMBER my first visit to Poland, more than a decade ago. I stood in the Majdanek death camp, gazing at the nearby city of Lublin. How could the people of Lublin sleep at night? Did they know what was happening in that camp? Did they see the smoke rising from the crematoria, leading the souls of the martyred Jews straight to their place under the Kisei Hakavod? Of course they saw it. But they got up in the morning and went to work, as usual. Children went to school, as usual. Women went out to the marketplace, as usual. Certainly they couldn’t stop what was happening; they were a conquered nation. But nevertheless, there was an unnerving complacency in the face of mass murder taking place a short distance from their homes — day after day, from October 1941 until the summer of 1944.

During the war, thousands of Jewish families placed their children in the care of Polish families to save their lives. After the war, Jewish organizations, or family members who survived, made efforts to get these children back from the Polish families who had protected them, but in most cases their requests were refused. Appeals to the Church to require its adherents to return the children were also met with stubborn refusal. Those children were lost to the Jewish People. Has that slate been cleared?

The following is a true story I once heard from my friend Reb Tuvya Schwartz z”l. Reb Tuvya was among the first to organize young people’s trips to Poland to learn about the Holocaust and the Jewish world that flourished prior to the war. On one of those trips, he brought a group of young Israelis to a Jewish cemetery where, to their surprise, they observed non-Jewish laborers digging a grave, and engaged them in conversation. Reb Tuvya was still speaking with them when a priest came over, the gravediggers indicating that he was the one who’d commissioned them for this job. When Reb Tuvya tried to engage him in conversation, the priest answered him in Israeli Hebrew, “Let’s speak in Hebrew, as I see that is your language.”

Reb Tuvya and the group were stunned to hear a Polish priest address them in Hebrew. But the story the priest went on to tell them was even more astounding: As a young child, he’d been placed under the care of a Polish family, who had given him a Catholic education, and he’d even gone on to be ordained as a priest. He had vague, distant memories of having been a Jew originally, but this knowledge didn’t mean much to him. As a priest, he’d been sent by the Church to serve in Jaffa, where he had learned to speak Hebrew, and during his sojourn in the Holy Land he had also begun to feel a stronger desire to find out more about his origins. He did manage to uncover some information about his family roots, and now that he was growing old, he’d begun thinking ahead to his demise and come to the realization that he would like to have a Jewish burial in his birthplace in Poland. He had written to the Vatican and received the Church’s permission to be buried as a Jew, although he was still a practicing Catholic. And now he had received a local permit to prepare a grave for himself in this cemetery.

This shocking story of one Jewish child raised among Polish Catholics gives us pause to imagine: What goes on in the hearts of many others like him — elderly people now, still hearing the faint whispers and cries of their Jewish neshamos, that might have been restored to their rightful place among the Jewish People? (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 697)