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The Rabbi's Blog:The Story of Arnold and the Parliament of Poland

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

I would like to tell you the story of Arnold. His last name, sadly, is not known, but as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, his story needs to be told along with all those who suffered disability and death at the hands of the Nazis.[1]

Arnold’s story also involves Mr. and Mrs. Schatzberg, two young Polish Jews caught up in a desperate struggle to remain alive during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Arnold actually becomes involved in the story a bit later; this tale begins with the Schatzberg’s.

They were two young medical students in the town of Lvov, about to receive their medical certifications when the invasion of Poland occurred. Because of the German occupation and restrictions against Jews, they could not work as doctors.

And because of those wartime restrictions and persecutions, they assumed new identities: By purchasing false Catholic identity papers, they became Mr. and Mrs. Sawicki. And not only did they survive by assuming new names; throughout the war, they succeeded by hiding in plain sight.

Using their new identities, they left the town of Lvov. Mr. Sawicki took to playing the violin in various street orchestras, and Mrs. Sawicki tutored in Polish underground schools. Still, they lived in constant fear of someone recognizing them from their past and denouncing them to the Germans or to the Polish police, who were duty-bound to hand them over to the Germans. Their war-time lives consisted of constant movement around Poland, never staying in one place for more than a couple of months.

By the spring of 1944, the Sawicki’s had made their way to eastern Poland, and were working as orderlies in a small hospital. They were lucky to have a room provided for them by the hospital for their living quarters.

By this time, it was also clear that the Nazis were going to lose the war, and Polish sentiment was turning away from Germany. Consequently, it became dangerous for Germans to come to the hospital for treatment because the partisan fighters in the surrounding forests were now searching for Nazis and arresting or killing them. And further, the hospital staff began openly treating Polish underground fighters as a sign of their allegiance to their native land.

The Sawicki’s heard a report one night that a certain Polish underground unit was making its way to the hospital for treatment. They also understood that this unit had a medic attached to it who was from Lvov, the town where they had gone to medical school. Afraid that they might be recognized, they abandoned their shift for the night, and hid in the attic of the hospital.

They were, however, curious, and through holes in the ceiling they were able to look down upon into the treatment areas below, and they recognized the doctor who worked as the underground’s medic. His name was Arnold, and he was a medical student whom the Sawicki’s recognized from school. Mr. Sawicki had even known Arnold’s family quite intimately in their home town, as his father was a kosher butcher there.

For reasons that remain unknown, the Sawicki’s decided to leave their hiding place in the attic, and help treat the wounded underground fighters. Arnold and the Sawicki’s recognized one another but behaved as though they didn’t know one another.

Later the next day, Arnold came to the Sawickis’ room in the hospital to talk. He had been serving with this underground unit for the past two years, but because this unit had been infamously nationalistic and antisemitic, he never revealed his identity, and certainly not his religion.

The Sawicki’s and Arnold parted when the underground unit left the hospital, but they made plans to reunite somehow after the war.

A few months later, by the summer of 1944, the Red Army arrived, and eastern Poland was freed from Nazi occupation. As different underground units came out into the open, the Sawicki’s began overtly searching for Arnold, hoping to renew their relationship. Finally, they came across some of the underground fighters who knew of Arnold.

“Ah, that Zhid[2] doctor,” someone said. “When he told us he was Jewish, we shot him.”

The underground fighters, who had fought at the direction of the Polish government in exile in London, and who had bravely defended the Polish homeland, killed a doctor who had tended to their wounded for two years. They killed someone who had saved many of their own lives.

And if we were living in Poland today, it’s legally possible that we would be arrested for even discussing this story.

As you may know, the parliament of Poland recently passed, and the Polish president signed, an ominous and outrageous piece of legislation that could stifle free speech and suppress the truth about the Holocaust.

The new Polish law would impose jail terms for merely suggesting that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust. The Law and Justice party – the leading party in the parliament and one rife with nationalistic and right-wing sentiment – says the law was necessary to protect Poland's reputation and to ensure historians recognize that Poles as well as Jews perished under the Nazis.

Polish government officials believe the law was needed to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” for the institutions Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II. Poles object to this terminology because, they feel, it defames Poland for the Nazi-run camps, where Poles made up the largest group of victims after Jews.

But others, such as academics, the government of Israel, and the US state department, believe the law would undermine free speech and stifle legitimate historical inquiry. Israeli officials insist the issue is not the language about “Polish death camps.” Instead, they see the law as a slippery slope that could minimize the role of Poles in the Holocaust, as well as devalue the painful Jewish experience in that country. Poland has a long history of antisemitism, and Holocaust scholars everywhere believe that many Poles were willing to at least look the other way, if not actively collaborate, with the Nazis.

Emmanuel Nahshon, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a recent tweet: "Dear Polish followers — the issue is NOT the death camps. Of course they were not Polish. Those were German death camps. [Rather,] the issue is the legitimate and essential freedom to talk about the involvement of Poles in the murder of Jews without fear or threat of penalization.”[3]

Whether we talk about the involvement of any country’s citizens in acts of genocide, or whether we wish to inquire one government’s intervention in a national election of another country, the suppression of the truth is an enemy to the freedom of humanity. Lying to protect the guilty makes a mockery of the human intellect and can lead to disastrous effects. We know when governments lie. And when they do, so erodes our confidence in systems that were established to bring order into a chaotic situation.

…which brings us to the Torah portion of Mishpatim, Exodus 21-24.

Among the myriad of laws and regulations that our Torah portion sets forth are judgments about lying. Here are two such laws, from the first verse of chapter 23 of Exodus:

“Do not carry with you false rumors; do not join hands with the guilty so that you become a corrupt witness.” (Exodus 23:1)

Gossip, rumors, denying the truth, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice: These personal actions are wicked enough, and can bring anyone grief if they practice them. We’ve seen many instances of this in our times and before, and we understand how such actions will weaken a person who engages in such deception.

But another consequence of these laws is that lying and complicity with evildoers could lead an entire society to lawlessness, disorder, and chaos. Unless people bear truthfulness in their intentions, they can literally bring destruction into the lives of those around them.

The antiseptic effect of truth, transparency, and honest historical evaluation: These are things that we need to promote in our world, whether we discuss current events in Warsaw, Jerusalem, Washington, or wherever we choose to focus our attention.

Is it embarrassing to discuss the role of loyal Polish citizens, or those of Vichy France, or of other countries, in being complicit with the Holocaust? Yes, perhaps it is.

Is it necessary to investigate and acknowledge Turkey’s role in the mass killing of Armenians a hundred years ago? And shall we call that genocide as well?

The straightforward search for truth continues in many areas, from academia to history, perhaps in fulfillment of these laws from Exodus.

For like Germany, which has strongly acknowledged its monstrous role in World War II history: Out of a transparent reckoning – out of a search and discovery for the truth – we can derive a proper cleansing and resolution of animosities and grief.

As the Torah tells us, deception and duplicity with the truth will lead us to corruption. So, let us always point ourselves toward the truth.

August 23, 2019 22 Av 5779