On Losing a Friend of 57 Years

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 11 June 2009 0 Comments
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I am indebted to you for your brilliant scholarship and the light you have shined on my personal path of faith.

In your recent article, Israel: A Secular State Erected on a Religious Base, you stated that Poland was guilty of "active involvement in the Holocaust." That statement, with no further explanation or comment, is untrue and inflammatory. Unlike France, Norway, Greece, Hungary, Croatia, Belgium and many other countries, there was no official collaboration with the Nazis in Poland; the number of Poles who cooperated with the Nazis is estimated at several thousand in a population of 35 million. Poland has been referred to as a "Land without a Quisling." How can you refer to that as "active involvement?" France, on the other hand, was actively involved in the arrests, murders and deportation of Jews — why not highlight the French at the top of your list?

The brutal Nazi occupation of Poland, along with the equally brutal Soviet onslaught, subjected the Poles — both Christians and Jews — to unimaginable horrors, the likes of which were not seen in the occupations of, for example, France, Norway and Denmark. Three million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust; nearly as many Polish Christians were murdered as well. Hans Frank, the German Governor-General of Poland during the war, once observed a sign in Prague commemorating there the murder of seven Czechs. Frank observed that if signs were posted in Poland at every spot where seven Poles had been murdered, there would not be enough trees in Poland to produce the necessary paper.

No one denies the existence of anti-Semitism in pre- or post-war Poland. Jews were betrayed to the Nazis by some Poles; Christian Poles also lost their lives to fellow Christians who betrayed them. But thousands of Polish Christians, some of whom were undoubtedly anti-Semitic, risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews from the Nazis. The Nazis enjoyed hanging Polish children in front of their parents who assisted Jews, yet so many Poles took the risk anyway. At Yad Vashim, more Poles are honored than any other peoples.

During the war in Poland, everyone was victimized. The Nazis were cruel to the Poles and even more cruel to the Jews. But now, in retrospect, why is it that the victimized Poles are blamed? Who will remember the Polish victims of the Holocaust? Why is it that simply taking note that there were other Holocaust victims is interpreted as anti-Semitism? And why, for heaven's sake, is Poland singled out as "actively involved" in collaborating when the exact opposite is true? Even the Israeli War Crimes Commission acknowledged there was virtually no collaboration in Poland.

It's time to stand up for the people of Poland, flawed as they are. It is deeply unjust to continue to pin an "anti-Semitic" crown on a nation that gave refuge to the vast majority of European Jews, a nation that was brutalized time and again, a nation that was betrayed by its European "allies," and a nation that was sold into Soviet slavery. Anti-Semitism is not a Polish invention, nor a Polish peculiarity. It is an evil that was nurtured by Christianity, and as Christians we all need to stand up against it.

If the time ever comes that we Americans have to face brutal occupation, murder and unbridled savagery, who among us will be willing to place a noose around our children's necks to save someone else? And if we do not, who will sit in judgment of our actions and how will we be condemned?


Dear Donna,

I wish that statement to which you refer was untrue. Unfortunately, it is not. Poles were listed in my article along with almost every other country in Europe. No, of course this does not mean that every Pole was guilty, but one cannot go to the Jewish Museum at Yad Vashim and come away with a sense of no or even minimal Polish involvement in the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism was in fact alive and well in Poland and pictorial documentation of this fact is on the walls of Yad Vashim for all the world to see. I do not believe that denying reality is ever the way to escape the past.

Much of what you say about Poland is true. Every nation has its heroes and its tarnished history. Polish pilots who escaped to England after their homeland was crushed by the combined forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union continued to fly with the RAF against Germany and won the admiration of the English-speaking world.

If you look again at my article Israel: A Secular State Erected on a Religious Base, you will see that far from singling out Poland, what I did was to show that Germany did not act alone, but that anti-Semitism was rampant in all of Europe and indeed in the United States and Canada.

Anti-Semitism is the child above all else of the Christian faith. It finds its first expression in the gospels. One thinks of such horrendous texts as Matthew having the Jewish crowd say of Jesus, "His blood be upon us and upon our children," or John having Jesus say that the Jews have Satan for their father. It was fed by the writings of the Church Fathers, Jerome, Chrysostom, Irenaeus and Polycarp. It was excited by the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century, for which the Jews were blamed. It is rampant in the words of the Reformation Leader Martin Luther and it found expression in every nation of Christian Europe, including Poland, though it reached its highest level of killing frenzy in Nazi Germany.

We are called to move into the future, but none of us must do it by ignoring the past or denying its dark shadows.

Thank you for your letter,
John Shelby Spong



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