‘Polish Complicity In The Shoah Is A Myth’

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The leader column of the Jewish News on 15 March entitled The Polish Lesson claimed the Poles are “constantly on the back foot” and “face accusation after accusation over their involvement in the Holocaust”. This, however, does not mean that accusation after accusation is true.

You refer to Auschwitz as “a ‘German concentration camp’ that just happened to be in Poland“. In fact it was a German concentration camp (did you think otherwise?), and when it was built it was located in the “Old Reich” – from the Nazi point of view, territory as German as Berlin.

Of the 400,000 registered prisoners of the camp, 140,000 were Poles, second only to the 205,000 Jews. Attached to one sub-camp (Birkenau) was an extermination facility at which an additional 900,000 non-registered prisoners were killed, almost all of them Jews (but also some Gypsies, Soviet Prisoners-of-War and even Poles). Poles did not serve as guards in the camp – or any camp, other than some small labour camps –, although prisoners of all nationalities (including Jews) were made Kapos.

In all Nazi-occupied countries, there were collaborators and collaborationist movements: little is ever said, for example, about the 350,000 Jews massacred by Romanian forces in Ukraine, or the 600,000 Jews rounded up by the Hungarian government and sent to their deaths, with the participation on the German side of only 13 members of Eichmann’s staff. Few know that the Slovak government not only happily packed its Jews off to Auschwitz, but paid the Nazis to take them off their hands. Vichy France, Croatia, Serbia … the list goes on. Even countries sometimes praised for their actions do not have entirely clean hands: Bulgaria turned over 11,000 Jews from Macedonia and Thrace to be killed. Primo Levi was arrested by the Italian police and held in an Italian camp (Fossoli) before being sent to Auschwitz.

Even in little Denmark, more than 100 Jews (of only 7,000) were betrayed to the Gestapo by local collaborators, during a deportation action that lasted just three weeks and was not seriously meant to succeed. (The main point was to frighten the Jews into leaving the country: the coastguard stayed in port, and the police were instructed not to enter Jewish homes by force.)

National stereotypes, and the attribution of moral qualities to whole nations, are thus wholly inappropriate in writing about the Holocaust. That was the kind of thinking the Nazis made popular. Nevertheless, statistical generalisations are possible. Where do the Poles stand in this pecking order of iniquity? Keep this in mind: the Jews in Poland were isolated in ghettos.

They were rounded up by German police with the aid of Ukrainian and Baltic collaborators, and the enforced co-ooperation of the Jewish ghetto police, but very little participation by Polish police (mainly in the smaller centres). They were taken to killing centres staffed again by Germans, Ukrainians and Balts. Where was the massive Polish collaboration that so many
Jews imagine?

I would attribute roughly 10-20,000 Jewish deaths before, during and after the Holocaust to Polish anti-semites, less than 1% of the total number of Polish Jews who died. That is appalling – yet at the same time, on the scale of the Holocaust, marginal. Assuming that 10-20,000 killings implies 10-20,000 killers, that number of murderous bigots could be found in any country in Nazi-occupied Europe, given the temper of the times.

It is indeed reprehensible that anti-semitism was rampant and still persists today, but that was the result of the teachings of the Catholic Church, which was officially antisemitic until the Second Vatican Council of 1965. Simply, all Catholics were anti-semitic in those days: it was part of their religion. Were there no anti-semitites in England in the 1930s? Certainly there were: not only the likes of Oswald Mosely (whose blackshirts organized Britains own pogrom, the Cable Street Riot), but also among eminent literati such as T.S. Eliot, Rudyard Kipling and G.K. Chesterton. The attitude of British public servants, too, was far from ideal. Sir Alec Cadogan, for example, the First Undersecretary of the Foreign Office, described Stalin’s cabinet in his diary as “the worst lot of stinking Jews I have ever met”, and an anonymous bureaucrat annotated a report on the planned extermination of the Jews with the comment: “in my opinion, far too much of this department’s time is taken up in dealing with these wailing Jews”.

When Jews were frantically trying to leave Germany in the late 1930s, Britain was quite happy to poach Jewish doctors and prominent figures such as Sigmund Freud, but instituted visas specifically to keep ordinary Jews out. The Kindertransport scheme separated 10,000 Jewish children from their parents (why?) and the cost of their upkeep had to be covered in advance. Most generous.

Quite simply, the 1930s were the heyday of anti-semitism everywhere: you could find it even in countries such as Japan, where Jews have never lived.

Poland is singled out as the arch-anti-semitic country in Jewish popular narratives not because it was objectively worse that other countries (the pogrom capital of the world was Ukraine, not Poland) but because before Israel was founded, Poland was the homeland of the Ashkhenazi Jews. In Yiddish, it was called “der Haym”. More Jews witnessed anti-semitism in Poland than anywhere else, and when they emigrated, they took those memories with them.
As to Romania and its 350,000 Jewish victims: as one American Jew saidto me, “Who cares about Romania?” The Jews cared about Poland. It was our home.

I don’t know what poll it was that showed Israel being perceived as a bigger threat than Iran, but I doubt it was taken in Poland. It is in Western Europe, particularly France, that anti-Israeli sentiments are strong, originating in an alliance between Muslims immigrants and the
Left. Polish-Israeli relations, on the other hand, are very good today, in part because both countries are strongly pro-American (whereas the Soviet Union used to back the Arabs), and in part because of shared roots. There are strong business ties between the two countries, and I understand that there is a demand for Polish nurses in Israel, to care for elderly Jews who still speak only Polish.

There is a lively interest in the cultural past among both Poles and Jews: Poland was, after all, a country where Jews died for five years but lived for a thousand. Preserving and recovering the Polish-Jewish past is enormously important for both groups, and is pursued energetically by Polish academics and the government, as well as by Jewish organizations such as the Lauder Foundation. There is also a modest revival of Jewish life in Poland.
While ignorant remarks by right-wing politicians get all the press (and is there any country where right-wing politicians do not make ignorant remarks?), it is a pity that modern Polish scholarship is almost unknown in the West. It is difficult to get it translated, because potential funding sources suspect that it must be anti-semitic.

Yisrael Gutman, on the other hand, declared at a conference in New York in 2000 that since the changes of 1989, he now saw “no difference” between Polish and Jewish scholarly writing on the Holocaust. The authoritative source on the Jewabne massacre, for instance, is not Jan Gross’s pamphlet “Neighbours”, which has attracted so much attention, but a two-volume study by the government’s Institute of National Remembrance, which not only confirmed most of Gross’s findings but unearthed scores of other massacres like it.
Pity that it is unlikely ever to become known to most Jewish readers, paradoxically because of antipathy towards the Poles.
The Polish Jews were victimised by the prejudice and ignorance of many (but not all) Poles. Counter-prejudice and counter-ignorance are not the answer.

Steve Paulsson is quondam Senior Historian of the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, Toronto, lecturer in Holocaust Studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and author of Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945 – Yale University Press, 2002; www.SecretCityBook.com

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