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Poland and the Holocaust

On February 6 of this year, Poland’s president signed legislation making it a crime to suggest that Poland bore any responsibility for atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. The law threatens up to three years imprisonment for anyone who “publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes.” 

Growing up in Israel in the 1970s, not only were my own grandparents Holocaust survivors, but so were many of my friends’ parents and grandparents. Some hardly ever talked about their horrific experiences, and some cherished any opportunity to tell their stories. It is not that any of them who are still alive would have cared much, but under the new Polish law most of them would have been subjected to incarceration in a Polish prison should they ever go and visit. “The Poles were worse than the Nazis” was a common phrase uttered by the former Polish Jews. One of the only times I can remember my grandfather being short with me was when I asked him to teach me some words in Polish. “I swore to never say another word in Polish,” he said and changed the subject. The irony is that neither he, nor anyone else I knew, had such a deep level of resentment toward the Germans. Of course, they knew that it was the Germans who murdered their families and destroyed their community. But it seemed that their deep sense of betrayal by the Poles was stronger than their hatred of the Germans.  

This is the place to note that there are more Poles on the list of the Righteous Amongst the Nations (non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews) than any other nationality. We also have to remember that over 2 million Poles were killed during the war (not including the 3 million Polish Jews). But still, it’s impossible to deny that many Poles collaborated with the Nazis because of greed, religion, or self-preservation. 

Even prior to World War II, anti-Semitism was a prevalent factor in Polish society, and the government took steps to exclude Jews from key sectors of public life. On the eve of the Holocaust, Polish Jews made up 10 percent of the population (one-third of the residents of the capital city of Warsaw). Some Polish politicians were bothered by what they saw as vast Jewish influence, and pressed for a mass emigration of Poland’s Jewish population.

It is true that all the Death Camps on Polish land were built and operated by the Germans, but we also know that as the Germans implemented killing on an immense scale, they drew upon Polish police forces and railroad personnel for logistical support and to guard the ghettos.  The Polish Blue Police enforced German anti-Jewish policies such as restrictions on the use of public transportation and curfews, as well as the devastating and bloody liquidation of ghettos in occupied Poland from 1942-1943. There are endless stories of Poles who often helped in the identification and exposure of Jews in hiding. Many Jews who were able to obtain false documents were subjected to systematic blackmail by their Polish neighbors who stripped them of their last possession and forced them to flee for their lives. 

There are also well-documented incidents where locals carried out violent riots and murdered their Jewish neighbors. The most infamous episode is the massacre in the town of Jedwabne in the summer of 1941 when hundreds of Jews were burned alive by their Polish neighbors.

My goal in writing this article is not to cause any of you to hate the Poles, but rather to illustrate how important it is to have an honest discussion of the past, and not to bury it under cowardly laws. Poland, which is located between Germany and Russia, had more than its fair share of suffering, and despite that, some Poles sacrificed their lives to save Jews. But unless we learn the entire story’s history, good and evil, we will never be able to learn from it and are therefore bound to repeat it.

Wed, December 2 2020 16 Kislev 5781