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‘They Love Jews, Especially Dead Jews’

On February 1, 2018, the Polish Parliament enacted a law stating, “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich (…) or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes—shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. … This Act shall apply to Polish and foreign citizens in the event of committing the offenses.”

Decreeing it to be a serious offense for anyone accusing Poland of participating in the Holocaust or in any other Nazi war crimes precludes any objective research, because the possibly of being incarcerated is simply too high a price to pay for freedom of expression. The Poles are particularly incensed with the term “Polish death camps,” referring to the German concentration camps, which were situated in German-occupied Poland.

The Jerusalem Post quoted leading Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, who said the distorter’s response is: “‘Of course, the Holocaust took place, and it was terrible, and we commemorate it, establish museums, statues and mainly make wonderful, terrific speeches.’ They love Jews, especially dead ones. That doesn’t mean Poles didn’t persecute and murder Jews.”

Those who seek to distort history “make the argument that there were no Polish political collaborators with the Germans,” Bauer said. “It’s true, simply because the Germans simply didn’t want them. Not in Ukraine or Lithuania, either. The Germans eliminated pro-fascist, pro-Germany attempts to create some kind of autonomy.”

The real objective of this onerous legislation appears to be suppression of the true nature of the relationship of the Poles and the Jews in Poland during World War II. A brief history of the period will help place the issue in perspective.

 

A Brief History

Before the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Jews had lived in the country for 800 years. Yad Vashem notes that Poland’s 3.3 million Jews comprised approximately 10% of the nation’s population, more than any other country in Europe. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, while Germany had invaded Poland from the west. Most of the Jews remaining in the areas occupied by Germany—approximately 1.8 million—were confined to ghettos.

In June 1941, after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans began to imprison the rest of Polish Jewry in ghettos and deport them to concentration and slave labor camps. At the end of World War II, approximately 380,000 Polish Jews survived; the remainder had been murdered, mostly in the ghettos and in the death camps of Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Historian Henry Friedlander points out that with rare exceptions (Yugoslavia, for example), the Jews of Europe were murdered in Poland, the Baltic states, and the former Soviet Union. The Nazis chose Eastern Europe as the site for their extermination centers for several reasons: Most of the Jews lived in the region, especially in the Posen-Lodz area; the killings would not be detected by impartial observers who did not have easy access to the areas; the indigenous residents were hostile to the Jews; and the murders could be camouflaged as part of the ideological war against Communism.

 

The Polish Nation Under Nazi Rule

According to historians Yisrael Gutman and Shmuel Krakowski, there is no justification to allege the Germans selected Poland as the location to establish their death camps because of the Poles long-standing animosity toward Jews, and therefore assumed they could enlist them to participate in the process of destruction. The Polish nation, they said, suffered more under the Nazi occupation than in any other period in its history. During the five years under the Nazis, the Poles sustained causalities of nearly 10% of their pre-war population. The intelligentsia and general population in Warsaw suffered the greatest fatalities as a result of the failed uprising (August 1, 1944-October 2, 1944) by the Polish underground resistance. More than 200,000 were killed during the revolt. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were banished from western Polish territories that were incorporated into the western Polish territories and from the Zamość region in southeastern Poland. Nearly 2 million were deported to Germany to serve as slave laborers.

The Nazis expected to exploit the Poles for cheap labor for the good of the Greater German Reich. They had no intention of murdering every Polish man, women and child, since they were still considered part of the Aryan race, albeit on a lower level. As historian Bauer and others have noted, the Nazis wanted to destroy Poland’s economic institutions, decimate their religious leadership, and abolish all educational institutions to prevent any political organization or activity. All this was accomplished by enslaving the population, kidnapping Polish children, vigorously enforcing Germanization, and mass murder.

Bauer estimated that about 30,000 Poles saved Jews during the Shoah, though without proper documentation Yad Vashem cannot recognize them as Righteous Among the Nations. There are several reasons for the inability to obtain adequate proof. Some Jews and their rescuers were killed during the war or died after the end of hostilities, leaving no one to convey their stories. Locating each other after so many years post-war became an additional impediment. Still other rescuers, historian Sybil Milton maintained, did not want public recognition for having saved Jews, and especially not from Yad Vashem, for fear of being ostracized or worse by their neighbors and family. In the immediate post-war period in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, some rescuers were murdered.

Historian Havi Dreifuss said, “There is a total denial [of] Jews who were killed by Poles. Most Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany, and nobody [in Poland] could save them. But there were Jews killed by Poles in different ways. … Polish scholars have shown us there were participants of Poles in the tragedy of Jews throughout the whole country, and this demands true research.”

 

Relations Between
Jews and Poles During WWII

The relation between the Poles and the Jews evolved during World War II, asserts Dreifuss. From the Jewish perspective, the relationship was primarily “one of disappointment. During the Holocaust, the Jews of Poland formulated an extremely positive image of their environment and when the Poles ‘failed’ to adjust themselves to that image; the way in which they were perceived underwent an about-turn. On the ruins of the benevolent image there grew another, largely negative one, which viewed the Poles as people who, right from the start of the war, had looked forward to the death of the Jews.”

Mordechai Tenenbaum, a leader of the undergrounds in Vilna and Warsaw, who edited clandestine papers and served as commander of the Jewish Combat Organization in the Bialystok Ghetto, was the most critical of the Polish opinion of the Jews. He observed “an attitude of hostility, antisemitism and extortion,” and expressed his amazement that there were individuals “naive enough to believe in the humanity of this hooligan nation, which rejoices that Hitler has cleared Poland of the Jews for them.”

Tenenbaum believed that “if it had not been for the Poles, for their aid—passive and active—in the ’solution’ of the Jewish problem in Poland, the Germans would never have dared to do what they did. It was they, the Poles, who called out ‘Yid’ at every Jew who escaped from the train transporting him to his death. It was they who caught the unfortunate wretches, who rejoiced at every Jewish misfortune—they were vile and contemptible.”

Aurelia Wyleżyńska, a member of the Polish underground who helped Jews and allowed Jewish officers of the Polish Army to stay in her flat, described the hostility toward Jews in her daily diary: “A wave of antisemitism has engulfed the Polish people,” and “We are surrounded by a nest of vipers, characters from the underworld of crime,” and “For every hundred evil men it is hard to find even one noble soul.”

In 1946, Adam Polewka, one of the Righteous Among the Nations, declared, “A considerable part of the Polish people displayed an attitude of indifference toward the Jewish holocaust.” He remembered an adage among the Poles: “The Germans will throw stones at Hitler dead, because he brought about the downfall of the German people, but the Poles will bring flowers to his grave as a token of gratitude for his freeing Poland from the Jews.”

 

A Final Note

“The picture that finally emerges,” Bauer concluded, “is not a very pleasant one. There were some Poles who helped; there were groups of Poles who helped, too. … [B]ut the majority, and that included the official underground linked to the Government-in-Exile in London and its armed forces, were either indifferent or actively hostile. Against that background, it must be remembered, the minority that helped stands out.” Perhaps that is why he noted, “They love Jews, especially dead ones.”


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.

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