During Tuesday’s awards ceremony for this year’s recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Barack Obama honored Polish resistance hero Jan Karski as a man who was “smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself” the savagery of Nazi anti-Semitism. What appeared to most American political observers a minor gaffe—the infelicitous word choice of a White House speechwriter—quickly metastasized into a diplomatic incident between the United States and Poland.
As was quickly pointed out by angry Poles, the death factories were built on German-occupied Polish soil by Germans. They didn’t employ Polish nationals—they housed them. The media in Warsaw blew a gasket, providing nonstop coverage of Obama’s clumsy phrasing. The centrist broadsheet Rzeczpospolita blanketed its homepage with the story; Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski took to Twitter to demand an apology; and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk issued a pungent press release, claiming the mistake “touched all Poles” and accusing the Obama Administration of “bad intentions.”
At first blush, Poland’s hyperventilating response and accusation of the White House’s “bad intentions” seems disproportionate. While Warsaw is still smarting from Obama’s abandonment of the Bush Administration’s plan to install a missile shield in Poland, it is unclear why the administration would intend to shift culpability for the Holocaust from Germany to Germany’s victims. (And it turns out the “Polish camp” mistake is depressingly common. The website of Poland’s embassy in Washington even offers a how-to-guide for avoiding the locution and claims to have “intervened” with American media organizations hundreds of times in recent years: In 2010, there were 103 such interventions compared to 23 this year.)
But this debate is about something much deeper than Obama’s misstatement. Since the fall of Soviet communism, the framing of recent Polish history, finally liberated from the pedagogical dictates of an occupying government, which allowed a single, tendentious narrative of World War II, is a tender subject—one that frequently provokes fierce debate in the Polish media. But the desire to establish a more accurate history, centered on Poland’s role as victims of both Nazism and communism, has given succor to nationalists who want to replace one rigid myth—that Germany’s occupation of Poland was a struggle between fascism and communism—with another: a black-and-white morality tale starring heroic Poles who acted righteously under Nazi domination.
There’s abundant evidence that this nationalistic myth is gaining traction. In 2006, Poland passed a law criminalizing the “slandering of the Polish nation by accusing it of participating in communist or Nazi crimes.” In 2007, when the Hollywood film Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as a Jewish partisan fighting the German occupation of Poland, was released, critics in Warsaw harrumphed that Hollywood avoided showing brave and heroic Polish partisans. (Craig’s character, based on the partisan Tuvia Bielski, was a Polish Jew.) The Guardian reported that the film was “booed at cinemas across the country and banned from others because of a local perception that it is a rewriting of history and anti-Polish.” In other words, the film didn’t focus enough on non-Jewish suffering.
More disturbingly, the Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross’ 2001 book Neighbors, which documented a brutal 1940 pogrom of Jews in the town of Jedwabne, provoked a firestorm of criticism. According to Gross, 1,600 of “Jedwabne’s Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street.” Such revelations, which offered a slight challenge to the narrative of Polish resistance, were met with fierce hostility. The great hero of anti-Soviet resistance, former President Lech Walesa, dismissed Gross as a “mediocre writer” and a “Jew who tries to make money.”
Gross would later write another controversial book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, excavating memories of postwar hatred and violence against the country’s few remaining Jews, most notably the barbaric 1946 mass killing in the town of Kielce (which some historians believe was instigated by Soviet occupation authorities). In response, Polish prosecutors threatened to prosecute Gross for “slandering the Polish nation.” Because of the country’s impressive role in assisting its Jewish citizens during the Final Solution, Polish historian Jakub Kloc-Konkolowicz wrote that many Poles “saw—and continue to see—themselves exclusively in the role of war victims.”
Other scholars have shined the light on the disturbing wartime practice of szmalcownicy—Poles extorting money from Jews in exchange for protection from the Nazis—a topic largely downplayed by nationalist historians. During the Gross controversy, Polish academic Israel Gutman, editor of the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust and survivor of Auschwitz, wrote that “Although denouncers came forth in most Nazi-occupied countries, only in Poland did bands of thugs and zealots make Jew-hunting a ‘profession.’ ” Szmalcownicy, though, was condemned by Polish resistance organizations, who judged it a crime punishable by death.
It should be noted without equivocation that Poland’s Holocaust record, while far from perfect, is better than most countries under Nazi occupation. Unlike most of Germany’s European colonies, Poland produced no native SS division. Those who served with the German army were primarily Volksdeutsch (Polish citizens of German extraction), and, unlike citizens of other countries under occupation, no Poles eagerly worked as death camp guards.
But wartime Poland was a strange case of deeply rooted, historical anti-Semitism coexisting with anti-Nazi resistance. In 1942, the celebrated Catholic writer and resistance figure Zofia Kossak-Szczucka appealed for outside assistance on behalf of the Jews languishing and dying within the Warsaw Ghetto. But, lest it be seen as a philo-Semitic gesture rather than an act of Catholic decency, she added: “Our feelings toward the Jews haven’t changed. We still consider them the political, economic and ideological enemies of Poland.” The idea that Polish Jews were an alien political body, disproportionately active in pro-Soviet politics and therefore an obvious target for partisans, persists among many contemporary Polish historians.
It is true, as many of Obama’s Polish detractors claim, that while the United States and Great Britain were negligent in assisting Europe’s besieged Jews—one need only look at the fate of the Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis—many Poles bravely risked execution to help their Jewish neighbors. The impressive number of Polish righteous gentiles honored at Yad Vashem is testament to that fact.
But this controversy isn’t about a lazy speechwriter or the United States’ shameful record in rescuing Jews; it’s about controlling the story of Poland’s past. It is undeniably true that the “Polish nation” was not complicit in the Holocaust, that the country fiercely resisted invasion and occupation, that Poland was uninvolved in the industrialized killing of Jews, and that Poles often displayed tremendous moral courage in hiding Jewish fellow citizens. But in upending one myth, let’s not consecrate another. As the Jedwabne pogrom shows, victims can also be perpetrators.
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