It could soon be a criminal offense in Poland to use the term “Polish death camps,” if a bill approved on Tuesday by the Polish government is passed by its Parliament. Under the proposal, it would be punishable by up to three years in prison to refer to such camps as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibór, and Treblinka as “Polish” rather than “Nazi” camps. “It wasn’t our mothers, nor our fathers, who are responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust, which were committed by German and Nazi criminals on occupied Polish territory,” said Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s Justice Minister.
Poland has historically been highly sensitive about accusations of complicity in the Holocaust. Its government never surrendered to the Nazis: it went into exile, and sponsored a resistance. Poland’s people were indisputably the victims of the brutal Nazi policies and explicit campaigns of mass murder. In the Nazi racial hierarchy, Slavs were regarded as “subhuman,” and the whole of Poland was marked out for German Lebensraum (“living space”). The Nazis gave carte blanche to their troops to murder Poles, and specifically sought to obliterate the Polish leadership. Over two and half million non-Jewish Poles perished during the invasion and subsequent occupation; millions were enslaved.
The Justice Minister’s insistence that the camps were Nazi facilities on occupied Polish soil are certainly correct; and however severe anti-Semitism in pre-war Poland, the Final Solution was a Nazi and not a Polish initiative. Nevertheless, the sweeping claim that it was not Poles’ “mothers and fathers” who were “responsible for Holocaust crimes” represents a failure to come to terms with the real enormity of the Holocaust. It represents a denial of the complicity and active participation of many in the policy of extermination, which led to the murder of three million Polish Jews, some 90 percent of the prewar total.
During the German occupation, there are many documented cases of mob violence and pogroms by ordinary Poles against Jews. In the Jedwabne Pogrom of 1941, hundreds of Jews were locked in a barn and burned to death by local Poles. Incidentally, Polish Education Minister Anna Zalewska last month downplayed this narrative as an opinion. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Individual Poles often helped in the identification, denunciation, and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from the associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.” After the expulsion of German forces from Poland, this mob violence continued, by Poles aghast to find their Jewish neighbours returning home from the camps. In July 1946, at least 42 returning Jews were murdered by an assortment of Polish soldiers, police officers, and civilians in the Kielce Pogrom.
Alongside this, it is important to remember that Poles played a major role in resisting the persecution of the Jews, at considerable risk to their own lives. Yad Vashem lists 6,620 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations—a quarter of its total count, and a number some historians believe to be an underrepresentation. But the messy reality of the Holocaust is that many countries were victims of Nazi persecution, but many citizens also partook in it.
The Holocaust was not a crime committed by the Nazis alone, nor by Germany alone, nor by Germany and allied Fascist regimes: it represented Europe turning on its Jews and devouring them. It represented the most visceral expression ever given to millennia of deep-seated anti-Aemitism, now permitted and encouraged to erupt in the most gruesome manner possible. Unless Europe can honestly confront the collusion of many of its civilians in the Holocaust, and challenge the perception of the Holocaust as a crime imposed by the Nazis on a reluctant continent, it will be unable to acknowledge the depth of anti-Semitism in their own histories or the true enormity of this genocide.