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Poles and the Holocaust in Historical Perspective

As the controversy surrounding Poland’s new law continues, it’s crucial to keep the facts and the complexities of the subject in mind

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
February 22, 2018
Holocaust survivors hold banners and wave an Israeli flag during a protest in front of Polish embassy in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2018, against a controversial bill passed by the eastern European country's senate. The legislation sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone describing Nazi German death camps in Poland, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, as Polish.GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images
Holocaust survivors hold banners and wave an Israeli flag during a protest in front of Polish embassy in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2018, against a controversial bill passed by the eastern European country's senate. The legislation sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone describing Nazi German death camps in Poland, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, as Polish.GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s recent reference to “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust aggravated an already volatile standoff between Poles and Jews caused by the new Polish law that seeks to criminalize holding Poland responsible for the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany on German soil during World War II. Asked at a press conference in Munich on February 17th by the son of a Holocaust survivor whether he could be prosecuted for recounting how his mother was betrayed to the Nazis by her Polish neighbor, Morawiecki replied, “Of course it’s not going to be punishable, not going to be seen as criminal, to say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian, not only German perpetrators.”

Let’s be clear: there were no Jewish “perpetrators” of the Holocaust. All Jews were intended victims of the Hitlerite “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” As World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder has correctly pointed out:

The Polish prime minister has displayed appalling ignorance with his unconscionable claim that so-called “Jewish perpetrators” were partly responsible for the Nazi German attempt to wipe out European Jewry. While Poles are understandably sensitive about Nazi German extermination and concentration camps in occupied Poland being called Polish, this government is going to extreme and unfathomable lengths to exonerate some of their countrymen’s own complicity in the murders of their neighbors.

Specifically, Article 55a of the new Polish law provides that anyone who

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 . . . shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.

While the law exempts such statements if “committed in the course of the one’s artistic or academic activity,” it contains no such exemption for testimony, recollections or sentiments of Holocaust survivors.

The debate over this legislation and its implications for Polish-Jewish relations has gotten out of hand. Prime Minister Morawiecki’s previous statement that “Poland as a nation, Poland as a state” deserves to be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official institution for the commemoration of the Holocaust, is hyperbole that cannot withstand the scrutiny of history.

Unfortunately, the contention by Israeli Member of Knesset and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid that “Poland was complicit in the Holocaust” similarly misses the mark.

The truth is far more complicated and far more complex than either extreme of the present debate would have it, and it does not lend itself to facile sound bites. While Poland qua Poland was not complicit in the Holocaust, large numbers of Poles, many of them in police uniforms, physically handed Jews to the Germans and otherwise betrayed them. In July of 1941, inhabitants of the eastern Polish town of Jedwabne, rounded up hundreds of Jews, forced them into a barn, and burned them alive.

Even larger numbers of Poles simply watched in silence while Jews were being taken away under their eyes, and then proceeded to take over their Jewish neighbors’ homes and belongings. And after the war, when the few Jewish survivors returned to what had been their homes, they were far too often greeted with hostility and worse. On July 4, 1946, a mob in the Polish city of Kielce killed 42 Jews in a pogrom that Polish Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati would recognize fifty years later in a letter to the World Jewish Congress as an “act of Polish anti-Semitism.”

I write today not only as General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, or as a law professor who teaches about the law of genocide. Rather, I write primarily as the son of two Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, and whose entire families were annihilated in the Nazi death camps located in Poland.

On a personal level, I have reason to be profoundly grateful to specific Poles but for whom neither my wife Jeanie nor I would be alive.

On June 22, 1943, my father, Josef Rosensaft, was deported from the ghetto of his hometown of Będzin in southern Poland to Auschwitz. For some reason, the Germans did not use a cattle car on this occasion but rather a passenger car, with windows. As the train crossed over the Vistula River, my father, a superb swimmer, dove out of the window into the water below. A German bullet grazed his forehead; two others lodged in his forearm and leg. Somehow, he managed to hide until nightfall, and then made his way to a cottage where a Polish peasant woman and her son bandaged him up, gave him a cup of coffee and a cap to cover his wounded head, and sent him on his way back to the ghetto without betraying him.

Some seven or eight months later, after my father had been deported a second time to Auschwitz-Birkenau and sent from there to the Łagisza labor camp near Będzin, he escaped again. This time he was hidden for over six weeks by a Polish friend of his. Recaptured again, he was taken back to Auschwitz where he was tortured for over six months in the camp’s notorious Block 11, known as the Death Block. The Germans wanted to know who had hidden him, something my father refused to tell them.

In December of 1942, when my father-in-law, his mother, and his six year old brother escaped from the Ivie ghetto in what was then Poland and is now Belarus, they were given refuge for some weeks by a local farmer. My mother-in- law and her parents were hidden for two-and-a-half years by a local farmer near their Polish-Galician hometown of Podwołoczyska (today Pidvolochysk in Ukraine).

The Poles who risked their lives to shelter my father, my father-in-law, and my mother-in-law were selfless, altruistic heroes. But we must never lose sight of the tragic reality that they and others like them were the exception, not the rule. True, as of December 2017, 6,706 Poles–more than from any other Nazi-occupied country–have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In addition, there were certainly many other Poles who hid or otherwise helped Jews in the years of the Holocaust. But then again, there were over 30 million non-Jewish Poles during World War II. Even if we were to double or quadruple the Yad Vashem number of Poles who helped Jews, it would still amount to less than one tenth of one percent of the population. Each one of them deserves to be honored, but their valor and altruism reflects on them and them alone–not on the other 99.9 percent of the Polish people.

The Poles are right when they object to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, and Sobibor being referred to as “Polish death camps” rather than Nazi German camps that were located in Poland. The Poles are also on safe historical ground when they view themselves as victims of Nazism. It is true that alone among Nazi occupied countries, Poland did not have a collaborationist government with a Polish equivalent to France’s Philippe Pétain or Norway’s Vidkun Quisling at its head. But that was due to the fact that the Nazis considered Poles to be only slightly less inferior than Jews, and did not give them the opportunity to establish such a puppet government and administration.

The Nazi German occupation of Poland was particularly savage, with thousands of Poles shot in the aftermath of Poland’s military defeat, and thousands of Polish intellectuals, teachers and priests killed in 1940 as part of a campaign to eradicate the Polish intelligentsia. The Germans also sent hundreds of thousands of Poles to Auschwitz and other concentration and labor camps, and deported at least 1.5 million Poles to Germany as forced laborers. Indeed, non-Jewish Poles constituted the second largest group of victims murdered at Auschwitz–according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 960,000 Jews, 74,000 Poles, and 21,000 Roma perished in that death camp.

It is also a fact that Poles fought valiantly throughout World War II as part of the Allied armed forces, whether in the Battle of Britain or the Battles of Monte Cassino. Moreover, two deputies representing Polish Jewry–Artur (Shmuel) Zygielbojm and Ignacy (Itzhak) Schwartzbart–were members of the London-based Government of the Republic of Poland in exile (Rząd Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej na uchodźstwie), which provided some of the earliest detailed accounts of the German mass killings of Jews. Based on information received from the Polish government-in-exile, the World Jewish Congress in London reported on June 29, 1942, that more than one million Jews had been massacred since the beginning of World War II, that Jews deported to Poland from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands were being shot at the rate of 1,000 daily, that close to another million were imprisoned in ghettos, and that 10,232 Jews had died in the Warsaw Ghetto from hunger and disease.

The Polish government-in-exile continued to speak out about the Nazi slaughter of Jews. Referring to the “liquidation of the Jewish ghettos in Poland by assassination,” Jan Ciechanowski, the Polish Ambassador to the United States, told a New York City rally in memory of the Jews killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on June 20, 1043, that “Never in the whole history of mankind have its chronicles registered so continuous, so methodical, so iniquitous, so barbarous, so inhuman a system of cruelty and mass extermination.”

That same year, Ambassador Ciechanowski also arranged for Jan Karski, a courier representing the Polish anti-Nazi underground, to meet with President Franklin D, Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and other senior U.S. officials so that Karski could provide his eye-witness account of the atrocities being perpetrated in the ghettos and camps.

Within Poland, meanwhile, some members of the underground formed a Council for Aid to Jews, known as Żegota, that provided physical and monetary assistance to Jews living clandestinely among the Polish population. One of the most heroic Żegota activists was a nurse, Irena Sendler, who is credited with helping to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and providing them with forged identity papers and shelter.

This is the side of the equation that portrays wartime Poles as today’s Polish authorities want them to be portrayed: victims of the Nazis, heroic allies in fighting the Third Reich, and friends and rescuers of Polish Jewry. It is an important aspect of history that must not be ignored or minimized.

However, there is also a darker, more sinister dimension to Polish history during World War II that many Poles do not want to talk about, but with which Polish Jews of the Holocaust years were all too familiar.

It is, of course, true that there were Jews in the ghettos and camps accused of collaborating, willingly or unwillingly, with the Nazis in one form or other. The leadership of the Jewish Councils in the ghettos, for instance, at first distributed food and coordinated social services. It was only later that the Germans demanded lists of certain number of Jews for deportation, with the sometime implicit but mostly explicit threat that if such lists were not forthcoming, greater numbers of Jews would be indiscriminately chosen. Many ghettos also had a Jewish police tasked with maintaining order and, by definition, cooperating with the German authorities. As it happens, any number of these individuals actually tried to save lives and worked closely with Jewish resistance groups

In the camps, the SS assigned supervisory functions over other prisoners to designated inmates, called kapos, who ranged from the vicious to the marginally benign, although those who did not enforce discipline effectively among their charges were not likely to last long in these posts.

It also must be noted that there were honor courts in the post-war Displaced Persons camps that tried Jews accused of collaboration, and a special law was enacted in Israel in 1950 under which a succession of such individuals were brought to justice in the 1950s and 1960s.

Four fundamental points are critical to any understanding of the role played by these admittedly less than admirable Jews: First, they were themselves victims whom the Germans manipulated and exploited unscrupulously; second, they did not choose to be in the camps and ghettos, and most perished there; third, with the exception of those who used their positions to help others or to undermine the Nazis, they were almost universally reviled by their fellow Jews; and fourth, they constituted a miniscule, statistically irrelevant part of the Jews incarcerated in the Nazi German ghettos and camps. Moreover, none of them wanted or set out to kill Jews. It is reprehensible bordering on the obscene to regard any of them as “perpetrators” of the Holocaust.

In contrast, there were many thousands of Poles who voluntarily and often quite viciously assisted the Germans in carrying out the annihilation of Polish Jewry. Others enthusiastically denounced hidden Jews or handed them over to the Gestapo. Others still blackmailed such hidden Jews, thereby making a horrific situation exponentially worse.

Historian Halik Kochanski, who chronicles Polish actions and attitudes in highly sympathetic terms, writes in The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (pp. 213-314):

There is little doubt that antisemitism was widespread in Poland before the war, which led to economic boycotts of Jewish shops and a cross-party general agreement on the desirability of encouraging Jewish emigration. The German attacks on the Jews in the early period of the occupation – identification, expropriation, hard labor and concentration into ghettos – aroused no strong demonstration of opposition from the Poles. Indeed, despite the Polish Government ordering Poles not to profit from the German expropriation of Jewish property and shops, there is evidence to suggest that they did; an underground newspaper noted in 1942: “Cases of mass-robbery of former Jewish property bear eloquent witness to the ongoing moral decay.” Nor did the attitude change when the Germans began the mass shootings of Jews after the invasion of eastern Poland and of the Soviet Union. . . . Rowecki [one of the leaders of the underground Armia Krajowa, the Polish underground resistance movement] communicated the feelings in the country to the Polish Government, noting that the pro-Jewish sentiments issued by the government were alienating many Poles from the government because: “Please accept it as a fact that the overwhelming majority of the country is anti-Semitic. . . .”

Again, this is not meant to be an indictment of Poland or Poles under the occupation. Rather, my purpose is to try to convey the complex and multi-faceted nature of a reality that requires demystification on all sides before true understanding can take place.

Further indication of Polish attitudes toward their Jewish compatriots can be seen in Polish reactions to the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Kochanski quotes Ruth Altbeker, a Jew living clandestinely outside the ghetto, as follows (The Eagle Unbowed, pp. 312-313):

The scum of society stood by the ghetto walls. Some were tempted by the possibility of looting Jewish property, others lurked for easy prey – a Jew who might try to creep over to the Aryan side through a crevice or chink in the wall. Among the uniformed policemen, manhunters, conmen and all kinds of rascals around the wall, other Poles waited too, looking out for a convenient moment to supply the fighters with arms and ammunition. A girl hungry for thrills would be waiting to convey the needs of the besieged to the Underground Organization. All of these were called human beings whom God had created in his image – the Jew insurgent in his desperate fight against domination and the Polish comrade endangering his life in order to supply him with weapons, the blackguard, the scoundrel and the Polish policeman obligingly serving the Germans, and that soldier in a steel helmet.

The Polish police, known as the Blue Police (policja granatowa) because of the color of their uniforms, are a case in point. Kochanski notes (at p. 118) that the government-in-exile’s instructions to the Polish people back home limiting official contacts between Poles and Germans to the areas of relief, medicine and charity, such guidelines were “somewhat idealistic because there were many areas in which the Poles and Germans had to work closely together.” One aspect of German-Polish cooperation was in the “matter of policing” where a Polish police force was needed to augment the Gestapo, SS, and German police. “This necessity for cooperation, if not actual collaboration,” Kochanski continues, “often compromised the participants’ moral position and as German terror increased, the police in particular would be challenged by the demands made of them”

There is no question that the Blue Police assisted in rounding up Jews and attempting, far too often successfully, to roust them out of hiding places in order to hand them over to the Germans. According to Kochanski (p. 275-276), the Germans reorganized the existing Polish police at the beginning of the occupation, requiring them to swear allegiance to the new regime, which the “overwhelming majority” of them did. The ranks of the Blue Police grew from 11,500 in 1942 to 16,000 the following year. Most historians are in agreement that there were members of the Blue Police who tried to help Jews. Kochanski estimates that “about half” of the Blue Police “collaborated” with the underground Armia Krajowa. Still, even if we assume that half of the 16,000 Blue Police force were neither evil nor corrupt, that leaves far more Poles who aggressively persecuted Jews in an official capacity than the 6,706 Poles recognized as righteous by Yad Vashem. Polish historian Tomasz Szarota is quoted about the Blue Police in Gunnar S. Paulsson’s Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945 (p. xiv) as follows:

The police, which let no one dare to call Polish, has especially earned punishment and decided contempt. These navy-blue louts, squeezing bribes out of whomever they can, resorting to threats and blackmail, snapping to attention in front of every Hun, have demonstrated such a collapse of human and national dignity that they deserve no excuse.

“In the eyes of the Polish policemen,” writes Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski in Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (p. 102), “the Jews, or rather their goods, were a prized catch – not only during the Judenjagt [hunt for Jews] stage of the “Final Solution,” but even before, from the earliest months of the occupation when new German regulations marked Jews as people without rights.” Grabowski estimates (at p. 172) that as many as 200,000 Jews were killed by Poles.

Jews were also betrayed by Poles who demanded to be paid for providing what proved to be precarious shelter. To be sure, many Poles hid Jews for altruistic reasons, but others did so exclusively out of greed and without any moral or humane considerations. A February 11, 2017, Haaretz article about Grabowski and his book, Hunt for the Jews, describes

the tragic story of Rywka Gluckmann and her two sons, who in 1942 were given shelter by Michal Kozik in Dabrowa Tarnowska county. Until a short time before the Russians entered the area and freed its citizens from the German occupation, he allowed them to remain in his house, as long as they paid him. But when the money ran out, he butchered all three with an ax. Jews who were hiding across the way heard the cries of people being murdered, and the next day they learned that the Gluckmanns were dead, as a local resident, Izaak Stieglitz, testified after the war.

And then there were the szmalcowniks, the extortionists and blackmailers who preyed on Jews hiding outside ghetto walls. They added considerably to the terror confronted daily by those Polish Jews who had managed to avoid deportation to the death camps.

In addition, one cannot ignore all those Poles who not only seized the opportunity to take over the homes and property of Jews taken to ghettos or sent to camps, but who refused, often violently, to return such homes and property to the few rightful owners who returned to their former homes at the end or after the war.

My mother, then Hadassah, or Ada, Bimko, grew up with her parents, brother and sister at 5 Modrzejowska Street in the Polish city of Sosnowiec. During the early years of the war, because she, her husband and her son lived on a street that was forbidden to Jews, they moved in with her parents. In 1995, I stood outside 5 Modrzejowska Street and looked up at what had once been my mother’s home. The lace curtains looked old. I wondered to myself whether the people who lived there were eating at my grandparents’ table, or sleeping in their bed. Was some Polish child playing with the toys my brother had left behind?

The above is merely a cursory overview of a tragic past that unites Jews and Poles for better and, equally as much, for worse. There are Holocaust survivors who are deeply grateful to the Poles who saved them. Others loathe the Poles who betrayed them. Many espouse both sentiments simultaneously. And they have passed on their feelings and beliefs to their children and grandchildren.

Seen in this jarring context, the present-day Polish government’s intent to criminalize conclusions rooted in subjective sentiments caused by individuals who took part in the persecution of Polish Jewry is a counter-productive mistake. This is especially so since survivor testimony–arguably the most important and most powerful source of information about the Holocaust years–is not one of the exceptions to the law. While exemptions from the law for scholarship and cultural representations have been carved out, the law contains no such safe harbors for survivors, or for anyone quoting a survivor.

It is one thing for the Polish authorities to object to referring to the Nazi German death camps as “Polish.” It is quite another to seek to criminalize a survivor’s belief that the Blue Police persecuted Jews in the name of Poland.

The new Polish law has been submitted to the Polish Constitutional Court for review. In light of the ever increasing mutual animosity between Poles and Jews caused by this ill-advised initiative, the appropriate action would be for the Polish authorities to withdraw or at least temporarily suspend the law and seek a workable compromise. Such a move would not have the support of the extreme elements on either side, but it just might defuse the tensions and allow for a necessary public dialogue that could educate both politicians and the general public.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities and is general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.