The history of the Jewish people in Poland is tortured, complicated and, as recent events have demonstrated, the relationship is still unsettled. One can cherry pick the data that supports one’s prejudices but not be able to produce a full and complete picture. The issue is being revisited as the Polish Parliament passed a law last month (since suspended) that criminalized the mere utterance of the phrase “Polish death camps” or attributing any responsibility for the Holocaust to the Polish people.
It is not widely known but Poland produced more “righteous Gentiles,” (i.e., non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews) than any other country. Yad Vashem tallies 6,706 individual Poles who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust; the next closest in number is the Netherlands, where 5,595 Gentiles saved Jews and were honored for it after the war. Five Americans were recognized – along with the entire nation of Denmark who eschewed individual honors because saving Danish Jews became their national priority.
The number of righteous Polish Gentiles speaks well of them from one perspective. Per capita, roughly one out of every 4650 Poles was deemed a “righteous Gentile,” a relatively high figure compared to other countries. (In the Netherlands, one of every 14,000 citizens was so designated.) And, to be sure, Poles suffered brutally under the Nazi regime, with approximately 3,000,000 Polish Gentiles killed by the Nazis in addition to 3,000,000 Polish Jews, so talk of Polish complicity with the Nazis always strikes a raw nerve with them. Added to that is the current reality in which Poland has emerged as a close ally and trading partner of Israel, and that Poland today welcomes many Jewish visitors, mostly without incident. Some Polish cities have even seen a Jewish revival.
Nevertheless, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir’s statement thirty years ago – that “Poles imbibe Jew hatred with their mother’s milk” – might sound harsh, which is not to say unearned. Recent statements emanating from Polish authorities, about Jews’ propensity for lying (among other anti-Jewish canards), the denial of the Holocaust as a unique attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, the reference to “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust and the caustic rejection of Jewish and Israeli objections to the proposed law, can be seen as Polish attempts to unwittingly prove Shamir (whose entire family was murdered in the Holocaust) correct.
If we even crunch the “righteous Gentile” numbers, Poland does not fare that well. There were 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands when the war broke out. Thus, there was one Dutch savior for every 25 Jews in the population. Poland had a pre-war population of 3,300,000 Jews, and thus there was one Polish savior for every 492 Jews in the population. The disparity is glaring. If non-Jewish Poles had saved Jews at the same rate as did non-Jewish Dutchmen there would have been more than 160,000 righteous Polish Gentiles. There weren’t. The Holocaust could not have unfolded as it did had Poles saved Jews at the same rate the Dutch did. And Polish Gentiles were not systematically exterminated, as were Jews, although, in truth, Hitler bore a special animus towards Poles also. The numbers reflect that the average Dutch civilian was more favorably disposed to his Jewish neighbors than was the average Pole.
Furthermore, Jewish views about Poland are shaped not only by the Holocaust but also by Jewish life in Poland for the millennium before the Holocaust and the years immediately following that saw violent pogroms perpetrated by Polish civilians (sometimes with the tacit approval of the authorities) against Jewish survivors. Some of these attacks were carried out by Poles who willfully, perhaps even gleefully, seized the property of their former Jewish neighbors when the Nazis forced the Jews into ghettos and then deported millions to their deaths. But we need not only look at the Holocaust and post-Holocaust era. Jews are a people with a long historical memory.
My grandparents and children (including my father) fled Poland in early 1939 not only because Hitler was looming but primarily because life in Poland had become unbearable for Jews. Shechita (ritual slaughter of kosher animals for consumption) was banned by the Polish Parliament in the mid-1930’s, and my grandfather a”h, a shochet by profession, continued slaughtering in secret until he was briefly imprisoned and threatened with execution. Not coincidentally, the Polish Parliament banned shechita again (!) in 2014, only to have the ban – with its obvious anti-Jewish overtones – reversed by the Supreme Court. But such a bill is now pending again (!) before the Polish Parliament in the wake of the recent controversy.
Life in Poland had its charms, I suppose – but also its persistent persecution, pogroms, restrictive measures and constant harassment. There is no escaping that; it is not only recorded in history books but it is also inscribed on the Jewish heart and in our collective memory. Of course, the definition of “Poland” is drawn somewhat broadly; my father’s birthplace in Poland had been part of Lithuania until two decades earlier and became part of Belarus after World War II. But the point remains the same.
Without generalizing too much, official Poland has always had a blind spot when it comes to the Holocaust and to its treatment of Jews. In two visits our groups took to Auschwitz, our assigned Polish guide insisted on taking us to parts of the concentration camp where Polish political prisoners were held (and many executed) and held up as symbols of the Holocaust the Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe and, after we asked about the Jews who were murdered there, Edith Stein, the Jew who became a nun and was murdered by the Nazis – as a Jew. To these guides, it was clear to us, the 3,000,000 Polish Jews were not murdered because they were Jews but because they were Poles. Such is an offensive and false account of history – and we let the guides know it (which quickly concluded that part of the tour). It is a bitter and unspeakable irony that for centuries Poles derided the Jews as “Jews” (and worse), and once the Nazis murdered them, claimed them as “Poles” just like any other Polish citizen. No wonder Jews are offended, as should be Poles for that intellectual dishonesty and distortion of history. Jews in pre-war Poland had Polish friends and acquaintances and sought co-existence – but I have yet to meet a Jew who grew up in that era who had only fond memories of the experience. Poland was always a graveyard that eventually overwhelmed the Jewish population – as Ze’ev Jabotinsky warned them in 1938 when he told them they are “living on the edge of a volcano.” Every Jew knew it, even if few Jews heeded his warning.
What the Polish elite today fails to consider or deliberately ignores is that the Nazi death camps were placed in Poland for a reason. The six extermination camps – Treblinka, Belzec, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidanek, Sobibor, and Chelmno – were situated in Poland purposely. Poles maintain that Poland had been conquered and its central location with a functioning rail system facilitated transport of Jews from across Europe. There is some truth to that.
The greater truth is that Germany was even more centrally located and possessed an even more sophisticated rail system – but the Nazis sensed that Poland would be a more hospitable venue for the death camps. What they perceived as the refined, cultured German nature would recoil at the notion of mass extermination of Jews while Poles, given their history, would be more amenable to looking the other way. That is hard to deny. Does this make these genocidal settings “Polish death camps”? Not really, and certainly not in the sense that Poles staffed the camps in large measure or were responsible for the genocide. Obviously, they are “Polish death camps” in that they were located – to be emphasized, they were all located – in Poland, and that was not an accident.
Poles should own up to that. The fact that so many Poles were killed by the Nazis and that Poles were also victims does not obscure the fact that they have sordid aspects of their history that they should acknowledge not just in the interest of historical accuracy but also to recognize the deep roots of Polish Jew hatred that existed for centuries and is part of Jewish history. That Polish civilians murdered Jews before, during and after the Holocaust is undeniable. That Polish partisan groups generally refused to cooperate with Jewish partisan groups is undeniable.
I don’t think re-litigating the Holocaust serves any productive role in 2018 except to the extent that truth always remains truth. I don’t hold today’s Poles responsible for the Holocaust any more than I hold today’s Germans. Guilt is transmitted from generation to generation only when, the Talmud (Masechet Berachot 7a) states, “the children cling to the ways of their fathers” but not if the children renounce the deeds of their fathers.
About a decade ago, I attend a conference in Nuremberg, in which young Germans articulated a standard that would serve modern Poles well. They said that they felt no guilt over the Holocaust (after all, they didn’t perpetrate it) but they did feel shame that such atrocities could have been committed by their countrymen. Such an approach makes a lot of sense and provides a way forward. Poles should not have guilt over what happened during the Holocaust – as long as they renounce Jew hatred in all its manifestations – but they should feel shame that the death camps were all located in their country intentionally and that most Jews murdered in the Holocaust were murdered on Polish soil.
If they live in denial, they will see that as an historical accident and the price they pay will be deserved ignominy. If they recognize that reality, they will be able to build on the warm relations they have cultivated in recent years with Israel and the Jewish people and move beyond this most recent tempest.