On September 1, 1940, a year after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the German-appointed governor of Warsaw District renamed Pilsudski Square as “Adolf Hitler Platz.”
Eleven-year-old Julian Kulski wrote in his diary about that day: “A great wooden frame now covers the statue of Prince Poniatowski. No patriotic Pole attended the ceremony.” Poniatowski had been a famous Polish leader and close ally of Napoleon. Covering up his image and renaming the square was an attempt by Germany to erase Poland.
Today, Poland and Israel are involved in an angry controversy over a law that could punish those who claim Poland was responsible for Nazi crimes
. “I strongly oppose it, one cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. President Reuven Rivlin, Yair Lapid and others have harshly condemned the law.
However, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pointed out that “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name and Arbeit Macht Frei
is not a Polish phrase,” referencing the German phrase that “Work makes freedom” written above the entrance to the death camp.
The two sides seem to be talking past each other. Poland is not denying the Holocaust through a law designed to punish those who describe the death camps as Polish. The proposed law may be misguided and a bad way to go about dealing with history, but Poland is right: It is not responsible for the Holocaust and the Polish people resisted Nazism valiantly, more so than many other countries that ran to collaborate.
The Polish resistance was active from the early days of the Nazi occupation. Julian Kulski, who published his diary in 1979 and then again in 2014 as The Color of Courage, recalls how in May of 1940, slogans against the Germans began appearing by “Polska Walczaca
” (Fighting Poland). German propaganda signs were torn down and burned by individual citizens. The Polish resistance was so spontaneous and unexpected that, Kulski wrote, Germans put up posters “calling on Polish people to stop killing the Germans.”
This history is often forgotten in our memory of the Holocaust. It’s not surprising. A few posters being put up and torn down pales in comparison to millions of Jews sent to death camps. But the posters were part of a much larger resistance. It was a resistance that also opposed the German crimes against Jews in Poland. “Today’s information bulletin carries the underground announcement that any participation by Poles in anti-Jewish actions is traitorous and will be punishable by death,” Kulski wrote on March 6, 1941.
POLAND WAS subjected to the most vicious policies of the Nazi German regime. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 1939 and 1945 at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Poles were murdered. In addition, up to 1.5 million Polish citizens were sent to Germany for slave labor. This is in addition to the three million Jewish Polish citizens murdered in the Holocaust. The destruction wrought on Poland was also extreme, with Warsaw razed to the ground in 1944 during the Polish Home Army uprising. The Warsaw Ghetto had already been destroyed during the 1943 uprising.
Poland is right to be angry when it is made to appear that Poles were somehow responsible for the Shoah. Unlike most other countries occupied by Germany during the war, Poland did not provide a ready recruitment base for Nazi collaboration. For instance, the Waffen-SS recruited local units in Albania, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Latvia, Norway, Romania, Sweden and other countries. It didn’t find recruits among Poles. According to a 1993 letter from the War Crimes Office in Ludwigsburg, an office that had collected material relating to Nazi war crimes in West Germany, “There was no Waffen-SS unit similar to the Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, etc. divisions that would have consisted solely of Polish volunteers.” This account is published in Tadeusz Piotrowski’s Poland’s Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic
I recall reading Maus
, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that shows Jews, illustrated as mice, being sent to their deaths. Poles are depicted as pigs in the novel. The novel’s Jewish main character fights the Germans with the Polish army and is later sent to a series of concentration and death camps. Maus
made me feel that Poland was somehow responsible for the Holocaust, or at least that many Poles collaborated in it. It was only years later, reading books like Kulski’s that I realized, in fact, the opposite was true. Poland and Poles were major victims, alongside Jews. It’s not a surprise that Maus
encountered protests in Poland because the author depicted Poles as pigs. The German Nazis were depicted as cats.
History has an odd way of giving us the sense that Poles collaborated with Nazism, while whitewashing the real collaboration in Western Europe. We are often taught that Denmark saved the Jews. However it is often forgotten that an estimated 6,000 Danes volunteered for Nazi collaborationist units, including SS units like the SS Division Wiking and SS Division Nordland.
THERE WERE 40,000 Nazi volunteers in Belgium, according to George Stein’s 1984 book The Waffen SS
. And the Germans found willing collaborators in many other countries as well, where they had no problem staffing local units. In France, they had an entire regime under the Vichy government willing to help expel Jews and do their bidding. Almost everywhere in Europe, except for among some groups such as Serbs and Poles, there was distinct collaboration. By contrast, in most Western countries there was almost no resistance to Nazism. Compared to the Polish Home Army, which had hundreds of thousands of recruits to resist the Nazis, other resistance movements had trouble finding a handful of volunteers.
Charles Kaiser, who wrote a book on a family in the French Resistance, wrote for CNN in 2015: “Most Frenchmen were neither collaborators nor resistors; they just kept their heads down and tried to get enough to eat.” He writes that French resisters were often seen as fanatics by their own countrymen.
In Poland, however, the resistors were not seen as fanatics, but as nationalists and the norm. Individual Poles may have collaborated and after the Holocaust in 1946 there was the infamous and despicable Kielce pogrom, but the record in Poland is one of resistance to Nazism.
The Holocaust is too often used today as a political tool and rhetorical device. Not only is it invoked almost everyday in Israeli political discussions, but its memory is abused throughout Europe and elsewhere. It is universalized or overly particularized, warped, and its victims forgotten. It serves political agendas.
Poland’s decision to want to legislate how the Holocaust can be discussed is misguided. However, equally misguided is the anger directed at Poland and the distortion of history regarding Polish resistance. Yad Vashem, in a statement, said that the Polish law is “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”
Historical truths are a good start and the truth is that Poland was one of the countries that sent large numbers of men and women to resist the Nazis. If this whole controversy should have one effect, it should not be for chest-beating Israeli politicians to attack Poland but rather to look into this history and perhaps learn from it. One can oppose the Polish law and give thanks to the Polish people who stood against the Nazi menace in Europe’s darkest hour. In that hour, in 1940, when too many were welcoming the Germans quietly, the Poles were tearing down Nazi propaganda and storing weapons for the next round.