Fact and fantasy in Polish historical revisionism

Ninety percent of Jews in Poland as of 1939 were murdered by 1945. Ten percent of Poles suffered the same fate.

March 15, 2018 22:45
4 minute read.
THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremoni

THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, near Oswiecim, Poland, January 2018. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)


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History is a narrative; a story steeped in fact and interpreted, with the benefit of hindsight, in a broader social, political, cultural context.

So, for example, we know that WWII took place from 1939 to 1945, and the central, twin ideologies of the Nazis were that Jews were a subhuman race to be annihilated in order that the German Übermenschen may rule Europe and beyond in a Thousand-Year Reich.

We also know, as a matter of fact, that the Germans planned, meticulously, a program of mass murder with the intention of rendering Jewish existence extinct. The methods deployed to accomplish this goal were varied, depending primarily on whether it was earlier or later in the war, geography and local resistance.

Such facts may be considered from different perspectives, for example, from that of the targeted Jew and that of the occupying German soldier and that of the Christian Pole.

Each would have different fears and, perhaps, hopes. The Jew would fear capture, suffering, death. The German may dread – or relish – the prospect and reality of mass murder. The Pole may fear the German and be unmoved by, or distraught, or neutral, regarding the desperate plight of the Jew.

But the Pole did not fear the Jew. The Pole was not treated with anywhere near the ferocity that the Jew was, by the Germans, in ideological terms or real-life consequences.

These observations are reflected in “the numbers.”

Ninety percent of Jews in Poland as of 1939 were murdered by 1945. Ten percent of Poles suffered the same fate. Facts.

To be fair, there were Polish partisans, resisters, prisoners. Polish clergy, intellectuals and political figures were killed wholesale. A very small number of Poles risked the lives of their families and themselves to hide Jews. They were and remain heroic. A much larger number of Poles, regrettably, enthusiastically supported the Nazis in their unprecedentedly vicious anti-Jewish pogrom. Poles today are highly sensitive about this fact, which they challenge, pointing out that their wartime government in exile in London was against Nazi policy.

Today, the elected Polish leadership is intent on revising the “narrative” of WWII by making it illegal to attribute any aspects of the Holocaust to Polish complicity. To do so exposes one to three years’ imprisonment. The unofficial official line is – if Poles collaborated, then it is because the Germans forced them to do so. (Just as, in the 1968 purge in Poland, any antisemitic content and conduct was Soviet instigated.) The current Polish government is promoting a narrative of the martyred but simultaneously heroic Pole, bearing no responsibility for the centuries of antisemitism that has thrived in that country, culminating in unspeakable conduct during WWII.

The Holocaust law is one part of a broader revisionist program and not an isolated effort.

Almost unremarked upon in the West are recently announced Polish plans to establish a “Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto” in a formerly Jewish hospital.

Planned to open in 2023 in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, this museum, as envisioned by Polish minister of culture, Piotr Glinski, will be an expression “of the mutual love between the two nations (Jews and Poles) that spent 800 years on Polish land. Of the solidarity, fraternity, historical truth too, in all its aspects.”

Historical ‘truth’ or fantasy? In Poland, to dare to analyze Minister Glinski’s rather rose-colored rendering of the past is, likely, illegal. Because an honest, fact-based inquiry may well lead to a very different conclusion, quite at loggerheads with the notion of blissful harmony suggested by the minister.

The electoral base of this Polish government is strongly populist, fiercely nationalist, not overly educated, religiously inclined and economically challenged. It is as if the museum edifice, the bricks and mortar, located in the former ghetto and offering a novel interpretation of recent history, somehow, magically, expiates any residual national guilt.

Furthermore, while there may have been bad Poles, this new narrative allows, there were also bad Jews. See? We can all be bad. And good.

We’re all the same. Moral equivalent mush. Victims and victimizers both suffered and, therefore, shared an equal experience.

To wit: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently stated that there were “Jewish perpetrators” during Nazi rule in Poland, clearly implying that Jews collaborated with the Nazis.

Taking this supposition to an even more offensive extreme, the director of a state-run television channel commented on air recently that Nazi death camps were, really, Jewish.

“Who managed the crematoria there?” he asked.

In so questioning, he refers to the Sonderkommando, the wretched Jewish prisoners who were forced to remove dead bodies from the gas chambers, stripping them of gold teeth and any scrap of tangible value to the Reich before incineration. He clearly implies that these prisoners “collaborated” or “volunteered” for their role.

In today’s Poland, it is likely legal to articulate this grotesque perversion of the truth, to discuss and promote the fictitious Jewish “collaboration” with the Nazis. But to do the same regarding actual collaboration or complicity on the part of Poles. That is illegal.

Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it.

Vivian Bercovici served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. She resides in Tel Aviv.

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