On the linguistics of Polish death camps and other things antisemitic

I’m on the side of free speech and informed discussion.

PHOTOGRAPH OF Auschwitz-Birkenau taken in February 2017. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
PHOTOGRAPH OF Auschwitz-Birkenau taken in February 2017.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“Polish death camps.” Recent passage of a law by the Polish government made it a criminal offence to utter that phrase or to suggest, in any way, that Poles were complicit in Nazi crimes.
The Jewish backlash to this extreme attempt at historical revisionism was immediate, but not entirely predictable. For decades, Israel, and the Jewish world have been very quiet as East and Central European countries have disingenuously rewritten the past to exculpate themselves from blame for wartime and other atrocities.
Nazi concentration camps and mass murder operations were most prolific in Poland, likely for three reasons: proximity to the largest concentration of European Jews; proximity of Poland to Germany and its central location in Europe, making it efficacious to transport Jewish victims; and the Nazi contempt for Poland and Poles.
Poles were horribly mistreated by the Nazi occupiers and tens of thousands of Polish nationals perished in the camps. To recognize this does not in any way compromise or diminish Jewish suffering.
Poles were also vicious antisemites long before the war and many participated zealously in the persecution of their Jewish compatriots during the Nazi occupation. They were also less than sympathetic to the horrific plight of the Jews, during and, incredibly, after the Holocaust. We are all aware of the many stories of Jews returning to their homes and being murdered by their Polish neighbors.
Some Poles were also indescribably brave and kind. Thousands risked their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, and sheltered the hunted Jews. In barns. Underground. In bunkers. In sewers. Would you have the courage and compassion to do that? For years on end?
To acknowledge Polish suffering neither expiates their collective sins nor minimizes the tragedy that befell the Jews. It simply demonstrates a basic awareness of historical fact.
The harshest legal penalty in the Polish legislation is reserved for those who use the phrase “Polish death camps.” In spite of the deeply entrenched, historic antisemitic tendencies in Poland, Poles are ultra-sensitive to being so directly and explicitly associated with such a notorious historical episode.
Quite accurately, the Poles remind us that the camps were ordered to be built by the occupying German forces. They were operated by the Germans. In fact, the majority of guards at the camps in Poland were Ukrainian, known for their boundless cruelty and vicious hatred of Jews. They did much of the dirtiest work, leaving the white glove stuff for the Nazis.
Without the German organizational drive, it is highly unlikely that the Poles would have spearheaded the network and system of mass death factories. Poland was largely rural and primitive and the national consciousness heavily influenced by a viciously antisemitic Catholic church. Left to their own devices, they likely would have carried on with the centuries-old tradition of pogroms and other Jew-hating ways, all of which were socially acceptable.
I suppose that we can still discuss Polish antisemitism, past and present, just not in connection with the Holocaust or WWII. Which is absurdist and, ironically, has led to much heightened international discussion of the Polish role in this dark period.
This whole discussion about “Polish death camps” misses the point.
This has become a gestalt moment in which we remind ourselves of Polish indifference and cruelty toward its Jewish citizens; we recall the improbable courage of Albanians and the Danes in protecting their Jewish citizens from Nazi barbarism and wonder why the Poles, for the most part, behaved so atrociously.
But, that, too, is not the issue.
The issue is really twofold: is it factually “correct” to refer to the camps as having been “Polish”? And, if not, should it be a criminal offense to use that phrase?
In response to which, I offer these thoughts. Until this recent furor, I don’t think I ever used the offending phrase, not out of any politically correct or other sympathy, but because it never occurred to me.
However, should I do so, I disagree, viscerally, that the utterance should be considered criminal. I’m on the side of free speech and informed discussion. Of equal importance is the likelihood that this censorship threatens to obscure the country’s shameful treatment of its Jewish population – and not just before and during the Holocaust. Pogroms and institutional antisemitism in Poland continued, most notably during the Jewish purge of 1968. Do the Poles blame that, too, on the Germans? Or do they deflect culpability to the Soviets?
Polish death camps. Polish antisemitism. Polish collusion with Nazis. Polish resistance to Nazis. Individual and indescribably brave individual Polish heroism and selflessness in rescuing Jews. Incomprehensible Polish betrayal of Jewish Poles. Polish attempts to whitewash history. No law can change those facts.
The author is a former ambassador of Canada to Israel. She resides in Tel Aviv.