A visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum walks past a mural of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Washington, January 26, 2007.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JIM YOUNG)
66997. That is the number that was tattooed on the forearm of my late beloved mother, Sabina Skorecki (née Silberspitz). She was 15 on Friday September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Between that day and her eventual liberation from Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp by Russian troops in 1945, she had experienced the horrors of the Bochnia Ghetto, 22 months at Auschwitz, the death march of January 1945, and the loss of her entire family.
My late beloved father, Elias Skorecki, 13 years her senior, was a “graduate” of Płaszów and Mauthausen before being liberated by American troops at Ebensee. He lost his first wife and two small children during the Nazi liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto between the 13th and 14th March 1943.
My parents married in Krakow on July 7, 1946, and lived in communist Poland for five years after the war. My father witnessed the trial and execution of the Płaszów camp commander, Amon Leopold Göth, whose evil image is portrayed in Schindler’s List.
I was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1953, an only child, and engraved in my very earliest memories are tales of these horrors. I wondered why, unlike others in my kindergarten, there were no grandparents or close family members. In time, I grew to admire my parents’ resilience despite the scars of their six years of suffering Nazi atrocities. While they related in great detail all of the horrors they experienced, they were punctiliously careful in pointing the blame where it most belonged. Both my parents, who had experienced Polish gentile antisemitism growing up, insisted on not conflating the brute evil and genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany with the wrongdoings and shortcomings of any other nation during that darkest period in human history.
Long before the controversial “Polish Death Camp” law, my parents corrected me if I were to inadvertently use this term, insisting that Poles were not active as guards or as systematic collaborators in the mass murder of Jews, and pointing out that a correct term would be German Nazi death camps in Poland. Nazi Germany preferred cruel murderous accomplices and executers from other nationalities, and didn’t trust Polish gentiles in the Nazi mission of exterminating Jews. There were many acts of betrayal, some under unimaginable duress, and others gleefully perpetrated by Polish gentiles. There were also many known and untold acts of heroism. As pointed out in a recent article by Marc Santora in The New York Times titled “Poland’s ‘Death Camp’ Law Tears at Shared Bonds of Suffering With Jews,” Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, recognizes more than 6,700 gentiles in Poland as “righteous among the nations” who risked their lives during the war to save Jews – more than from any other European nation.
My father was far more anguished by the collusion of some Polish Jews with Nazi atrocities than he was with that of Polish gentiles. He viewed the most despicable, cruel and heinous crime of the Nazis to be that of murdering the soul of those Jews who were coerced to serve as kapos and police operatives. Given the duress of their plight, he did not stand in judgment, but rather considered them to be the most mutilated victims of Nazi barbarism.
Eventually, more than 20 years ago, while still embracing Canada as the most wisely tolerant country on the planet, we moved to Israel. I visit my parents’ graves just north of Haifa, every month, and recall these many lessons.
While it seems incongruous to us that freedom to study the true facts of Polish involvement in the Holocaust could be curbed by restrictive legislation, this is a separate issue of infringement on freedom of speech and democracy. Poland is showing deference to Israeli and Jewish sensitivities in the current still-controversial proposed amendment, which reduces conflation of Polish involvement with Nazi atrocity from a criminal to a civil offense. The Polish reactive outcry at being put in the same basket as the ultimate evil of Nazi Germany with terms such as “Polish death camps” should be understood, most of all by Jews.
There are fewer and fewer survivors, but the six million who were exterminated cry out for truth and justice. Such truth cannot be achieved by misappropriating the source and perpetrators of ultimate evil, nor by turning a sacred memory into a blame-and-victimhood competition. It is time to honor the memory of six million people who were murdered only because they were Jews, in a way that is respectful of truth and avoids grandstanding and distortion.
As if it wasn’t dark enough, it seems that some “want it darker” by politicizing the Holocaust. As Elie Wiesel put it, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” This is why I feel the need today to bring the firsthand testimony of my beloved parents, which may shed a different light on the painful, but sacred search for truth.
When Poland amends the Holocaust law, the only child of Holocaust survivors brings the firsthand testimony of his parents.