SUPPORTERS OF the Polish National Radical Camp Party gather in support of the Holocaust bill in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, February 2018.
(photo credit: AGENCJA GAZETA/DAWID ZUCHOWICZ VIA REUTERS)
August 5, 1944, was the fifth day of the Warsaw uprising, the Polish rebellion against the Nazis and one of the biggest uprisings of the Second World War. Armia Krajowa (AK), the Polish underground, had its hands full with desperate fighting across the city, and yet, an AK unit launched one of the boldest and lesser-known rescue operation of Jews in the Holocaust. The Zoska Battalion stormed the Gesiowka concentration camp, gunned down the guards and saved 384 Jewish inmates from liquidation.
Very few Israelis had heard anything about this operation, nor were they taught that the Polish government-in-exile sponsored Zegota, a highly efficient rescue network that saved countless lives during the Holocaust. True, Zegota was recognized by Yad Vashem, yet its exploits are almost unknown to the wider Israeli public. Instead, many Israelis see the Poles as Nazi allies and full partners in the German program to exterminate the Jewish people. As former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir famously said, antisemitism is inherent in Polish tradition.
The Poles “suck it in with their mother’s milk.”
The Polish government and many citizens of Poland are frustrated because they believe such an image distorts their wartime role, and such frustration underlies the controversial law recently approved by the president of the Polish Republic.
This law forbids defamation of Poland’s wartime record, specifically the use of the term “Polish death camps” or assigning criminal responsibility to the Polish state and nation.
The law evoked a storm of rage in the Jewish State and in the Jewish world. Some of this rage is fully justified. The Polish government would indeed like to blur uncomfortable facts, such as the collaboration of too many Poles with the Nazi extermination machine. Unfortunately, wartime Poland had its fair share of collaborators, some of whom had willingly helped to kill Jews. Many fugitives who took refuge outside the ghettos were betrayed by Polish neighbors, and even certain partisan units participated in killings. In certain instances, such as the infamous Jedwabne massacre, Poles killed their Jewish neighbors with minimal German participation.
The Polish record is further stained by the shameful and violent treatment of Holocaust survivors after 1945. But do the Poles share responsibility for the Holocaust not only as individuals, but also as a state and nation? Certainly not as a state. The Polish state was nonexistent during the Nazi occupation. Contrary to other occupied states, such as France and the Netherlands, Poland did not supply the Germans with a collaborationist government. The Polish people were neither allies of the Nazis nor bystanders. Instead, they were subjected to severe persecution, massacres, planned starvation and partial extermination, especially of the upper class.
Three million non-Jewish Poles were murdered or died as a result of Nazi policy and Poland had one of the biggest and most effective anti-Nazi undergrounds in Europe.
This underground and the Polish government-in-exile were not indifferent to the fate of the Jews. The government-in-exile publicized the facts about the Holocaust and cried for world intervention. Zegota, an affiliate organization of the government-in-exile, saved numerous Jews and operated an impressive network of safe houses in monasteries and private apartments. In Poland, the punishment for saving Jews was cruel death for the rescuer and his entire family, while informers were rewarded by the occupation authorities. Yet many thousands of Poles did risk their lives. A single informer was enough to doom a fugitive to death; to save Jews, by contrast, Zegota employed teams of rescuers, runners, hosts, forgers, experts who worked on cover stories and witnesses sworn to support them. Many more knew and yet did not inform.
Notwithstanding the efforts of Zegota, many scholars believe that the Polish underground’s efforts to save Jews were inadequate.
There is at least some justice in such claims. Antisemitism was prevalent in Armia Krajowa (The Home Army, the dominant Polish resistance movement), too, and rescue operations were never its highest priority. In addition, AK commanders were reluctant to supply arms to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, though they did give the Jewish underground a limited amount of guns and provide some military help. During the uprising itself, AK teams supported it with diversionary actions, and even tried to breach the ghetto walls to facilitate the escape of besieged Jews. These efforts failed. More important was the rescue operation in Gesiowka mentioned above.
The underground also helped Jews in another way, by warning the Polish population not to inform on them. Some informers were sentenced to death, but such punishments were carried out relatively late, only from the summer of 1943 onwards.
Historical reality is therefore complex. The Polish law was born not only out of the Polish government’s intention to whitewash the past, but also due to justified frustration. Poles, who were victims of the Nazis, cannot understand why they are being perceived by many Jews as Nazi murderers.
The Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv was right to offer “education” to ignorant Israeli politicians such as Yair Lapid, who brazenly used the term “Polish death camps” in his Twitter feed, yet Poland’s historical image cannot be corrected through legislation and criminal sanctions. Only free discussion can bring to light the complex wartime record of the Polish people, glorious and inglorious chapters alike. The writer is a military historian and senior lecturer in the History and Asian Studies Departments, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.