The Polish joke

In saying that even Jews ‘perpetrated’ the Holocaust, Poland’s prime minister delivered a very unfunny punchline.

POLAND’S PRIME Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (photo credit: REUTERS/MICHAELA REHLE)
POLAND’S PRIME Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
When I was a kid, back in the late 1960s, there was a wave of Polish jokes. I don’t know why, but Poles were seen as stupid the way that, in jokes of a similar vein, Italians were all gangsters and Jews were cheapskates.
If that stereotype still exists, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki didn’t do much to dispel it last weekend when, at the annual Munich Security Conference, he said that alongside Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and, of course, German “perpetrators” of the Holocaust, there were also “Jewish perpetrators.”
This made me sit up and take notice, much the way I did when US President Donald Trump said there had been some “fine people” among those neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
What on earth was he talking about?
THE POLES – and with justification – have grown tired of hearing about “Polish” concentration camps and “Polish” death camps.
These are terms that easily pop into mind when referring to places like Auschwitz or Treblinka. They were, after all, in Poland. Yet they were established by the Nazis.
The esteemed Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt began a 2007 entry in her blog thusly:
“Last week I was in Poland. While there, I kept stressing to the people with whom I was traveling that it is wrong to depict Poland as a place of unending antisemitism or to fall prey to the absurd but, nonetheless, oft-heard comment made by Jews who visit the place, ‘The Poles were worse than the Nazis.’
“Many people, Jews primarily among them, believe the balderdash that the Germans put the death camps in Poland because the Poles would be happy to see the Jews killed. They ignore the fact that to the Germans, Auschwitz was German territory and was to be the site of a major German settlement.”
Toward the end of the entry, Lipstadt addressed the real reason why so many camps were in Poland: “Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno and Belzec were not ‘Polish’ death camps. They were German camps that were placed in Poland by the Germans because that was where most of the victims were.”
She didn’t let the Poles off the hook, though.
“This is not to say, of course, that Poland does not have a long and enduring history of antisemitism. It does…. But then again, so does the Ukraine, Russia and, of course, France. In fact, the late George Mosse, the great historian of European Jewry, was reported to have said that if someone in 1905 described in a prophecy what the Holocaust would be and how it would decimate European Jewry, the logical response would have been: ‘What a terrible thing for France to do.’ (Remember Dreyfus?)
“In fact, when the [Holocaust era] French deportations took place, there was not a German official, officer or uniformed man in sight. All French police. The Germans wanted the foreign adults deported. The French sent them the adults and the children.
“Yet we have no qualms about visiting Paris.”
Paris, of course, has the Eiffel Tower, great culture, terrific food, superb architecture and a mellifluous language to swoon over. I have yet to hear anything of the sort about Warsaw. But more importantly, France has been confronting its wartime treatment of Jews while other European countries have not, or at least not on the same scale. Among these, Poland comes to mind.
PRIME MINISTER Morawiecki’s Munich chatter did not come in a vacuum. Granted, he was speaking in English, and while his English is not bad, it is not his mother tongue.
Did he mean kapos? We all know about those people, the Jews and other prisoners who, in return for better conditions, assisted the Nazis in maintaining order and, in certain instances, running entire sections of camps. To this day, being called a kapo is one of the worst insults you can hear in situations where a reviled administration uses those in its grasp to supervise others.
There were also loose-knit organizations outside the camps, such as the so-called Group 13 from the Warsaw Ghetto. These bodies generally centered around people with criminal backgrounds or otherwise questionable motives and reputations – personality types the Nazis actively sought out to do their bidding among captive populations in return for preferential treatment and even cash (usually before killing them, too).
To be absolutely fair, the only people with every right to condemn the kapos and members of such organizations as Group 13 are those who walked in the very same shoes and had the opportunity to be just like them yet turned it down.
To be just as fair, the Poles have a right to be indignant about the term “Polish camps.” But the fact that they went so far as to outlaw its use might be defined as a kind of Freudian slip, reinforcing the fact that they have a lot more work to do if they’re to honestly confront their wartime actions, or at the very least their wartime attitudes.
YET JEWS as perpetrators of the Holocaust? I’m not convinced it was Mateusz Morawiecki’s less-than-stellar grasp of English. It’s that he lumped Jews together with Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and even Germans, all with long, sorry and sordid histories of Jew-hatred. Anyone who does that has a lot more reading – and soul searching – to do.
Mr. Prime Minister, I don’t think this is something you can merely apologize for. It shows that even at the highest levels of education and intelligence, some things do indeed, as the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir once famously said, get passed along in your mother’s milk. With this, you have merely turned yourself into the latest in a long string of Polish jokes, and with absolutely nothing to laugh about.