Understanding Poland's legitimate concerns

Poles overwhelmingly acquiesced to Nazi rule in good part because of their legitimate fears.

‘SHOES’ STARTS out with a pair of women’s shoes in a store window and follows their journey all the way to Auschwitz (pictured). (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)
‘SHOES’ STARTS out with a pair of women’s shoes in a store window and follows their journey all the way to Auschwitz (pictured).
There has been universal criticism of the proposed Polish legislation “to protect Poland’s reputation and ensure historians recognize that Poles as well as Jews perished.” The law seeks to punish those who consider the Polish people complicit with the Nazi extermination of Polish Jewry. While the law makes exceptions for the arts and research, many rightly fear it threatens research critical of the behavior of Polish individuals or organizations.
Unfortunately, most critics ignore Poland’s legitimate concerns and instead exaggerate Polish behaviors that facilitated the Holocaust. This is most clearly reflected in a Washington Post essay by two academic researchers, Volha Charnysh and Evgeny Finkel, who wrote: “It’s true that the German Nazi regime planned, organized, and oversaw the murder of 6 million Jews. But that effort would have failed without local collaboration. Most Poles neither harmed nor helped their Jewish fellow citizens. Some even heroically rescued Jews.
“But hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews were murdered without setting a foot into a German death camp, often by their neighbors in pogroms and ‘Jew hunts,’ as scholars Jeffrey Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg detailed this week.”
The clear implication is that Polish collaboration was responsible for the killing of large numbers of Polish Jews.
Or as the February 12 issue of Time magazine reported, “The Nazis recruited local collaborators to round up Jews for the camps.” Using the loaded term “collaboration” is unfortunate. After all, there is an entire literature that faults the leadership of many Jewish communities – the Judenrats – for collaborating with the Nazis by agreeing to allow a share of Jews to be sent to death camps. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt claimed that many more Jews would have survived if they were leaderless.
In none of the urban areas where the Nazis set up Jewish ghettos were Polish police used to round up Jews. And unlike in France and Hungary, local Polish police were not responsible for putting Jews on trains headed for the death camps. Indeed, in the death camps there were no Polish guards for at a good number, including Auschwitz, Polish prisoners were interned. While a modest number of individual Poles collaborated and the mistreatment of the remnants of Polish Jewry in the immediate aftermath of the war was unforgivable, none of the functioning Polish institutions or any of the organizations that were part of the Polish government-in-exile collaborated with the Nazi regime in any way.
POLES OVERWHELMINGLY acquiesced to Nazi rule in good part because of their legitimate fears. In Poland, aiding Jews was punishable by death and reprisals against entire communities. By contrast, in Anne Frank’s Holland, aiding Jews only led to individual fines. Given the tens of thousands of Poles sent to Nazi work camps, it is not surprising that Poles pressured neighbors who were hiding Jews. In the overwhelming number of cases, however, these neighbors were not reported but instead these pressures led them to reluctantly ask the Jews to leave.
The reference to “hundreds of thousands” is not from historians but a recent statement made by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and is only accurate if Jews who died in the ghettos as a result of Nazi starvation policies are included.
It is not from Kopstein and Wittenberg, whose research Charnysh and Finkel misrepresent. In discussing the dynamics after the Soviets retreated from Poland, Kostein and Wittenberg reported that “fewer than 10 percent of communities saw pogroms in 1941, and most ordinary gentiles never attacked Jews.”
Just as important, only a quarter of these pogroms were instigated by Poles. The remainder were led by ethnic Ukrainians, a populace that also killed tens of thousands of Poles and actively collaborated with the Nazis, formed Nazi-allied militias and comprised a majority of the guards at Nazi concentration camps in Poland.
Despite the Polish military not taking up arms against the Soviet invaders in 1939, a few hundred thousand Poles were sent to Soviet gulags, and 30,000 of the Polish elite, including thousands of Polish officers, were immediately imprisoned and later executed: the Katyn Massacre. In this context, the Polish Home Army made some unforgivable decisions when the Soviets reentered Poland in 1944. For the first time, it agreed to collaborate with the antisemitic NSZ, which led to the slaughter of Jewish partisans who had survived in the Polish forests.
It also resulted in an ill-advised and ill-timed rising in Warsaw. In retaliation, the Nazis leveled much of the city and carted off 200,000 Polish survivors to forced labor in Germany.
We must strive to bring to light the ways Poles and Polish institutions directly or indirectly aided in the destruction of Polish Jewry. However, as was documented in my coauthored book, Rethinking Poles and Jews: Troubled Past, Brighter Future, the historical record is complex and it is crucial not to overstate Polish complicity nor to underestimate the untenable position the Polish people found themselves in. How could they navigate between Nazi invaders who thought of them as an inferior Slavic race to be treated harshly and an invading Soviet force that would undermine the Catholic Church and traditional Polish institutions? It is unfortunate that the Polish government chose to pass such a problematic law. However, we owe it to the Poles to tell the tragic and complex truth. Only by being sensitive to their legitimate concerns can we reach our desired goal.
The author is Brueklundian Professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.