The Polish parliament (Sejm) is proposing a new law banning the use of the term “Polish death camps” to refer to the extermination camps on Polish soil during World War II. If used intentionally, punishment will be a three-year prison sentence. If used casually, a heavy fine will be imposed.
What motivates Polish nationality to invent and to pass such a law? The historical fact is that almost all of the many death camps in occupied Europe were built in Poland. There were no crematoria or gas chambers in occupied France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Czechoslovakia or any other nation invaded by Nazi troops. Not even in Germany itself nor it’s ally Austria. Auschwitz (Oswieciem, Birkenau (Brzezinka), Treblinka, Sobibor, Maidanek, Chelmno and others were built only in Poland. Why?
Because the Nazis knew of historical anti-Semitism in Poland for centuries and were convinced that the Poles would not rebel against death camps for Jews and others on their soil. While Poland did not collaborate with Nazi Germany as did Lithuania and Ukraine, many Polish citizens betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Gestapo, many blackmailed Jews for silence, and many stole Jewish property. But on the other hand, Yad Vashem recognizes six thousand Christian Poles who risked their lives to aid and to save Jews.
So when we speak of the Polish death camps we do not infer that they were built nor aided by Polish people; only that the Nazi camps were built in Poland.
In his 2001 monumental book, the Polish-Jewish historian, Jan Tomas Gross, professor of Polish history at Princeton University and a recipient of the Polish Medal of Merit, wrote NEIGHBORS: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN JEDWABNE IN 1941.
In it he describes a massacre committed against the Jews of that town by Catholic Polish neighbors. 350 Jedwabne Jews were herded into a large barn, doors locked, and the building set on fire burning all the Jews to their deaths.
Polish historians today deny that claim and insist that the Nazis forced innocent Poles to round up their Jewish neighbors to be burned alive. Jan T. Gross’s book sets the record straight by providing legal documents and Polish records of the massacre, including testimony of some Catholics in Jedwabne who were witnesses to the massacre.
In 2006, Random House Publishing and the Princeton University Press published Gross’s newest history, FEAR: ANTI-SEMITISM IN POLAND AFTER AUSCHWITZ.
In it he documents the tragic pogrom in the city of Kielce in 1946. Surviving Jews from the death camps made their way back in 1946 to their home-city of Kielce in hopes of finding their homes and reclaiming their property. Cries from the Polish masses of “Zydzie do Palestina”… Jews, Go to Palestine… an anti-Semitic cry instituted in the early 1930’s by the Polish Cardinal Augustus Hlond, were heard once again after the war on the streets of Kielce.
Cardinal Hlond was a notorious Jew-hater. In the late twenties he issued proclamations to all the Catholic churches in Poland to be read at Sunday Mass to the worshippers stating that it was permissible for Poles to boycott all Jewish stores, places of business, doctors and lawyers, and all Jews. The one exception was that the Cardinal stated “it is, however, forbidden to kill or to physically harm the Jews”. The Jews, of course, were to remain visible as the murderers of the Christian savior.
In July 1946, forty-two Jews were murdered by Poles in the city of Kielce. Other murders of returning Jewish Holocaust survivors by Polish neighbors occurred in Lomza, a city near Bialystok.
Polish perfidy against its twenty percent Jewish population is historical fact. Hundreds of history books verify and testify to that truth.
But for today’s Polish parliament to pass such a law as is now proposed is a disgrace.
Most of today’s younger generation in Poland are friendly to the Jews and are interested and committed to learning about the people who lived in and contributed to their country for one thousand years.
Jewish book festivals, song and dance festivals, particularly in Krakow, are attended every year by thousands of non-Jewish Poles. There is an active Jewish community, synagogues, Yiddish theatre and Jewish cultural events which attract many thousands of Polish non-Jews.
Today’s Poland is not the Poland I knew in 1969. The Poles were still shouting “Zydzie do Palestina” and many Polish Jews did indeed leave for the shores of Israel. And today Poland and Israel have good economic and cultural relations.
But the perfidy of Polish history must never be forgotten and can never be denied. History demands the truth. And so do the Jewish people.