Let me begin with a statement. The so-called “Polish” death camps were NOT Polish. So let us put that false claim to rest permanently. The only thing “Polish” about them is that they were built on Polish soil by the occupying German Nazi government. There was no collusion and no collaboration. Polish citizens did not aid in the building of the death camps. They were solely the handwork and creation of murderous Germans who sought to hasten the extermination of Europe’s Jews.
Were Poles complicit in the murder of their Jewish citizens? YES! Many thousands of Polish Christians revealed Jewish hiding places to the Nazis in reward for a slice of bread. Many thousands of Polish Christians aided in the reduction of the Jewish population, 10 percent of Poland’s citizenry .
But at the same time, it is vital to remember the decent Poles who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. Under Nazi law, anyone found giving aid or shelter to Jews would be put to death together with members of their families. Some 7,600 Poles were honored by Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem as Righteous Gentiles who endangered their own lives and the lives of their families by helping Jews.
One of the most absolutely outstanding heroines was the sainted nurse and social worker, Irena Sendlerowa (Sendler) who at tremendous personal risk succeeded in taking hundreds of Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto by smuggling them in garbage trucks. She brought them to safety in the homes of hundreds of Polish Christians who hid them for the duration of the war. She is referred to as the “Polish Oscar Schindler”. And we Jews need to remember and to treasure her legacy.
Two of my most personal Polish heroes were the pre-war prime minister, Marshal Josef Pilsudski, a friend of the Jewish people and a staunch enemy of anti-Semitism and Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat in the government-in-exile in Britain. Following orders from the Polish underground, many who organized rescue operations of Jews, Karski sailed to America in dangerous submarine-filled waters of the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in Washington, DC where he met with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Oval Office of the White House.
Karski provided maps and documents showing the destruction of Jewish life in Poland and he revealed information about the notorious death camps on Polish soil. He urged the American president to use force against Nazi Germany and to aid in the rescue of Polish Jews.
President Roosevelt, in the presence of his Jewish Secretary of the Treasury, Felix Frankfurter, replied: “after the war, we will deal with the punishment of the Nazi perpetrators of these crimes”. More than that, the American president did nothing and Jan Karski returned to the Polish government-in-exile down-trodden and empty-handed.
Representatives of the Polish underground worked honorably to help save Jewish lives. But not every Polish citizen was so honorable. Thousands of them betrayed Jews in hiding while some helped Jews in the forests, such as the Bielski group, and shared with them food and information about the location of the Nazi guards.
The matter of the “Polish” death camps is a misnomer. Why were all the Nazi death camps located in Poland and not in other Nazi-occupied European countries? It is because Hitler was aware of the bitter history of Polish-Jewish relations over centuries and he knew about Polish anti-Semitism and Jew- hatred.
He understood that building the death camps in Poland would not create civil upheaval among the Poles.
In fairness to history, it needs to be mentioned that Poles did not serve as guards in the death camps. Ukrainians did. And the Poles did not assist in bringing bodies to the crematoria nor to removing the ashes. That horrible task was performed by Jewish inmates themselves, many of them kapos who aided the Nazis in policing the Jews.
Poland was the first victim of World War II. On September 1, 1939, normal life ceased to exist for every Polish citizen, Jews and Christians alike. And tens of thousands of Polish Christians shared the fate of the Jews in the death camps of their country.
But thousands of perfidious Polish Christians, at the end of the war in 1945, continued the slaughter of surviving Jews who had returned from the camps in search of family members, homes and property. They were “greeted” by the Poles who now occupied Jewish homes with wanton murder. The city of Kielce was a tragic story of the public massacres of a few dozen Jews who had returned and who wanted their occupied homes, only to be met with slaughter.
It is reminiscent of the crimes of many of the Polish villagers of Jedwabne who rounded up 300 Jews, locked them in a barn and set fire to it, resulting in the murders of the Jews. Now free of Jews, the Poles of Jedwabne could take possession of Jewish homes and property.
At the war’s end, Jedwabne’s Polish citizens blamed the German Nazis for the outrageous crime. But fortunately there were a few righteous Christians who gave testimony that the act was committed by local Polish citizens and not by the Germans.
In 1969, I was an invited guest of the Polish government. While there, I met with several Jews in Warsaw and in Krakow. In Krakow, I had long discussions with the leader of the Jewish community, Maciej Jakubowicz. I asked him why Jews remained in Poland, why they did not emigrate.
He replied that most of the surviving Jewish population was elderly. Many of them had re-married after the war to non-Jews, their roots were in Poland and it would be extremely difficult for them to learn a new language. They were now living comfortable lives under the Polish communist government which allowed them to worship freely in remaining synagogues.
In Warsaw, I discussed the same question with Juliasz Berger, the director of Warsaw’s famed Teatr Zydowski, the Estera Kaminska Yiddish theatre. His mother, Chana Rylska had emigrated to Israel and lived in Holon. He expressed no interest in moving to Israel or Denmark, a popular destination for Polish Jews who had emigration permits.
In one week of July 1969, 327 applications for emigration permits were processed. Only nine were for Israel, the remainder for Denmark, Canada and the United States.
Most of Poland’s surviving Jews had preferred to remain in Poland and to rebuild their lives. Under the post-war regime, open anti-Semitism was a punishable crime. Except when the anti-Semitism emanated from the Polish government!
Now Poland’s Senate has made it a crime punishable by three years imprisonment for anyone who states that Poland was complicit in the extermination of the Jews.
One thousand years of Jewish history in Poland ended with the murder of six million Jews, three million of them Polish Jews.
Jewish life has been revitalized in today’s Poland. Polish Christians attend by the thousands the annual Jewish Cultural Fair sponsored by the city of Krakow. Young Poles are studying Hebrew and many visit in Israel. There is a renewed interest in things Jewish.
But while we can decry the pogroms and massacres of Jews in Polish history, in fairness we need to remember that the extermination camps in Poland were Nazi German death camps… NOT “Polish” death camps.
Perhaps enlightened dialogue between Polish, Jewish and Israeli leaders will create better relationships for us all.