Joanne Palmer
Joanne Palmer

Remind me — where was that ghetto?

A Jewish Standard story that I wrote about the town of Worms, in Germany, which told, in part, the story of Eric Mayer’s family, brought this somewhat ungrammatical emailed response:

“There is an unfortunate and misleading inaccuracy in this article. The mistake was probably inadvertent.

“About half way down, sentence at the end of the paragraph: ‘He was shipped to a Polish ghetto and was murdered in Sobibor in 1943.’

“The fact is that the ghettos were not Polish and must not be described in this way. The ghettos were created by GERMANY during WW2 when Germany had invaded Poland and there was a brutal German OCCUPATION. In no way should the ghettos be described as Polish since this implies a false ownership and/or responsibility. Sobibor was a German camp.

“Poland did not surrender to, or collaborate with, the German Nazis.

“There is also this misleading quote: ‘At the end of March 1941 he was deported to Poland.’ No, he was not. He was ‘deported’ by the Germans to German occupied Poland.

“The principle and important distinction is similar to misleading phrases such as ‘Polish concentration/death camp’. These descriptions must NOT be used. They are considered inaccurate and offensive. The issue is well documented and most responsible media have in-house style guides to try and prevent such factual/historical errors.

“I would suggest that the word ‘Polish’ is removed from that sentence. If you wish to add a geographical context than ‘Nazi ghetto in German occupied Poland’ would be more truthful and accurate.

“Please try to remember the difference between the perpetrators and the victims.”

The email was signed by Chris Jezewski, who did not give any more information about himself.

So what are we to think? When I showed Mr. Mayer the email, he sighed. First, he said, Mr. Jezewski technically is correct. Second, he said, there are people who spend a great deal of time setting their Google alerts for stories about Holocaust atrocities, and then demanding that any inaccuracies they claim to find be corrected.

That observation seems to be confirmed by the comments below my story. Each one seems to been taken from the same script, each writer offended by my calling a ghetto in a Polish city a Polish ghetto.

Mr. Mayer also added that Polish anti-Semitism is showing itself again, as the disturbing results of a 2014 poll conducted by the Center for Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University make clear. The new right-wing government that won a majority in the Polish Parliament in October is causing alarm among many groups, including the ones that monitor for anti-Semitism.

Then there is my own reaction. To begin with, we are English speakers. A ghetto in Poland is a Polish ghetto. We do not feel the need to describe a word’s history or define its parameters every time we use it. Yes, the ghettos were in German-occupied Poland. In plain English, that is Poland. Mr. Jezewski is correct — but so am I.

Second, the specter of Poles or their apologists policing Jewish newspapers, trolling for political incorrectness, is a bit much. “Please try to remember the difference between the perpetrators and the victims,” Mr. Jezewski writes, as if the prewar relationship between Poles and Jews involved shared parties and backyard barbecues. Yes, the relationships were complex, as human relationships always are. Yes, the two communities, Jews and Poles, were interconnected. Yes, there were righteous Gentiles among the Poles who saved Jews. But to pretend that the deepest truth of that relationship was all hearts and unicorns is to be profoundly dishonest. The years after Poland’s independence after World War I saw a dramatic increase in pogroms, for example, especially in Vilna and Lvov.

Nor should we think that the war, the Shoah, and Poland’s liberation cleared the air. Two terrible pogroms soon followed. In August 1945, one that began in Cracow — which, pace Mr. Jezewski, it is safe to think of as a Polish city then, no? or do we blame it all on the Soviet Union? — ended with about 350 dead Jews. In July 1946, a pogrom in Kielce ended with about 42 Jews dead and a similar number wounded.

Shall we blame the Germans for that too?

So, Mr. Jezewski, I am sorry to have offended you. I will try to remember that the shorthand “Polish ghettos” and “Polish concentration camps” are not as technically accurate as “ghettos in German-occupied Poland” and “German concentration camp in German-occupied Poland.”

But I might just forget and slip back into my native English.


About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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