Catherine Chatterley

There Were No Polish Death Camps

Several of my students have recently asked me if there were Polish death camps.

And I have explained to them: no, there were no Polish death camps.

There were six death camps built by Nazi Germany and they were all located in Poland, as it was the country with the largest Jewish community in Europe.

The Poles had nothing to do with building these killing facilities designed to annihilate European Jewry, and in the case of Auschwitz (the largest death camp), Poles were incarcerated as prisoners in Auschwitz I by the Germans — about 140,000 in total, 64,000 of whom died or were killed there.

Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau, is the extermination camp where Jews were unloaded from trains and sent through Mengele’s selections toward the gas chambers or into slave labour barracks. Auschwitz III was a synthetic rubber factory known as Monowitz, which used slave labour for the German war effort. These three camps covered an area of approximately 40 square km and were surrounded by 44 satellite slave-labour camps.

These are historical facts — based on a huge evidentiary record studied meticulously by professional historians for over seven decades now.

I cannot blame my students for being confused as most of them pick up their knowledge from the news media via social media and the Internet, or are exposed to public “Holocaust education” in schools, which is more concerned with “inclusion” and “diversity” than in providing a detailed and accurate account of Hitler’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Doing so, of course, would require a discussion about antisemitism, which would require actual knowledge about 2000 years of Western history (and earlier if you think the phenomenon existed in antiquity).

I am always surprised by how interested my students are in the details, the documentation, the evidence, and how relieved they appear to be once they have heard substantive, scholarly answers to their questions. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s like the yawning chasm between an eight-course meal prepared by a Michelin 3-star Chef and going through the drive-through at McDonalds.

As for the Polish government’s attempt to criminalize language, we will have to wait and see what the president decides to do with the bill just passed by the senate — he has 21 days to make a decision. One thing is for sure: the frustration of the Poles is showing, and people should take that seriously. The Polish nation was not responsible for the Holocaust — that is the point some people are trying to make and that is what should be acknowledged as the truth. Individual Poles collaborated with the Nazi occupation of Poland, and they also participated in antisemitic activities and killed Jews. Individual Poles also saved Jews, at considerable risk to themselves and their own families. It’s a complicated and painful history.

The post-Soviet states of eastern Europe are still in a process of wrestling with the Nazi and Soviet pasts, and the enormous crimes committed by both regimes. This region of Europe is tired of being painted as if it were Nazi Germany, and the third generation, now in their 30s, are searching for new independent national identities and looking toward the future rather than fixating on the past.

There are major historical shifts taking place in the world today, and Europe is no exception — both east and west. As I have written elsewhere (“Leaving the Post-Holocaust Period: The Effects of Anti-Israel Attitudes on Perceptions of the Holocaust,” in Alvin Rosenfeld’s Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: The Dynamics of Delegitimization [Indiana University Press, forthcoming]): we are no longer living in the post-Holocaust period of history. In many ways, we are living in a post-9/11 world and that is a dramatic difference.

About the Author
Dr. Chatterley is a Canadian historian of Modern Europe trained at the University of Chicago. She is Editor-in-Chief of Antisemitism Studies and Founding Director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA). An award-winning writer, she specializes in the study of European history, with particular emphasis on the history of antisemitism and the dynamic relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Western history.
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