1946 US report said ‘Poles persecuted the Jews as vigorously as did the Germans’

Post-war declassified State Department document found long history of Polish anti-Semitism before, during and after Holocaust

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz death camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945.  (AP Photo/ File)
A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz death camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)

A US State Department report from May 15, 1946, found “evidence that Poles persecuted the Jews as vigorously as did the Germans” during the World War II Nazi occupation of Poland.

The declassified report was distributed Thursday by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the same day that a Polish law making it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of Nazi-era atrocities took effect. Also Thursday, senior Israeli and Polish diplomats met in Jerusalem in a bid to resolve differences over the law.

The report highlights Polish anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, and traces it back to a long history of Polish anti-Jewish legislation before World War II and anti-Jewish activities by Poles during the Holocaust.

The 1946 document “analyzes the policies of the Polish Government, the current anti-Semitic manifestations, and the possibilities for Jewish survival in Poland” in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.

The report found that “native Poles” abetted the activities of the Germans during World War II.

The report, which was declassified in August 1983, speaks of anti-Semitism as “a traditional feature of Polish political and economic life,” saying that “the continuance of the conflict between the Government and the opposition in Poland is conducive to a resurgence of anti-Semitism, which is easily employed as a weapon in this conflict.”

The State Department conceded that following the Holocaust, “the government has made anti-Semitism a crime,” but, it said, “the outrages continue, although on a somewhat reduced scale.”

During a 2001 memorial service in the Polish town Jedwabne, Jews commemorate the WWII murder of its Jewish community by Polish neighbors. (Wikimedia Commons)

The document says that since the early nineteenth century, life for the Polish Jewish community — the largest in Western Europe — was made difficult by anti-Semitism.

“Religious and economic in its origins, Polish anti-Semitism was preached by political parties and church heads and practiced by officials high and low,” according to the report. By 1939, on the eve of the Nazi occupation of Poland, “it was one of the distinguishing factors of the country’s political, social and economic life.”

“Because anti-Semitism had already become so ingrained in Polish thought, it is not altogether surprising that it still manifests itself in post-war Poland, although common suffering at the hand of the Germans might have been expected to bring the Poles and the Jews closer together.”

After World War I, Poland became an independent nation which “adopted discriminatory policies towards its Jewish citizens,” including a ban on ritual slaughter, limits on the number of Jewish university students, and discriminatory taxation.

“When Hitler came to power… anti-Semitic elements in Polish political life became more aggressive,” and “by mid-1936 the Government itself… gave approval to the economic boycott of the Jews.”

As a result of this legislation, by 1939, most of the Jews in Poland lived as “second-class citizens” despite having token representation in parliament.

This undated World War II photo released by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial shows a group of German gendarmes. (Yad Vashem via AP)

The Provisional Polish Government in the immediate aftermath of the war was “devoid of the anti-Semitism which had characterized pro-war governments and had marked some elements in the former Government-in-Exile in London.” Still, the government struggled to contain the “hostility toward the Jews [which] is widespread.”

“By mid-1944, widespread anti-Semitism was reported in Lublin and other parts of Poland, attributable at this time to the departing Germans. By April 1945, more reports were current and a dozen Polish towns were named as places where Jews had been killed, allegedly by members of the Polish Home Guard (Armia Krajowa), the armed forces formed by and loyal to the Government-in-Exile. These sporadic instances finally culminated in two fairly large-scale anti-Semitic incidents: at Rzoszov on June 11 and at Cracow on August 11, 1945.” According to official figures, “fascist gangsters” had killed 352 Jews in Poland since the liberation.

The Polish legislation enacted Thursday calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing the crimes of the Nazis to the Polish state or nation. The bill would also set fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.

One key paragraph of the law states: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”

The legislation, proposed by Poland’s conservative ruling party, has sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which says it will inhibit free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposes the legislation, warning it could hurt Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.

Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors and Israeli officials fear its true aim is to repress research on Poles who killed Jews during World War II. The law and subsequent backlash to it have unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland.

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