In a 1970 article, pioneering Polish-Jewish historian Szymon Datner estimated that 200,000 Jews died at the hands of Poles during World War II. Attempting to flee the Germans’ cattle cars and camps, they found their deaths after being handed over to the authorities, informed upon while in hiding, or through murder by their Polish neighbors.
From 1942 to 1945, according to Datner’s calculations, of the 250,000 Jews who attempted to escape the Germans in occupied Poland, only 10-16 percent survived.
A Jewish Holocaust survivor himself, Datner eventually became the head of the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw and worked as a historian for the precursor to Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). But were he alive today, he would potentially be prosecuted for his scholarly findings.
On February 6, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law amendments to the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation Act.
Among its amendments is this controversial section of the bill: “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 3 years.”
With its vague language, this amendment could be read as mandating that Datner, a respected historian who worked for the institute the bill is named for, be locked up.
In a scathing oped following the president’s announcement, historian Jan T. Gross denounced the law, stating that rather than protect Poland’s reputation, its “ultimate goal is to falsify the history of the Holocaust.” Gross, it should be noted, has himself already been questioned on at least three occasions over unflattering factual statements about Poles’ actions during World War II.
To be clear, there is no debate over the fact that Poles were instrumental in saving Jews. Over 6,700 Poles — more than any other country — have been honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum as Righteous Among the Nations: individuals who endangered their own lives to save those of Jews.
In recent years, however, researchers have uncovered increasing evidence of a darker side to the interactions of Jews and Poles during WWII. And their work has been met with growing criticism and outright rejection by the many Poles who are under the impression that their forefathers acted entirely honorably during the war.
As Holocaust history is in danger of politicization, Polish-Jewish dialogue is becoming increasingly dissonant. It is “a subject that defies simplistic characterization and is fraught with emotion,” said Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, the chief editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. He applauded the “courageous” work of Polish historians in discovering uncomfortable facts.
“A certain segment of Polish academia distinguished itself by the courageous and candid way in which it dealt with the complex question of how Poles confronted the German designs to annihilate the Jews in their midst.
“The excruciating historiography that emerged from their research has no parallel anywhere in post-Communist Europe, and has given us vast insight into the horrifying tragedy played out in wartime Poland,” said Weinbaum.
Havi Dreifuss, a Tel Aviv University scholar and director of Yad Vashem’s center for research on the Holocaust in Poland, stated unequivocally this week, “We know that some Poles were involved in the murder of Jews on a few occasions.”
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, both Poles in uniform and individual citizens were complicit in condemning their Jewish neighbors to death. “Poland was brutally occupied by the Germans… As German forces implemented the killing, they drew upon some Polish agencies, such as Polish police forces and railroad personnel, in the guarding of ghettos and the deportation of Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often helped in the identification, denunciation, and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from the associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.”
Most notably, there was the notorious slaughter of hundreds of Jews locked in a burning barn in Jedwabne, as well as similar acts in other parts of Łomża County during the summer of 1941. In those places, local Poles were “very involved in the murder of their Jewish neighbors,” said Dreifuss.
Later, after war’s end, as part of the post-war anti-Semitic wave that washed over Europe, there were some pogroms in Poland, of which Kielce is the best known. In 1946, Poles slaughtered some 40 Holocaust survivors in Kielce and wounded another 40. Hundreds more were killed in other places after the liberation of Poland, said Dreifuss.
“Those two events — pogroms like Kielce and the events in Łomża County — were perpetrated at specific times and places,” said Dreifuss. “What is being studied lately is something else entirely: In the past few years, Polish researchers are trying to understand what happened to the Jews, between 1942 and 1945, who were fleeing the Nazis.”
Dreifuss said that the first to refer to the scope of this phenomenon was the Polish-Jewish historian Datner, who came up with 200,000 as the number of Jews who perished at the hands of Poles.
“Current research shows they were lost not only because the Germans were hunting for the Jews, but because of a deep involvement of Poles from all parts of society. Sometimes the Jews were caught and handed to the Germans, or were caught and handed to the Blue Police [Polish police force in German occupied Poland]. And some were killed by Poles,” said Dreifuss.
Of the tens of thousands who tried to flee — most were killed, and Poles were very involved
“Of the tens of thousands who tried to flee — most were killed, and Poles were very involved,” emphasized Dreifuss.
The Poles’ motivations in slaughtering or handing over their Jewish neighbors were varied, said Dreifuss.
“It was not always anti-Semitism. In many occasions it was greed, fear, quarrels, revenge. There were many different reasons,” she said. “You can’t limit or summarize the acts of communities in statistics. There were many reasons for assisting — and harming — Jews.”
For scholars, the full spectrum of interactions between Jews and Poles is of interest.
Jan Grabowski’s 2013 “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland” and Barbara Engelking’s 2016 “Such a Beautiful Sunny Day… — Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945,” depict the oftentimes grim and gruesome “welcome” afforded Jews who sought help from their Polish neighbors. They both also devote chapters to Poles who saved Jews.
In “Hunt for the Jews,” Grabowski describes chilling episodes in documents that portray a Polish resident of Bagienica called Przędział, who discovered a pair of Jews hiding in the forest near his home. Based on the book, a Guardian article denouncing the new legislation described this scene: “After he betrayed them, Przędział demanded his reward from the German occupiers: 2kg of sugar. The rate varied. In some places it was 500 złoty for every Jew. Elsewhere it was two coats, formerly worn by Jews, for each Jew brought in.”
Not a flattering depiction of a Pole’s wartime efforts.
Grabowski, a history professor at the University of Ottawa, told The Times of Israel this week that his work has received a lot of criticism, “although usually based on the rejection of knowledge and not on questioning of the facts.”
Among other fields, the historian has investigated the number of Jews who died at the hands of Poles.
Grabowski explained that Szymon Datner’s calculations were based upon an “intuition” that in 1942, 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were still alive in Poland, of which 10 percent attempted to flee the ghettos. Only some 50,000 lived until the liberation.
These figures, said Grabowski, “were intuitive, without any research other than his own speculation.” Decades after Datner’s calculations, however, a large research team led by Grabowski and Engelking “were able to confirm Datner’s estimates,” said Grabowski.
“Having studied, over the last five years, nine counties in Poland, we were able to confirm that Datner was not far off the mark,” said Grabowski.
The team’s research will be published in March in the two-volume compendium, “NIGHT without an END: Fate of Jews in selected counties of occupied Poland.” Written by a group of scholars from the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, it is expected to give a much more detailed account and breakdown of the Jews’ fates in those years.
As a web page for the book states, “The numbers speak for themselves: two out of every three Jews who attempted to seek shelter among the gentiles, died.
“The studies included in the two presented volumes provide ample evidence of the important, and previously underestimated levels of the scale of the complicity of certain segments of the Polish society in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors and co-citizens.”
But will the Polish scholars’ comprehensive work be accepted by their own countrymen?
When fact becomes ‘opinion’
In 2001, the Polish president apologized for the notorious, well-documented massacre of Jews in Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors. President Aleksander Kwaśniewski apologized on behalf of himself and the Polish people, “whose conscience is touched” by the crime, he said.
By 2014, however, when asked by a television interviewer about the fact that Poles burned Jews in a barn in Jedwabne, the current Education Minister Anna Zalewska appeared to believe that this was “opinion.”
Dreifuss said that one of the sad results of the latest debate over the new legislation pushed forward by Zalewska’s Law and Justice party is the rise of some anti-Semitic voices, which are now heard in Poland after a period of being muted.
“It is troubling to think that this quarrel or discussion about the law, what it has awakened within some parts of the Polish population,” said Dreifuss.
Weinbaum, who in May 2008 was decorated by former president Lech Kaczyński with the Złoty Krzyż Zasługi (Gold Cross of Merit) for his ongoing contributions in fostering Polish–Jewish dialogue, said he is saddened by today’s rhetorical atmosphere.
“We are today witness to a widespread recrudescence of the crude and blistering rhetoric that characterized the worst days of 1968 — when most of the Jewish remnant remaining in Poland was compelled to leave. Those spearheading this contentious law, ostensibly anti-Communists, are, paradoxically, seeking to curtail the hard-earned civil rights for which Poles fought and died in the struggle against Communist tyranny.
“At the end of the day, however, it is up to Poles themselves to determine the ambiance in their own country. There is no denying that the present situation constitutes a great, perhaps even the greatest, challenge to the Polish-Jewish dialogue that was pioneered in the 1980s. Sadly, many ‘veterans’ of this encounter feel deeply disappointed and disillusioned.”
Poland is not acting in a bubble, however. Said Weinbaum, “The wild assertions of some of the Israelis who have weighed in with sweeping charges of Polish culpability for the Holocaust, and erroneous, disparaging declarations about the provenance of Auschwitz have also done their part to inflame passions.”
Fact: 90% of Poland’s Jewish community was exterminated during the Holocaust. Current Polish opinion: The Poles had it worse during WWII.
“The majority of the Polish society believes today that Polish suffering at the time of war was equal or greater than the suffering of the Jews,” said historian Grabowski. “I am not trying to be facetious; these are recent polls.”
With that in mind, it is perhaps understandable that the revised anti-defamation legislation is receiving a warm welcome in Poland today.
It is laudable to be accurate in language when describing the Holocaust. A push to recognize that Auschwitz was a German extermination camp in Occupied Poland and not a “Polish death camp” has across-the-board support on the diplomatic front and among Holocaust scholars.
But the ripple effect of legislating language is likewise potentially far-reaching.
“This law will freeze debate and research into the history of the Shoah, of that I am certain,” said Grabowski.
In his op-ed, historian Gross stated, “The Polish authorities want to gag any debate about the complicity of Poles in the persecution of Jewish citizens, making it illegal to discuss the issue ‘publicly and against the facts.'”
The Polish Center for Holocaust Research published a statement expressing its “deep concern” about the law, which it calls “a tool intended to facilitate the ideological manipulation and imposition of the history policy of the Polish state.”
At Yad Vashem, too, there is concern over the possible side effects of the vague wording of the new legislation and its repercussions in the areas of Holocaust research, education and remembrance.
The Polish scholars leading the charge for factual truth, said Dreifuss, are the “leading edge of Holocaust research, not only in Poland, but across the world.” Added Weinbaum, “Sadly, those unflinching scholars are now being vilified and their findings called into question.”
What is at stake is the democratic principle of academic freedom.
“In normal places, research is not accepted or rejected by governments,” said Dreifuss. “If there are changes occurring in Poland, or in any country, where a scholar’s work will need the approval of the government, that is a very bad sign.”