WARSAW — Seventy-three years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — the infamous Nazi death camp that has come to symbolize the Holocaust — Poles are still struggling to understand their own role in Germany’s wartime genocide of European Jews on Polish soil.
A bill passed this week by the right-wing dominated Polish parliament — designed to defend the country’s image abroad by criminalizing the erroneous phrase “Polish death camps” — has backfired, sparking an unprecedented diplomatic row with Israel and sharp criticism from the US and the global Jewish community.
While the critics acknowledge there was no official collaboration between the then-occupied Polish state and Nazi Germany, they regard the bill as an attempt to forget, or even deny, the complicity of many Poles in the killing of the Jews during the Holocaust.
Though the law specifically forbids blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes, it also leaves the door open to prosecute anyone who “grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes,” according to the text of the bill, which passed the Senate early Thursday. President Andrzej Duda has 21 days to sign it into law.
On Wednesday, the US State Department warned that the bill could have “repercussions” on “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships — including with the United States and Israel.”
Before Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it was a Jewish heartland, with a centuries-old community numbering some 3.2 million, or around 10 percent of the country’s population.
Under Nazi occupation during World War II, Poland lost some six million of its citizens — including three million Jews — in the Holocaust.
The vast majority of Jews perished in ghettos and concentration and death camps set up by the Nazis in occupied Poland, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka.
Although the exact number is difficult to determine, tens of thousands of Jews were also either killed or given up to the Nazis by Poles holding anti-Semitic views.
Executors and executed
On the other hand, the Polish state in exile and the Polish resistance sought, in a clandestine but highly organized way, to save Jews by setting up the “Zegota” network in 1942.
The resistance also issued death sentences on Poles who collaborated with the Nazis or denounced Jews to them.
The Polish resistance and government-in-exile in Britain were also the first to inform Allied powers, including the United States, about Nazi Germany’s ongoing genocide of European Jews.
Germany set up a monstrous killing machine on Polish soil, with ghettos and death and concentration camps that claimed an estimated 5.7 million lives, half of whom were Polish Jews.
But others Polish Jews perished at the hands of their non-Jewish neighbors.
Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross triggered shock in Poland in 2001 with his book Neighbors, in which he revealed that in 1941, during the Nazi German occupation, several hundred Jews were massacred by their Polish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne.
Between 340 and 1,500 Jews died during the massacre, according to historians.
A Polish investigation concluded in 2003 that the killings were indeed committed by Polish villagers at the instigation of German Nazis.
Many of the victims, including women and children, were burned alive after villagers led them into an emptied barn and set it alight with kerosene as German officers shot those who tried to escape.
The revelations on Jedwabne caused widespread soul-searching in Poland as they shattered an entrenched national belief that all Poles were never anything other than victims of the Nazis.
About 15 other similar crimes, involving a smaller number of Jews and perpetrated in the same region, have since been mentioned by historians.
‘Spectrum of behavior’
At the same time, thousands of other Jews were saved by Poles who risked their lives for them.
Helping Jews was punishable by death in occupied Poland.
During the Holocaust “we witnessed unimaginable heroism and the most abject betrayal in Poland, as well as the whole spectrum of behaviors in between,” according to Jewish intellectual Konstanty Gebert, a commentator at Poland’s leading liberal Gazeta Wyborcza daily.
“To save one Jew, it took the complicity of five to seven Poles on average,” Gebert told AFP.
The number of Jews who survived thanks to the Poles is estimated by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial at about 35,000, or 1% of the pre-war Polish Jewish population.
Yad Vashem has recognized more than 26,500 people who saved Jews from the Holocaust, including more than 6,700 Poles.