Inside Story

In its $1.3t demand from Germany, Poland seeks reparations for Jews killed by Poles

Leading Polish researcher decries government report as ‘political, not historical,’ says its authors willfully ignored Polish involvement in atrocities

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

File: Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, second from right in blue tie, speaks next to Catholic clergymen at the Jedwabne commemoration ceremony, July 11, 2021. (Krzysztof Bielawski)
File: Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, second from right in blue tie, speaks next to Catholic clergymen at the Jedwabne commemoration ceremony, July 11, 2021. (Krzysztof Bielawski)

A report released by the Polish government last week to justify its demands for reparations from Germany for World War II cited the deaths of Jews who were killed by Polish citizens, not Nazis, in an apparent effort to whitewash Polish crimes during the Holocaust.

The third volume of the three-volume, 1,300-plus-page document, “The Report on the Losses Sustained by Poland as a Result of German Aggression and Occupation during the Second World War, 1939–1945,” includes a list of 9,293 villages, towns and cities where “Nazi German atrocities” took place, along with their death tolls. Poland demanded 1.3 trillion euros ($1.29 trillion) in reparations for the damages.

Commenting on the release of the report and the reparations demands, Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said the money was primarily “compensation for the deaths of more than 5.2 million Polish citizens.”

However, included in the list of atrocities are villages that were the sites of Polish pogroms against Jews — perhaps most infamously the village of Jedwabne, where over 300 Jews were burned alive by ethnic Poles — as well as other Jewish deaths that can be tied to Polish citizens. Direct attacks by Poles against Jews were mostly carried out in eastern Poland in 1941 as Germany retook the area from the Soviets, who had controlled it brutally from 1939 under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

Jan Grabowski, a Polish-born professor at the University of Ottawa and leading researcher of the Holocaust, called the inclusion of those atrocities in the list “quite appalling.”

“I really have no idea whether it was an act of intentional obfuscation or simply mindless inclusion of unreliable sources dating back to the 1950 and 1960s. Not for me to say,” he told The Times of Israel in an email on Thursday.

Elsewhere, however, Grabowski accused the report’s authors of intentionally ignoring Polish crimes against Jews and rejected the report as propagandistic.

“It is a purely political document with no historical value,” he said.

In recent years, Poland has waged a highly contentious effort to frame the Holocaust as a crime perpetrated solely by Germany, passing a law in 2019 making it illegal to blame the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. The law, along with Poland’s other efforts on that front, has put it at odds with leading Holocaust researchers — including Grabowski, who has been sued under it in Polish civil court — and with Israel. This summer, for instance, Israel announced it was halting its high schools’ trips to Poland to learn about the Holocaust, in large part due to the Polish government’s insistence that it sign off on the curriculum, which Israel understood to mean removing discussions about Polish collaborators.

Indeed, the report published earlier this month makes no mention of crimes against Jews by Polish civilians and Polish authorities, despite there being ample historical evidence of such actions.

Historian Jan Grabowski. (Courtesy)

“The real and premeditated obfuscation is clearly visible in volume I (‘Historical studies’) from which all Polish responsibility for the Jewish losses has been carefully removed,” Grabowski said.

“In the report, there is, for instance, not even one mention of the infamous Polish ‘Blue Police” responsible for tens of thousands of Jewish deaths. Likewise, there is no word about the Polish Voluntary Firefighters who took part in the liquidations of the ghettos and countless Polish ‘bystanders’ who joined the liquidation actions,” he said.

The Blue Police was a Polish outfit created by Germany after the Nazis captured the country. Though the Blue Police’s record is still debated by historians, some experts in the field have described its treatment of Jews as “contemptuous, and sometimes worse than the Germans.”

Polish volunteer firefighters were occasionally tasked with searching for hiding Jews and handing them over to the Nazis for murder.

In his research, Grabowski has estimated that of the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust — including roughly 3 million Polish Jews — some 200,000 were killed by Poles or due to Polish actions during the Holocaust.

For his research, Grabowski has faced harsh criticism from the Polish government and lawsuits from Polish citizens under the country’s 2019 law.

In addition to the crimes perpetrated by Poles at the direction of the Nazis, like the Blue Police, University of Haifa professor Sara Bender also wrote a seminal piece on the crimes carried out by Polish citizens of their own volition in the summer of 1941, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from eastern Poland.

In the 2013 article, dubbed “Not Only in Jedwabne: Accounts of the Annihilation of the Jewish Shtetlach in Northeastern Poland in the Summer of 1941,” Bender details the pogroms carried out by Poles against their Jewish neighbors in villages throughout the region.

“Poles committed three ‘butcheries’… a total of 300 Jews were murdered… Jewish women appealed to the Polish intelligentsia… but they refused to help… It was the German soldiers who put a stop to the pogrom, having been paid by the Jews,” Bender quoted a survivor from the village of Szczuczyn as recalling.

In the article, Bender included descriptions of similar assaults on Jews by Polish civilians in eight other villages that summer.

Poland’s current right-wing government has rejected attempts to paint Poles as the instigators of crimes against Jews, always placing the ultimate blame on Germany.

The 1,300-page report and demand for 1.3 trillion euros in reparations were the focus of national observances of the anniversary of the war, which began September 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany’s bombing and invasion of Poland, and was followed by more than five years of brutal occupation. Dozens of economists, historians and other experts worked on the report for some five years before its release this month.

Germany has rebuffed Poland’s demands for compensation, referring to a 1953 decision by Poland to renounce claims against East Germany.

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