WARSAW, Poland (AFP) — Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — the infamous Nazi camp which has come to symbolize the Holocaust — Poles still bristle at the erroneous phrase “Polish death camps” when people talk about the wartime genocide of European Jews.
Six million Polish citizens, half of whom were Jewish, perished under German occupation during World War II.
While Poland played no role in planning, creating or running German death camps, Poles are still uncovering other wartime crimes committed by their countrymen against Jews.
Poles demonstrated “incredible heroism and extreme betrayal, as well as a range of behaviors between the two” during the war, according to Konstanty Gebert, an intellectual pillar of Poland’s small Jewish community.
Thousands of Jews perished at the hands of their Polish neighbors during the war, particularly in rural areas. But thousands of Poles also risked the death penalty for their entire families to save Jews.
“To save one Jew required the cooperation of five to seven Poles,” said Gebert, underscoring the scale of the risks people took.
More than 6,000 Poles have been honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem institute, the title given to non-Jews who stood up to Nazi genocide — outnumbering any other nationality.
In 1942, the Polish resistance provided Allied powers and Jewish community leaders in the US with the first detailed eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. Inexplicably, Washington and London failed to act.
Uncovering wartime crimes committed by Poles against Jews was put on hold for 50 years as Poland’s post-war communist regime kept the topic taboo.
But progress has been made since the advent of democracy in 1989.
Historians uncovered the horrific crime of Jedwabne, a village in the northeast, where in 1941 Polish peasants locked up hundreds of their Jewish neighbours, including women and children, in a barn and burned them alive.
The crime — which historians also say was incited by the Nazis — prompted shock among Poles and a presidential apology in 2001.
Fifteen similar crimes with fewer victims in the same region have since come to light.
The motives varied. Anyone hiding Jews in occupied Poland risked the death penalty for their entire family.
Greed also played a role as did anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda. Some Poles also regarded the enthusiasm displayed by some Jews for the 1939 invasion of Poland by Soviet troops as treason.
There is no exact figure for the number of Jews killed, or handed over to the Nazis, by their Polish neighbors.
Historians agree there were thousands, but insist Poles played no role in orchestrating the genocide of six million European Jews perpetrated by Nazi Germany.
“There is no evidence to back opinions that… unfriendly attitudes of Poles towards Jews favored the installation of the death camps” in Poland, Stanislaw Krajewski, a Warsaw University professor and member of the Polish capital’s Jewish community, told AFP.
“Installing the camps in Poland was convenient, as it had Europe’s largest Jewish population and the occupying regime was much more ruthless here than it was in Western Europe,” he said.
“Those opinions are rooted in the memories of the antipathy displayed by some Poles toward Jews. But there is a great distance from antipathy to murder, and even more so between antipathy and the creation of a death factory like Auschwitz,” said Krajewski, who is also co-president of an organisation for dialogue with Christians.
Between 1940 and 1945 some 1.1 million people, including one million Jews, perished in the twin death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau built by the Nazis in Oswiecim, southern Poland.
Warsaw is still extremely sensitive to how Poland’s wartime history is presented in the West.
A barrage of criticism by Polish leaders prompted United States President Barack Obama to admit his error in May 2012 after he used the phrase “Polish death camp” to describe a German concentration camp in occupied Poland.
“This is a defective memory code, often rooted in ignorance. We have a moral duty to correct it,” Poland’s deputy foreign minister Artur Nowak-Far told AFP.