Interview'We all suffered under the German war machine'

Polish official says don’t compare WWII suffering of Poles, Jews: ‘All were victims’

Poland’s deputy FM Pawel Jablonski, visiting Israel as the two countries look to mend ties, says his compatriots are wrongly painted as perpetrators

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Poland’s deputy foreign minister said in Tel Aviv that he saw no justification for distinguishing between the Nazi treatment of Jewish and Christian Poles in World War II.

“Many peoples in Central Europe were also targeted to a very large degree and millions were killed,” Pawel Jablonski told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “It’s not like this is a race over who was the bigger victim. We were all victims. We all suffered under the German war machine. We don’t see a legitimate reason to now compare where this victim suffered more than this victim if we suffered all together.

“There were camps for Catholic priests, for example, and thousands of Polish priests were murdered,” said Jablonski, who oversees Warsaw’s relations with the Middle East and Africa. “It’s not like we want to compete. It’s not like we want to say, oh, we suffered more, we suffered less, but we suffered 15% less, or maybe 20% less. It’s not a race. It’s not like we want to be in some scoreboards who suffered more.”

According to Yad Vashem, around 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland on the eve of the September 1, 1939, German invasion, and only 380,000 survived the war. About 3 million other Polish citizens who weren’t Jewish were also killed during the war; however, they were not systematically targeted as a group in the same way that the Jewish community was.

Jablonski was in Israel at the head of a Polish government delegation as the countries seek to mend their frayed ties. He met National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Foreign Minister Director General Ronen Levy to discuss, according to Warsaw, “stopping the Russian aggression against Ukraine,” as well as bilateral cooperation on economic, cultural and educational matters.

Poland had been one of the most pro-Israel countries in the European Union. But relations deteriorated in 2018, after Poland passed legislation that outlawed blaming the Polish nation for the Holocaust, amid what critics say is a wider effort to paper over Polish complicity with Nazi crimes. Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid called the law antisemitic, touching off a diplomatic row.

Jablonski argued that such narratives distort the history of Poland’s experience in the war, turning the victim into the perpetrator.

“We just want to have it recognized that we are a victim of the Second World War and the fact that a few collaborators were there, as in every nation at the same time,” he said. “We never had a collaboration government, like in France or in other countries, where there were governments collaborating with the Nazis.

“We feel falsely accused of being complicit with something that we are actually the victims of…this is something out of proportion here.”

Poland was the first country invaded and occupied by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s regime during World War II and never had a collaborationist government. Members of Poland’s resistance and government-in-exile struggled to warn the world about the mass killing of Jews, and thousands of Poles risked their lives to help Jews.

However, Holocaust researchers have collected ample evidence of Polish people who murdered Jews who were fleeing the Nazis, and Polish blackmailers who preyed on helpless Jews for financial gain.

Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Yacov Livne, told The Times of Israel that, like that of other countries in Europe, Poland’s record during the war is mixed.

“I believe most scholars today agree – and this is probably true for Poland and for other countries occupied by Nazi Germany – that there was a minority that saved Jews, and there were others that collaborated,” he said.

Israeli Ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne pays his respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw on July 12, 2022. (Courtesy)

Last year Poland sent an official missive to Germany demanding $1.3 trillion in reparations for the Nazi occupation of the country in 1939-1945. Warsaw maintains that a focus on Polish complicity undermines its status as a victim and its moral legitimacy in demanding payments from Berlin.

“If we were not compensated and then we hear that because some individuals collaborated, Poland is somehow complicit, then you say, why is it important?” said Jablonski. “This actually  brings a lot of negative emotions because we feel that we are falsely accused of something that we were the victims of.”

The 37-year-old jurist stressed that his country’s position does not mean it ignores the fate of Poland’s Jews in the Holocaust: “We also consider that 3 million Jews that were Polish citizens a part of this history. They were also our citizens. It’s also our experience if we lost them, it’s also the loss of Poland.”

He also stressed that if Germany does ever pay reparations, a “large part of this compensation” would be used to support Jewish communities in Poland, because so many of the Nazi crimes specifically targeted Jews.

‘Falsifying history’

Warsaw has been widely accused of cracking down on academic voices that deviate from the government’s stance on the Polish experience in World War II.

In April, Polish researcher Barbara Engelking came under fire from the conservative government and pro-government media for saying that Poles “failed” Jews during the Holocaust.

Holocaust scholars Barbara Engelking, left, and Jan Grabowski, right. (Yad Vashem via AP / courtesy)

Engelking also accused Poles today of often “falsifying history” by exaggerating the level of aid given by Poles to Jews during the Holocaust.

Officials in Warsaw and Polish journalists characterized her comments as an attack on the nation. They accused her of distorting the historical record and not giving due credit to the Poles who risked —  and sometimes lost — their lives to help Jews.

Since then, the historian and an independent television broadcaster have been threatened with consequences by government institutions — turning the matter into a campaign issue before an election scheduled for this fall.

Polish Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek threatened the funding of the institution where Engelking works, the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, which is part of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“I will not finance an institute that maintains the kind of people who simply insult Poles,” Czarnek said.

He said that Poles “were the greatest allies of the Jews, and if it had not been for the Poles, many Jews would have died, many more than were killed in the Holocaust.”

Jablonski told The Times of Israel that Warsaw “funds a lot of research when it comes to World War II history and the Holocaust.”

“Everybody can say whatever they want, everybody can research whatever they want,” he continued. “But for example, if an academic researcher makes some claims, they are also not exempt from public criticism.”

Jews being deported to Auschwitz (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walte, Deutsches Bundesarchiv Bild 183-N0827-318)
Jews being deported to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walte, Deutsches Bundesarchiv Bild 183-N0827-318)

In 2021, a Polish appellate court rejected a lawsuit brought against Engelking and fellow Polish researcher Jan Grabowski, after a lower court ordered them to apologize to a woman who claimed that her deceased uncle had been defamed in a historical work they edited and partially wrote, “Night without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland.”

“We actually funded Grabowski’s research and Barbara Engelking in the past,” said Jablonski. “They’ve been receiving a lot of support from the Polish government.”

“We see that somebody is doing research that is not genuine, not based on merits, but rather tries to use it for political purposes,” he said. “Grabowski is a good example. He claimed falsely, and this was already determined very widely that he falsely claimed at some point, that 200,000 Jews were killed by Poles during the Second World War.

“Everybody has the right to research anything they want, but it’s not the government’s obligation to fund every type of research.”

Grabowski’s findings in fact supported a 1970 article by Polish historian Szymon Datner, who estimated that 200,000 Jews died at the hands of Poles during World War II. Datner said that many Jews attempting to flee the Germans’ cattle cars and camps were handed over to the authorities, informed upon while in hiding, or killed by their Polish neighbors.

German soldiers try to dislodge snipers in Warsaw during the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 in World War II. (AP Photo)

Jablonski painted a hopeful picture of Poland’s future work with Yad Vashem.

“We might have some disagreements here and there, but in general we want to work together in education because we are also doing a lot in terms of education,” he said.

“We want to do it through dialogue and we want to engage experts. It’s not for the politicians to decide what should be, what should not be.”

The official emphasized that Warsaw has no problem examining the question of Polish involvement in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust.

“On the contrary, we want to discuss it, but to put it in the proper proportions,” he explained. “If we lost 6 million people during the Second World War, and at the same time we can find several hundred or even several thousand people that have collaborated, well, let’s talk about them, obviously. But if this incident would be obscuring, the main part, the main experience of Poland, during the Second World War, which is an experience of being a victim. We were a victim of brutal oppression, of murder, of torture, of slave work.

“My grandfather was a German slave.”

A victim of the Nazis

Poland as a country was undoubtedly a victim, not a perpetrator, during World War II, said Robert Rozett, senior historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.

“There were Poles who were involved in the perpetration of the Holocaust,” he told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation on Wednesday. Still, “you can’t say Poland was a perpetrator. Poland was a victim of oppressive Nazi occupation.”

He added that “the murder of Polish Jews is a Nazi enterprise. It’s not a Polish enterprise. It is a Nazi German enterprise.”

The scholar also agreed with the notion that “suffering is suffering is suffering.”

“Nobody’s talking about levels of suffering,” he said. “And many people were targeted by Nazi Germany, of course, and some of their allies across Europe.

“The tremendous difference here, of course, is that Jews were targeted as the main racial enemy. And the Nazis decided that the Jews needed to be annihilated as a group, as a race, as they called them. And that’s not what they did with anybody else.”

The tremendous difference here, of course, is that Jews were targeted as the main racial enemy.

Rozett also took exception to the idea that Jews should be treated only as part of the broader category of Polish victims.

“There was an element in Poland, as there are many countries, that saw Jews as part of the nation,” he noted, “but there’s a very large element in Poland that didn’t see Jews as part of the nation, that considered them to be outside the circles of social responsibility and to be a foreign element in Poland.”

A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers, during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter, in 1943. (AP Photo)

Turning to the question of collaboration, Rozett emphasized there was no Polish state during the war, so there is no question of state complicity as there is in Hungary or France.

Individual Poles are a different story, he said.

“What we know from the research that’s been going on since the beginning of the 21st century is that for Jews, especially, who tried to flee into the countryside and for more provincial areas, that the Nazis engaged in hunting out the Jews,” said Rozett. “And in hunting out the Jews, they often employed Poles, either people from the villages, or they would approach Polish village elders to ask them to round up Jews. And some of this was done under duress, and some of this was done willingly, and everything in between.”

“We know that the Polish Blue Police, who were under the German Order Police, they were very involved in finding Jews and handing them over to the Germans. So we know that there’s a lot of complicity here of Poles.”

The idea that pointing out this collaboration would affect Poland’s claims against Germany is unfounded, said Rozett: “That has nothing to do with what the German occupation did to Poles. Those are two different issues.”

The funerals for the dozens of Jews killed in a 1946 post-Holocaust pogrom in Kielce, Poland (screen capture: YouTube)

Rozett also said it has become “very difficult” to research the Holocaust in Poland.

“Holocaust scholars that talk about the aspects of Polish complicity are under a microscope, you could say, and they’re regularly attacked for what they’re doing and what they’ve been writing about and what their research is saying,” said Rozett.

“This has put a real chilling effect on scholars. And you ask yourself, why would a young scholar in Poland want to engage in this research?”

Why would a young scholar in Poland want to engage in this research?

Israel and Poland in March signed a deal to restore diplomatic relations, paving the way for the resumption of Israeli youth trips to Poland.  Poland has complained that the educational trips were giving Israelis an incorrect view of the Holocaust, and the agreement will see the Israeli student groups visit a list of Polish-recommended sites.

The deal was met with widespread criticism in Israel for adopting the Polish point of view. Critics say students will now visit sites that provide a distorted view of the Holocaust, ignore Polish complicity in the Holocaust and aggrandize efforts by Poles to save Jews.

“Regarding Poland, we have seen very, very worrying and dangerous developments in the last weeks,” Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan said on Monday.

“We will continue to honor the Polish righteous among the nations,” Dayan said, referring to individuals who saved Jews during the Holocaust, often by risking their own lives. “We will continue to demand from Poland to remember the heinous actions done by other Poles.”

Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan visits the Berlin Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust (Shahar Azran)

Livne, the ambassador, said that given Israel’s serious security challenges, constructive relations with Poland are crucial, even though Holocaust memory continues to pose a challenge.

“We have a good political dialogue today between Jerusalem and Warsaw and a better understanding of common security challenges. Together with our Polish colleagues we work to further improve these contacts,” he said.

The diplomat added that the two countries share a common aim “to learn and tell history exactly as it happened.”

“History can not be changed,” he reflected, “but it can and should serve as a bridge between Israel and Poland. Our 1,000 years of common life in Poland are a good base for building such bridge.”

Canaan Lidor and AP contributed to this report.

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