AnalysisTrying to portray Nazi genocide as a 'Polish rescue project'

Remembering the Holocaust, Poland blots out any mention of its complicity

Tens of thousands of Poles, at least, helped the Nazis kill Jews, but Warsaw is focusing on Polish suffering in WWII and trying to frame its people as rescuers, historian says

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Survivors of Auschwitz, at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, walk to place candles on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)
Survivors of Auschwitz, at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, walk to place candles on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The Polish government marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday, but completely ignored the complicity of Poles who actively participated in crimes against Jews during World War II.

Rather, Warsaw seemed to stress Polish suffering and Polish efforts to rescue Jews, leading an Israeli Holocaust historian to charge that Poland is trying to make the Nazi genocide look like a “Polish rescue project.”

Historians debate how many Poles aided the Nazi death machine during World War II, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

But Poland has never admitted to complicity on any large scale and last year Warsaw passed a law prohibiting people from blaming the Polish nation for Holocaust atrocities.

Indeed, a new study on Holocaust remembrance in Europe argues that the Poles are among the “worst offenders” when it comes to efforts to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators and war criminals and “minimizing their own guilt in the attempted extermination of Jews.”

According to the study, conducted by researchers from Yale and Grinnell colleges and published last week, the right-wing government in Warsaw has “engaged in competitive victimization, emphasising the experience of Polish victims over that of Jewish victims.

“The government spends considerable effort on rewriting history rather than acknowledging and learning from it,” the study found.

On Sunday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who is due in Israel next month, said the truth about the Holocaust “cannot be relativized in any manner.” In his speech, he did not mention Polish complicity, but rather appeared to stress that the German people, rather than the state’s leadership, bear responsibility for the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust was not carried out by Nazis, but by Hitler’s Germany,” he said at a memorial ceremony held in the building of the central “sauna” in the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp.

Hitler Germany was consumed with fascist ideology, which was the source of “all the evil,” Morawiecki said, according to a readout posted on his website.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks at a commemoration event at the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

In a statement issued Sunday, Poland’s Foreign Ministry noted that six million Jews were killed in the areas occupied by Hitler’s Germany, while emphasizing Polish suffering at the hands of the Nazis, and Polish efforts to save Jews.

“The first transport arrived at Auschwitz on 14 June 1940. It was made up of Polish political prisoners. The decision to transfer them to Auschwitz was dictated by mass arrests of Poles and the resultant overcrowding of prisons in German-occupied Poland,” the statement read.

“The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was where 1–1.5m people were murdered, a million of them Jewish,” the statement said. “Many were citizens of the Republic of Poland.”

While the death of millions of Jews in the Holocaust “will always be a shame for humankind,” it went on, “our faith in humanity is restored by the stories of men and women, Poles among them, who saved Jews from the Holocaust.

“Guided by their sense of shared human solidarity, the Polish Government-in-Exile and thousands of our fellow citizens were involved in helping Jews during the Second World War.”

Former prisoners and their guests arrive for the ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The Foreign Ministry’s statement stressed that the punishment for doing so in German-occupied Poland was the death penalty, and that Poles account for the largest group of gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center recognizes 6,863 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, the highest number of any nation.

“Operating under the auspices of the Polish Government-in-Exile, the Council to Aid Jews ‘Żegota’ was the only state organization in occupied Europe established specifically to save Jews,” the Polish Foreign Ministry statement noted.

Polish diplomats helped save “several hundred Jews” from various European countries, it went on.

The statement does not mention the actions of Poles who actively participated in the murder of Jews, even though historians argue that the number of Polish anti-Jewish acts vastly outweigh — in number and significance — those of Poles who helped Jews.

Poland’s Ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski‏, on Sunday also issued a statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day that appeared to imply that only Germans were involved in killing Jews.

“Surely, we in Poland remember very well what happened in that period of time, we remember the Jewish victims of World War II, murdered by Nazi Germans, but we also know that we hold enormous responsibility to preserve the material legacy of the greatest genocide in the history of mankind,” he said.

The statement, which Magierowski‏ tweeted in Hebrew, English and Polish, did not mention anti-Jewish atrocities committed by Poles.

Havi Dreifuss, who heads the Institute for the History of Polish Jewry and Israel-Poland Relations at Tel Aviv University, said she was saddened but not surprised by these comments.

“Reading those statements, one could think the Holocaust was not an unprecedented genocide of Jews, but an impressive Polish rescue project,” she told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Havi Dreifuss, a Tel Aviv University scholar and director of Yad Vashem’s center for research on the Holocaust in Poland. February 2018. (Yad Vashem)

“These are just additional expressions of the historical distortion the current Polish government creates in relation to the memory of the Holocaust in Poland.”

Unlike the claims made Sunday, “hundreds of thousands of Poles took part in the Jewish tragedy — by handing Jews to the Polish Blue Police or to the Germans, and by murdering them in immense cruelty,” said Dreifuss, whose research focuses on the relationship between Jews and Poles during the Holocaust.

Those Poles who did risk their lives to rescue Jews feared reprisals from their compatriots, “and usually concealed their courageous acts during – and many times even after – the Holocaust.”

On June 27, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Morawiecki agreed to end the spat between the two countries over a controversial Polish law that criminalized any accusation of the Polish nation of being “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”

Part of their agreement was the issuance of a joint statement that declared that the term “Polish death camps” was “blatantly erroneous” and that the wartime Polish government-in-exile “attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews.”

Controversially, the joint declaration condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during…World War II” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”

In exchange for Israel agreeing to issue the statement, the Polish government canceled the section of the controversial Polish law that stipulated criminal sanctions for people accusing the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi crimes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath at a memorial ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp and to honor the victims of the Holocaust, in Auschwitz Birkenau, Poland, on International Holocaust Memorial Day. January 27, 2010. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

The agreement, which Netanyahu initially hailed as safeguarding “the historic truth about the Holocaust,” was harshly criticized by Israeli academics and politicians.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center issued a statement saying the joint declaration “contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field.”

Historians at the state-funded Holocaust research center said assertions in the statement “contains grave errors and deceptions,” and supports the disproved narrative that the Polish Government-in-Exile was committed to saving Europe’s Jews.

“At least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Polish Jews perished during the war due to actions of their Polish neighbors. Accordingly, Poles’ involvement in persecuting Jews was in no way marginal,” Yad Vashem researchers said in a statement.

Yad Vashem acknowledged the important work of Żegota (the Council for Aid to Jews), saying it helped “thousands of Jews, including hundreds of children,” survive the war. However, its members “were susceptible to extortion and had to hide their actions from Polish society, which turned a jaundiced eye on helping Jews,” the scholars added.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki places a candle at a memorial wall with names of some of the Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, at the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during WWII, in Markowa, Poland, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. (AP/Alik Keplicz)

Netanyahu later acknowledged the criticism and vowed to take it into consideration on July 8, but has not addressed the issue publicly since.

Prof. Yehuda Bauer (YouTube screenshot)

“This doesn’t interest him at all; what he cares about are defense, economic and diplomatic relations with Poland. The rest doesn’t interest him,” leading Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Also on Monday, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem announced that the Polish prime minister was due in Israel next month for a conference.

“The two governments want to increase cooperation,” Bauer said, “and the Holocaust interferes [with that goal], so they’re putting it aside.”

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