Admitting that some Poles actively collaborated with the Nazis in perpetrating the genocide of the Polish Jewry is something that is difficult for many Poles to do
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has just returned home after a very successful visit to Poland where he was warmly received by world leaders gathered to discuss the Iranian menace, including many from the Arabian Peninsula, as has been reported here earlier. Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki has offered Netanyahu the warmest of welcomes until something happened. That something were comments, delivered by Netanyahu in English at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in response to a journalist’s question. In his answer, Netanyahu commented that, and this is the crux of the matter, either Poland, the Poles, or Poles collaborated with the Nazis in exterminating the biggest Jewish diaspora in Europe, the Polish Jewry.
This drew immediate sharp rebuke from PM Morawiecki, who instructed his foreign minister to summon the Israeli ambassador to Poland for a reprimand. Official Israeli channels tried to defuse the situation by saying that Netanyahu was misquoted and that what he had said was that Poles, meaning SOME Poles were Nazi collaborators, as opposed to Poland as a country, or THE Poles as in the entire Polish nation. Common sense dictates that this explanation be believed; Netanyahu is the son of a famous history professor and as I can personally attest, Jews of his generation are very well informed about the Holocaust. Netanyahu, having spent his teenage years in the US and having studied at MIT in Boston speaks perfect English, so a linguistic error is highly unlikely.
English, like Hebrew and unlike French does not have a plural indefinite article like the French “des”. Therefore the plural equivalent to “the Pole, a Pole”, is “the Poles, Poles” or “the Poles, some Poles”, though the word “some” is usually omitted. So Netanyahu said what he meant to say, e.g. that some Poles collaborated with the Nazis in exterminating Polish Jews. Has\d he said “Poland”, he would have been egregiously wrong, because Poland did not exist as a political entity while the Polish Jews and Jews brought in from all over Europe were being slaughtered on its territory. Poland was totally and completely occupied by Germany, which was the sole power responsible for what was transpiring on Polish territory at the time. Had Netanyahu said “the Poles”, he would have been no less egregiously wrong, because that would imply that all Poles, Poles as a nation, collaborated with the Nazis. This is not true. Some Poles collaborated with the Nazis, perhaps even many, in absolute terms, though few as percentage of the population. Other Poles, a few exceptionally brave ones, risked all to save their Jewish neighbors from the Nazi death machine. Most, as one would expect, hunkered down and waited for the nightmare to end.
Netanyahu’s explanations, however, did not work. Mr. Morawiecki cancelled his participation in an important conference to be held for the first time in Israel, a conference of Eastern European nations that are also members of the EU, such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Poland will instead send its foreign minister to represent it.
It must be assumed that the reason for the snub is not that the Polish government or Mr. Morawiecki personally disbelieved Netanyahu’s assertions that he never meant to imply that Poland as a country or Polish people as a nation were Nazi collaborators, only that some Poles were. These types of corrections for the protocol are routinely accepted as matters of diplomatic courtesy. No, Morawiecki cancelled his trip to Israel, because he is facing a reelection campaign and right now Poland has a climate in which stating the painful truth that some Poles actively helped ethnically cleanse Poland of its Jewry is simply anathema.
There are deep reasons why this is the situation in Poland right now. First and foremost, world Jewry is beginning to demand reparations from Poland for all the property that was forfeited by Polish Jews when they were sent up into the grey Polish skies in tufts of black greasy smoke. And that property is vast. Jews constituted a full ten percent of the Polish population before WWII, in excess of three million people. Almost none survived, but their homes in Warsaw and Krakow are very much still standing, now housing Polish citizens, Polish businesses, and Polish government offices. Of course, for nearly five decades after its liberation from the Nazis by the Soviet Union Poland was for all intents and purposes still under occupation. A far more benign one, perhaps, though this would likely be disputed by quite a few Poles, but an occupation nonetheless. Any talks of reparations would have had to go through Moscow and who wanted to own property on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, anyway.
The situation is quite different now. Poland is truly independent and is a member of the European Union. It is a popular tourist destination and the property values in the big cities are climbing into real wealth territory. As it happens, many of these properties belong to Jews, people who were dragged out of their homes and slaughtered for nothing other than their ethno-religious belonging. There is great documentation, too. It is not at all difficult to figure out if it were Jews who owned a certain piece of real estate, because Jewish surnames were well-known and quite different from the Polish ones and because the registry almost always noted the Jewishness of the proprietors.
Clearly, no one is talking about returning this real estate to its lawful owners, even if next of kin of such owners could be found. In most cases they cannot; the German Nazis and their Polish collaborators did too “good” of a job, in most cases there were no survivors. What is being talked about is the German model of reparations to the Jewish people as a whole by the Polish state. The value of these reparations, in the case of Germany was estimated in the many billions of dollars in today’s money and it was paid to individual survivors and to the State of Israel as the inheritor in place of those who did not survive. Since the Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust is total and was accepted as such by the West German and now the unified German government, no further complication existed. This is not the case with Poland. When it comes to Poland, which did not invite the Germans to use its territory as hell on Earth, and certainly tried, though ineffectively stop the German invasion, it is necessary to estimate not only the value of the properties forcefully taken away from their Jewish owners, but also the percentage of responsibility, of guilt, really that Poland should be assigned for its role in this crime.
This is why many Poles so vehemently resist admitting that even SOME Poles, ANY Poles bear responsibility for the genocide that took place on their territory. Historical truth does not lie with that view. The truth, a very well documented truth, is that many Poles actively and willingly collaborated with the Nazis in the Jewish genocide. In analyzing situations like this one, we are too often tempted to describe these collaborators as “monsters”, “sadists”, etc., but we must resist this temptation because it misses the point and lets these people off the hook way too easily.
There is a trifecta of reasons why a large portion of the Polish population that found itself under Nazi occupation was not averse to helping the Germans exterminate Polish Jews and in some cases glad to do so. The first item of the trifecta is good old ethno-religious anti-Semitism. Poles were (and still are) devout Catholics and they were taught from babyhood that the Jews killed Jesus. On one thing Polish Jews and Polish Gentiles were in full agreement: the Jews living in Poland in the 1930’s were directly descended from the Jews living in Judea in 30 AD when Jesus was crucified by the Romans after a referral by the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin. From the pulpits of every Polish Catholic church, Polish priests and bishops made sure that their flock never forgets and never forgives.
The second item in the trifecta was much more recent. It may surprise quite a few of my readers, but when Stalin’s USSR joined the Second World War it did so as an ally of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In late summer of 1939, Stalin, wanting to regain territories ceded by the Bolsheviks when they signed a unilateral peace with Germany during WWI, signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement which terminated Poland as an independent country and divided it between him and Hitler. Stalin moved first, occupying “his” portion of Poland from the east against weak resistance. Stalinist purges and forced collectivization soon followed. Atrocities were committed by the Soviets against both Polish civilian population and its already defeated military, especially the officer cadre. What the Poles could not help but notice, what they could not fail to observe, was that many of the leading cadre of the Soviet oppressors, especially in the ideological “politruk” (political or propaganda officers) corps, were Jews. Soviet Jews were in no way different than Polish ones. They had the same Ashkenazi Jewish names and spoke among themselves the same language, Yiddish. Alas, they were often the ones giving the command to fire.
Finally, there is the simple matter of greed. Many Poles thought, correctly as it turned out, that if the Jewish family occupying the apartment next door would be sent to burn at Auschwitz, they could knock down the wall and add a few bedrooms.
The ancient animosity to the Jesus killers, the recent Jewish prevalence among the hated Soviet Bolshevik occupiers, occupiers that were driven out by Germany when it attacked the USSR only two years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, and the lure of free property combined to give some, though far from all, Poles the necessary incentive to rat out their Jewish neighbors to the Germans and to a few more to answer the want ads published by Auschwitz and its many lookalikes.
It is both understandable and regrettable that the government and the citizens of today’s Poland cannot acknowledge the participation of some of their countrymen in one of the greatest genocides the human race had ever known; the genocide of the Polish Jewry. Denying it is both useless, as it is so well documented by the Germans whose archives all survive, and detrimental to Poland’s quest to have a new renaissance, to become truly independent, to move on as an unadulterated force for good in the world.
Jews in Israel and outside of it alike agree that it is each passing generation’s sacred duty to remember the Holocaust as it really was, to continue documenting it and expanding our understanding of it. It is the least that we, the Jews who are alive today, can do for those who where shot and tortured and gassed. Polish petulance is certainly not going to stop individual Jews and official Jewish organs as well as the state of Israel form speaking the truth, regardless of how much Mr. Marowiecki wishes it to go away. If the Poles today are not mature enough to accept their responsibility for what had transpired in their country eight decades ago, we will wait. In time, they will.