Ten years ago, when we were working on our book about non-Jews who saved Jews in Poland during the Holocaust, we regularly met Poles in the U.S. and in Poland who were angry that Poland often got blamed for the existence of the six death camps that Nazi Germany operated there.
These defenders of Poland wanted to make sure journalists, authors, historians and others made it clear that the Holocaust was Germany’s fault, not Poland’s, and that, in their view, the whole Polish nation was as much a victim in this as the Jews.
Well, they had something of a point. In fact, it really was the Germans who ran Auschwitz, Treblinka and the other death camps in Poland to murder several million Jews as part of Germany’s genocidal policy. And we tried to make that clear in our book.
But history is complicated. Even after you accurately assign blame to Germany for the extermination camps inside the shifting borders of beleaguered Poland, you haven’t told the full story. You must add that Poland’s historical record of its own treatment of its Jewish citizens is very mixed, indeed, and that there were many Polish citizens in World War II who cooperated with Germany to wipe out European Jewry, a despicable goal that almost succeeded.
It’s that Polish record that’s now coming into play as the world — and especially Israel — reacts to the news that the Polish parliament is foolishly considering legislation that would make it a crime to suggest that Poland was in any way responsible for the genocide that occurred on Polish soil.
The proposed law, already passed by the lower house of Parliament, would subject anyone who in violation of it, including non-Polish citizens, to a fine or imprisonment of up to three years. Before it can become law, the bill requires the upper house of Parliament to approve it.
Some Polish lawmakers, in other words, want to whitewash history and undermine free speech to make an essentially valid point. No, the Poles should not be blamed for what the Germans did in Poland after the Nazis invaded and conquered the country in 1939. But by making it a crime now to blame Poland in any way, the law inevitably raises questions about Poland’s own deserved reputation for antisemitism and how that may have aided the Germans in the Holocaust.
Which makes it understandable why Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was so upset by the proposed Polish law, saying: “We will under no circumstances accept any attempt to rewrite history.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reporting on this newly minted controversy, quoted historian Havi Dreifuss, whom it described as a leading authority on relations between Jews and Poles during the Holocaust. The arguments on both sides are flawed, she correctly noted: “Those who try to portray what happened in black-and-white terms many times make mistakes.”
And although in our book we noted that a surprising number of Jews survived because brave Poles came to their rescue, the reality is that many more perished, and not always in the death camps. Thousands also died at the hands of antisemitic Poles who were happy to collaborate with the Nazis.
Jewish history in Poland goes back well over 1,000 years, and some of those years were good and prosperous for Jews and non-Jews alike. Historians tell us that some Jews fled to Poland at the time of the First Crusade, starting in 1098. But the best time for Jews there may have been under the rule of Duke Boleslaw Pobozny in the 1200s and King Kazimierz (The Great) in the 1300s. They recognized that Jews had administrative and business experience Poland needed and they welcomed them openly.
By the time World War II started, some 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, more than 90 percent of whom were murdered by the Nazis.
Even with a large Jewish population then, especially in large cities, non-Jewish Poles tended (and often still tend) to distinguish between “Poles and Jews,” as though Jewish Poles were not also Polish, thus adding to the idea of Jews as “the other.”
Given all that complex, bloody history, Poland’s lawmakers would do well to drop this subject and to focus instead — as many Polish leaders in fact do — on continuing their already remarkable effort to preserve the history of the Holocaust on their soil by making sure the story is told accurately. Which cannot happen if people are silenced and the story isn’t told at all.
Bill Tammeus is a former Kansas City Star columnist. Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City. Their book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, was published by the University of Missouri Press in 2009.