Were the Poles Really "Culpable" in the Holocaust?

Why we mustn't forget the Polish resistance -- and Polish losses.

The article below is the continuation of a dialogue/debate Frontpage is hosting on the question of "Polish Culpability in the Holocaust?" -- the title of a recent Frontpage article by Joseph Puder. We have also run Danusha Goska's "Poland's New Law Criminalizing Speech about the Holocaust" in our pages. The article below was written by John Radzilowski as a counter to Joseph Puder's viewpoint. Frontpage continues to welcome contributions to this dialogue and debate. 

The recent blow-up between Israel and Poland over the history of the Holocaust and World War II illustrates why politicians often need to use caution when speaking of the past.

A conflict recently started at a conference in Warsaw -- which was initially designed to cement the alliance between Israel and the Visegrad 4 (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Czech Republic). The conference sought to build a stronger front against radical Islam and strengthen enforcement of sanctions on Iran. Despite oppositional pressure from the EU and threats from Iran, the Poles hosted the conference, which included U.S. and Israeli leaders (EU countries declined to send anyone of significance.)

The conference took a turn when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an off-the-cuff remark that “the Poles collaborated with the Nazis,” which was trumpeted by Haaretz, a paper hostile to the prime minister. Netanyahu’s aides later clarified that he meant some Poles, not all. Then, Foreign Minister Yisroel Katz doubled down, calling Poles Nazi collaborators who “suck in anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” Compounding the comments, MSNBC’s historian-in-residence Andrea Mitchell claimed that the Ghetto Uprising was fought against the “Polish and Nazi regime.” Then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted a Polish-American “success story” and chose Frank Blaichman, an ex-communist partisan-turned-Stalinist secret policeman who came to the U.S. after a career of torturing and killing members of the non-communist resistance. The conference fell apart with Poles demanding apologies and Israelis refusing. Follow-up meetings of Israel’s central European allies slated to be held in Israel were canceled. The Russians and Iranians celebrated and Brussels quietly gloated about the troublesome Poles getting their comeuppance.

A short article cannot fully explain the complicated history that bitterly divides and yet binds Poles and Jews, but the implications that Poles were pro-Nazi, supported Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, or were the perpetrators of the Holocaust are wrong and offensive. Yet, such sentiments are now common among many academics in North America and Europe, for whom disdain for Poland is matched only by dislike for the USA.

Yes, there were Poles who collaborated with the Germans, some of whom betrayed their Jewish neighbors. Such collaboration occurred all across Europe. Yet, to claim that Poles in the main were collaborators radically falsifies the past. Between 1939 and 1945 Poland was invaded by the most powerful and violent totalitarian regimes the world has ever known. The Nazis’ occupation of Poland exceeded in brutality their treatment of any other country. The Nazis and Soviets deployed every ounce of their power to make the Poles submit and collaborate. And so it is no surprise that some collaborated.

What should surprise us is not how many knuckled under to such overwhelming force, but how many resisted. Poland fielded the largest resistance movement in Europe, tying down hundreds of thousands of German troops. Poles fought in every major campaign against Germany, making huge contributions to Allied victory. Poles also rescued Jews in large numbers. According to one scholar, even after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, nearly 30,000 Jews were hiding in Warsaw alone. While it took a single collaborator to betray a Jew, it took about 25 Poles to hide a Jew. Anyone caught helping any Jew faced instant death along with their family and neighbors. Yet Poles constitute the largest number of The Righteous commemorated at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

While Joseph Puder’s recent Frontpage article highlights resistance fighter Jan Karski, Puder implies that Karski was singular. He was not. Countless members of the resistance not only tried to aid Jews, but sought to document German crimes and the unfolding of the Shoah. Witold Pilecki deliberately got himself arrested by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz. There, he organized resistance inside the camp, facilitated escapes, and compiled detailed documentation on the extermination of Jews. Karski presented his information to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get Allied leaders to pay attention to the slaughter of the Jews, information Roosevelt ignored.

For this, the Poles paid a terrible price. Though Germans focused their murderous plans on Jews above all others, they did not spare Polish gentiles. Two million Polish Christians were murdered by Nazis alone, not to mention hundreds of thousands more by the Soviets and German-armed Ukrainian nationalists. Every family lost loved ones. And the killing did not end with the defeat of Germany. Poland’s new communist masters killed as many as 50,000 more, including many members of the resistance movement. Those who had aided Jews during the war were special targets, including Witold Pilecki, who was arrested, tortured for weeks, and executed. The Soviets claimed that non-communist resistance members were “collaborators,” publicized this as justification for their repression, and as final insult dressed many of their victims in German uniforms before putting them on show trials and executing them. Many Western academics are now reviving this Stalinist trope.

History and memory are vital to both Poles and Jews. They may never agree on the past. Nor should they be compelled to do so. There should never be competition among victims of the Nazis. For many Jews, cases of Polish collaboration understandably evoke deep bitterness. Yet to see only this and not the other side is a serious distortion of history. For Poles, it is yet another reminder of Soviet propaganda and of their betrayal by the West - a betrayal that resulted in 45 years of communist repression. Acknowledging what the Poles endured in no way diminishes the absolute horror of the Shoah or the losses Jews suffered.

What insults Poles isn’t discussion of collaboration as much as that Polish resistance and losses are ignored in the West and in Israel. To lose so many family members to the Nazis and then to be accused of being a Nazi is deeply offensive. This is why last year, the Poles in a fit of ill-advised pique passed a law that attempted to criminalize blaming Poles for the Holocaust as a form of Holocaust Denial.

The recent statements by Katz and Netanyahu are, therefore, somewhat problematic. No Israeli leader goes to Washington and lectures Americans about FDR’s failure to help Europe’s Jews before or during the war. No Israeli leader goes to France—where Jews today are under real threat—to lecture the French about the Vichy regime, which collaborated completely and willingly in rounding up Jews for the death camps. Netanyahu is smart enough to know that whatever the Americans or French did or not do in World War II, it shouldn’t interfere with Israel’s interests. Yet with Poland, that filter seems absent. Israel has real enemies who want to destroy the Jewish state and are building weapons of mass destruction to do so. And so one can argue that to insult an ally who goes out of his way to help is an unforced error Israel does not need.

There is now deep bitterness between Poland and Israel and it will require leaders in both countries to show higher degree of statesmanship to repair the breech. The past cannot and should not be be forgotten, but leaders should know when and how to speak of it. Jews and Poles suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazi regime, but allowing a conflict over that past to wreck relations in the face of a dangerous world not only weakens our security but also perpetuates the poison of Nazism -- and dishonors the memory of the dead.

John Radzilowski is associate professor at University of Alaska Southeast and the author of numerous works on the history of the United States and east-central Europe.

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