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. Below, Joseph Puder counters John Radzilowski's recent critique of his viewpoint. Frontpage continues to welcome contributions to this dialogue and debate.
Professor John Radzilowski’s fine piece titled Were the Poles Really 'Culpable' in the Holocaust? makes several good points, albeit, he overlooks the Polish-Catholic anti-Semitism of the pre-World War II years. Between 1921 and 1939, the Polish government employed numerus clauses, to limit the number of Jewish students in institutions of higher learning, i.e. law schools and medical schools. From approximately 1936-1939, Polish authorities instituted harsh discriminatory measures against Jewish students. A system of “Jewish Benches” was implemented, which allocated special benches at the back of the auditoriums to be used only by Jewish students (the future Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin was one such student at the University of Warsaw Law School). The Jewish students refused to sit on these benches, which then led to serious clashes, resulting in bloodshed. These discriminatory measures were somewhat reminiscent of, but not as drastic as the Nuremberg Laws instituted by Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s, that excluded Jews altogether from German higher education institutions.
A clear unambiguous answer to Prof. Radzilowski’s question is that Nazi Germany carries the exclusive responsibility for the Holocaust. However, without the collaboration of native populations such as many Poles, the magnitude of the Holocaust would not have risen to the levels of barbarity and inhumanity that it did.
There is no argument about the brutality and cynicism of the Stalinist communists of the Soviet Union in persecuting Poles (and Jews for that matter). We know about the murderers of the Katyn Forrest, carried out by Stalin’s secret service - the NKVD. They systematically killed thousands of captured Polish officers in April and May of 1940. I agree with Radzilowski that Poles, along with Jews, were victims. They were butchered together during the 1648 massacre by Bohdan Khmelnytski, leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks. During WWII, Poles suffered, but were not the target of the Nazi total extermination plan. Jews were the target. Still, Polish history since the 18th century has been a sad one. In 1772, Poland was divided by Tsarist Russia; The Habsburg Empire, and Prussia. Unlike the Jews who were exiled from their homeland in the aftermath of the Revolt and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Polish people remained in their homeland.
The tragic Polish history in recent centuries does not diminish the fact that many Catholic-Poles took advantage of Nazi genocide against Polish Jewry, by taking over Jewish homes and businesses, sometimes by turning in hiding Jews to the Nazis for monetary rewards. Anti-Semitism and greed played a huge role in the motivation of very many Poles. The Catholic Church too, played a large part in fueling anti-Semitism. This has changed in recent decades with the ascension to the papacy of Carol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II – the Polish Pope.
Carol Wojtyla’s closest friend in his hometown of Wadowice (15 miles away from Auschwitz) was the son of the leader of the Wadowice Jewish community. Wojtyla witnessed the Nazi horrors in his native Poland. As Pope (1978-2005), he issued an unprecedented apology to groups that have been wronged by Catholics, notably Jews. He asserted that “Jews are our elder brothers in faith.” In 1986, he became the first known Pope to have entered the Great Synagogue in Rome. In 1990, he declared anti-Semitism to be “a sin against God and humanity.” And, in late 1993, he pushed the Vatican to recognize the Jewish state of Israel, overriding the objections of Vatican officials who worried about the consequences for Christian minorities in Arab countries.
There were certainly humanitarian Poles, people like Professor Yanek, who offered his friend and colleague, my own grandfather, (whom sadly, I have never met. I was born after the war) shelter during the Holocaust. Not willing to risk his friend’s family’s lives, my grandfather was grateful but declined the offer. He soon thereafter was caught up in a Nazi roundup, and together with 1,500 other Jews, was murdered in his hometown of Ulanow, buried in a common grave. In my previous articles, I did not in any way imply that Jan Karski was the only humanitarian Pole, contrary to Radzilowski’s assertion. There were thousands of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews and have been honored by Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem. Many of these righteous Poles were persecuted after the War by their own fellow Catholic Poles, for hiding or saving Jews.
Unfortunately, there were many more Poles who betrayed their Jewish neighbors. My own cousin (whom I never met) Tzvi-Leib Feith, who was 10-years old, was left by his mother for safekeeping with a Polish farmer. The farmer was paid handsomely, while my Aunt Sarah was transported to and murdered with her 16-year old daughter at the Belzec Death Camp. The farmer cold-bloodedly murdered my cousin, so he would not have to feed him. Greed and anti-Semitic hate drove the farmer to commit this heinous and unpunished crime.
For Jews, memory is the 11th Commandment. We remember what the Amalekites did to our forefathers upon their exodus from Egypt. We also remember what the Nazi-Germans did to our people during the Holocaust. We likewise recall the collaborationist Vishy government in France that turned over Jews to the Nazi Gestapo. And, we cannot forget that many Polish Catholics aided and abetted the murder of 3 million Polish Jews, while simultaneously remembering the Polish-Catholic heroes who saved Jews. Yes, we remember the good and the bad.
No Israeli or Jew in his/her right mind would blame Poland for the death camps; it was a Nazi German enterprise. Nevertheless, the rabid anti-Semitism and greed that possessed many Poles, facilitated the murder of their Jewish neighbors. The Jedwabne pogrom in July 1941, was a case-in-point of anti-Semitism and greed. At least 340 Jewish neighbors, including men, women, the elderly and babies, were herded into a barn and burned alive. Books have been written about this ghastly episode. And then, after the War was over, in July 1946, when a few survivors made it to their home towns, in this case the city of Kielce, anti-Semitism and greed once again drove Poles to murder 42 holocaust survivors.
While Jews cannot and must not forget the past, Israeli-Jews must deal with the present and the future. Today, Poland has been a staunch ally of Israel within the European Union (EU). Poles and Jews share a thousand-year history in Poland. In Tel Aviv, you can still encounter members of the older generation speaking Polish, along with Polish food and mannerisms. There is great value in the warm relationship between Israel and Poland for both Israelis and Poles. For Poles it is in the form of economic benefits including Israeli know-how, and hi-tech investments in Poland. For Israel, an alliance with a nation of 39 million people in the heart of Europe means diplomatic support in the EU and the UN.
For Poles to figure out whether they are culpable in the Holocaust, it is vital for the two nations (Israel and Poland) to reach an agreement on an open and unbiased educational undertaking that examines the Holocaust. If Polish anti-Semitism is to be eradicated, the school curriculum must include an honest self-examination of Polish anti-Semitism, and a true and accurate account of the World War II years.