“When you say the word ‘Poland’ what comes to mind? It’s real scary. I’d have to be in disguise to go there because I don’t wanna be caught and murdered.”
“I have this image of a very gothic place. Everything’s in black and white and very foggy. Otherwise, I have no real sense of Poland other than food with lots of sour cream, pierogis, and borscht. No, that’s Russian. I guess I get confused. All these Eastern European foods seem so similar.”
“The only thing I knew of Eastern Europe was in black and white. Probably from reels of Holocaust films. I pictured gray, cold, concrete. I wasn’t aware that I was thinking this until we landed in Warsaw and everything was in color. There is nothing attractive about Poland. Even though I know it’s in color, in my mind it has degenerated back to black and white.”
“It’s cold and desolate. I think of large, round women making sausages.”
“Just concentration camps. From brick to brick that’s all there is.”
“I associate Poland with hatred of Jews. I learned this going to Sunday school. In Sweden where all them wore stars, that portrayed sort of a positive in terms of Sweden’s relationship with Jews.”
“When you said ‘Poland,’ an image popped into my head, which is it’s gray, it’s dirty, it’s polluted. There’s no color. There’s one complete cloud over the entire country. I would go with the idea that I’ve gotta prepare myself. I’m probably going to be depressed at the condition of misery that people are living in. And it probably would be a safer bet if I just don’t identify myself as Jewish to too many people and my passport says I’m American.”
In 2000, in Bloomington, Indiana, I was asking Jewish people what they thought of Poles and Poland. I was researching what would become my prize-winning book, Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype. My informants were nice people living in a self-consciously progressive university town. They insisted that they would never tell a dumb Polak joke. Then I would ask them a hypothetical question. “You need brain surgery. You have a choice between two doctors whose qualifications, on paper, are all but identical. One is named Dr. Smith. One is named Dr. Kowalski. Which doctor do you choose?”
Their jaws would drop. They suddenly had to confront their own prejudices, prejudices that they did not know they had.
One said, “It’s hard for me to say [long pause]. I fear that I might choose Dr. Smith, even though I think that’s a terrible thing, but I’m trying to be completely frank. I think just because of those subconscious stereotypes, the things that got in me as a kid and stick around in the back of my mind that are not up for examination.”
Before actual questioning began, my informants often insisted that they knew all there was to know about Poles and Poland. “Danielle” informed me that she had received a “comprehensive Holocaust education” from March of the Living. “Every two weeks I received another two hundred pages of reading material. I had, you know, one of these seven-inch binders.” She was now a professional Holocaust educator. Danielle told me that the only reason she could ever conceive of travel to Poland would be to “educate Poles.”
I asked Danielle if she had ever heard of Jan Karski, a Polish underground army officer who had volunteered to be smuggled into both a concentration camp and the Warsaw Ghetto, in order that he could bring the first eyewitness account of the Holocaust directly to Franklin Roosevelt. Danielle had never heard of Jan Karski. Danielle had also never heard of the 1264 Statute of Kalisz, a Polish document granting Jews legal rights. Polish-Jewish author Eva Hoffman called the Statute of Kalisz “a set of laws that could serve as an exemplary statement of minority rights today.” Danielle had also never heard of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet who celebrated Jews’ contribution to Poland in the person of the character Jankiel, Adam Michnik, a Jewish leader of Solidarity, or the 1940 Katyn Massacre of 22,000 Poles, including 8,000 military officers, and, as classified by their Soviet murderers, “intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials, and priests.”
Another informant, “Sally,” told me that she “knew” that “there is a lot of neo-Nazism in Poland.” If she ever went to Poland, she said, “I would look for regret” for Poles’ assumed Holocaust guilt. Later, Sally made the offhand comment that, “I don’t know much about Polish literature, if there is much.” Six Nobel Prize Laureates in literature were born in Poland; four were Polish non-Jews (Sienkiewicz. Reymont, Milosz, Szymborska); two were born in a Polish-Jewish milieu (Agnon and Singer).
“Moses” expressed outrage that Poles had opened a discotheque in the Polish town of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located. Moses insisted that this discotheque was prima facie evidence of ingrained Polish anti-Semitism. I asked Moses if he knew of any non-Jews who had been imprisoned, tortured, experimented on, or gassed in Auschwitz. Moses had no idea that any non-Jews had suffered these fates. In fact, one hundred forty thousand Polish non-Jews made up approximately 11% of Auschwitz inmates. About half died there.
Many of my informants, in a completely unselfconscious manner, made statements like the following, “I’d love to go back to Vienna. We had a wonderful time in Vienna. We walked around and spoke German. It was a fabulous time,” and “I spent days in Berlin and I want to return.” Nazism was a German phenomenon; Hitler was born in Austria. These facts did not contribute to my informants’ stereotyping these nations in the way that they stereotyped Poland.
Informants often combined popular mythology with factual errors. The informant, quoted above, who believed that “In Sweden all them wore stars” is confused. There is a myth that Danes, not Swedes, wore yellow stars of David in solidarity with Jews. In any case, the “Danes wore yellow stars” myth is false.
My informants’ vocabulary was formulaic. Poland was always “gray.” I heard the same phrases over and over: “Poles are worse than animals;” “They suck anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” Such formulas are right out of The Painted Bird, a lurid novel that depicts Neanderthal peasants engaging in orgies of violence, incest, and bestiality. Such formulaic depictions of Polish peasants had appeared in literature published before the Holocaust, in some cases centuries before. The Painted Bird was eventually exposed as plagiarized fiction disguised as a memoir.
It’s undeniable that in interwar Poland, that is, between the end of WW I in 1918 and the onset of WW II in 1939, anti-Semitism flourished. The interwar period, for complicated historical reasons, saw one of the worst outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Poland’s history. Interwar anti-Semitism was largely predicated on economic grievances. Jews had occupied the middleman minority caste. Most Poles were impoverished peasants. They wanted to own shops and study to become doctors and lawyers. For some, not all Poles, these honorable ambitions veered into the dark, twisted path of anti-Semitism.
What’s unexpected is that some pre-war anti-Semites did not become Nazi collaborators. Jan Mosdorf was a self-identified nationalist and anti-Semite before the war. Under Nazi occupation, he helped Jews, and was killed for it in Auschwitz. Calel Perechodnik, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, writes of two Polish brothers, “Staszek and Stefan.” Before the war, they thought of “a Jew as a wealthy man who exploited Polish labor and as an opponent deserving of a fight.” During the war, Staszek and Stefan saved Jews, both friends and strangers.
A February 4, 2018 frequently-shared Facebook post exemplified the belief that Poles were and are worse than Nazis. I copy it here without editorial changes. “The Poles were worse than the Germans…mean and cold blooded…they were informers and killers and for a piece of bread or a cigarette sold Jews to the slaughter…Warsaw Ghetto was where? excuse me? but here is proof again – The tiger never changes his Spots, Once a killer always a killer and once a Jew Hater always a Jew hater —as my father said: It’s in the blood, its in the genes, its inborn…nothing changes – in the end, the truth always reveals itself …I find it actually comical for a country to so blatantly lie to the world…but silly me – why…there are those who belie the holocaust as never having existed at all…so why not the Poles…”
Statements like these entered the world conversation on Friday, January 26, 2018, the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day. The lower house of the Polish Parliament passed a law criminalizing speech about the Holocaust. On Tuesday, February 6, Polish President Andrzej Duda ratified the law with his signature.
The full text of the law can be read here. The law threatens punishment to anyone who attributes to Poles or Poland crimes properly attributed to German Nazis. The law was written to “Protect the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation.”
This law offered the sorry, public spectacle of Polish leaders shooting Poles’ and Poland’s reputation in the foot. Immediately and inevitably, numerous commentaries appeared insisting that Poland was sanctifying a form of Holocaust denial and that, of course, Poles were guilty of the Holocaust. “FACT: The Polish People Still Bear Quite A Bit Of Responsibility For The Holocaust,” shouts David Benkof, author of Modern Jewish History for Everyone, capitalizing even his prepositions and articles, in the Daily Caller.
I and many other Poles and Polonians (people of Polish descent living outside of Poland) oppose this new law. I support free speech.
The history of Polish-Jewish relations is immensely complex, and there is a powerful thrust not just to simplify, but to misrepresent, that complexity. NYU professor and World Policy Institute Senior Fellow, MacArthur Genius Grant and Guggenheim winner Paul Berman, in a frequently republished essay, claimed that Jews in “darkest Poland” were “almost the same” as Blacks in the US. Berman writes that “Mississippi is Poland; bigotry is bigotry.” The analogy: Jews in Poland were just like black slaves in the US. Poles were beneficiaries of something like white supremacy and lorded it over utterly disempowered Jews. Poles are world exemplars of bigotry and oppression.
Well, no. Jewish arendators, estate managers, held the power of life and death over Polish Christian serfs. Jews could own property in Poland. As previously mentioned, the medieval Statute of Kalisz protected Jews under law. An international proverb asserted that Poland was the paradise of the Jews, and hell for Polish peasants. When Jews were persecuted elsewhere, they were invited into Poland, not just, as some cynics insist, to fill an economic niche. Poles were enthusiastically proud of their “golden freedom,” their “state without stakes,” and they demonstrated that by protecting Jews menaced by other Christians. The 1573 Warsaw Confederation guaranteed religious freedom.
Those who can only recite one Polish atrocity after another – the Jedwabne Massacre, the Kielce Pogrom, the 1968 purge – are telling truths. But they are not telling the truth. The Jedwabne Massacre, for example, occurred only after Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany invaded Poland simultaneously and terrorized and drastically altered the Polish population. What happened in Jedwabne says less about essential Polishness or authentic peasant identity and more about how any population – including our own – might react after similarly being terrorized.
Historian Michael C. Steinlauf, the son of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, wrote that Poles, “after the Jews and the Gypsies [were] the most relentlessly tormented national group in Hitler’s Europe.” Let those words sink in. You know what happened to the Jews. Maybe you have an idea of what happened to the Gypsies. Poles were third in line, in terms of persecution.
Auschwitz was built in order to destroy anyone in Poland who could lead Polish people, for example, teachers and activists. For almost the first two years of its existence, most of its inmates were arrested and detained as Poles. One estimate of non-Jewish Poles killed by Nazis is about two million. Approximately three million Polish Jews were murdered; their vital presence in Polish life was all but erased. One estimate of non-Jewish Poles enslaved by the Nazis puts that number at 1.4 million. Two hundred thousand Polish children were kidnapped, to be raised as Germans, because of imagined Aryan traits. Kidnapped Polish children who could not measure up to their kidnappers’ Aryan ideal were murdered. Nazis killed almost twenty percent of Polish priests. Nazis erased Polish villages. An incomplete post-war count put the number of such villages at two hundred and ninety-nine.
Just about every Polonian is related to someone who lost his or her home, or who was tortured or murdered. The poet John Guzlowski looks like any other sixty-something retired professor. Given that he is tall, white, and male, one might assume he is a recipient of white privilege. John Guzlowski’s Polish Catholic grandmother, aunt, and cousin were murdered by Nazis and Ukrainians. They raped John’s Aunt Sophie and broke her teeth; they stomped his cousin to death. With his bayonet, a Nazi sexually mutilated John’s Aunt Genia. John’s parents were Nazi slave laborers; his father was in Buchenwald. John was born in a displaced persons camp.
Not just the personal pain someone with Guzlowski’s history might feel inspired the new Polish law. It’s the pain someone feels when the truth is obscured. In his infamous speeches to SS leaders, Heinrich Himmler spoke of Generalplan Ost. According to this Nazi plan, the Polish population would be greatly reduced and its remnants would be slaves. Germans would claim Polish territory for themselves. “In Poland in weather forty degrees below zero, we had to haul away thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands … [We] shot thousands of leading Poles.”
Nazis and Soviets rounded up, deported, and liquidated teachers, priests, and other potential leaders. Both conquerors worked hard to “divide and conquer,” that is, to exacerbate pre-existing tensions between Catholics and Jews, Poles and Ukrainians. Nazis mandated death for an entire family if a Pole so much as offered a glass of water to a Jew. An entire village might suffer because of one Pole’s humane act. Historians say that this policy was unique to Poland.
Yes, anti-Semitism has long been one feature of Polish culture. Blood libel, pogroms, discrimination and racist stereotyping all existed in Poland. That is one truth. Another truth: anti-Semitism has been a worldwide phenomenon, from England to Japan. England produced one of the most influential versions of blood libel, in the Canterbury Tales. England exported Shylock and Fagin. What makes Poland different? Scholar Harold B. Segel, author of Stranger in Our Midst: Images of the Jew in Polish Literature, writes that Poland produced a “Judeophilia” or “philo-Semitism” – a love of Jews and Judaism – that had “no parallel elsewhere in Europe.”
Poles of conscience resisted anti-Semitism, not while seated at their computers and sipping Starbucks, but under the worst conditions humans have ever faced. Father Maximilian Kolbe, after being arrested for the crime of being a Polish priest, and, thus, a target of genocide, and then released with a warning to lay low, did not comply with Nazi occupiers. Instead, Kolbe aided 2,000 Jews at his friary. Nazis sent him to Auschwitz. Holocaust survivor Sigmund Gorson testified that Kolbe “gave away so much of his meager rations that to me it was a miracle he could live. Now it is easy to be nice, to be charitable … For someone to be as Father Kolbe was in that time and place … is beyond words … I am of the Jewish faith and very proud of it … I will love him until the last moments of my life.”
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, after his release from Auschwitz, helped form Zegota, the only organization in occupied Europe whose express purpose was to aid Jews. Witold Pilecki volunteered to be sent to Auschwitz, so that he could aid the resistance there. Communists tortured and murdered Pilecki after the war, and buried him in an unmarked grave. The Ulmas, a family of Catholic peasants, defied Nazi dictates and aided Jews. In his Bible, Jozef Ulma had underlined, in red, the story of the Good Samaritan. The Ulmas, pregnant mother, father, and six children, were murdered by Nazis for aiding Jews.
Bartoszewski bemoaned how the memory hole had swallowed up his efforts, under risk of his own life, to combat anti-Semitism under both Nazis and Soviet Communism. Bartoszewski wrote, “There are no accounts in histories … of the All-Polish Anti-Racist League, founded in 1946 … Scholars have not been interested in its existence.”
My book argues that there has been a shift in recent years. Blame for the Holocaust has shifted from German Nazis to Polish Catholic peasants. This shift, I argue, is not accidental and not unmotivated. Shifting blame serves a larger narrative.
Nazism’s intellectual and ethical roots are utterly plain. They are nationalism, Social Darwinism, a.k.a. Scientific Racism or Eugenics, and neo-Paganism. Decades before Hitler came to power, American Social Darwinists like Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard were proclaiming that the Judeo-Christian tradition’s command of human ethics belonged only to the dustbin of history. Now humans could and should operate under a new ethical system, one that championed racial supermen and stripped inferior specimens of their right to life. In his book Passing of the Great Race, Grant called for the “elimination of the unfit” on Social Darwinist grounds. Hitler called the book his Bible.
Scholar Richard Weikart has, in a series of publications, including Hitler’s Religion, coolly and exhaustively detailed the Social Darwinist influences behind Nazism. One might think that Weikart would be widely celebrated and rewarded for his work. He is widely attacked and denigrated. Weikart is accused of “dishonesty, fact-distortions, ignorance and bias” by folks with an almost religious resistance to seeing any criticism of the impact of Social Darwinism. Powerful people do not want to see any version of the sacred name “Darwin” associated with Nazism. No one says that one must stop believing in the theory of evolution in order to tell the truth about Nazism’s intellectual and ethical history. But too many who hold up Darwin as a demigod insist that the truth of how Nazis and their racist precursors cited “survival of the fittest” concepts in their justification for their beliefs must not be told.
Nationalism is easier to criticize than Social Darwinism. Neo-Paganism, though, is, like Darwinism, a protected concept. Modern Americans may announce that they are goddess-worshipping Pagans and that they reject the misogyny and murderous nature of Judaism or Christianity. Modern Americans self-identifying as Pagans face no serious resistance in the press or in universities. No one is asking them to come to terms with their affiliation with a movement that was embraced by the Nazis.
Nazism was the product of highly educated, modern people. Scientific Racism had been promoted by Ivy League Universities, publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly, institutions like the Bronx Zoo, the Museum of Natural History, the developers of standardized testing and the SAT, Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and US presidents. Nazism was serviced by IBM, Ford Motor Company, and Hugo Boss. Even Hollywood, which decades after the war gave us Schindler’s List, initially did not do all it could to combat Nazism.
This simple fact – that Nazism was a product of shiny and clean university classrooms and books written, edited, and published by the best-educated people – is just about impossible to confront for those who embrace the Brute Polak stereotype. They want to believe that hideous crimes could only be committed by backward people, primitive people, uneducated people, people untouched by the perfecting hand of progressive ideologies. That is, Polish, Catholic peasants. The best people associate peasants with dirt, with animals, with the past. The best people associate Catholicism with darkness and a lack of evolution. The best people say that they can make sure that crimes like the Holocaust will be made less likely if we lead people away from their superstitious, primitive, religious beliefs, and indoctrinate them in shiny, clean, new ideologies. The best people are wrong, and the falseness of the Brute Polak stereotype is very problematic for them.
Yes, anti-Semitism is one feature of Poland’s history and culture. Yes, many Polish people committed crimes against Jews in war-torn Poland. Yes, good Poles and Polonians must forever reject and condemn anti-Semitism. Yes, the new Polish law criminalizing speech around the Holocaust is a mistake.
Not but, but and: scapegoating the Polish, Catholic peasant is an historical error. This scapegoating is factually false. It is ethically bankrupt. This new Polish law is an attempt, a misguided attempt, not to deny the guilt of Polish criminals. Rather, it is an attempt to take on the brute Polak stereotype that is a powerful, largely unexamined form of Holocaust revisionism.
The brute Polak stereotype is an intellectual and ethical escape. It’s a way for modern, right-thinking people to distance themselves from atrocity, and to insist that only those people over there – those dirty, primitive, Polish Catholic peasants – could be so cruel. In my years of study of WW II, I encountered one sentence I hope to communicate here. It was written by Zofia Nalkowska. “Ludzie ludziom zgotowali ten los.” “People prepared this fate for people.” Not just Polish people. Not just Catholic people. Not just peasants. People just like us did this to other people just like us, and we must not allow any stereotype to prevent us from identifying with both victims and perpetrators.