To many observers, not least those who are neither Polish nor Jewish, the highly critical press coverage of Poland's new Holocaust law which seeks to criminalize declaring the complicity of the Polish nation in the murder of Jews in WWII, appears both simple and clear.
Poles contributed enthusiastically to the genocide of six million Jews. Poles did so because they are staunchly Catholic, simple-minded and chauvinistic. Right-thinking observers must perpetually goad Poles to drop their defenses, acknowledge their guilt, and make amends.
Polish-Jewish relations are thus reduced to a calculation performed with black and white beads on one rod of an abacus. The black beads represent the bad, anti-Semitic Poles. The white beads represent the exceptional, prejudice-free Poles. A "true" historical retelling is only achieved when the black beads far outnumber the white beads. The token righteous white bead – Jan Karski – is the main concession to any semblance of balance. Karski was the Polish Home Army officer who brought the first eyewitness account of the Holocaust to Roosevelt.
The abacus approach dominates public discussion. But it is intellectually and ethically bankrupt, not just because it distorts beyond recognition a thousand years of Polish-Jewish interaction and the unique horror of 1939-1945. The abacus prevents historical clarity and ethical responsibility. And this debate matters very much in the era of Trump.
In my book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype", I explored how people talk about the Holocaust, its victims and its executors. Many, though not all, of those I interviewed talked about Poles quite differently from how they talked about Germans.
Visceral vocabulary and animal references were prominent. This trend can be found in Fania Fenelon's Auschwitz memoir Playing for Time. Fenelon writes that Poles exhibit a "particularly disturbing" "bestiality;" they are "monsters," "brick-faced," "servile," "pigs," "bitches," "pests," and "a real cow." A Polish woman has "piercing little black eyes like two glinting gems of anthracite set in a block of lard; she was shapeless and gelatinous." A Polish woman "was big and fat and as strong as a man – a monster! One would have been hard put to find any human traits in her at all."
Survivors often did not apply such visceral language to German Nazis. Fenelon describes one Nazi officer: "Goodness, he was handsome. So handsome that the girls instinctively rediscovered the forgotten motions of another world, running dampened fingers through their lashes to make them shine, biting their lips, swelling their mouths, pulling at their skirts and tops. Under the gaze of this man one felt oneself become a woman again." This Nazi "wore his uniform with incomparable ease and style...Insouciantly he laughed and joked, conscious of his charm." Fenelon is describing Dr. Josef Mengele.
Nazis are not seen as representational of Germany, a nation frequently referred to as "civilized" and "decent" in contrast to "backward, gray, gothic, primitive, Catholic" Poland. One madman, Hitler, exploiting unique historical circumstance, Germany's humiliating WWI defeat, and the punitive Versailles Treaty, forced otherwise "decent" Germans to commit anti-Semitic crimes.
Poles, on the other hand, as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said, "imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother's milk." One online post I saw stated Poles "were like American rednecks from the Ole South who loathed blacks."
All Poles were, had always been, and would always be, chomping at the bit to murder Jews. Scholars who have abandoned such racist essentializing in reference to other ethnicities, apparently still believe it's legitimate practice in regard to Poles, such as Paul Berman's 1994 New Yorker article that referred to "darkest Poland."
Even scholarly reviews of books about Nazi war criminals and Polish war criminals use very different language. Scholars work hard to distinguish Nazism from German identity. When Poles commit crimes, Poles qua Poles are guilty.
Even when Jan Tomasz Gross published, in "Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland" (2001) and 2006's "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz", which did not advance a theory of Polish ethnicity as essentially debased, the media response rushed to form that very conclusion.
Professor Joan Mellen's review makes this clear: Poles qua Poles are guilty. "Polish citizens of all classes...Poles of all social classes...The old order and the army, the new Communist apparatus, the cardinal and his bishops – all conspired to kill Poland's remaining Jews," she indicts. Note the adjective: "all." All Poles are murderous anti-Semites. Why? Because "Anti-Semitism was so embedded in the culture of Poland..[Poles express] pure, unregenerate evil."
Elie Wiesel described post-war anti-Semitism in Poland using this same vocabulary of bestiality: "Everything that is low, primitive, vile and ugly in the human animal."
With increasing frequency, Polish, Catholic peasants, not German Nazis, are positioned as the quintessential Holocaust criminal. It is easier for clean, well-educated, progressive audiences to accept dirty, backward, superstitious peasants as the perpetrators of the twentieth century's most notorious crime. German Nazis are too much like modern audiences.
Leading Nazis were, like us, clean, modern, progressive, and well-educated. In fact, though, Nazism was not the fruit of the village, the church, or the past. Scientific racism was a product of the university, the place that true moderns believe will rectify our primitive errors and make us better people.
America engages in a similar sleight-of-hand. Poor, white, rural, Christian Southerners are deployed universally as a personification of the ultimate hater. In our movies, "rednecks" are idiot savant banjo players and anal rapists, as in the film Deliverance. Poor white southerners, rednecks, trailer trash, and hillbillies, are to blame for slavery and Jim Crow. As long as a toothless, drawling pick-up truck driver dominates the crime scene, the rest of us are exonerated.
Poor whites recognize their demonization. Thus, they flocked to Trump, their putative champion.
Just so with the brute Polak stereotype being trotted out, with abacus accessory, to remove guilt from the "civilized" world for the Holocaust. As long as anti-Semitism is a crime committed by dirt-stained Catholic farmers, not by educated, "handsome" elites, modern, progressive Americans are insulated from the agony of confronting what human beings can do.
And Poles will recognize their demonization, and flock to ever-more nationalist champions.
We need to recognize that the monolithic stereotyping of Poles actually damages our understanding of complicity and responsibility for the Holocaust.
As Gitta Sereny wrote in her London Times 1996 article, "The Complexities of Complicity," challenging the anti-German essentializing of Daniel Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners": "Murderous bigotry is not ingrained in the character of any one nation but is part of the human condition. It is not only young Germans who, as did happen after 1945, needed to be retaught humanity, but all children [of all races] need to learn this now and forevermore."
I support free speech and I oppose this new Polish law. But the tumult that prompted the law will not die down till the false stereotypical calculus of the abacus is smashed.
We need, rather, a mirror. The author of atrocity is not them; it's us.
Danusha Goska is the author of Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype (Academic Studies Press, 2010)