Opinion

Israel, It's Time to Call Off the anti-Polish Hunt

If there is a guilty side regarding the lie of the annihilation by gas in the Warsaw concentration camp – it's Wikipedia, not Poland

Polish President Anderzej Duda, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the United Nations in 2018.
Avi Ohayon, GPO

To understand the duality with which the Israeli public treats Poland, a highly experienced expert in psychohistory needs to be called in. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz utters tasteless remarks (about the Poles, anti-Semitism and mother’s milk) and almost causes formal relations between the two countries to be severed, with the president of Poland refusing to meet with Israeli leaders until Katz apologizes. In addition, Haaretz and other media outlets frequently publish stories, each about an (ostensibly) new scandal that shows that a state-orchestrated revisionist campaign is under way in Poland with the aim of blurring the part of the Poles in murdering Jews during the Holocaust.

Amid this cacophony – which makes it difficult to speak in a different voice or put forward a different approach – life itself goes on. Some 240,000 Israelis visited Poland this year (according to the Polish Tourism Ministry), shopped in its malls, ate in its restaurants and vacationed in its parks and seaside destinations. Nor is this a one-way movement: Tens of thousands of young Poles are coming to Tel Aviv, a city that young Polish partygoers seem to find even more attractive than Berlin.

If this is the case, what is Poland today – a hothouse of anti-Semitism or a paradise for Israeli tourists? It behooves us to put things in proportion.

Israel did not commemorate the 80th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 2019. That date has never received any special attention in the framework of memorial events associated with the Holocaust. During that September, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and two weeks later the Soviet Union under Stalin followed suit. The Polish state sank into six years of terror, murder and violence, in which it was completely shattered. Six million Polish citizens paid with their lives for this campaign of genocide – three million of them Polish citizens of Jewish extraction.

The annihilation of the Jews is not identified with the first day of September eight decades ago, as that goal was not yet on the agenda then. However, the month of September is of special significance in the Polish collective memory.

In the state ceremony in Warsaw marking the 80th anniversary, Ofer Aderet reported in Haaretz (“In Polish ceremony marking 80 years Since WWII, the Poles forgot one thing,” Sept. 2), the Jews were forgotten. He wrote, “Conducting a state-sponsored assembly, with international participation, for an event of the magnitude of World War II without referring to its Jewish victims is a historical distortion.”

But this is inaccurate. The president of Poland, Anderzej Duda, did not ignore the fate of the Jews and referred to them explicitly in his remarks at the ceremony. Moreover, in an interview with Israel Hayom (Sept. 1), Duda stated, “The Holocaust targeted the Jewish nation. Part of this nation was part of our national community. Therefore, we consider it as part of our national memory. That’s why we find it very important to jointly pay tribute to the memory of those murdered. For this reason, I joined Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the March of the Living. But, please remember that when we talk about the concentration camps, we need to bear in mind that Polish people perished there as well, next to the Jews.” In the interview Duda also spoke of the need “to stress the joint elements of our two nations and the value of the Jews to our society.”

Sometimes it is not clear what needs to be said or written to persuade those who don’t wish to be persuaded that Poland is not trying to obliterate the memory of its Jewish victims. Even during the war itself no such attempt was made. As early as 1942, the Polish government-in-exile in London published a 750-page volume describing the genocide perpetrated in Poland between September 1, 1939, and June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Its title: “The Black Book of Poland.”

The book contains grim testimony of innumerable incidents of mass murder, expulsion, massacres of members of the Polish intelligentsia and academics, schoolchildren, peasants, POWs and others. It also devotes four separate chapters exclusively to the Germans’ anti-Jewish policy, providing information about anti-Jewish laws, persecution and expulsion to labor camps, the confiscation of Jewish property, the attempt to create the so-called Lublin Reservation (a plan the Nazis developed in 1940 as part of the “territorial solution to the Jewish question”), the creation of ghettos, the terror and the oppression.

Can one really say that an attempt has been made here to blur the fate of the Jewish people? To emphasize only the Polish victims?

The latest “sensational” report about Polish anti-Semitism was published earlier this month in these pages by Omer Benjakob (“The fake Nazi death camp: Wikipedia’s longest hoax, exposed,” Oct. 4). The article tells a story about the Warsaw death camp that never was, whose tale has been making the rounds in the online encyclopedia for 15 years. Benjakob links this hoax to what he sees as the broad campaign being conducted in Poland to obscure the part played by the Poles in the Holocaust, and to turn them into the main victims of the Nazi annihilation effort.

First, the facts: A forced labor camp was established in Warsaw on the ruins of the ghetto a few months after the latter’s liquidation in 1943; a number of other such small camps also operated elsewhere in the city. In July 1943, Oswald Pohl, a leading S.S. official who headed the organization’s Main Economic and Administrative Office, decided to turn all these facilities into what was called the Warsaw concentration camp, also known as Konzentrationslager Warschau. Administratively, it belonged to the same network as the camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, Auschwitz and elsewhere. In other words, it was a full-fledged concentration camp: a very small one – the number of whose inmates did not exceed a few thousand – but still, a concentration camp. In categorizing it as such, however, there is no effort by contemporary anti-Semitic Polish officials to rewrite history.

The purpose of the Warsaw camp was to disassemble and repurpose everything remaining in the decimated ghetto. The work was to be done by Jewish inmates who were brought in from Auschwitz, with those from Greece and later on Hungary prominent among them. The inmates were evacuated less than a month before the outbreak of the Polish Uprising in early August 1944; many were murdered during the death march following the evacuation.

The testimonies of the Jews who survived show that throughout the entire period of their work in the camp, where living conditions were abominable, the only outside assistance they received in terms of food and clothing came from the Polish underground, or from the well-known Jewish-Polish underground organization Zegota. A small group of Jewish inmates who were not evacuated, were liberated in August 1944 by the Polish underground; some of them participated as fighters in the uprising.

This, then is (in brief) the historical account of this camp during World War II. Now to the story of the denial. The nonsense about gas chambers and 200,000 Poles being murdered in the Warsaw concentration camp is but one of numberless stories that Holocaust deniers around the world are posting online. It would have been proper for the historians Benjakob interviewed to say what is almost trivial to mention: This is another instance of Holocaust denial and should be treated as such. Instead, they chose to link the decades-long lie about gas chambers that never existed in Warsaw to what they see as the trend in Poland today to downplay the importance of the Poles’ part in murdering Jews and to turn the Poles into the Nazis’ main victims.

This is Benjakob’s great mistake: One doesn’t argue with Holocaust deniers or try to show that they are lying. It is impossible to sway those who want to believe that the denial is the truth. For, as with every story that the Holocaust deniers put forward, there is a grain of truth in this one, too, which the deniers leverage into the fake news they generate. Indeed, 200,000 Poles (at least) were killed in Warsaw during the suppression of the Polish Uprising in 1944. But not in nonexistent gas chambers. So the connection here is quick and easy to make.

But it is precisely the present Polish government – which it is proper and just to call to account, when necessary – that has a clear interest to avoid even the slightest hint of Holocaust denial of this sort. The last thing it needs is to be identified with the group of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites of Polish origin who are living today in the United States and frequently upload such easily refutable fabrications to the internet. If the government had behaved in this way, it would have found itself in the same camp as neo-Nazi thugs in the United States or in Germany. You have to be insane to shoot yourself in the foot like that.

The story has existed on Wikipedia for 15 years, as Benjakob writes. Haaretz termed it the greatest hoax in the history of the online encyclopedia. But it bears remembering that in the course of the period in question, Poland had a number of governments. Moreover, politicians of the left and the liberal center, including Aleksander Kwaniewski, who recognized Polish responsibility for the injustice toward and murder of Jews, were in power for part of that time; these also include Donald Tusk, current president of the European Council. Are they, too, guilty of the historical distortion and of the Polish effort to rewrite this chapter of the nation’s history?

A historical discussion should be conducted judiciously. There are historians in Poland and elsewhere who are putting forward untenable ideas, which conflict with reliable scholarship, and they must be confronted firmly. There are many others who take a balanced approach. Disagreement is permissible, and criticism should be leveled at trends in Holocaust research that exist in Poland or anywhere else. But if there is truly a guilty side regarding the whole lie of the annihilation by gas in the Warsaw concentration camp – it is Wikipedia, which is not dealing properly with all kinds of contemptible people who succeed in posting stories and lies in its pages that have a clear purpose: to distort and deny the Holocaust.

If Benjakob had broadened the perspective of his investigation, he could have checked, for example, what Turks who deny the genocide of the Armenians have written in the online encyclopedia. He would then have reached the conclusion that Wikipedia is the last place to which one should turn to learn about the complex history of genocide.

Many years ago, the renowned historian of Polish Jewry Ezra Mendelsohn wrote an article with a provocative title, “Interwar Poland: Good for the Jews or Bad for the Jews?” Prof. Mendelsohn took issue with the prevailing thesis that the dominant element that shaped the life of the Jews in Poland before the Holocaust was the seething anti-Semitism that surrounded them.

If everything was so bad, for example, how are we to account for the flourishing religious life, the rich political activity, the Yiddish literature and press, the Jewish theater and so forth, in that country? Then as now, the picture is indeed complex. And in order to understand it properly, we need to call off the anti-Polish hunt and start to conduct a true discussion of the historical issues in dispute.

Prof. Daniel Blatman is the head of the Research Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the chief historian of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.