The first half of the Polish prime minister’s wretched statement Saturday was correct. Yes, there were Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. Some murdered their brethren with their own hands. Others informed on their neighbors or handed them over to the Germans. Yes, even among the Jews there were cases of inhuman cruelty and abuse during the Holocaust.
But Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is no historian. He’s a banker by training, who, due to particular political circumstances, was recently appointed to succeed his predecessor in the job. He may have a broad education in finance, and he also evidently knows how to proclaim the talking points of the ruling party that put him into office. But he undeniably lacks even a basic understanding of history.
The Jews who collaborated with the Nazis were a mere handful of people who, in the ghettos or among the gas chambers and crematoriums, committed traitorous acts, sometimes under duress and sometimes in a desperate effort to save their lives or those of their families. Most were in any case murdered by the Nazis later on. The actions of some simply cannot be judged in hindsight. Others, in contrast, did indeed degenerate into inhumane behavior.
But the number of Poles who collaborated was far larger; their collaboration can certainly be described as a widespread practice that encompassed many different strata of Polish society. It’s true that the Poles, too, suffered under the yoke of the Nazi occupation. They, too, were murdered, persecuted, starved and arrested.
But most saw the concentration camps only from the windows of their homes. They didn’t collaborate with the Nazis under duress, but of their own free will. Consequently, any effort to compare Jews to Poles in this context is an outrageous, anti-historical distortion. Not all human behavior is comparable. In history, as in real life, background and context matter.
By noting that there were also Jews who collaborated with the Nazis, the Polish prime minister didn’t reveal anything new. This marginal phenomenon has been studied and documented at a very early stage. As far back as 1946, when the atrocities of the Holocaust were still fresh in people’s minds, there were Jews who acknowledged it.
“We must gird our strength to say that our people is not comprised solely of innocent victims,” the bulletin of the Central Committee of Polish Jews wrote that year. “Our standing in the world’s eyes won’t be undermined if we identify our traitors and put them on trial.”
Archives list the names of people such as the kapo of the Plaszow concentration camp or the informer who revealed the hiding places of Jews in the Krakow Ghetto – Jews who betrayed fellow Jews. Some were subjected to court-martials immediately.
After the State of Israel was established, dozens of Jews who collaborated with the Nazis were put on trial. The testimony collected by Itamar Levin in his Hebrew-language book “Kapo on Allenby” is hard to read even from the distance of time. It includes murder, beatings, humiliations and severe and arbitrary abuse. Some of the people convicted were sent to prison. One was even sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted.
Still, any historian with his head on his shoulders would admit that the background and circumstances of these Jews’ collaboration with the Nazis is utterly different from those that drove some Poles to slaughter their Jewish neighbors.
The Polish government has said in recent years that Poles who persecuted Jews during the Holocaust were “criminals” operating on the margins of Polish society and do not represent the Polish “people,” who came out in full force to save their Jewish neighbors even though they themselves were persecuted by the Nazis. Polish-Jewish historian Jan Grabowski has debunked this narrative.
In his book “Hunt for the Jews,” Grabowski argues that Polish persecution of Jews was not a marginal, sporadic phenomenon devoid of importance, but a widespread one. Some Poles persecuted Jews due to deep-rooted anti-Semitism, the fruit of brainwashing by the Catholic Church. Others did it for a bottle of beer.
The Polish prime minister’s wretched statement should be seen as reflecting not a historical truth, but a contemporary political one. His main concern wasn’t history, but his desire to please his government’s largely nationalist electoral base.
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