Were There Actually 'Jewish Perpetrators' of the Holocaust?

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki says there were, along with Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and German. Israeli historians say it's part of an ongoing campaign to blur the line between the murderers and the victims

Chaim Rumkowski, head of the Judenrat in Lodz Ghetto during the Holocaust, drinking a bowl of soup.
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Who was Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki referring to on Saturday when he spoke about “Jewish perpetrators” in the Holocaust?

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Morawiecki was responding to a question from Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman during a session at the Munich Security Conference. Bergman, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, told the premier that when he was growing up, his mother had said she and her family were saved only because their Gentile neighbors did not know they were there. The neighbors, he said, “snitched to the Gestapo” when there were Jews hiding in the vicinity. Bergman wondered aloud if his revelation would make him subject to criminal charges in present-day Poland.

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Morawiecki denied that anyone needed to fear being punished in Poland for claiming there had been “Polish perpetrators” – just as there were “Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian – not only German perpetrators.”

There is no denying that the Germans, in occupying Poland, forced the country’s Jews to assist in governing and policing themselves, by way of the Judenrat (the Jewish councils) and the Jewish police, who were responsible for running the day-to-day affairs in the Jewish ghettoes and keeping order. When the Nazis began the process of “liquidating” a ghetto, they would obligate the Judenrat to provide lists of the Jewish residents, and sometimes to select the victims.

Members of the Jewish Sonderkommando working in Auschwitz, the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, in 1944.

In some cases, such as that of Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat head Adam Czerniaków, suicide was preferable to assisting in the deportation of his fellow Jews: Czerniaków ingested a cyanide pill on July 23, 1942 – the day the transports began.

Far more controversial was Chaim Rumkowski, who headed Lodz Ghetto and implored the Jews there to assist him in turning over the ghetto’s children, as well as its elderly, to the Germans so that the remainder would be saved. Of course, all of Lodz’s Jews were eventually deported, including Rumkowski, who was murdered in Auschwitz, apparently by members of the Jewish Sonderkommando, on August 28, 1944. (The Sonderkommando were another example of Jews being pressed into doing the Nazis’ dirty work for them – in this case, removing dead bodies from the gas chambers.)

But the stories of Rumkowski, and the Jewish police, and many other disturbing episodes of Jews who collaborated with the Germans – some because they thought it would save some lives, others because of what can only be called moral depravity – are well known.

As Havi Dreifuss, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at Yad Vashem, told Haaretz in an interview, “This was one of the first subjects to be tackled by Jewish and Israeli scholars” of the Holocaust, and it continues to be studied today. In Israel, “some Jews were even put on trial for their acts during the Holocaust. Naturally, it is a very sensitive topic, but there’s no taboo on studying it. Even if it was a marginal phenomenon, no one even thinks to suggest that it shouldn’t be researched.”

Dreifuss says she suspects Morawiecki’s Munich comments were part of a larger effort underway in Poland that is intended “to blur the differences between the murderers and the victims.” And the differences, she says, are enormous.

“First, the scope of the phenomenon was marginal in the Jewish case – important but marginal – whereas the hostile reaction of many Poles to the persecuted Jews was a norm in most parts of Poland. Poles hated and feared Nazi Germany, but many of them saw the murder of the Jews as a ‘positive’ outcome of the war. Second, there is the question of motives. While most Jews collaborated hoping to save themselves, their family or part of their community – Poles helped Nazi Germany hunt Jews due to various reasons, among them hatred and financial benefits.”

'Outrageous' comparison

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaking at the Munich Security Conference, February 17, 2018.
Sven Hoppe/AP

Dr. David Silberklang, a senior historian at Yad Vashem and editor of its Yad Vashem Studies journal, concurred with Dreifuss, saying that it was “outrageous” to make the comparison between Jewish collaborators and Polish ones.

Like Dreifuss, he emphasizes that the phenomenon was “marginal,” and also that Jews who did help the Germans “were looking for a way to save their skins.” Among Gentile Poles, “we’re talking about people who went out of their way to hunt down Jews,” he says.

Morawiecki was at great pains to note that it’s wrong to speak of “‘Polish’ death camps,” since “there was no Polish independent state” during World War II, and the concentration and death camps were organized and operated by the Nazi German occupiers. But even he had to correct himself a short time later when he began a sentence with the words, “In Poland,” and then corrected himself by saying, “On the Polish soil, I should have said, because there was no Poland during the Second World War”

That too, is somewhat misleading, as there was both a Polish government-in-exile – which was based in London during the war – and there was also the Delegatura, which was commonly referred to as the “underground state.” Its job, in the words of Yad Vashem’s Silberklang, “was to try to hold together Polish society against the attacks on it by the Nazis, who were trying to dissolve Polish society.”

Also, there was a Polish police force that numbered some 15,000 in 1942, serving in both the cities and the countryside in the General Government (the Warsaw, Krakow, Radom, Lublin and Eastern Galicia districts). Says Silberklang: “They’re often the ones who are hunting down the Jews who ran away. And they could have decided that they weren’t going to find the Jews.” They could have put on a show of searching for them, before saying, “‘You know, these Jews are just so good at hiding, we’re not able to find them.’ But they didn’t do that, at least not as an institution.”

Furthermore, adds Silberklang, neither the government in exile, nor the Delegatura in occupied Poland, nor any of the various underground military organizations “ever defined fighting the Germans as including trying to help Jews.” There were other nations – Silberklang mentions the Dutch and the Danish – whose resistance organizations did make that part of their mission, but not the Poles. Some would not even accept Jews into their ranks, and some even “actively hunted down Jews and killed them.”

On Saturday, notes Silberklang, Morawiecki “laid a wreath at the burial site of some of them,” referring to the premier’s visit to a Munich cemetery to pay homage to the memory of members of the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade – a far-right, anti-communist underground group – who are buried in Munich.

Argues Silberklang: “It’s not just a matter of ‘Your hero is my criminal; my hero is your criminal.’ Someone who’s actually murdering people can’t be anyone’s hero.”

There was a Polish organization, Zegota, founded by both Jews and non-Jews that was dedicated to rescuing Jews. “But now,” says Silberklang, “it’s used as an example of  the spirit of the Polish people. When the fact of the matter is that Polish rescuers – those who tried to help Jews – had to fear their neighbors more than they had to fear the Germans. Because so many of their neighbors wanted to turn them in.”

As an example, he points to Irena Sendler, the Gentile woman who rescued Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. “She saved dozens, maybe a couple of hundred. And she paid for it. She was punished and beaten by the Germans. But one of her comments [after the war] was that, in Poland, it was easier to hide a tank under a rug than a Jewish child in a Christian home.”

On Sunday, Morawiecki tried to limit the damage caused by his remarks a day earlier. A spokesperson issued a statement claiming that his words “should be interpreted as a sincere call for open discussion of crimes committed against Jews during the Holocaust, regardless of the nationality of those involved.”

However, the new Polish law that recently reignited the debate about Poland and the Holocaust forbids open discussion of that topic, making illegal any statement accusing the “Polish nation, people or state” of participating in any way in the Holocaust.

Dreifuss stresses that the argument here is not between “Jews” and “Poles.” She notes that “there are wonderful Polish scholars who have contributed tremendously to our knowledge about the Holocaust, including – yet not only – on some darker aspects of Polish and Jewish relations.

“The argument is between people who want to write history, and talk about history, based on existing documentation and updated knowledge – and those who don’t want to allow this open discussion,” she adds. “For me, the saddest thing will be if this attempt to blur differences and frighten the promising younger generation of Polish scholars ends up succeeding. Simplification will take over the field, and the complex reality of those dreadful days will be fundamentally harmed.”