Death Camps Weren’t 'Polish' - but Poles Were Bad Enough to Jews Without Them, Holocaust Historian Says

New bill ‘is creating an atmosphere of fear in Poland to talk about these issues’ and will make work of those who research Poland during the Holocaust difficult, if not impossible

German and Polish police, Poland, 1943.
Yulia Krasnodembsky, from 'Hunt for the Jews.'

The heated controversy over new Polish legislation that would criminalize any mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust has underscored how differently Jews and Poles perceive that era.

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As many Jews see it, the Nazis would not have been able to execute their “Final Solution” were it not for the help and support of a rabidly anti-Semitic Polish population. It is no coincidence, they say, that the main Nazi death camps were set up on Polish soil.

The contentious bill, approved by the lower house of the Polish parliament on Friday, but that still awaits approval by the upper house, would also forbid any mention of “Polish death camps.”

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The Poles, for their part, insist they were no less victimized than the Jews. And where else but in their country, they ask, did so many risk their lives to save Jews?

According to historian Havi Dreifuss, a leading authority on relations between Jews and Poles during the Holocaust, the arguments on both sides are flawed. “Those who try to portray what happened in black-and-white terms many times make mistakes,” she says.

The Poles, she says, are right to be offended by the use of the term “Polish death camps.”

“Historically speaking, the camps were a Nazi-German enterprise and didn’t have any connection to Poland or to any Polish authority,” says Dreifuss, a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University who also heads the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial center.

The death camps were set up where they were, she says, not because the Germans saw the Poles as willing executioners, but rather, for logistic reasons, specifically the large number of Jews in the country.

“They had practical reasons for establishing them in the eastern parts of what they saw as German territory,” she says.

But while the death camps were not a Polish invention or initiative, notes Dreifuss, that does not absolve the Poles of responsibility for atrocities committed against the Jews on their soil. Although Poland has tried to play up the role of its Holocaust rescuers in recent years, she says, “They were the exception rather than the norm.“

Over the years, Yad Vashem has recognized more than 6,700 Poles as “Righteous Among the Nations” – a designation for non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews without receiving any compensation whatsoever. “This is an impressive number,” acknowledges Dreifuss, “but it’s important to remember that in most cases, Jews in Poland and their rescuers were hiding what they were doing not only from the Nazis, but also from their Polish neighbors who might turn them in.”

Many Jews in Poland, she adds, were murdered not in the death camps, but at the hands of Poles.

“This is something that Poland doesn’t want to own up to and apparently what this new law is trying to cover up,” she says. “During the Holocaust, in quite a few small communities in the Lomza district of Poland, the locals murdered their Jewish neighbors. And Kielce was not the only place where Jews – some of them sole survivors of their families – were murdered by Poles after the war ended.”

Citing new research by Polish scholars, Dreifuss also notes that of about 250,000 Polish Jews who tried to escape death and seek shelter in the Polish countryside, fewer than ten percent survived. “The vast majority of them perished not because of German efforts, but because they were killed by locals or because they were handed over to the Germans or the Polish police, who then killed them,” she says.

Jewish perceptions of their Polish neighbors, she says, changed dramatically even over the course of the war. “If you look at what Jews were writing about their Polish surroundings during the Holocaust years, you see that up until 1942, they tended to describe the Poles in very positive ways – and even when there were Poles who harmed them, they tended to view this as a marginal phenomenon,” she says. “From mid-1942 on, though, they start referring to the Poles in very harsh terms.”

Given her field of specialization, Dreifuss travels frequently to Poland for research purposes. Even though the new legislation is meant to exempt academics and artists, she says, she is hesitant to travel there now.

“For me, the most problematic thing in this law is creating an atmosphere of fear in Poland to talk about these issues,” she says. “Poland has wonderful scholars who really changed our understanding of many aspects of the Holocaust, and the fact that they and their students – especially the students, who won’t be part of the exemption – will have to think twice before working on these issues is something that is very very very problematic.”