Poland and Israel’s False Declaration on the Holocaust

Nazi Germany is to blame for the destruction of Poland’s Jews, not the Poles. But large segments of the Polish people were not sorry that the Jews had disappeared, and stood by and watched

The suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943.
Jürgen Stroop / Wikimedia Commons

The joint declaration by the Israeli and Polish prime ministers falsifies history and the reality in Poland occupied by Nazi Germany, as well as the relationship of the Polish people to the Jews at the time.

I – having been in Poland during that period, and as a historian who has published books on the subject – identify entirely with the position of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on this matter. (My books include "The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Revised and Expanded Edition," which is entirely devoted to the Holocaust and the destruction of Polish Jewry.) But I do not identify with the onslaught against the entire Polish people and the way some politicians are taking advantage of the matter.

There is no doubt that there was fierce anti-Semitism in Poland even before the war, and there were pogroms in which no small number of Jews were murdered (for example, the Przytyk pogrom in 1936). During the war, tens of thousands of Poles were involved in murder (at Jedwabne and elsewhere), and in turning in Jews who were hiding from the Germans.

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At the same time, it should be noted that thousands of Poles, members of the Righteous Among the Nations whom Yad Vashem has recognized, risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews.

As for the position of most of the Polish people, they stood by and watched while their Jewish neighbors were led to extermination camps or were murdered where they lived. Large segments of the Polish people were not sorry that the Jews had disappeared, and that the work had been done by the Germans. An underground newspaper of Polish liberal circles gave expression to this.

This paper, Naród (Nation), wrote on August 15, 1942, at the height of the deportation of the Jews: “If this thing continues, in a short time Warsaw will bid farewell to the last of its Jews.”

As the newspaper put it, “If it were possible to conduct a funeral, it would be interesting to see the response .... We must not pretend, as at a funeral [where there are] professional mourners. Let’s be sincere and honest .... We share the sorrow of the individual Jew, as a human being, and to the extent possible we will lend a hand to those who are lost or in hiding .... But let’s not strive to express artificial sorrow about a dying nation that was not close to our hearts. Let’s be sincere and honest in the face of the imposition of history’s sentence.”

From this the position of the liberal circles in the Polish underground is clear. As for the position of anti-Semitic circles in the Polish underground, it was of course much more extreme.

The prime ministers’ declaration favorably describes the conduct of the Polish government in exile in London. The Polish underground – especially its dominant element, which was part of the Home Army that was linked to the government in exile – knew from the time the camps were established what was happening at Treblinka and Belzec, and to a lesser extent at Sobibor, and reported this in the various publications.

This underground took no practical steps to warn the Jews who were still left in the ghettos and to inform them of the true nature of the death camps, nor did it take action to disrupt the deportation of the Jews by sabotaging the trains and tracks. Quite a few Jews were even murdered by members of the Polish underground in the forests when they sought to hide and be rescued.

At the same time, at the beginning of the deportations of the Jews from Warsaw and other places to the death camps, reports were already being sent by the Polish underground to the government in exile, by wireless telegram and by messenger, about the deportations and destruction.

This information did indeed reach the government in exile, as well as the British government, but it was received with indifference. Stefan Korbonski, a leader of the underground who was in charge of broadcasts from Poland and of a secret radio link with London, wrote in his memoirs that the Polish government in London did not respond to these messages, and the BBC did not mention it.

Nazi Germany is to blame for the destruction of Poland’s Jews, not the Poles. Without the German occupation, a Holocaust would not have happened on Polish soil. Let’s remember that thousands of Polish soldiers fell during the war – in Poland in September 1939, in France in 1940, in Anders’ Army in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1943, in the Polish People’s Army on the Soviet-German front from 1943 to 1945. They thus contributed to the victory over Nazi Germany.

The attitude of the Poles towards the Jews was no different than the attitude towards the Jews in some European countries that were under German occupation or were allies of the Germans. And there was no government on Polish soil that collaborated with Nazi Germany like the Vichy government in France, the Quisling government in Norway and their ilk in many countries.

Germany’s allies murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews by themselves and on their own initiative – in Bessarabia, Bukovina and Transnistria. The governments of Hungary and Slovakia deported tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths, and even the government in Sofia, which saved Bulgaria’s Jews, deported the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia, over which the Germans gave them control, to death camps in Poland. To this may be added the government of Croatia and others. In Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, brigades organized and helped murder hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Compared to the other peoples of Europe, the Poles were no different in their attitude towards the Jews, but to their credit they fought against Nazi Germany. None of this changes the fact that the prime ministers’ declaration distorts and falsifies the reality at that time on Polish soil. It is regrettable that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed the declaration in its current form.

But history will not be determined by any agreement or joint declaration, even if it is signed by prime ministers. History is written by historians, and there it will be as close as possible to reality.

Yitzhak Arad, a historian and researcher of Holocaust history, was Yad Vashem chairman from 1972 to 1993.