Quo Vadis, Poland?

The Poles err in criminalizing any reference to their involvement in the Holocaust. They did suffer – but also have things to answer for.

A concentration camp survivor wipes his tears during a ceremony at the former death camp Auschwitz in Birkenau, January 27, 2005.
Katarina Stoltz, Reuters

My parents and I arrived in Tel Aviv from Poland a few months before the outbreak of World War II. The rest of our extended family remained in Poland, and none of them survived. Three of my grandparents, my mothers six sisters and one brother, five of my cousins – were all murdered by the Germans. They were deported to the extermination camps from their various seats of residence – my town of birth, Bielsko-Biala, Krakow, Makow-Podhalanski, Warsaw.

I have visited Poland many times, and the presence of the Jewish absence in Polish life has constantly accompanied me. Books and articles of mine have been translated into Polish, I have lectured at Warsaw University, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the International Cultural Center in this beautiful city. Recently I was privileged to be elected an external member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences. Though my current knowledge of Polish is scant, its language, history, culture and smells are not foreign to me.

It is for these reasons that I understood only too well the motivation behind the recent legislation on historical matters introduced by the current Polish government. I understood – but was also furious.

A girl holding an Israeli flag walks through the former Nazi death camp of Birkenau (Auschwitz II) in Oswiecim, southern Poland.

I understood, because no country in Nazi-occupied Europe suffered like Poland and no other people – except the Jews – became a victim of the German murder machine. Poland was the only country in Europe that was completely dismantled by the Germans: Its national and municipal institutions were liquidated, its army disbanded, its schools and universities closed; even its name was wiped off the map and the German-occupied regions of Poland were called by the strange name of General Gouvernement.

Poland was the only country in Europe in which no collaborationist government emerged or surrendered to the Germans. Six million Polish citizens – three million Jews and three million ethnic Poles – were murdered by the Germans. If you add to this the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland that followed in the wake of the German invasion, you can understand why the Poles saw themselves primarily as victims and viewed the Hitler-Stalin alliance expressed in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact as a replay of the 18th-century partitions of Poland initiated by Russia and Prussia.

Slave laborers digging irrigation ditch in Nazi camp in Poland, 1940.

It is because the Germans dismantled the Polish state and its institutions that they decided to set up their exterminations camps on Polish soil – Auschwitz of course being the most notorious of them. No thread of Polish authority remained in German-occupied Poland, and all of the countrys public assets were taken over by the German occupation authorities. In all other countries in German-controlled Europe, Nazi Germany had to deal, sometimes in an extremely complicated way, with local governments, which despite the fact of their being allies or having surrendered to the Reich, they still had to be taken into account, even if for purely tactical reasons.

It is for these reasons that Poland is so justified in insisting that the extermination camps should not be called Polish extermination camps (as even President Obama once referred to them), but German camps in occupied Poland.

Nazi officers talking with Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland in 1943.

But it is on this point that outrage can accompany ones understanding of the Polish sensitivity: While the Polish government is justified in its objective, it is making a major mistake in trying to use legal means to rectify the problem by making any reference to Polish extermination camps a criminal offense. Only nondemocratic regimes use such means: The issue should be part of public discourse, historical clarifications, diplomatic contacts, education – not criminalization.

The Polish-proposed legislation goes even further: It criminalizes any reference to any role Polish people had in the Holocaust, and on this occasion also refers to what it calls historical truth regarding the massacre perpetrated during the war by the Polish population in the town of Jedwabne against their Jewish neighbors. When the historian Jan Tomasz Gross published his study in 2001, stating that it was not the Germans, but the local ethnic Poles who burned alive hundreds of the towns Jewish residents, it naturally caused a major crisis of conscience in Poland. Two Polish presidents, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Bronislaw Komorowski, accepted these uncomfortable findings and publicly asked for the victims forgiveness; the latter even used language that addressed the most sensitive Polish aspects involved, declaring that even in a nation of victims, there appear to be murderers.

Holocaust Day

Now the Polish government states that the issue is not collusively clear and has to be re-examined, calling for an exhumation of the mass graves of the massacres victims.

All this casts a heavy shadow on the policies and intentions of the current Polish government. Its views and ideology are an internal Polish affair, but if the government aims to initiate a revision of Polish history and gloss over or deny its problematical aspects, then even those who identify with the justified Polish pain may raise some other questions that have until now been mainly overlooked because of the recognition of the terrible suffering of the Polish people during World War II. These are not trivial questions, nor do they refer to the behavior of individuals, but to Polish national decisions.

The first question concerns the timing of the Polish Warsaw uprising, in August 1944, when the Soviet Army reached the Vistula. The Poles justly point out that the Soviet Army did not come to the aid of the Polish insurgents and actually let the Germans suppress the insurgency unimpeded – one of Stalins most cynical moves.

But it is here that one may raise a haunting question: Why did the Armia Krajowa, the Polish underground, controlled by the Polish government-in-exile in London, strike at this particular moment, when the Germans were already retreating, eastern Poland was already liberated and the Soviet army was about to liberate Warsaw itself? The official Polish explanation is that while the uprising was of course against the Germans, it had also another aim: to ensure that Warsaw would be liberated by Polish forces, and not by the Red Army. In other words: This was not only an insurrection against the Germans, but also a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union.

A 1943 file photo showing Polish Jews being deported by German SS soldiers.

If this is the case, one may perhaps understand, though obviously not justify, the Soviet passivity in not helping the Poles. Yet the question still lingers: Why did the Polish underground not rise against German occupation over the preceding four years? Why, for example, didnt Armia Krajowa strike against the Germans during the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943? Why did the Polish underground not try to disrupt the Germans systematic extermination of three million Jews, all Polish citizens?

One sometimes hears arguments about how many guns the Polish underground sent – or did not send – to help those participating in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But that is not the critical question. The question is why did the Polish underground just stand by when the remnants of the 300,000 Jewish residents of Warsaw rose against the German occupation? German suppression of the ghetto uprising took weeks, and on the Aryan side, the Polish population of Warsaw saw and heard what was happening in their own city – and did nothing. It is difficult to know what would have happened if the Polish underground had joined the uprising – not only in Warsaw but all over occupied Poland, where it had prepared thousands of its members in numerous cities and villages for a possible revolt. Had this taken place, it would certainly have made it more difficult for the German SS troops to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto. Moreover, had Armia Krajowa joined what was seen as a Jewish uprising, it would have been a powerful proof of solidarity with the Polish Jews.

It is a tough question. But is it totally unjustified to raise the moral dimension involved in deciding to start an uprising in order to prevent Warsaw from being liberated by the Soviets – but not doing anything to prevent the organized murder of three million Polish Jews or to help the ghetto uprising?

Soviet soldiers taking back Lwow (also known as Lviv) from German forces in July 1944. On the left of the picture we see two helmeted soldiers lying down, with one aiming rifles at forces we cannot see. In the foreground, center and right of the picture we see soldiers running, rifles in hand, towards forces we cannot see. There is a tank in the background but it is hard to see which way it is aimed.
Red Army, Wikimedia Commons

This raises another question, equally suppressed until now. In the beginning of 1939, the British and French governments realized that their policy of appeasing Hitler had failed, when it became clear that after putting an end to the remnants of Czechoslovak independence, Nazi Germany was preparing to turn against Poland. In the spring of 1939, Britain and France issued a guarantee to Poland against a German invasion. At the same time, the Soviet Union approached London and Paris, suggesting a joint approach against German aggression toward Poland. This was a major shift in international relations – the first attempt to develop a common front between the Soviet Union and the Western powers against Nazi Germany.

In July 1939, a joint Anglo-French military delegation traveled to Moscow to negotiate a possible Soviet-Western alliance against Germany. During the negotiations, the head of the Soviet delegation, Defense Minister Klemnti Voroshilov, asked the Western generals and admirals a simple question: In order to repel a German invasion of Poland, the Soviet Army will have to enter Poland; would the Polish government agree to the entry of Soviet troops into its territory in order to expel the Germans?

For weeks the Polish government evaded answering this, but eventually answered in the negative. As a minister in the Polish government then headed by what were called the Colonels said: If the Soviet Army enters Poland, who knows when they would leave? The tripartite Anglo-French-Soviet talks collapsed, and a few days later, the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed.

One can well understand the Polish fear of the Soviet Union and of communism: On regaining independence in 1918, Poland had found itself in a brutal war with the Soviets, and the Red Army reached the Vistula and was about to occupy Warsaw. Only the French military helped save the independence of Poland and repelled the Russians.

And yet: At a crucial moment in 1939, it appeared that Poland feared the Soviet Union more than it feared Nazi Germany. One cannot know what would have happened if: what would have happened if Poland would have agreed to the entry of the Red Army into its territory in the event of a German invasion. One cannot say categorically that World War II would not have occurred, or that Poland would not have been occupied by the Germans, or that the Holocaust would not have taken place: These are all speculations. But it is reasonable to maintain that history might have taken a different course and, this is the point: that at a moment when a beleaguered Poland had to make difficult and tough decisions, the Polish government made one of the most catastrophic decisions in the countrys history.

Poland paid a terrible price for this decision: In one way or another, the Polish refusal made Ribbentrop-Molotov possible, and the 1944 Polish uprising led to the almost total destruction of Warsaw and the expulsion of its population by the Germans.

People stand on Warsaw's main intersection holding burning flares to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Warsaw, Poland, August 1, 2016.
Czarek Sokolowski, AP

To avoid any misunderstanding: In no way should this be viewed as an attempt to blame the victim – Poland. The moral and historical guilt lies with Nazi Germany and, in parallel, with the Soviet Union. But if the current Polish government wishes to undertake a revision of Polish history, these broader issues also have to be addressed: A nation and its leadership are responsible for the decisions they make and for their consequences.

Recently I visited POLIN, the Jewish museum in Warsaw, whose establishment had been initiated by then-President Kwasniewski. I was deeply impressed not only by the richness of the materials and their wonderful presentation, but also by the sophistication and historical integrity underlying the whole project. It showed the history of Jews in Poland as an integral part of the countrys history: Without the Jews, Poland would not be Poland. Yet the museum also shows the darker side of this history, especially the emergence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of the radical nationalistic and anti-Semitic party led by Roman Dmowski, the Endecja. A non-Jewish friend who accompanied me on my visit said: Now is the time to build a Polish museum with a comparable standard.

He is right. But the way the current Polish government wishes to proceed is both wrong and not wise. It will greatly harm Polands rich and fascinating history as well as its presentation all over the world.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.