Analysis

We Must Be Allowed to Discuss the Poles' Role in the Holocaust

The Polish nation didn't necessarily take part in the Nazi crimes as a collective, but among that persecuted nation were some who persecuted their Jewish neighbors

Train tracks leading to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, 2015.
Matthias Schrader/AP

On Tuesday, three days after the uproar erupted over the Polish bill that would bar any mention of involvement by the Polish nation in Nazi crimes and make this an offense punishable by prison time, a ceremony at Yad Vashem did not attract any media attention.

At the ceremony, the title Righteous Among the Nations was posthumously bestowed upon three Poles – Sabina and Jan Dziadosz and their son Aleksandr. During World War II, this peasant family from the Lublin area kept two Jews, Felek Toytman and Albert Spivak, hidden in their home.

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Sabina and Jan’s daughter, Alicja Mularska, came to Jerusalem to accept the honor on behalf of the family. Her remarks at the ceremony were free of politics. She did not speak about a “historical injustice” done to the Polish people by citing its part in the Holocaust, nor did she speak of a “distortion of history” that Poland is applying to the study of the Holocaust, as its critics claim. What she did say was this: “Remember that in every situation, the ability to sacrifice and help another depends on us and the values we hold dear – and nothing can stop us from behaving as human beings.”

The Yad Vashem ceremony was also attended by the Polish Embassy’s first secretary, Piotr Kozlowski. It was the second time this week that he came to Jerusalem. Two days earlier he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for a clarification discussion as the new bill made progress. Yad Vashem condemned the bill, but at the ceremony Kozlowski thanked the institution for preserving the memory of the enormous tragedy, as well as the memory of the tremendous heroism.

Thanks to the tremendous heroism of people like the Dziadosz family, the number of Poles on the Wall of Honor of the Righteous Among the Nations continues to grow every year. It currently stands at 6,706 men and women.

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Even decades after the Holocaust, when most of these rescuers of Jews are no longer alive, the title Righteous Among the Nations continues to be awarded to Poles as new stories are uncovered by historical research. This is the only way possible to make progress toward answering the historical question, which has unfortunately become political, about the role played by the “Polish nation” in the Holocaust. Only thus, through historical research and not legal threats that are the work of politicians, can this issue be addressed.

All the Polish heroes like the Dziadosz family risked their lives. Some also lost their lives when the Nazis discovered their actions. Quite a few people  in Israel today owe their lives to those Poles – people like Ephraim Apter of Tel Aviv, who was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto with his father and mother by the Bonczak family and hidden by them.

In this context, it must be pointed out that there are two sides to the Polish government’s efforts to promote a rereading of history. The first of these is welcome. This action is meant to accord new respect to Poles who saved Jews, whose stories had been silenced and forgotten. Because of the right-wing Polish government, today, in 2018, to come from a family that saved Jews during the Holocaust is something to be respected and admired in Poland.

This is no small matter. During the Holocaust, Polish rescuers of Jews had to hide not just from the Nazis, but from their Polish neighbors as well. Some even declined later to accept any recognition, for fear of hurting their family’s good name should it become public knowledge that they saved Jews.

But the other side of the Polish government’s action merits criticism. This is the aspect that seeks to minimize the role of other Poles, those who were not heroes like their countrymen who were Righteous Among the Nations, but instead persecuted their Jewish neighbors. Sometimes they did so for anti-Semitic reasons, and at times, just for a bottle of beer.

There are also people living in Israel today whose families were murdered during or after the Holocaust either directly or indirectly by Poles. There is no organized information on the number or names of these Poles, as there is with the Righteous Among the Nations. In recent decades, there has been a lively debate, led by historians both in Poland and abroad, as to their part in the Holocaust. As more documents come to light, some historians increasingly believe that Polish involvement in aiding the Nazis wasn’t just a local or individual occurrence, as the Polish government maintains.

This doesn’t mean that the Polish “nation” took part in the Nazi crimes as a collective. Many Poles were themselves victimized by the Nazi occupation, and many also saved Jews. Still, there can be no comparing the fate of Polish Jewry to that of their Polish neighbors, as Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki did this week in a further attempt to blur the less heroic side of the Polish story.

Herein lies the great tragedy of Poland in the Holocaust. Among the Polish nation, which itself was persecuted by the Nazis, were some who persecuted their Jewish neighbors.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, unlike some other Poles, doesn’t deny this fact outright, but he’s trying to advance the thesis that “the Poles who persecuted Jews during the Holocaust were weeds of the kind that grow in every society” and that they “removed themselves from Polish society.”

There are plenty of Jews who made aliyah from Poland, some of them Holocaust survivors, who remember things differently. They have the right to make their voices heard even if what they say is not pleasing to Polish ears. It is incumbent upon the Polish government to allow this so that the discussion can be advanced, not stifled.