The Polish Problem with the Holocaust

In October 1936 a court in Warsaw heard the case of a student, Cywia Asterblum, who had been accused of slandering the good name of the Polish nation. Ms Asterblum’s offence was that she had hurled abuse at some militants during anti-Semitic incidents at the University of Warsaw. Warszawski Dziennik Narodowy (Warsaw National Daily) reported, ‘while academic youths were demonstrating against the Jews and expelling them from the university, Asterblum had shouted ‘Polish brutes! Boors!’ The Jewish woman was beaten, and a policeman was then called who wrote a report. The Warsaw court punished her with two months’ imprisonment for slandering the Polish nation (represented, in this case, by Endecja militants).
But Cywia Asterblum may still have been satisfied with the sentence – under the Penal Code of 1932, this particular offence carried a three-year prison sentence. The fact that more than 80 years later Polish law has been augmented with a sanction of three years’ imprisonment for people who speak ill of the Polish nation should give us much food for thought. The so-called amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) referred to slandering the good name of the Polish nation, the Polish state or its institutions and imputing that they were in any way responsible for German crimes during World War II. Even if the authorities – under great pressure from worldwide public opinion – decriminalized the law on the IPN a few months later, the painful problem has remained. And that problem is the unresolved and unimplemented settlement of issues to do with the Holocaust.

Nobody in Poland needs to be reminded of the extent of the tragedies and the destruction that the Germans meted out in 1939–45. The human losses were enormous, and towns were left in ruins. The destruction of Warsaw, in which 450,000 Jews were murdered (or transported to their deaths) in 1940–3 and then over 150,000 Poles were killed in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, became the symbol of that devastation. By October 1944 the city with a population of over one million had been laid waste, and German special units destroyed the few homes that had survived the fires, fulfilling Hitler’s order to raze Warsaw to the ground. In January 1945, when Soviet troops liberated the capital, the cityscape was like the surface of the moon. Even if other towns had not suffered as much as Warsaw, terrible war wounds could be seen everywhere. It was difficult to find a single Polish family that had not suffered any loss; thousands of people had been shot, while hundreds of thousands had landed in concentration and labour camps or suffered in various other ways as a result of one of the cruellest systems of occupation in Europe’s history.

Nevertheless, there are varying degrees of damage and different levels of loss. Despite the huge losses, the vast majority of Poles survived the war. Its end meant the beginning of the reconstruction of Polish society, a slow healing of wounds and a start to planning the future. Things were different for the Jews. Of the approximately 3.2 million Polish Jews who found themselves under German occupation, a mere 40,000 survived until the liberation. In other words, not more than 1.5 per cent survived the Germans and their local helpers and supporters. And it is here, when mention is made of those who helped carry out the mass murder, that it is necessary to recall and remember the officers of the Polish blue police force, the Polish firefighters of the OSP (voluntary) brigades and the ordinary people, the Polish neighbours, who in various ways and to different extents took part in the German Holocaust project, contributing – as it was then called – to the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’. Some of them took part in robbing Jewish property, others searched through the ghetto, tracking down those in hiding, others occupied ‘post-Jewish houses’ and still others informed the police.

In the eyes of many Jews who survived the occupation, the everyday threats in Poland were associated with neighbours, the locals, people who knew who was a Jew and how to recognize one. Acts of betrayal, murder and blackmail that Polish fellow citizens committed have been recorded in almost all Jewish testimonies relating to those years. A deep sense of having been wronged was widespread among the Jews – even if no one was under any illusion as to the Germans, then something different had been expected of the Poles. Thus the Poles and the Jews had completely different experiences of the war years, and the weight of the harm that had been suffered cast a heavy shadow over post-war relations. Accusations of complicity that the Jews formulated against the Poles immediately after the war were violently rejected as insolent and groundless. This is what happened in 1945 and is happening today, three generations later.

In early autumn 1945 the Polish War Reparations Bureau made an initial calculation of the biological losses that Polish society had suffered during the war. These estimates showed that 4.8 million Polish citizens were killed in 1939–45, including 3 million Polish Jews. It quickly turned out that these estimates were completely unacceptable to the state’s authorities. Jakub Berman, the fear-inspiring head of the Security Service, remarked that ‘if we accept that 3 million Jews were murdered, we must significantly increase the number of Polish victims’. In a note entitled ‘Establish the number of murdered as 6 million’, Berman wrote that the numbers of victims should be equalized: 3 million each. Berman was a Jew, but above all a communist. He knew the mood of the population well enough to realize that the recognition of Jewish losses as almost twice as high as Polish losses would have caused considerable difficulties for the communists. The new ruling authorities were perceived by many not only as Soviet agents, but also as ‘Jewish minions’. After the war, these were often deemed part and parcel of one ‘conceptual package’. And today, this conceptual package looks very similar. According to Berman, the only way to introduce information about 3 million murdered Jews into the public domain was to increase the number of Poles who were killed up to the ‘Jewish’ level. Thus it was decreed in 1945, and this is how it is taught in schools until this day, 74 years after Berman issued his order.

The desire to elevate a nation’s own suffering to the level of the Holocaust has a name. Holocaust researchers describe this strange phenomenon as ‘Holocaust envy’, or ‘jealousy of the Holocaust’. But this jealousy is certainly not limited just to Poland. In order to protect national myths, half-truths and falsehoods, which are incompatible with the history of the Holocaust, nationalists in Poland (and in other countries of our region) create defence mechanisms that are increasingly being used by the state.

Russia has pioneered giving prison sentences to historians who conduct independent research. President Dmitry Medvedev established a special commission in 2009 with the objective of ‘building a dam against falsifications of history that are against Russia’s interests’. As one might guess, President Medvedev was not troubled by falsifications of history in accordance with Russia’s interests. In 2014 the Duma passed Article 354.1 of the criminal code that made illegal all ‘attempts to rehabilitate Nazism and to suggest that the Allies’ acts (including the Soviet Union’s) were in any way criminal’. This has nothing to do with Nazism, of course, only with the crimes that the Soviets committed in 1939–41, when a friendship flourished between Hitler and Stalin. And with any other issue in recent history that clashes with the official view of history promoted by the authorities. Soon Ukraine followed Russia’s path. In 2015, legislators in Kiev voted through several laws to help researchers understand what history really is. Law 2538-1 on ‘commemorating fighters for the freedom of Ukraine in the 20th century’, states that: ‘Whosoever publicly denies the legitimate cause of militants who fought in the 20th century for Ukrainian independence offends the dignity of the Ukrainian people and is liable to punishment’. Nevertheless, the fighters for the independence of Ukraine included also nationalists in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), whose role in the killing of Ukrainian Jews is indisputable and unchallenged by any serious historian.

Russian and Ukrainian moves to criminalize history have not gone unnoticed in Poland. A triumphalist nationalist narrative, which has long formed the basis of Polish historical policy, gained strength after nationalists under the Law and Justice (PiS) banner came to power. After winning the presidency and the Sejm (parliament), PiS expended a great deal of energy on building and strengthening the national myths that bind together its electorate and – crucially – allow PiS to seek new supporters among people who are ideologically quite removed. Coming to terms with history and commemorating the Holocaust are key aspects of the grand task of creating myths (such as the ‘dignity’ policy). The crowning achievement of the Polish authorities’ propaganda efforts is the list of ‘wrong memory codes’ drawn up by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and disseminated in autumn 2016 to Polish consular offices and embassies around the world. The purpose of this list is to help historians (as well as journalists and other writers) to avoid potentially costly mistakes. The authorities in Warsaw claim that, ‘wrong memory codes falsify the role of Poland during World War II’. It is no accident that most of the incriminating phrases refer to Holocaust history. So here, by way of example, are some of the ‘wrong memory codes’, which – if detected in foreign publications – should be notified to the nearest Polish diplomatic mission so that further action may be taken: ‘Polish genocide’, ‘Polish war crimes’, ‘Polish mass murders’, ‘Polish internment camps’, ‘Polish labour camps’ and – most importantly – ‘Polish participation in the Holocaust’.

The fact that a part of Polish society took part in German extermination activities, that tens of thousands of Polish Jews died at the hands of Poles or were sent by them to their deaths, is glaringly absent from school education, the state’s information policy, state-sponsored and independent exhibitions, museums and commemorations. In place of a serious, often painful, discussion about the past, we find an almost automatic defensive reaction that could be called ‘the defence of the Righteous’. It is impossible, these days, to find any official state declaration regarding the Holocaust that fails to mention the Righteous Poles who brought help to dying Jews. In a 2015 nationwide survey of high school youth, almost half of the students (46 per cent) responded that, in 1941 in the Polish village of Jedwabne, Germans had murdered Poles who had been hiding Jews. A further 26 per cent of respondents stated that, in Jedwabne, Germans, acting together with the Russians, had murdered Polish prisoners of war. Less than 15 per cent stated that Poles had been guilty of murdering Jews, but they dampened this fact by adding that it had taken place with the participation of Germans. This is not a sign of ignorance, but the end result of strident indoctrination that interweaves the echoes of the martyrdom at Katyń, where the Soviets had murdered thousands of Polish prisoners of war taken prisoner during the 1939 campaign, with the cult of the Righteous that is served up on each occasion. It could be assumed that in 2019, four years after the poll was conducted, the growing narrative of fervent patriotism and the state’s tightening of the core school curriculum means the results would be even more interesting. There is no doubt that this mutilation of historical awareness will please the nationalists who today are at the helm of Polish historical policy. No matter that this is taking place with the violation of Poland’s own history; what counts is that nothing should threaten the national myths. This is all that now remains of the discussions on Jedwabne, which, as many had deluded themselves not so long ago, would thoroughly shake up Polish society’s historical awareness. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem has been manifestly buried and a critical reflection on the history of Polish–Jewish relations during the war has been replaced by the myth of Righteous Poles, inflated to unheard-of proportions.

Irena Sendler, who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto and whom the authorities wanted to take advantage of in their propaganda of March 1968 (‘how Poles saved the Jews’), resolutely refused to take part in that shameful campaign. ‘This is a bad time’, Sendler said back then. Her words should sound like a warning to those who today – standing alongside Tadeusz Rydzyk (priest and head of a Catholic broadcasting enterprise) and the authorities – are building a new Front of National Unity based on national self-satisfaction. The cacophony of ‘optimistic’ narration is drowning out the simple statement that the Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust were a petrified minority that was exposed not only to the terrors of the invader, but also to the hostility of vast masses of Polish society, among whom there was simply no consent for these kinds of deeds. It is notable that, ten years after the war, many of the Polish Righteous preferred to receive their medals in deep secrecy, so that their neighbours would not find out. If someone deserves the title of ‘accursed soldiers’ (to refer to Jan Tomasz Gross’s apt term), it is them – people who were able to go against the grain and who still had to hide their deeds, until recently, for fear of their neighbours’ angry reactions. Yet the goal of Polish historical policy is not to search for the truth but to consolidate national myths and to ‘defend the good name of the nation’ – and here a properly crafted story of the Righteous becomes a powerful argument of significant firepower. This is because ‘The Defence of the Righteous’ enables Jewish victims to be pushed to the margins of Poles’ historical awareness and gradually replaced by noble and devoted Christians. This process of ‘dejudifying’ the Holocaust has been defined by the Israeli historian Manfred Gerstenfeld as ‘an attempt to weaken alleged Jewish power over this genocide, so that the memory of the Holocaust could be used for some other goal’. In Poland’s case, this other goal is to integrate the Holocaust into its national mythology and martyrdom.

It is time to sound the alarm: history has become a tool of political struggle to an extent not known for decades. Failure to appreciate the burden that the falsification of history could exert on the life of Polish society has cost us all dearly, and it may cost us a lot more in the near future.

Jan Grabowski,
University of Ottawa

Jan Grabowski is a Professor of History at the University of Ottawa and a founding member of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in the Polish Academy of Sciences. He has been an invited professor at universities in France, Israel, Poland and in the United States. In 2011 Dr. Grabowski has been appointed the Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim Chair for the Study of Racism, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. He has authored and edited 15 books and published more than 60 articles in English, French, Polish, German and Hebrew. Professor Grabowski’s book: Hunt for the Jews. Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland has been awarded the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for 2014. In 2016-17 Grabowski was the Ina Levine Senior Invitational Scholar in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. His most recent work: Night Without End. Fate of Jews in selected counties of occupied Poland, 2 vols. (J. Grabowski and B. Engelking, editors), has been published in April 2018, in Warsaw, in Polish.

Translated from Polish.

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