Was Poland different?
When I first began studying and writing about Polish-Jewish history, my supervisor, to my great terror, threw me into the work of tutoring at University, in the very popular subject The History of the Holocaust. I will always remember the first class I ever taught. It had a Holocaust survivor in it, and this fact alone caused weekly palpitations in the days leading up to the class. How on earth to talk about theories governing Holocaust historiography, about methods and sites of extermination, in front of someone who had actually experienced it; who had seen her family murdered in front of her, who had the Auschwitz tattoo seared on her arm, who did not need the pain of having these young people contemplating the ‘facts’ in front of her.
Don’t worry, my supervisor assured me, it will be ok, even if you feel uncomfortable, just keep the discussion going, because she chose to enrol in this subject, she must have known what she was getting herself into.
Well maybe she knew, maybe she didn’t, but the fact is that that Holocaust survivor did not sit there meekly waiting to be asked questions. She virtually took over my class, and I could do nothing to stop her. You don’t understand, she would say, how could you young people possibly understand this – (rolling up her sleeve, showing her tattoo), or this (pulling up a trouser leg to show horrific scars, the result of nearly dying in escape) or THIS – a 10-minute description of her little brothers and sisters, their names, ages, their years in school – once she even brought in a family photograph! I tried countless times, to get the discussion “on the topic”, to steer her towards the academic subjects we were meant to be covering, but she would have none of it.
THIS was not history, she would sneer at the articles we were reading – THIS is history, my story is one of the 6 million stories, how can you possibly know?? And then, little by little, the students would gather the courage to ask her questions, and she would respond, telling them HER story, week by week, until the end of semester.
You could safely say she ruined my class, or at least the class it was supposed to have been.
And yet, now, 20 years on, when adult survivors of the atrocities of WWII are dying and will soon be no more, I have to wonder whether that class wasn’t one of the most valuable things my students would have the privilege to sit through. I’m sure that in all the tutorials they had to endure through years of university, those students from that class would have the memory of HER – that Holocaust survivor who took over that tutorial – ingrained in their memory forever.
I spent many hours with her, and many more hours with other Holocaust survivors after that, hearing and recording their stories, which I always used in conjunction with historical research when I wrote about the destruction of the Jewish communities of Europe. I made sure that when I became a lecturer and led my own courses in Genocide Studies, that I always invited a survivor of the genocide to come and tell the students their story, whether it was the Holocaust, or Cambodia, Srebrenica or Rwanda.
Yet there is one thing that I will never forget, which sometimes happens to me still.
During one of our many post-tutorial discussions when I tried fruitlessly to explain to that Holocaust survivor the importance of actually discussing the readings, and ended up hearing more of her own story instead, there was one thing she said to me, which has been repeated to me many many times since then.
“Don’t take offence darling”, she said, “I know you want to know the truth. You are young and it is not your fault. But Poland is different from all the other countries; I can NEVER FORGIVE the Poles for what they did.”
I was shocked, then. I’d been brought up as the daughter, born in Australia, of a Polish Catholic WWII survivor-father. My entire childhood had been full of stories about Polish Catholic suffering during the occupation of Poland: about my father’s friends, professors from Warsaw University, who had been murdered by the Germans as soon as they invaded, about my father’s comrades, fellow officers of the Polish army who had been murdered in Katyń by the Soviets (a fate my father narrowly escaped himself!); about my own great uncle who had been sent to Auschwitz for so-called collaboration and had been so affected by it that he’d never spoken about it after the war; about the hundreds of thousands of civilians who had perished in the Warsaw uprising, when the Poles had fought against the Germans with NO assistance from anyone, most notable the Soviets, who calmly stood by on the other side of the river Wisła while the Poles were finished off before they began their ‘liberation’ of Warsaw and all territories to its west.
I had been brought up surrounded by books about Poland during WWII: books by soldiers and civilians, books about the government in exile, and books which my father’s friends wrote about their wartime underground activity against the Germans.
I had been brought up with parents who hated the communists so much they voted Liberal all their lives despite being working class – and when I protested, and told them that Labour would better serve their interests, I was told angrily, time and again, that anything to the left was too communist for them.
I was one of the thousands of children who shed tears of joy as Pope John Paul the 2nd, that revered Polish Pope, visited Melbourne in 1980 and cried himself as thousands of Poles sang that Polish national anthem as he rode his buggy around the MCG, and then assured us, all of us, that the end of communism in Poland was nigh, that Poland would indeed, be free once again, soon. He was right of course; but it would take another 10 years before Poland was totally free of the Iron Curtain.
So, to be told by a Holocaust survivor that Poland was different, that she would never forgive the Poles, hurt deeply.
It was not the first time I would be told that. “No offence” Jewish survivors would tell me, “you are not to blame, and you are to be commended for wanting to know the truth. And the truth is …” and then they would proceed to tell me all sorts of horrific, tragic stories.
That one brother had been murdered by Poles whilst being hidden by them.
That whilst entering the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, a Jewish family witnessed the complete indifference of their neighbours.
That whilst hiding in the forests, a relative had been caught by Polish peasants and taken in to the Germans.
That a baby given to a Polish couple had been dumped at a Nazi deportation point – they had been too scared to keep it any longer.
That upon returning to post-war Poland, to their ancestral town, to check if anyone from the family was still alive, a Survivor had been asked by her Polish townsfolk, “what, you’re still here? I thought they gassed you all!”
The stories went on and on. And they go on to this day.
Let me stress that on the whole, in the 23 years I’ve been researching Polish-Jewish history, I have been privileged to speak with tens of Holocaust survivors, and almost all of them have been open, honest, and lovely to me. I have learnt from them what I would never learn from written narratives or histories. I will always be grateful for that.
Yet, as they become fewer and fewer in number, it was disturbing to witness a phenomenon which was not particular to Melbourne, or to Australia. It was happening around the world, especially in America.
Some of the CHILDREN of the Holocaust survivors were now taking it a step further: not only criticising Polish Catholics of wrongdoing during WWII and the occupation of Poland, but just about equating Polish complicity in the Holocaust with Nazi complicity!
Nazi death camps were being referred to as POLISH death camps; when writing about perpetrators of the Final Solution little distinction was made between German Nazi policy and what was seen as Polish participation as collaborators in this policy.
Something was wrong.
How was it that history was being distorted in such a grand way?
Did the world not know that Poland had experienced a brutal, bloody occupation, markedly different for non-Jewish Poles to that of people under occupation in western Europe?
Hadn’t the world heard about Katyn, where 21,000 Polish officers and so-called kulaks were murdered by the Soviets, some of them also Jewish (but who had died as Polish citizens)?
Wasn’t it known to the world that Auschwitz wasn’t even initially established as a camp for Jews, but for Russian POWs and Polish political prisoners?
Didn’t everyone know about the massacre of Polish intellectuals in the early months of occupation, and the exit to England of the government of Poland, which had left the country without its leaders, the very people needed in this time of great crisis?
Wasn’t it clear to the world that Poland had been utterly betrayed by the Allies in 1944; that they’d left the country in Soviet hands thus leading to another totalitarianism for Poland, which would last until 1989?
Did people not know about the fact that, during the Victory Day Parade in London in 1946, where almost all British allies took part in the parade – soldiers of Belgium, Brazil, China!!!, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Holland, Luxembourg and the United States – there was one country missing, and that country was Poland? Poland, whose soldiers had come to the aid of the Allies on just about every European front, whose brave pilots had risked their lives during the Battle of Britain, despite the fact that neither Britain nor any other country had lifted a finger in Poland’s defence from 1939 onwards?
Did the world not know that it had been Poland, through its courier Jan Karski, a soldier in the AK, the Polish Home Army, which had broken the news of what was actually happening to the Jews of Europe to the world? Karski had infiltrated the Warsaw ghetto, had met there with Jewish representatives, had travelled in disguise on a deportation train to Bełżec, had witnessed first-hand the implementation of the Final Solution, and had been sent on a mission BY THE POLISH GOVERNMENT IN EXILE IN LONDON to the government of Britain and the United States, to tell them the truth behind what was happening to the Jews of Poland.
But people found it hard to believe these accounts of planned, coordinated mass murder of an entire people simply because they were Jews. One of those whom he met, sceptical of Karski's report, said later "I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference."
Didn’t the world know that Karski had tried, Poland had tried, to help the Jews, but no help came? No help from the FREE WORLD, NOT the world of occupied Poland! How could a country under such oppressive occupation assist millions of its neighbours?
Why was Poland always the one to be singled out?
This question is of course at the centre of our symposium today.
And thankfully, today, there are answers to that question, answers in full view to the entire world; answers which can no longer be ignored.
Firstly though, it’s important to acknowledge, as I did with my Holocaust survivor “student” 23 years ago, that Poland is personal.
That is clear in Melbourne, where the vast majority of Holocaust survivors are from Poland. Why shouldn’t Poland be personal here, amongst this special lot of Holocaust survivors brought up in that extraordinary period of the twenty years between two world wars, in a country experimenting with multiculturalism? That it failed is perhaps less the fault of the country itself as the fact of yet another occupation of it in September 1939, an occupation which would end all the dreams of the interwar period forever. This special lot of survivors were taught in Polish schools; they learnt the Polish classics of poetry, literature by heart, and can recite it to this day. They were children in the interwar period, and childhood is always special; we carry around its scents and scenery forever. They had probably joined political movements by 1939, many of them were Bundists or Zionists, still more were Orthodox or Chasids, but of course, we know that fewer people of the latter groups survived, because their Polish wasn’t good enough for a life undercover, pretending to be non-Jewish Poles during the occupation.
The Nazis succeeded in murdering most of that vibrant community. This special lot of Polish Jews saw their entire world destroyed, their communities wiped out, their homes turned into cemeteries.
There were thought to have been about 450,000 survivors of the 3.3 million Jews of Poland. Many of these people had fled to the East, and had spent the years of occupation in the Soviet Union, experiencing a different trauma in the Gulag, witnessing the deaths of their family members from starvation or overwork. Some of these Jewish Sibiracy had ended up in the Polish Army of General Anders, and had left that army once it reached Palestine in 1942. Menachim BEGIN, the 6th Prime Minister of Israel, had been one of these soldiers. Others had fought on with the Anders Army, in the Italian Campaign and most notably at Monte Cassino, after which the Jewish soldiers had dispersed all over the world.
Others who ended up in Siberia returned to Poland after the war, if only to avoid being caught up in the Soviet Union. They stayed in Poland for a few months, sometimes a few years, before moving further west, many out of Europe altogether.
Still other survivors of the so-called Final Solution had made it through a series of slave labour and concentration camps, and had survived thanks to their youth, their skills, or just plain luck.
Yet others, thousands of them (will we ever know the exact number?) survived because they had been sheltered by their non-Jewish neighbours, who had risked their lives to save the lives of sometimes entire families in farmhouses, attics, cellars, dugouts.
We know when we ask the question WHY POLAND, Adam Warzel has provided us today with one clear answer. Some Jewish victims in hiding were treated abominably by their Catholic neighbours; more than that, many Jews were even murdered by Poles.
This complicity in murder cannot be denied, and it has changed the landscape of Holocaust historiography in Poland today.
Yet this still leaves the question unanswered, the question of WAS POLAND DIFFERENT? In all of the countries of occupied Europe, is what happened in Poland so exceptional, so horrendous that Poland must be singled out as one of the worst examples of the behaviour of a people under occupation?
Firstly, it is undeniable that Poland was different because of the sheer numbers of Jewish Polish citizens in Poland before the war. Unlike every other country in Europe, the Jewish population of Poland was enormous, and comprised 10% of the total population. Poland will always be special for that fact alone. By comparison, Jews in pre-war Norway comprised 1,800 people of a total population of nearly 3 million; in Denmark, there were 8,000 Jews, or 0.2% of the total population, in Germany, 500,000 Jews, or 1% of the population.
In Western Europe, the Jewish population was largely assimilated, and spoke the language of the country as their first language. In Poland, most Jews were Yiddish speaking, were not assimilated, were far more traditional and religious than their western counterparts. When people ask, as they sometimes do, why the rescue of Jews that had occurred in Denmark could not have occurred in Poland, it seems they are either deliberately obfuscating the specific conditions of occupation in both countries, or simply do not know about the differences.
If any comparisons are made between Poland and other countries it would seem fairer to compare Poland to the countries to its east, occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939, then taken over by the Nazis in 1941. These territories – today’s Belarus, western Ukraine, and the Baltic countries, had a combined population of 2.1 million Jews, and when the Nazis encroached they were themselves stunned to see that in many instances squads of murderers had already formed from the local population and were beginning to do the job of mass murder for them. In fact, the Nazis relied heavily of nationalists from these countries to do their dirty work for them; propelled by the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism”, these squads of local perpetrators often used their own initiative with methods of destruction, sometimes clubbing Jews to death, as they worked officially alongside the SS.
Most of the survivors who actually made it out of Europe came from the West or from Poland. At first they were silent about what they had experienced. No-one wanted to know, and they were too traumatised to speak anyway. But little by little, in Israel, the United States and Australia, spurred on by the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in the 60s, the rise of Institutions like Yad Vashem in Israel and films like HOLOCAUST in 1978 (a miniseries which starred Meryl Streep), these survivors began to tell their stories. Most of them were about Poland. They told of the ghettos, of slave labour, of life in hiding, or in the Łódź ghetto, of the horrors of Auschwitz, the death marches, liberation in the concentration camps of Germany. As the years progressed, and Holocaust memorials, museums and testimony became urgent endeavours in the United States, more and more memories were recorded. And these testimonies were considered sacred. If someone referred to POLISH death camps, or POLISH collaborators, there was rarely a voice of protest, or if there was, them it wasn’t loud enough to drown out the overall condemnation of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Poland itself was behind the Iron Curtain; its archives closed to the West, its historians, many of them Jewish, never able to share the academic stage at conferences organised by their counterparts in the West. No-one had the intellectual armour in the West to counter the lies told about Poland, and those who cried out against it were often ignored or labelled anti-Semitic. The communist authorities in Poland didn’t care either way.
Lastly, there were irrefutable facts which no-one could argue about. ALL of the SIX Nazi death camps had been located on Polish soil, and many used this fact as evidence that the Nazis had done this deliberately. Because of Polish willingness to rid their country of their Jews, it was argued, Hitler built his death factories in Poland itself, where no-one would bat an eyelid about the massacres of entire Jewish communities coming in from all over Europe.
Poland is certainly different because the sites of the death camps are located on its soil. Every town, every city, has a Jewish history, and these must be written in to the national narrative, recognised, commemorated, and understood. The sites of mass murder in Poland must be displayed for the millions of visitors who come to Poland every year on personal journeys of mourning or understanding, in memory of their Jewish ancestors.
Yet, when speaking this, for many decades some of the other, important facts were overlooked. In 1939 Poland was attacked by two of its neighbours, the Soviets and the Nazis. The fact that 1.5 million victims of the Holocaust were murdered by machine gun in death pits in what is today Lithuania or Ukraine, was rarely spoken about publicly. That the German Einsatzgruppen were assisted by, and even preceded by, squads of non-German collaborators in those neighbouring countries (NOT including Poles), was often forgotten.
Today, thanks to new works like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, it is impossible to speak about the Holocaust without acknowledging these victims, who were not gassed in the 6 death camps but shot into death pits. To speak about the victims of the Einsatzgruppen is not to diminish the centrality of Auschwitz; it is simply to point out that there were other sites of mass murder of Jews outside of Poland, and they must also be acknowledged.
Thanks to works by Polish and western historians, Poland PER SE is finally receiving the attention it deserves, not only because of what happened to 10% of his country people in the Holocaust, but because of the specificity of occupation on its soil. Yet, to discuss the brutality of German occupation for non-Jewish Poles is NOT to diminish the enormity and uniqueness of the Holocaust.
A non-Jewish baby born in 1939 had every chance of surviving the war, whereas a Jewish baby had just about no chance. And yet compared to a non-Jewish person in other countries of Hitler’s Europe, a Polish non-Jews’ chances of death in Poland were far greater. As Snyder notes, nearly as many non-Jewish Poles were murdered during the war as European Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. More non-Jewish Poles died at Auschwitz than did Jews of any European country, with only two exceptions: Hungary and Poland itself.
It is true that the Polish government bears a special responsibility to condemn expressions of antisemitism voiced by its people, in any shape or form, and to publicly acknowledge the wrongs of the past.
To date, there can be no doubt that this is being done, beginning with Lech Walesa’s apology in the Knesset, to President Kwaśniewski’s apology for Jedwabne at the commemoration of that massacre.
Almost every town and city has a local historian or more interested in Jewish history, and of recording the wrongs committed towards the Jews by the Nazis, and the Poles. The Museums at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Bełżec, Treblinka, Plaszów, are but the beginning of plans to create more such public sites of remembrance.
The History of the Polish Jews Museum being built in Warsaw right now will boast one of the largest displays in the world about the centuries-old history of Jews in Poland, and will not stop at 1939.
Jewish life in Poland is beginning again, mainly thanks to the hidden children – those sheltered by Polish Catholics whose parents were murdered by the Nazis – who are being told the truth about their roots, and are returning to Judaism in what was once considered only a country of death for the Jews.
Research in all areas of Jewish history in Poland is strongest in Poland. Poland is not scared of its past, and is confronting it head on. It knows it is different and always will have the responsibility towards its millions of former cohabitants to tell their stories, warts and all.
At the same time though, there are many more answers to the question of whether Poland was different.
It has long been known that there was no official, organised collaboration with the Nazis in Poland, unlike in many other countries. But a new book by Christopher Hale, “Hitler’s Foreign Executioners”, takes collaboration with the Nazis in other countries one step further. Hale reveals for the first time Heinrich Himmler's secret master plan for Europe.
Himmler’s plan, Hale shows, depended on the recruitment of tens of thousands of 'Germanic' people from every corner of Europe, and even parts of Asia, to build an 'SS Europa'. This book, researched in archives all over Europe and using witness testimony, exposes Europe's dirty secret: nearly half a million Europeans and more than a million Soviet citizens enlisted in the armed forces of the Third Reich to fight a deadly crusade against a mythic foe, Jewish-Bolshevism.
Even today, some claim that these foreign SS volunteers were merely soldiers 'like any other' and fought a decent war against Stalin's Red Army. Christopher Hale demonstrates conclusively that these surprisingly common views are mistaken. By taking part in Himmler's murderous master plan, these foreign executioners hoped to prove that they were worthy to join his future 'SS Europa'.
By the summer of 1944 just over half of the men serving in the Waffen SS were not so-called "Aryan Germans" at all. Astonishingly, they included Dutchmen, Danes, Norwegians, Flemings, Swedes, Swiss, Romanians and Frenchmen. They had been fighting in SS uniforms since 1942 and by the summer of 1943 they had been joined by Ukrainians, even Fez-wearing Muslims from Bosnia, Latvians and Estonians.
By the end of the war, men from the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, Indians from the sub-continent and even a handful of British National Socialists known as the 'Britisches Freikorps' were all fighting for Hitler under the banner of the SS.
This 'SS Europa' would bring together 'Germanic' peoples from all over Europe, Germanise them further and dissolve their national identities. Hale argues that the Holocaust was not, in fact, solely a German crime at all but a European phenomenon and one which modern-day Europe seems very reluctant to even acknowledge, let alone come to terms with.
Hale and others have pointed out how the Nazis were able to rely on the support and initiative of their French and Dutch administrators, to implement deportations in France and Holland so smoothly and without much effort needed by the Germans themselves. In Holland they were members of the Dutch equivalent of the Nazi Party, led by Anton Mussert, who recruited Dutch men into the Wafen SS and the Wehrmacht, which resulted in more Dutch SS – about 50,000 – than number of Dutch in the resistance.
In France the topic of collaboration with the Nazis is still largely considered taboo, where the largely Catholic Vichy regime itself introduced anti-Jewish measures, even harsher than the Nuremberg laws, even before the Germans asked them for it. Of its own initiate too, the Vichy regime herded its Jews into camps and then gave them over to the Germans. In Paris, it was the French police who arrested Jews and sent them to what was ultimately their death.
By comparison, the 16,000 men who served in the so-called Policja Granatowa, the Blue Police set up in Poland by the Germans, were of little significance in the overall scheme of things with anti-Jewish policy. They did not initiate the policy, and many of them were secret members of the underground. The Nazis knew they could not trust the Poles.
In the 20-year period of freedom after communism, there has probably never been greater collaboration between Polish and non-Polish historians in exploring the Polish past. Once lone voices in the wilderness, today when a Polish or non-Polish historian publishes a work touching upon Poland’s history, that voice is heard, loud and clear, in Poland, and beyond.
There is no longer an excuse not to understand why Poland was special, vis-à-vis the Holocaust and the German occupation of the country. But at the same time, in order to truly pay heed to stories like those of my Holocaust Survivor student 20 years ago, we must understand the historical, political and social context of her ordeals, not so as to relativise or revise the Holocaust, but to give it a real, human voice, in a specific, local context.