Nathaniel GARSTECKA: Western myths about Poland. Did Poland and Poles massively collaborate with the Germans?

Western myths about Poland. Did Poland and Poles massively collaborate with the Germans?

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Editor of "Wszystko co najważniejsze". A Frenchman born in Paris, with Polish-Jewish roots. He is passionate about the history and culture of Poland, France and the Jewish people. Lives in Warsaw.

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’The myth that Poland and Poles actively and massively participated in the Holocaust should be treated in the same way as the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism – as a manipulation aimed at shifting responsibility for the crimes onto someone else,’ writes Nathaniel GARSTECKA

.This is one of those unfounded accusations that boomerang in Western public opinion. Poland and Poles have been accused of collaborating with the Germans in the Holocaust during the Second World War.

In private and public debates, in statements by politicians, and in texts popularising history, it is often heard and read that Poland as a state and Poles as a nation assisted the Germans in organising and carrying out the industrial and systematic genocide of the Jews in Poland. This opinion is widespread in many countries of the Western world, including France, the United States, Germany, and Israel.

The study of the complex relations between Jews and Poles at that time lacks an analysis of their wider context.

In 1939, Jews made up 10 per cent of the population of the Second Republic (or 3.5 million people), the highest percentage of any European country. This was due to a centuries-old policy of hospitality and tolerance that made Poland one of the main centres of the Jewish world. And although there were anti-Semitic incidents during the struggle for independence in 1918-1921 and after the death of Józef Piłsudski in 1935, the situation of Polish Jews was better than that of their brethren in Germany or the Soviet Union. Unlike in other Central European countries, the large Jewish community was not concentrated in a single urban centre. Warsaw was home to 350,000 Jews (a third of the capital’s population), but there were also large concentrations in other cities. This was the case, for example, in Bialystok (40-45% of the city’s total population), Lublin, Lodz, Radom, Lviv or Vilnius. Many Jews also lived in smaller towns and villages, especially in eastern Poland (villages with a Jewish majority were called shtetls). There were also many towns where Jews lived alongside other nationalities (Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians). Due to their very long presence in Poland and a centuries-old policy of tolerance, the Jewish population in Poland was dispersed and relatively poorly assimilated. This fact prevented a mass action to save the Jews, as happened in Denmark. Nevertheless, Poland had a very rich Jewish cultural and religious life, with many important political parties, sports clubs, theatres, and dozens of newspapers.

Unlike most of Central and Eastern Europe, Poland rejected any alliance with Hitler; an alliance that was highly unlikely anyway, given that Poland was the first target for conquest. Poland was also threatened by Stalin’s USSR. Both of these great dictatorships were eager to avenge the defeats of 1918 and 1921, and it was only natural that they put aside ideological rivalries to plan a new partition of Poland.

Thus came the aggression against Poland, first by Nazi Germany on 1 September 1939, and two weeks later by the Soviet Union. The Allies immediately implemented a policy of brutal occupation. Between 1939 and 1941, the Soviets conducted a ruthless hunt for members of the Polish elite, defined as enemies of the revolution. Intellectuals, artists, officers, 'bourgeoisie’, merchants, representatives of religious cults, resistance fighters, patriots, Zionists, etc. were murdered (Katyn) or deported to Siberian gulags. Like many others, many Jewish Communist fighters joined the ranks of Soviet militias in the occupied territories, a pretext for the propagation of the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism by both the Germans and the Soviets. This belief would lie at the heart of the 'white terror’ in eastern Poland during Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941.

Since Poland was neither allied to Germany nor seen by it as a country to be 'saved’, the Nazis began a total occupation, without the complicity of local nationalist organisations or collaborators. They maintained a modest ‘blue police’, recruited by force. Their job was to maintain order. They also allowed the lowest levels of local government (village chiefs) to operate, but the functioning of the country as such was under their full control. The entire economy was converted to German needs, factory equipment was exported to the Reich, crops and livestock were requisitioned. In a country with a large rural population (only 30 per cent of the population lived in towns), hunger and poverty quickly set in. This was compounded by looting, destruction of property and numerous crimes committed by German soldiers. The Germans also persecuted the country’s elite, deporting and murdering university professors, lawyers and politicians. ….

The genocidal hatred of the Germans, however, was primarily directed against the Jews. The Germans established ghettos in most cities with Jewish populations. From the moment they invaded the USSR in June 1941, they proceeded to the direct extermination of the Jewish population in the conquered territories (’Holocaust by bullets’). In Poland, unlike in the Baltic States and Ukraine, there were no local nationalist organisations to assist the Germans in their crimes. No political party and no prominent Polish personalities collaborated with the occupiers. There were nationalist and anti-Semitic resistance organisations that may have committed crimes against Jews, such as the National Socialist Party (NSZ) or some battalions of the Home Army (AK), but they never allied with the Germans.

From 1942 onwards, the Germans deported Jews from the ghettos to extermination camps as part of the 'Final Solution’ plan. Again, these mass deportations and later crimes on an unimaginable scale took place without the complicity of Poland, which cannot be said of the collaborationist French government of Philippe Pétain, the Slovakian government of Jozef Tiso or the Norwegian government of Vidkun Quisling.

It should be remembered that the Polish government never stopped opposing the Germans and fought until the end of the war. It refused to cooperate with the Germans and repeatedly called for the protection of Polish Jews. The Polish resistance movement, one of the most powerful in Europe, executed extortionists and helped save Jews through underground networks such as 'Zegota’ or by making false passports. Members of the resistance (Jan Karski, Witold Pilecki, etc.) reported on the genocide of the Jews and tried to alert Western governments.

Unlike most of the countries allied with Hitler or occupied by Germany, Poland was the only country in which no social or political institution or organisation collaborated in the creation of the German industrial extermination machine.

As far as the civilian population was concerned, the situation was very complex and could not be separated from the context of the time. As I mentioned earlier, the German occupation was particularly brutal. Of course, the Jews were the first target, but the Polish population also suffered greatly from German crimes and racism. The Polish lands were to be emptied of their indigenous population and then colonised by Aryan Germans. Some Poles were to survive by serving as slave labour. No other country in Europe experienced such a violent occupation, with the exception of the USSR, but there it lasted much shorter.

Because of the large number of Jews scattered throughout Poland and the lack of organised collaboration from the local population, the Germans decided to punish with death anyone who hid Jews or gave them any assistance. This was one of the harshest laws in all of occupied Europe. The Germans’ threats were followed by their actions. A family caught hiding Jews was murdered, including women and children. It was not uncommon for entire villages to be razed to the ground along with their inhabitants. Cattle were killed, and crops were burned or confiscated. The Germans hoped that their criminal policy would provoke a reflex of denunciation or even lead Poles to murder Jewish refugees or resistance fighters. They were playing on a certain peculiarity of human psychology: in a situation of extreme poverty and danger to their own lives and those of their families, people begin to compromise on concepts such as goodness and morality. Some choose to become martyrs for their beliefs, but most do not. It is therefore unfair to demand heroic behaviour from people living in poverty or under constant threat of death.

The Germans took advantage of this situation and recruited Polish peasants to hunt Jews. Some did so out of fear for their lives or to improve their living conditions; others did so out of anti-Semitic motives. It should be noted that the method used by the Germans in Poland was not widespread in other Central and Western European countries. In those countries, Jewish communities were few in number, concentrated in one or a few large cities, and the local administration, either puppet or genuinely cooperative, was responsible for listing and deporting the Jewish population. Sometimes nationalist militias took an active part in the massacres and deportations, as in Croatia (Ustasha), Serbia, Romania, Hungary (Arrow Cross), Ukraine, or the Baltic states. In Poland, the Germans could only rely on isolated individuals acting in life-threatening situations or living in poverty.

A special situation arose in the summer of 1941 in eastern Poland during Hitler’s invasion of the area. As I have written before, the Soviet occupation was brutal and bloody. Ethnic minorities and local Communist activists sometimes collaborated with the Soviet authorities in committing crimes. Knowing this, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Central Security Office and architect of the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question’, issued an order as early as April of that year instructing the German military to target Communists and Jews and to exploit the anti-Communist sentiments of the victim population of the Soviet occupation to attack them. In this way, the German authorities spread the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism and gave the local population a free hand to murder. The best-known example of the atrocities committed by the local population against the Jews at that time and in that context was the Lviv pogrom. In Poland, several incidents can be equated with pogroms, such as those that occurred in small villages in the Bialystok region: Jedwabne, Radzilow, Szczuczyn, or Wasosz. In all these cases of crimes committed by Poles against Jews, one can speak of the assistance, instigation, and acquiescence of German soldiers or special task forces (the so-called Einsatzgruppen).

Overall, such events were marginal in Poland. Unlike in the Baltic States and Ukraine, where the Germans could count on local collaborationist organisations (Arajs Kommando in Latvia, OUN in Ukraine), the Poles did not form collaborationist militias and remained hostile to the occupiers. On the contrary, state and non-state organisations and networks were set up in Poland to help the Jews. Irena Sendler, who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, was a notable figure in this field. It is therefore safe to say that Poland as a country not only did not take part in the Holocaust but also contributed to saving Jews, which cannot be said of many other European countries.

The Jews were not unreasonably afraid of denunciation, which was always and everywhere possible, regardless of whether its authors acted from base motives, out of hatred, or under threat from the Germans. Those who survived retained this fear of being denounced by a neighbour because it was linked to the fear of the unknown. The German uniform was perceived as a visible and obvious threat; denunciation by a Pole, on the other hand, could not be anticipated. The Jews therefore had to remain vigilant at all times. This natural trauma and individual testimonies were manipulated after the war by dishonest historians or sociologists in order to create a false picture of the general situation of the Jews under the conditions of the German occupation of Poland. This is all the more true because, even if it is possible to speak of denunciations and crimes committed by Poles, they were few in number and never on the same scale as in other countries. The vast majority of Polish Jews were exterminated in German ghettos and camps without any Polish involvement.

It is impossible to determine exactly how many Jews died at the hands of Poles or were denounced by them to the German authorities. It is also impossible to say how many Jews the Poles helped by hiding them or otherwise saving their lives. In order to successfully hide one or more Jews, the tacit kindness of the whole neighbourhood or village was often needed. Dozens of people might have been involved in helping the refugees, both directly and indirectly, by keeping the fact of their assistance secret. All it took was one man to betray the whole plan and put the lives of everyone involved in danger. Today, it is much easier to count denunciations than gestures of support. It is easier to remember those who denounce than those who help. The same goes for the attitude of the Polish Catholic Church. Some clergy were openly anti-Semitic, of course, but others hid Jews in their churches or became involved in underground humanitarian organisations. Many monasteries opened their doors to shelter Jews. One cannot generalise because the Church is not a monolithic block.

Here are some elements of a response to the lying accusations of Polish complicity in the German extermination machine. They are perpetrated by dishonest and politicised historians who have found a niche for themselves and, with the help of the progressive media, are building up their worldwide recognition. To this must be added the effects of post-war communist propaganda, which aimed to tarnish Poland’s image as a 'reactionary and enemy of the revolution’. Russia is still using this propaganda today, turning Poles into 'fascists’ and manipulating the German-Soviet pact. As for Germany, it is trying as hard as it can to shift the blame for its crimes onto the occupied countries and their people. Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently declared that Germany was 'occupied by the Nazis’. Sadly, there is a glaring lack of knowledge in Western countries about the reality of the brutal occupation of Poland and the belief that hiding Jews in Poland was as easy as in countries where the occupation was less severe. This lack of knowledge and anti-Polish propaganda are unfortunately firmly entrenched in public opinion around the world, including in Israel. Some commentators and politicians there believe that Poland is trying to manipulate history in order to whitewash itself. They believe that if some Poles committed anti-Semitic crimes, then the whole nation must bear the responsibility and the state must take it upon itself, despite the fact that it did not collaborate with the Germans and in fact did everything in its power to save the Jews. And even though it has officially apologised for these crimes. Some Jewish circles are concerned that Poland is trying to question the uniqueness of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust in order to emphasise the suffering of the Polish people. However, this suffering is very real and testifies to the genocidal plans of the Germans against the Poles, which were to be implemented after the extermination of the Jews had been completed. The truth is that the Polish authorities recognise the specific nature of the Holocaust, just as they recognise the complicity of some Poles in crimes against Jews (which cannot be forgiven or excused).

The myth that Poland and Poles actively and massively participated in the Holocaust should be treated in the same way as the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism – as a manipulation aimed at shifting responsibility for the crimes onto someone else. There were undoubtedly Polish and Jewish criminals in the communist totalitarian apparatus, but in small numbers and in an unorganised and irregular manner. On the basis of unrepresentative, individual examples – unconsciously or maliciously juxtaposed – specific narratives have been produced to serve those who have a vested interest in them. It is an old and apparently effective propaganda technique.

.Jews and Poles must fight together against these lies and stereotypes because the two nations that have been close for centuries and who love the search for truth must know that their reconciliation will come through mutual understanding and historical sensitivity.

Nathaniel Garstecka

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 16/09/2023