Poland as a country and its citizens continue to wrestle with guilt and denial about their country’s Holocaust role.
Featured photo courtesy of Jerry Zolynsky
Three million Polish Jews died during the Holocaust — more than any other nationality. Many died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp, but others were killed near the villages where they lived.
Despite the Holocaust’s devastating impact on Polish Jewry, Poland as a nation and many of its citizens have for decades waivered and backtracked on their roles in this tragedy.
According to Dariusz Stola, a Polish historian, professor and scholar, the reasons include Poland’s years as a communist state and a nationalistic emphasis on all Polish victims. Recurring anti-Semitism, sometimes shrouded in anti-Zionist sentiment, has been another issue.
Stola discussed Poland’s complex response to the Holocaust on Oct. 23 at the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills. More than 200 individuals attended. Stola is a founder and former director of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014 in Warsaw.
The connection between the HMC and Stola came through Dr. Edward Malinowski, a 79-year-old survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and a retired cardiologist who lives in West Bloomfield. He and his mother and sister were able to survive the war although his father was captured by the Gestapo and never returned.
After the war, they lived in Warsaw where Malinowksi became a physician and medical school professor. However, when the Polish political climate became anti-Semitic in 1968, he and his family immigrated to Detroit.
After the environment tempered, Malinowski visited Poland and met Stola, whom he later recommended to the HMC as a speaker. Malinowski is an HMC board member.
Stola described Poland’s shifting response to its role in the Holocaust as denial, discussion of some responsibility, shock at Polish attacks against Jews and then back to denial of complicity with the Nazis. The Nazi plan to kill European Jewry was known to senior officers in the Polish underground in 1942; many Polish Jews had already been massacred, he said.
After the war, there was some debate about the Polish role in the Holocaust; but there was also anti-Jewish violence, including a pogrom in Kielce, where 42 Jews were killed by Polish soldiers, police officers and civilians in 1946. Discussion of the Polish role during the Holocaust ended during the late 1940s with the Soviet takeover.
In 1968, Polish students organized a rebellion and the government accused protesters of anti-Zionist conspiracies. Some Jews lost their jobs and many left Poland.
By the 1980s, the communist regime was gradually eroding, enabling a freer exchange of information. Stola cited the writings of Nobel prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish American, as spurring discussion. Milosz was a witness of the Warsaw uprising and wrote an account titled “Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto.” He asked the “universal problem of non-Jews: Will we be counted among the helpers of death? Jews were dying a lonelier death because of things we didn’t do.”
Other Poles countered, “We did all we could do in these circumstances,” citing Nazi brutality toward anyone helping Jewish Poles.
The massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, by their neighbors and others in 1941 was a “shock to the Polish public — many didn’t know about it,” Stola said. Although there was an investigation and trial after the war, a book by historian Jan Gross brought the attack to public attention in 2000. The president of Poland apologized to survivors. A public prosecutor re-opened the case, but the perpetrators had died.
“The democratic transformation of Poland brought about an ability to talk about it publicly,” he added.
But there was a growing backlash to such honesty. “Some Poles asked, ‘Why do you speak about bad stuff? Why not write about the glorious aspects of history including the righteous gentiles? Why write about World War II when evil had the upper hand?’” Stola related.
Several years ago, the government issued a regulation that penalized public statements claiming Polish complicity in the crimes of Nazi Germany. Violators faced a potential three-year prison sentence. Stola explained that supporters said, “We have to defend our honor in fighting the Germans. Poland is on the right side.”
Israel and the United States protested the act and the most controversial aspects of the regulation were removed.
In addition to Poland’s changing governments, Stola discussed other possible reasons for the Polish response to the Holocaust, citing guilt, regret of a loss and a numbing of feelings. This numbing was described by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, an expert in mass violence, who said it applied to many Europeans who witnessed horrific acts during World War II.
“Many Poles could see, hear, smell the Holocaust and repressed a feeling of guilt,” Stola said.
“Why Jews were killed after the war is a dark mystery,” he added, mentioning that the attacks at Kielce may have included the medieval blood libel against Jews.
Stola finished his presentation with some positive comments about Poland today: Polish textbooks must include a chapter about the Holocaust, and the Polin Museum has a program to help teachers with this subject.
In addition, he described the extensive, vibrant Jewish Festival of Krakow, which focuses on current Jewish life.