Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld, Richard Herman, Deb Tyner and Dariusz Stola

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.

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  1. This article is full of misleading writing and lies. I don’t understand what the author of it wishes to achieve by re-writing history. Pre-war Poland was the biggest country in Europe that gave shelter to those who were escaping pogroms, especially Germany and couldn’t afford to emigrate to United Kingdom or the USA. The border of Poland was opened and anyone could find refuge and haven.

    When the war started, I mean when Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, the Jews of Polish heritage, those who came in the previous years as well as the Polish majority were treated as vermin by the Germans.

    By saying ”Many died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp, but others were killed near the villages where they lived.” the author wants to mystically diverted the guilt and responsibility from the Germans who have already paid $ billions in compensations and direct it towards Poland. The Germans almost as soon as they arrived, started their killing machine and even by the time Auschwitz-Birkenau was built in which millions were murdered by the Nazi-German regime, the Jews from small towns and villages were rounded, escorted by the German army, or SS or possibly Gestapo outside towns and villages, ordered to dig large holes, shot down, and buried in them. This is the only truth.

    I am not defending criminals who acted in their selfish way and committed crimes, by such examples were banned by the orders of the Polish Resistance and punished heavily.

    Poland as a country and especially its people is in no way responsible for Holocaust and such accusations are pure fantasy and lies.

  2. Where are the testimonies of Jews who survived the Holocaust and described how it was? Why the contemporary Jews do not want to remember that the GERMANY organized and made the Holocaust and Poles were victims also, associates of misery, also killed, sent to labor in Germany. In addition, Poles were killed by the Germans with their entire families for the least help to Jews, for giving a glass of water to the Jew.
    Banditry existed during the war, both for Jews and Poles. There was no Polish state, there was occupation and rule of the Germans. After the war, the Polish state sent to the prisons and condemned people who committed crimes against Jews and Poles.
    How dare you say that POLAND has a Jewish life on its conscience??? Why Jews have no honor? Why they false the HISTORY for money?

  3. “Polish political climate in 1968” is a Polish joke, racist and degradating. Poland was occupied by Soviet army and there was “politics” in Communist Poland. The Communist Party decided if Poland was pro-Israeli or anti-Israeli. Now Poland is one of the most pro-Israeli countries of the Europen Union. Shari Cohen, do not destroy it.

  4. “The Nazi plan to kill European Jewry was known to senior officers in the Polish underground in 1942;” – those officers informed Western Allies, who did very little to save the Jews. The Poles were “guilty” that France and the UK allowed to rearm Germany 1933-1939, that they had fun in 1939 Paris rather than fighting. The Poles were “guilty” that the Soviet Union cooperated with Nazi Germany destroing Poland and exterminating educated Poles. British police participated in the Holocaust on Channel Islands, the Polish police did not exist, it was replaced by German one, which drafted former Polish policemen threatening them with death.

  5. “Three million Polish Jews died during the Holocaust — more than any other nationality. Many died in Auschwitz-Birkenau,” – The Polish Jews died in Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, Kulmhof (Chelmno nad Nerem), Madanek. The majority of Jews murdered in Birkenau came from Greece, Hungary, Slovakia and other countries. You even do not know names of the death camps.

  6. Here again is another unfair media article against Poland by Jewish Critics of Poland. What I find absolutely amazing about these Jewish critics of Poland and their constant accusations and criticisms of Poles who collaborated with the Nazi Germans…..is their LACK OF CONTEXT of WW2 Poland. They REFUSE to acknowledge that LESS THAN 1% of Poles in WW2 Poland collaborated with the Nazi Germans……according to the Israeli War Crimes Council. Evidently, Jewish critics of Poland do this to gaslight the public (especially the Jewish public) to HATE Polish people in general.
    They also conveniently FAIL to acknowledge that WW2 Poland was in a War Torn APOCALYPTIC conditions with a BREAK DOWN OF CIVILIZATION…..and YET they arrogantly judge Poles who collaborated with the Nazi Germans by CIVILIZED standards as they sit in the COMFORT of their home in a relatively safe nation. They make it sound like WW2 Poland was a big COUNTRY CLUB where ALL Poles had FREEDOM!!! They absolutely did not. Poles lived in constant TERROR of the Nazi Germans, which sadly these Jewish critics REFUSE to acknowledge.

    Poland was the ONLY Nazi German occupied nation in WW2, where the citizens of the nation got the Nazi German DEATH PENALTY for just being PERCEIVED as NOT helping the Germans kill the Jews. IF a Pole was SUSPECTED of helping the Jews and NOT helping the Germans kill Jews, that Pole AND his whole family was put to death by the Nazi Germans.
    Now I wish these Jewish Critics of Poland would for ONCE be fair to Poland…..and ASK themselves……WHY was it ONLY Poland…..where the Nazi Germans felt the need to mandate the Death Penalty for a citizen helping Jews????

  7. American Jews guilt for not helping Polish Jews!Why nothing was done during the war?No special forces/paratroopers sent from America to Poland occupied by cruel beyond believe Nazi Germany? No volunteers and no funding? Shame,shame,shame.

  8. well, another misleading article…..Im deeply shocked by the lack of compassion and the level of ignorance by the author for those that had lost their lives saving Jews from German occupants. The author either is orchestrated or lacks historical knowledge completely. Shame on you

  9. Why don’t you simply say that Poles must pay, how much was it? 60 billions? No more dollars from Germany, so you are searching for another source.

  10. It is sad when one of the most significant victims of a German invasion in WW II become one of the biggest oppressors of the Jews. Poland was the VICTIM!! Wrecked 6 million parish country destroyed occupied by soviets for over forty years never compensated for horrible looses should pay to another victim Jews. Only the Poles were punished by death for helping Jews. And many did regardless. It is a shame to bring injustice to the nation that was one of the ones that did all possible to help Jews.

  11. The reader will find the basic answer to this article in the book Norman G. Finkelstein ‘The Holocaust Industry’. Jews, you must understand that as long as you don’t stop lying about Poland and Poles, the Poles and the Jews themselves will not stop writing the truth about you.

  12. Is so easy to accused other victim or completely forget them.Mostly Jews died and forget other 3 milion Polish..
    Because they wore mostly Christian they don’t matter?Their life doesn’t count ?

  13. You guys burying your head in the sand about Poland’s role in killing Jewish people before ,after and during WW 2 need to read accounts of people who were there at the time! A lot of this information didn’t come to light until after the fall of Communism! Poland’s government doesn’t want what really happened in Poland at this time to come out! Why do you think a law was passed that you can be punished if you tell about Poland,s role in Jewish genocide during and after WW2? They have well documented accounts of the atrocities that happened at this time! Neighbors of Polish Jewish people killed some of these Jewish people ,not Russians! Yes, some Polish people helped Jewish people, but some killed and tortured them! It is uncomfortable and distressing to know what your fellow countrymen did, but you can’t rewrite history!

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