On May 30, the day after President Obama’s unfortunate statement about “Polish death camps,” Debbie Schlussel, an American pundit and political agitator popular in some extreme right-wing circles, posted a diatribe on her website [www.debbieschlussel.com ] titled “Poles Were Complicit in Holocaust: Outrage Over Obama ‘Gaffe’ is Fraudulent, Ignorant.” Predictably, Schlussel’s post (and follow-up comments) outraged many Poles and Polish Americans. The following is one of many replies that have been sent to Schlussel.
June 11, 2012
Dear Ms. Schlussel:
On May 30, the day after President Obama’s misguided and unfortunate reference to “Polish death camps,” you responded publicly to the angry reaction of many Poles by indulging in a bitter anti-Polish rant on your website. That’s your privilege, of course, but your claims and assertions call for a reasoned and fact-based rebuttal.
I understand the background of this issue. Clearly, the history of Polish-Jewish relations is a largely unhappy one, to put it mildly. But it’s also very complicated and it cannot be adequately (much less, fairly) addressed by one-sided and, frankly, bigoted diatribes. The existence of anti-Semitism, in Polish society as in many others, is undeniable. I have never excused such anti-Semitism and I have always condemned anti-Semitic behavior by anyone, but especially by Poles because I come from Polish stock. But I also know history, so first let me comment on some of your claims and then offer some documented facts.
Correcting false claims and twisted facts
You claimed that Poles “murdered millions of Jews,” “maintained several death camps” and “wiped out” most members of your family. I can’t dispute the last claim; perhaps it’s true. But your first two claims are patently absurd. It’s commonly accepted that about 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, including about 3 million Polish Jews. Every credible historian knows that almost all of those Jews were killed by the Germans. Admittedly, thousands of non-Germans—soldiers, camp guards and other thugs—actively assisted the Germans in their genocidal mission, but relatively few of them were Poles. Moreover, the sheer scale of the extermination effort, including the organization, technology and resources it required, was so massive that only the German regime was capable of planning and executing it. On both mathematical and practical grounds, then, your claim that Poles murdered millions of Jews is indefensible.
Your assertion that Poles maintained several death camps is equally incredible, the factual and logical equivalent of asserting that Jews maintained several ghettos in Poland. I imagine you would howl in outrage (and rightly so) if anyone were to make such a claim.
Moving on, you said, “There is a reason why Poland was so easily occupied by the Germans” and claimed that the major death camps existed in Poland because of “Polish complicity in the Holocaust” and “willing cooperation with the Nazis.” First, you should know that occupying Poland was far from easy for the Germans. Not only did the Polish people, as a whole, resist German occupation more ferociously and effectively than almost any other German-occupied country (far more so, for example, than the mythically courageous French—many of whom, incidentally, were more than happy to help the Germans in rounding up Jews and sending them off to the camps).
Second, the most notorious German camps were located in Poland for several reasons. These included geography, logistics and long-term strategy (specifically, Hitler’s designs on Eastern Europe and Russia contrasted with his plans for Western Europe), as well as the obvious fact that Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe. (A slight digression: You might want to consider, from a historical and cultural perspective, why that was the case.) Simply put, collecting and killing Jews (and, let’s remember, other “undesirables” such as Slavs) in Poland was largely a matter of convenience for the Germans. Polish anti-Semitism was, at most, an incidental and comparatively minor factor. In fact, if popular anti-Semitism and willing complicity were the main considerations, then by far the most practical location for death camps was Germany itself. Other countries, including France, Hungary and even Holland, would have been contenders, too.
Clarifying issues of identity and assimilation
You wrote that millions of Jews “never identified as Polish because the Poles never treated them that way.” Although I think that is an exaggeration, it’s certainly true that many Poles (like many citizens of other countries) did not consider Jewish citizens to “real” Poles. (Unfortunately, that is still true on some fringes of Polish society.) On the other hand, it’s equally true that many Jews, especially conservative ones, resisted assimilation into the Polish mainstream. (Some sources suggest that only 10 percent of prewar Poland’s Jews could be considered assimilated.) Such social, religious and ethnic divisions were (and remain) relatively common in many societies (including America’s). Often they result in a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating separation that, in extreme instances, may even lead to genocide.
At this point let me raise an unpleasant fact that you and many other critics of Polish behavior during the war either don’t know or choose to underplay: the cooperation (sadly misguided, as it turned out) of some Jews with the Germans. That’s too complicated an issue to explore here, but it’s significant because it provides additional perspective and balance in the debate at hand.
Countering false claims with historical facts
There is more I could say about your claims (such as the preposterous assertion that Poland bears responsibility for the Nazi genocide of Jews), but I’ll conclude by citing some facts that are accepted by the majority of credible and objective historians and scholars.
Anti-Semitism before and during World War II (and, for that matter, today) was not confined to Poles. Many others—Germans, of course, but also the French, Hungarians, Russians and citizens of other countries invaded and occupied by the Germans—boasted (sometimes literally) of their disdain and hostility toward Jews.
Accounts of Polish discrimination and assaults against Jews should be balanced by many accounts of neighborly co-existence, even friendliness, between Jews and Poles.
Animosity and biases existed on both sides of the Polish-Jewish relationship. Admittedly, Poles, as the politically and numerically dominant group, were better placed to act on their biases, but, as is usually the case in such conflicts, both sides were guilty of reinforcing and perpetuating their hostility within their own group.
Complaints that Poles didn’t do enough to save the Jews are disingenuous (and unfair) on several grounds. The German occupation of Poland was exceptionally brutal and oppressive—much more so, in general, than their occupation of Western Europe. It’s generally acknowledged that Poland was the only occupied country in which helping or protecting Jews was punishable by summary execution, often of the “perpetrator’s” immediate family.
Despite that risk, a great many Poles (including some with anti-Semitic leanings) aided Jews. Precise numbers are impossible to establish, but reliable sources estimate the number at several hundred thousand to three million. Władysław Bartoszewski, a wartime underground activist (and future minister of foreign affairs in newly independent Poland), estimated that between 1.0 percent and 3.0 percent of the population (350,000 to 1,050,000) was involved in efforts to save or protect Jews. The scale of that effort, in which countless gentile Poles lost their lives, is reflected in the fact that well over 6,000 Poles—more than any other nationality—are honored as “Righteous Among Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Jewish people’s memorial to the Holocaust.
The Polish Home Army (AK), probably alone among European resistance forces, formed a special unit, code-named Żegota, with the sole mission of saving Polish Jews. In addition, many Poles who blackmailed or betrayed Jews were sentenced to death and executed by Polish underground authorities.
Some might argue that even 3.0 percent represents a tiny fraction of the Polish population. True, but that argument ignores the nature of collective behavior among populations during war or under brutal occupation. Given the circumstances of German-occupied Poland, the involvement of even 1.0 percent (350,000) of all Poles is hugely significant. (To put that number in perspective, consider that, at any given moment, fewer than 1.0 percent of Americans are serving in the U.S. military. Yet few people, I suspect, view that as evidence that Americans are unpatriotic.)
(Permit me to add here that my mother and her family, living in occupied Warsaw, were among those Poles, hiding Jewish families on at least two occasions. Later, my mother, like many other Polish civilians, enlisted to fight in the Warsaw Uprising.)
Placing responsibility where it belongs
Near the end of your commentary, you state, “Poland DOES bear responsibility for the Nazi genocide of Jews.” For the reasons I offered above, among others, that’s an outrageous assertion. But it also reveals another curious tendency on your part and, increasingly, it seems, on the part of other commentators: attributing the Holocaust and the other horrors of World War II to Nazis while seemingly minimizing (intentionally or from ignorance) the responsibility of the German nation. It was Germany, not the Nazi Party, that started the war, occupied most of Europe, operated the concentration camps and planned and implemented the Holocaust. The German people not only supported Hitler and the Nazi Party literally to the bitter end, but, with insignificant and utterly ineffective exceptions, never expressed any opposition to the goals, actions and depredations of Hitler’s political and military juggernaut. I’m puzzled by the tendency of people like you to shift blame—and, in that sense, to further distort history—from the perpetrators to the victims.
In summary, Ms. Schlussel, your anti-Polish comments, which reeked of deep-seated biases and rage, not only offended many decent and brave Poles, living and dead, but also distorted historical facts. I suppose you can take some comfort in knowing that, when it comes to rage and distortion of history, you’re not alone.