Those Polish death camps


Poland’s populist government is criminalising language and policing history:

Polish lawmakers approved a bill on Friday that makes it a crime, punishable by up to three years in prison, to use statements suggesting Poland bears responsibility for crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany.The bill will also make it illegal to deny the murder of about 100,000 Poles by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during World War Two, a move likely to increase tensions with neighboring Ukraine. Artistic and scientific activity will be exempt.

Israeli politicians responded to the passing of the bill with extreme criticism and accusations that Polish government is attempting institutionalize Holocaust denial…

Poles have fought for years against the use of phrases like “Polish death camps,” which suggest Poland was at least partly responsible for the camps where millions of people, mostly Jews, were killed by Nazi Germany. The camps were built and operated by the Nazis after they invaded Poland in 1939.

There are two separate issues here:

1.The political wisdom of these laws.

2. The historical realities behind them, in particular;

a) the question of the “Polish death camps”, and

b) the Polish people’s role in the Holocaust.

Addressing the first issue first, as a strong proponent of freedom of speech I oppose such restrictions as envisaged by the Polish government. I equally oppose laws in some European countries (like Germany), which criminalise the Holocaust denial, and in Turkey, which criminalise the discussion of the official Turkish complicity in the Armenian genocide. I don’t believe that banning the expression of wrong or offensive ideas is the way to go – education and debate is.

Secondly, the past. As the article mentions, the history of Polish attitudes towards and behaviour during the Holocaust is controversial and contested, with the debate largely, but not exclusively, conducted between the defensive Poles and the accusatory Jews.

One matter should have been by now laid to rest but hasn’t, popping up frequently mostly in slopping media reporting – there was no such thing as “Polish death camps”. Many Nazi death camps were situated in Poland, or what used to Poland before it was occupied by Germany and divided, with one part incorporated into the Reich and another, the General Government, administered as an occupied territory. But the camps were built and run by the German Nazis (though Austrians have been overrepresented in camp administration), with some other ethnicities employed as guards (mostly Ukrainians). While anti-Semitism had been prevalent in inter-war Europe, the Holocaust was a German policy.


Why Poland? At the risk of sounding flippant, to paraphrase the bank robber asked why he robs the banks, that’s where the Jews were. Some 3 million Polish Jews were murdered during the war, or 90 per cent of the pre-war Jewish population. Poland was also a convenient central point for transporting to their deaths the Western, Southern and Eastern European Jews, helped by Poland’s good railway connections to the rest of Europe.

III Rzesza

The fact that there were no Polish death camps, however, does not mean that the Polish wartime history is completely unambiguous and unblemished. On the one hand, Poles make up the largest single group of the Righteous Among the Nations, and hundreds of thousands of Poles have played some role in saving Jews from the Holocaust – in the circumstances where helping Jews carried an automatic death penalty for the helper and their whole family. On the other hand, there are documented instances of Poles murdering Jews, sometimes with German encouragement, sometimes without, as well as cases of Poles betraying Jews to German authorities. I have not seen any sensible estimate of how many Jews perished in Polish hands between 1939 and 1946, but a figure somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 would not surprise me. One has to be careful of large numbers and sweeping generalisations, because the role played by the communist propaganda in trying to portray the Polish underground as quasi-fascistic. Thus:

Knesset member Dr. Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) claimed, “The Polish people shared in the experience of the Holocaust and that can’t be erased by any bill passed in [Polish] parliament.””Poles took part in the murder of Jews through active cooperation with Nazis and through passive acceptance. The State of Israel cannot remain silent..,” she added.

Such claims are simply ahistorical. Polish reactions to the Holocaust ranged across the full spectrum, from horror to satisfaction, but  “active cooperation” was minimal and “passive acceptance” is a somewhat meaningless description of the reality of life under the Nazi occupation, much harsher in the east than it was in the west. Three million ethnic Poles were also murdered by the Nazis, presumably also with “passive acceptance” by most Poles.

The picture gets even more complicated when one adds to the discussion mix factors like the history of Polish religious and economic anti-Semitism; significant Jewish sympathies and collaboration with communism; the Jewish collaboration with Germans in ghetto administration and policing; a much more active and deadly collaboration in the Holocaust in the Baltic states and Ukraine; the Jewish underground and its cooperation with the Polish underground; the insignificant extent of Jewish assimilation in pre-war Poland that subsequently hampered rescue efforts (a small minority of Polish Jews actually spoke Polish), and so on.

The history is complex, fraught, and painful. Shouting will not help resolve ongoing debates or heal the wounds – but neither will censorship.