On September 1st 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. This was a turning point in the history of Jews that drew the line between life and death. Despite many conflicts and wars, the period between 1939-1945 is an unprecedented time of darkness and the Holocaust, experienced especially harshly by the Polish Jewish community.
However, when – in fact – did the Holocaust begin? Was it only at the time when the first ghetto was established or when it was liquidated? Or maybe when the first crematorium furnace was built? It is necessary to go back to 1933, when Adolf Hitler took over as chancellor of Germany. If at that time someone thought that this unfulfilled Austrian painter, war-torn corporal, would stop at words alone, they were deeply mistaken. Of course, from the perspective of many years later, it is easy to write such words but it is impossible to resist the impression that the then international community was mastered by some very contagious virus of passivity. After reading “Mein Kampf”, of Hitler’s authorship and after reading the program of the party he chaired, probably no sober-minded person could come to the conclusion that they were only dealing with an opportunist.
Hitler was a psychopath, whose aim was to introduce a new, crazy, order based on principles drawn from the most hideous layers of human emotions modeled on the devilish practices of hell.
Subsequent events were a clear example of this. A number of laws that the Nazis introduced created an “illusion of democracy”, because while maintaining the appearance of rule of law, in fact a lawless state began its existence. Then came the war and the Holocaust. Sometimes it is worth reacting earlier, when the evil is still weak, while it is still sprouting. This is a lesson for us today.
The history of Polish Jews should be divided into four parts. The period until the outbreak of World War II (1939), the Holocaust, the period of communist rule in Poland (1944-1989) and present day. These are almost separate worlds, with little resemblance. However, and this should be strongly emphasized, in a sense, this also applies to the Polish state. Until today, in Poland it is customary to say “and before the war…” one looks for comparisons and analogies – yes, it was a completely different idealized world, which in the eyes of contemporaries appears like “a lost paradise”. Pre-war Poland was poor, but colorful, the color of diversity, which is now sorely lacking. Of course, there are those for whom mono-ethnic and mono-religious Poland is a goal “in itself”, but is this a purely Polish problem? Please look around you – these words are addressed to readers from outside Poland – does everyone around you want diversity and is tolerant at the right level? I don’t want to play the role of advocatus diaboli in this discussion, but is diaboli really the right term?
The history of Jews is almost an integral part of Polish history. This is due to the size of the diaspora, because before the outbreak of the war, there were about 3.5 million Jews in Poland, which constituted about 9% of the total population. Jews have always lived in Poland, leaving a mark which is perfectly visible in material and non-material culture, language, art and cuisine; at the same Jews took over and preserved the same amount of Poland in their tradition. The war robbed us of this fact, generating absurd misunderstandings that fueled all shades of charlatans, benefiting from it by handfuls. After the end of the war, Poland became a completely different country. It lost its minorities, and with them its multicultural identity, which the country is still looking for today. This manifests itself in the desire to get to know former neighbors. Hence the festivals of Jewish culture in Kraków, Łódź and Warsaw, which are widely visited by young people. A huge gap has been created in Polish memory, which even the most ardent nationalists are not able to dispassionately close. For contemporary young Poles, pre-war Polish Jews are almost the same as the lost “eastern borderlands” due to a post-Yalta order. Many miss it, but don’t really know what they miss.
To illustrate the scale of the destruction that took place during the German occupation in Poland, I will use numbers.
As a result of World War II, Poland lost approximately 76 thousand square kilometers of land and approximately 10 million citizens. It is difficult to state the exact number of Polish citizens who died as a direct result of hostilities and extermination. We can assume that this number should be in the range of 4.8–5.6 million. Moreover, as a result of World War II, about 62% of workplaces were destroyed, about 43% of cultural property and about 66% of library and archive collections were lost.
The researchers of the Holocaust estimate that only every tenth Jew living in the pre-war Polish state survived the war, and therefore Poland would have been home to around 300,000 Jews after the war. On the basis of a census drawn up by the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CKŻP) by the end of June 1946, there were approximately 240,000 Jews living in Poland who registered and admit to their Jewish origin. However, it should be remembered that not all of them have decided to register. In the years 1945 – 1971, about 220 thousand people of Jewish origin left communist Poland. In comparison, it is worth mentioning that this is roughly the number of inhabitants of Aberdeen, Scotland. This was another huge blow to Polish Jews and completely pushed them to the margins of social life in Poland.
During the communist period (1945-1989), the topic of Jews was treated marginally. This was due to the fact that national and religious criteria were used by communist authorities only in order to achieve specific political goals. Communist propaganda manipulated facts, mainly numbers, providing imaginary numbers in terms of the victims – this was especially true for the Auschwitz Camp which was a symbol of Nazi crimes. Many times during the post-war period, communist historiography spoke of six million victims murdered in Auschwitz, or four million which also was untrue. Based on reliable historical research, we can now conclude that this number is around 1.1 million. From the very beginning, the communists tried to use the tragedy of the Holocaust for their political goals. It is worth noting a few examples of such activities. An outstanding Polish director, of Jewish origin by the way, Aleksander Ford, in his first post-war film, which he made on Polish lands liberated by the Red Army entitled Majdanek. The Graveyard of Europe (1944) smuggles in his film a “half-truth”, which for many years the post-war communist authorities fed the Polish society. They claimed that it was mainly Polish citizens who died in the extermination camps established on Polish soil. This is true, of course, but requires further development – Polish citizens of Jewish origin. Unfortunately, this is a huge difference, not very obvious then, and not even today. Another very clear example of such a policy was the unveiling of the first monument at the former death camp in Bełżec, which took place in 1963. The commemorative plaque itself, placed on the monument, did not provide reliable information about who was murdered there. It did not even mention the fact that it was an extermination camp. The inscription “in memory of the victims of Nazi terror murdered in 1941-1943” should be considered highly insufficient and very symptomatic.
Indicating the perpetrator of the Holocaust is a basic element of research honesty as well as historical reliability. To commemorate the murdered, we must clearly and decisively indicate those responsible for their death at every opportunity! Regardless of the nationality and religion of the perpetrators.
Many monuments commemorating the victims of World War II still contain information that it was the fascists who committed the crimes, without specifying their nationality. First of all, the term fascist is already incorrect , because fascists were in power in Italy, and these were German or Austrian Nazis. This is not a political matter, as many would like, but a demonstration of those guilty of the act committed. Such behavior was due to the fact that the communist authority in Poland attributed the heritage of the crimes committed during the war to the German Federal Republic, and in order not to cast even the slightest suspicion on the “brotherly”, communist-controlled German Democratic Republic, the term fascism was created, which is unfortunately repeated until today.
Communists, as liberators, tried to strengthen their power on the basis of the martyrdom of the Polish nation during the German occupation. Jews, who were on the margins of Polish social life after the war, did not represent any significant social power, and thus were not useful in propaganda mechanisms.
It was only after the political transformation in Poland that a discussion began on the attitudes of the Polish population towards their Jewish neighbors during the German occupation. Poland’s attitude towards Jews and the properties of the choices made by Poland . Power and social memory put Poles on a pedestal, repeatedly failing to acknowledge that many of them behaved cruelly. Poland prides itself in its statistics, i.e. the greatest number of recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations medal. I am opposed to “Holocaust math.” It is impossible to compare the geopolitical conditions that the citizens of Poland and, for example, France faced during World War II. In relation to the number of Jews during the war, the number of the Righteous should not only be a source of pride, but the subject of deep historical reflection, which many Polish historians currently lack. I am of the opinion that the issue of help provided to Jews by Poles should be treated solely through the prism of the individual’s conditioning in a specific case. Unfortunately, these issues have now become part of the so-called historical policy aimed at idealizing the history of Poland.
We must remember that on the territory of the former Polish state, the Germans organized the Holocaust, bringing and murdering there almost all Jews from Europe, and at the same time imposing the death penalty for the local population for helping them.
The discussion on the above-mentioned issues of attitudes was initiated by a series of books by Jan Tomasz Gross (Neighbors: The History of the Extermination of a Jewish Town, Golden Harvest. About what happened on the outskirts of the extermination of the Jews, Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland just after the war. History of moral collapse) who in 1969 emigrated from Poland to the United States. It was Jan Tomasz Gross who showed the world that the people of Poland are not only the Righteous, but also people who murdered and plundered Jewish property. Gross debased Polish memory, giving it a human dimension, where heroism is a rather rare trait. To this day, there is a kind of social ostracism in Poland for his books. However, his undoubted success is the fact that many historians are following his path. In the course of the publication of the above works, historians, publicists, and even a part of Polish society previously uninterested in this subject, began to ask themselves questions. In Poland, there is an actual, discussion about the legacy of the Holocaust. Many times this topic comes up and gets into the media, becoming the source of family conflicts. It only shows how much emotion still accompanies it. Many Poles are already aware of the fact that their history is not only the Defense War of 1939, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 or the successes of the Polish Armed Forces in Western Europe, but also denunciation, blackmail (i.e. selling Jews to Germany) or pogroms on the former eastern frontiers of the former Polish state. This unwanted legacy of the German occupation is slowly reaching public awareness in Poland.
Years of neglect in education, its partiality and lack of objectivity contributed to the growth of nationalist movements in Poland. Observing the events in the world, it should be emphasized with full force that this is not only a Polish problem, but it is Poles who are expected to settle accounts with the past within a decade, when the countries of “Western” democracy had almost half a century to do so. The work of historians, educators and people of good will systematically pay off with an increase in social awareness.
Despite the apparent revival of Jewish life in Poland, there are many dark places on its map where the word “Jew” is treated as an insult, and everything Jewish is a pejorative stereotype.
We still have a lot of work to do to change this. Let us not be seduced by the illusion that everything is already well enough to give up educational work. It is better, in large agglomerations it is even much better, but we must remember that in Poland national consciousness is shaped by smaller centers, which are still very hermetic. We have to get there with education. This is my appeal to everyone!
“The publication expresses the views of the author and should not be equated with the official position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.”
Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021″