Member of Polish American Congress,
Illinois Division responds to Chicago Tribune publication about Holocaust
The article published in the Feb. 14, 2018 edition of the Chicago tribune titled “Can the world agree upon common memory of the Holocaust ?”, written by Dr. Mona Sue Weissmark relates her mothers memories and experiences of the Holocaust as something all should accept as the absolute truth, especially the assertion that all Poles are Anti-Semitic. I believe that history of the Holocaust will not be found in the recollection of one woman who, before WWII was a young or maybe very young girl, but rather in the thousands of documents, interviews, and memoirs of survivors of WWII, be they Jews, Poles, or other ethnic groups.
We all know, (or should know) that The Holocaust is a term commonly used to describe the planned extermination of Jews by German Nazis. As a percentage of the population, Jews suffered horrific losses, 3 – 3.5 million people murdered, but that does not give a right to anyone to ignore the blood of 3 million ethnic Poles who lost their lives during the war.
As the number of WWII survivors is rapidly decreasing, the number of attempts to re-write history is increasing. Twenty years ago, many Jews, Holocaust survivors, and Poles negated attempts to market the concept of “Polish Concentration Camps ”. Today very few eyewitnesses remain, giving free license to “experts” to twist and distort history. A large amount of interviews, memoirs and documents remain to present the truth, but much of these is in Israel, where the anti Polish crusade has gained momentum. That said, there are reasoned voices coming from Israel, condemning attempts to smear Poles as Anti Semites, so there is hope truth may win out.
To counter Dr. Weissmarks idea of history based on her mothers’ perception, I would like to relate my mothers experience of WWII. Just ten weeks ago my mother passed away at almost 98. Before the war mom and dad lived in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, near Warsaw. During early WWII, they hid two Jewish families for several weeks each, and helped them establish contact with the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), and through efforts of that group these families escaped to Palestine via Hungary, Romania and Italy. Both families made contact after the war with my parents.
Much later, in the course of the Occupation, my Dad was arrested because his former childhood friend (who, when the war started identified himself as Volksdeutsche), tipped off the Gestapo, that Dad was in contact with the Home Army. Fortunately the local German Commandant was keen on talking bribes and dad was released. During winter 42-43, Mom almost lost her life handing half a loaf of bread to a starving Jewish child in the Warsaw Ghetto. A German soldier saw her, knocked her down to the ground, took aim and… did not shoot, after several seconds just screamed at her “next time you are dead”. At that instant she was certain she was dead, but always maintained her Guardian Angel was on duty at the time. She remembered that event as if it happened yesterday.
She was blessed with an excellent mind until the last days of her life, and was troubled and bewildered by the number of hate articles, asking us: “Why so many Jews are trying to make Poles appear responsible for German Concentration Camps, or accusing of collaboration with the Germans?. What is going on? My Unclee and Aunt were caught in a street sweep in Warsaw and sent to Dachau. They were on the train with Jews, but probably half the boxcar was ethnic Poles. Aunt Wala escaped from the train, but Uncle did not and died in Dachau. Three of your dad’s cousins died in Auschwitz. Why are these people saying over and over – “Polish Concentration camps”?”
My parents were just normal people facing extraordinary situations and reacted like most normal human beings would. So, going back to Ms. Weissmark’s assertion – yes, in pre-war Poland there were incidents of anti-Semitism, and that fact has been acknowledged more times than one can count. But the same can be said of just about any other country in Europe with a significant Jewish population, as well as in the United States of America. Some scholars say there was an increase in anti-Semitism in the period preceding WWII. Some say this increase over previous ages was driven by the fact that many young Jews were an integral part of the rise of Communism throughout Europe, and then came the fallout of the Great Depression, which affected some areas of Europe as much as USA, and the resulting political manipulations by skillful politicians, exploiting peoples fears, superstitions, religion, etc. Hitler and Germany are, of course the prime example. There are ignorant, malevolent people in any society, focusing on hate because of someone’s appearance, religion, or speech; or maybe just because their mother taught them to do so. Recently the Anti-Defamation League has identified 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 in the USA; up from 1,267 in 2016, the highest single-year increase since 1979. These were significant incidents – bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, children harassed, synagogues defaced. That is between 5 and 6 per day.
Maybe 70 years from now another Dr. Weissmark will determine that in early 21st century “ALL Americans were Anti Semitic??.
It’s quite unfortunate Ms. Weissmark did not consider doing some research on the history of Jews in Poland before writing her article. She may have gained a different perspective. Therefore, it seems a few paragraphs on this history are in order. That said, it’s not possible to put into a few words what is contained in thousands of pages of historical books and texts, so just skimming the surface:
I will start by asking what I think is a reasonable question. If all Poles hate Jews, why were there more Jews in Poland than in any other country in Europe before WWII?
It stands to reason that people who are despised or hated would naturally emigrate to other, more hospitable environments. Maybe the answer is quite simple; Poland was not anti-Semitic, repressive or Jew hating, and most in Jewish society thrived in Poland. And they thrived for nearly a thousand years.
The earliest noted presence of Jews in Poland dates to the late 900’s A.D. In 1264 a Prince of Greater Poland issued a General Charter of Jewish Liberties, which granted all Jews the freedom of worship, trade and travel. Other local Polish princes granted similar privileges to Jews. During the 14th century King Casimir the Great issued an invitation to the Jews of the world to come to Poland. For several centuries Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world.
As Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and also from Austria, Hungary and Germany they came to Poland. This period led to the creation of a proverb about Poland being a “heaven for the Jews”. In the16th century, Poland was the center of the world for Jewish culture, thanks to a long period of statutory religious tolerance and autonomy. By the 1550s Jews were given the right to select their own Chief Rabbi, which marked the birth of the Chief Rabbinate, a crucial facility in the Jewish community, administering laws, appointing judges, taxation and all facets of Jewish life. Essentially, they were given the right of self-determination. Some historians claim that about ¾ of all Jews in the world lived in Poland in the 16th century.
All this came to an end with the partitions of Poland which began in 1772, in particular, the third and last in 1795, when a large part of Poland came under control and governance of Russia, and it’s government decreed discrimination and persecution of Jews.
In 1918, Poland again became a Country and a Nation. From 1918 until 1939, a period just over 20 years, the newly created Polish Republic again saw the emergence of Jewish freedoms of religion and self-governance. In 1926 there was an attempt to separate out a part of Poland to create a self-governing state; a Jewish “state within a state”. To put this into perspective, a sort of “give us New York and New Jersey, and keep the rest” demand. This demand was debated in the Polish Parliament and ultimately rejected, but shows that Jewish liberties must have been in good order that such an audacious demand was even presented. Jews in Poland felt secure and free. And the historical facts present a level of coexistence of Poles and Jews over a thousand years that is only exceeded today by the freedoms that all have in the USA.
And what about the memory of Holocaust? –
the words below are the words of historians, many of them Jewish, extracted from articles and papers on the subject, from Wikipedia to The Jerusalem Post;
Poles risked their own lives – and the lives of their families – to rescue Jews from the Nazis. By nationality, Poles represent the largest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. To date, 6,706 Christian Poles have been awarded the title of Righteous Among Nations by the State of Israel – more than those of any other nation by far.
The Polish Home Army first alerted the world to the Holocaust, notably by reports of officer Witold Pilecki and courier, Jan Karski, who presented information about death camps to President Roosevelt. The Polish Government in Exile pleaded for American and British help to stop the Holocaust, to no avail.
Some estimates put the number of Poles involved in the rescue at up to 3 million, and credit Poles with saving up to around 450,000 Jews from certain death – at least temporarily. These rescue efforts were aided by the largest anti-Nazi resistance movement in Europe, the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). These organizations operated special units dedicated to helping Jews; of those, the most notable was the Zegota Council based in Warsaw with branches in Krakow, Wilno and Lwow
Polish citizens were hampered by the most extreme conditions in all of German occupied Europe. Occupied Poland was the only territory where the Germans decreed that any kind of help for Jews was punishable by death for the helper and their entire family.
It is most revealing that the Germans found the need for such a decree ONLY in Poland, not in other occupied countries.
Of the estimated 3 million non-Jewish Poles killed in World War II, between 30,000 and up to 50,000 were executed by Nazi Germans solely as the penalty for saving Jews.
At the start of World War II, Poland was partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. One-fifth of the Polish population perished during World War II, half of them were the 3,000,000 Polish Jews murdered in the Holocaust, constituting 90% of Polish Jewry. Although the Holocaust occurred largely in German occupied Poland, there was extremely little collaboration with the Nazis by its citizens.
From the Israeli War Crimes Commission report:
Less than 0.1% of Poles collaborated with the Nazis;
Poland did not provide a ready recruitment base for Nazi collaborators. The Waffen SS recruited local units in Albania, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Latvia, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Ukraine, and other countries. It did not find recruits in Poland. History has an odd way of giving us a sense that Poles collaborated with Nazism, while whitewashing the real collaborators. We are often taught that Denmark saved Jews, but it is conveniently forgotten that an estimated 6,000 Danes volunteered for Nazi collaboration units, like the SS Division Wiking and SS Division Nordland. There were 40,000 Nazi Volunteers in Belgium. In France an entire regime, the Vichy Government collected Jews to send to the Camps. Almost every country had distinct collaboration, except Poles and Serbs. And in Poland, the Home Army had several hundred thousand members to resist Nazis, while in other countries there was a problem finding a handful of recruits. Most Frenchmen were neither collaborators nor resistors, they were passive.
The Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, said in a BBC interview: “it’s … false and painful stereotype that all Poles are anti-Semitic. This is something I want to clearly state: this is a false stereotype. Today there is anti-Semitism in Poland, as unfortunately the rest of Europe; it is more or less at the same level as the rest of Europe. More important is that you have a growing number of Poles who oppose anti-Semitism.
How much more does Dr. Weissmark need to understand that Poles are not Anti Semites, did not build Concentration Camps, nor in any way collaborated with the German Nazis? She should be ashamed of such blatant slander of entire nation.
Her mothers statement: ”The Germans and the Poles hated the Jews” and “The Germans had to be taught to hate the Jews, but the Poles inherited that from their mothers milk. Anti-Semitism was suckled with their mothers milk.” Transfer of hate via mother’s milk, while a good literary phrase, is not really feasible. I do not know why Ms. Weissmarks mother hated Poles to say that. More than likely she, or her family or friends had the unfortunate experience to be the victims of some anti-Semitic incident or incidents. Undoubtedly such will influence ones opinion or conviction. But it’s difficult to understand why Dr. Weissmark, apparently an extremely well educated person, would just perpetuate such slander.
That brings me to the recent law passed in Poland regarding the portrayal of Poles as collaborators with the Germans, this type of slander being repeated more and more frequently in various media. Such articles and commentary pieces as Dr. Weissmarks are exactly the reason such law was passed recently by the Polish Parliament and signed by President Andrzej Duda. It criminalizes statements such as “Polish Concentration Camps” or broad statements implying collaboration and complicity with the Germans during 1933-1945 Holocaust. The legislation arose due to frustration and exasperation with the American and selected other countries media relentlessly and purposefully forging an image of the Polish ethnic group as Anti-Semites, completely ignoring the fact that, as Polish ambassador to the USA, Dr. Wilczek, said, “Poland is and has been, since World War II, one of the principal guardians of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and protector of sites sanctified by the blood of innocent Jewish and Polish victims of Nazi German terror.”
It is quite unfortunate that the current Polish Government was forced to pass such a law. Many Poles, got tired of this and demanded the government to do “something”. Though faced with stiff parliamentary opposition, the legislation was passed.
While pleasing some Poles, that the government finally acted on these attempts to rewrite history, many other Poles realize the government just created a substitute argument for a well organized and financed “Congress” or “lobby” doing all they can to smear Poles and Poland. Instead of talking about the lies and distortions re WWII, the argument turned to the Poland Government “Trying to suppress Free Speech.”
Wojciech A. Niedzinski
Polish American Congress,