Notes on the Polish Jewish controversy.
One legacy of the Holocaust, and of subsequent-albeit legitimate- Jewish efforts to keep Auschwitz as a specifically Jewish memorial, has been a gradual "demonization" of the Polish people by some Jewish leaders. For example, in 1979, fonner Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin accused the Poles of collaborating with the Germans and stated that "Polish priests did not save even one Jew's life."
Yet another former Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, said in 1989 that "Poles suck in anti-Semitism with their mother's milk." Others claim that the Nazis placed the death camps in Poland because they intended to capitalize on Poland's "centuries-long hatred of Jews."
And during my own brief sojourn into Poland, I was told by an Austrian woman on the train from Krakow that Jews returning to Poland after the war were killed. I discovered confirmation of this in Martin Gilbert's meticulously researched book Atlas of the Holocaust. "Incredibly," he relates, "the killing of Jews had continued in Poland for more than two years after Germany's surrender. It was this Polish anti-Semitic violence that gave a strong impetus to the 'bricha,' or flight of the Jews to Palestine... .The flight.. .gained its culminating force with a pogrom in Kielce [northern Poland] in which 41 Jews were killed."
What the anonymous woman didn't tell me, and what Gilbert does not point out, is that the Kielce pogrom of 1946--often used as an example of Polish anti-Semitism-was instigated by the Communist regime which had been installed by the Soviet conquerors. It was the Communists who from 1945 to 1989 fabricated and exploited accusations of Polish anti-Semitism, and who also fabricated tales of Polish collaboration with the Nazis--partly to justify their postwar takeover of Poland, and partly to discredit the Catholic Church with which they were in constant conflict.
The idea of Polish collaboration with the Nazis simply does not correspond with reality, and is an absurd notion. From the very beginning of the Nazi occupation in September 1939, the Polish people were selected for removal and displacement, and the Polish intelligensia marked for extermination. This began at once. The final removal had to wait till Hitler's conquest was completed and, of course, never took place.
Nazi ideology held both Jews and Slays to be "subhuman" (Untermenschen), and among the Slays they hated the Polish people the most for their resistance to Germanic eastward-looking dreams of political, cultural and racial expansion, which prevailed for several centuries.
Polish resistance to the Third Reich was, in fact, the greatest in Europe, as recently pointed out by Bernard Wisniewski, vice-president of the Canadian Polish Congress in Toronto (Globe, Feb. 8, 1999). He notes that Yad Vashem historian Israel Gutman documents the percentage of Polish collaborators with the Nazis as "infinitesimally small." As well, it was the Polish government in exile that alerted the world to the mass exterminations of the Jews.
In 1939 some 3.4 million Jews lived in Poland (boundaries of 1919), within a total population, mostly Catholic, of 35.1 million. Some 100,000 to 120,000 Jews survived the five-year ordeal (Richard Lukas, Globe, June 30, 1992), mostly, it would appear, through the help of the non-Jewish population. This is despite the fact that the Nazis summarily applied the death penalty to anyone who helped Jews, even for giving a glass of water. The reason for the large number of Jews in Poland, the largest Jewish community anywhere, was the hospitality and tolerance of a nation which itself suffered from oppression for hundreds of years. As Professor Lukas, the author of several books on Poland, points out, anti-Semitism did exist in Poland--as it did everywhere else--but unlike in Germany and several other countries, it was not racially based. It was because of this large Jewish population, not because of Polish feelings, that the Nazis located the extermination camps in Oswiecim and Bzrezinka.
Devastation to Poland
Finally, another point to remember is the devastation visited on Poland herself by the Third Reich. Few people realize that she lost over six million citizens, that is, 16-17 per cent of the toal population, between 1939-1944, half of these Jews. Of the non-Jewish Poles, the vast majority were Catholics. "They died," writes Wisniewski, "in camps and in prisons; they were shot in city squares and in forests, hanged from lampposts and balconies and burned in barns and churches. There was even a special concentration camp for Polish children, where 12,000 of the 13,000 little prisoners were killed."
Of the 150,000 non-Jewish Poles imprisoned in Auschwitz, half perished, "a toll higher than the non-Jewish civilian casualties of most German occupied countries," Wisniewski observed.
As for Catholic priests, the Poland of the Second World War had an enormous casualty rate; in some dioceses in the western part of the country, half the clergy perished. The total loss of priests by execution or death in concentration camps was 2,462. That is the number of those who died. Many more suffered in concentration camps without dying. And others died outside concentration camps, shot or hanged on the spot, or died in prison. Of the 2,100 Catholic priests from all over occupied Europe (including Germany itself) held in Dachau in 1941, 1,800 were Polish. Other Polish priests were in Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz. Of the three Polish bishops who perished, one died in each of the camps mentioned.
Overall, the number of people killed throughout Europe during the Nazi terror is staggering. The general estimate is that, as well as six million Jews, at least another six million Europeans (including the Polish "gentiles") perished in concentration camps. Add to this those who died in the cities and in the fields, in battle or during bombing raids, the war dead, soldiers, civilians, and refugees, numbered perhaps an additional 15-20 million.
To understand the magnitude of the overall disaster is most emphatically not to deny, or trivialize the persecution of the Jews--who were marked, along with Gypsies, for complete extermination. The Nazi plan to wipe Jewry off the face of the earth was a reach of evil into our world of a kind hitherto never before experienced. Nor is the assertion of these facts an attempt to evade the necessary examination of conscience on how Christians may have cooperated with the Holocaust through cowardice, fear or prejudice.
But justice and charity require that any attempts at rapprochement between Catholics and Jews be placed firmly on the bedrock of a true accounting of history--where such knowledge is possible--as this is the only ground out of which genuine dialogue, understanding and peace can flourish.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 1999|
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