The Holocaust and Historical Truth

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Today, one day following International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Washington Post published a news story about the Polish government’s passage of a law “making it a criminal offense to mention Polish complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust.”  According to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the law is intended, not to “whitewash history, but to safeguard it and safeguard the truth about the Holocaust and prevent its distortion.”  Poles particularly object to the use of the term “Polish death camps,” which are Polish only insofar as the Nazis established the so-called Reinhard camps (Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełźec), and Auschwitz-Birkenau, on Polish soil.  The full text of the article is here.

The law still needs final approval from Poland’s Senate and president to become effective, which is expected.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, said the law was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”

History, unfortunately, is never completely black and white.  Poland, as the epicenter of the Holocaust in many ways, has the largest number of individuals (6,706) recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”  This honor is bestowed only on those who, after rigorous investigation, are proven to have taken “great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

These 6,706 represent fully over 25% of all individuals recognized by Yad Vashem.  By comparison, the second highest is the Netherlands, with 5,595 (including Jan and Miep Gies—mentioned here and here—who helped Anne Frank).  Norway has 67, including Sigrid Hellisen-Lund, a friend of Odd Nansen’s who worked closely with him in Nansenhjelpen, the organization he established to help refugees during the interwar period.  The United States has 5.

On the other hand, as Laurence Rees points out in his latest work, The Holocaust: A New History (PublicAffairs 2017):

“Poland, Hungary and Romania all enacted anti-Semitic legislation during the 1930s. . . .   In August 1936, for example, all Polish shops were required to display the name of the owner on their signs.  As a consequence it was obvious which shops belonged to Jews.  The following year Jews were forbidden from entering the medical profession, and restrictions were placed on their ability to practise [sic] law. . ..

The Polish government was also contemplating removing Jews from Poland altogether.  In early 1937 the Poles opened discussions with the French about the possibility of sending large numbers of Polish Jews to the island of Madagascar off the south-east coast of Africa . . ..

The Polish Madagascar initiative acted as a powerful reminder . . . that anti-Semitic initiatives were not just the preserve of the government of the Third Reich.  The desire of other European countries in the 1930s to persecute and even remove their Jews has largely been forgotten in the public consciousness today—dwarfed by the scale and ferocity of the subsequent Nazi Holocaust.”

The final word goes to my old Georgetown professor, Jan Karski (mentioned here), who is described in the article as a “famed resistance fighter” and who nevertheless acknowledged that the Poles’ attitude toward fellow Polish Jews was “ruthless, often without pity.”

While references to “Polish death camps” should more accurately refer instead to “death camps located by the Nazis in Poland,” to outlaw any mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust is indeed to “whitewash history.”

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