Poles And Jews: Confronting Biases
06/01/2012 - 11:31

Author's note: The original post misstated the name of Dr. Jud Newborn, cited below. Also, a commenter below disputes the accuracy of William Shirer's reference to a Polish cavalry charge against the Nazi invasion.

This week's controversy over President Obama’s use of the words “Polish death camp” is one that has forced me to confront some of my own biases.

My initial reaction when the Polish government blew a gasket over the reference was to roll my eyes, mindful of my discussions with numerous Polish-born survivors who told me how their former countrymen showed an anti-Semitism that rivaled the Nazis before, during and even after the Holocaust. Some survivors were so bitter that they used an ethnic slur for Poles, and kids I went to school with often told nasty Polish jokes they had probably heard from their parents and grandparents, showing how hate can be a vicious cycle.

So, my response was similar to that of JFNA’s William Daroff, who said “Methinks the Poles doth protest too much about this controversy.”

When I started calling around to get some objective feedback from people more knowledgeable than I about Holocaust history, I was confronted with the fact that I myself, back in 2001, had made a reference in an article to "Polish death camps."

The reference in both cases was geographically correct, as the majority of Nazi genocide took place at death camps within the violated borders of Poland, at Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and Majdenek as well as the ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz.

But they were, of course, not operated by the Polish government, which fought tooth and nail against the Nazi invasion of 1939.

In "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," William Shirer writes that after the Nazis staged an attack on a German radio station in Gleiwitz as a pretext for the invasion, the Poles threw everything they had against the blitzkrieg at their border. "Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were -- at one point they actually counterattacked Nazi tanks with horse cavalry -- the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught," he wrote.

Two years after the invasion, Polish individuals in the village of Jedwabne massacred 340 Jews, with the complicity of the Germans, but there was no official sanction. That act was later investigated by the restored government in 1949, with 11 people sentenced to death for treason, and once again in 2000. On the 60th anniversary in 2001 it was condemned by President Alexander Kwasniewski.

When it comes to historic accuracy, every detail counts, to avoid misimpressions, so it is important for both the White House and Warsaw to set the record straight.

“Polish intellectuals and others were imprisoned in and murdered at Auschwitz and other camps,” Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants told me.

“It is true that, whatever role the Poles played in terms of anti-Semitism as individuals, they were not involved in the running or administration of the camps. There was no Polish SS, unlike the Ukrainians, Latvians and others because the Germans didn’t let them in.”

Rosensaft, the son of two Auschwitz survivors, notes that after invading Poland in 1939 the Nazis did not try to set up a puppet government as they did in Norway with Vidkun Quisling. They simply didn’t trust them.

“As far as the Germans were concerned, the Poles were only slightly higher up in the food chain than the Jews.”

Another Holocaust scholar, Dr. Jud Newborn, noted that this controversy has arisen frequently in recent years and it's common for newspapers, in their shorthand, to refer to Polish death camps as easily saying Swiss watches or French restaurants.

“It’s very important, especially as a new generation grows up that doesn’t know the history of the Holocaust to refer properly to death camps in Poland as Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland,” said Newborn.

“There was a lot of collaboration among elements in Poland as well as Ukraine and other Baltic states, but you can’t say it was more in Poland than in these other places percentage-wise. It was one of the most dominated of all countries in Europe. Still, there is a large number of righteous Gentiles in Poland who helped save Jewish lives.”

It’s hard to bury painful grievances or heal old wounds, and in the case of Poland that gets more complicated when you look at the behavior of some Poles after the war, when fear of the Nazis couldn’t be blamed, and vanquished Jews tried returning to their homes in places like Kielce, only to be massacred by former neighbors.

The question, though, is whether it’s fair to visit the sins of the guilty on the innocent, or the sins of the fathers on their sons and daughters by allowing generalized or inaccurate historic references.

“The Polish government authorities are correct in pointing out when an error has been made,” said Rosensaft. “At the same time they should also simply accept that in certain cases, certainly in the case of Obama, that these are inadvertent errors, shorthand that is used, and move on.”

And yes, I did correct my own prior reference to Polish death camps in that old article.



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what about that Chinese Rape of Nanjing? The Cuban prison camp at Guantanomo? Iraqi (post-2003) facilities at Abu Ghraib?

The statement was insensitive and outrageous but, probably erroneous and as such ought to be excused (the more interesting question is who wrote that phrase out for Obama; what do you think?).

However, Daroff's reaction is primitive - nobody asked him to inject his prejudices into the discourse.

There were bad people in many places and among many ethnicities. More than 5 times as many Poles died at Auschwitz than in Katyn. For that matter, more than 100,000 Poles died in an ethnic cleansing specifically aimed at Poles and undertaken by the Soviets in the 30s BEFORE WWII - at a time where the ethnicity of most of the NKVD high command was heavily skewed away from the Russians. As many authors have pointed out (Snyder being latest), a Pole in Warsaw in the 30s had about the same chances of survival to 1945 as a Jew in Berlin the 30s. What does that say?

All circumstances are individual - any attempt to generalize (which is a biological necessity of the brain it seems - probably geared for survival) is nothing more than stereotyping.

In Poland most people refer term “Jew” as ethnic background. You can seldom find a reference as “Jew” or “Gentile”. The term “Jew” is related more as ethnic term.
In my community the term “Jew” is somewhat the ancient term and refers to Israel (Jakob) 12 sons generation.
But we do not consider ourselves as total “Gentiles”. We are not indeed. We are not descendants of Israel by flesh but we are children of promise which was given to Abraham by God JAHWE.
We believe in our God JAHWE and in His Son Jesuha Ha Masijah who gave His life for us. On this base we may not be considered as Gentiles, because we are under covenant with God JAHWE by blood of Jeshua Ha Masijah.
We respect all Jews, their covenant as generation of Israel (Jakob). But we consider that the covenant of Jeshua (Jezus) is superior to any other covenant, because it is open for everyone and is sealed by Gods blood..
Someone may claim that we are not circumcised. But he is wrong; we were circumcised, but not with knife but our heart were circumcised, because our covenant is of spiritual category. Our fatherland is the Jerusalem, but not built by men but Gods Jerusalem. That why we feel strong bounds with Jewish people and consider them as a older brothern.
God Bless You.

Its always entertaining to witness the ever so smug writhing and associated contortions that accompany the historical revisionism that many mostly secular Jews engage in. Before we proceed to WW11 and its aftermath lets cast our minds back a little further to the Jewish led revolution in Russia - and the 60 odd million deaths that the Jewish led commie revolutionaries visited upon the unfortunate citizens of Eastern Europe.
That Jews and socialism/communism are inextricably linked cannot be denied. Very very few modern era Jews are prepared to own what ought to be a collective Jewish guilt about the murderous socialist regimes they (Jews) birthed and unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Long before we are troubled by the millions of WW11 dead we must first get over the mountains of dead created by the Jewish led Bolshevik revolution.
The sins of the commie Jews far outweigh the sins of all and any others. Jews will never be truly respected until they embrace real honesty about the past. That hasnt happened as yet and we are now in the year 2012 - which leads one to suspect that Jews never will come clean about all of the horrors of the past century - horrors to which they are welded not just as victims but even more so as authors, enablers and perpetrators.

On the subject of accuracy and correction, William Shirer is wrong about the Polish cavalry, and you are wrong to quote him on it.

That story about a Polich cavalry charge is a myth of Nazi propaganda no less sinister than Hitler's anti-Semitic lies; and you can read about it here http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/06/myth-of-polish-cavalry-charge

Secondly, it is a generally accepted fact that 340 Jews out of the 6,000,000 were killed by a group of Polish traitors at Jedwabne, but where does Dr. Kym Newborn get the evidence to support her comment "There was a lot of collaboration among elements in Poland" ? This is, again, and as far as I'm aware, a prejudicial myth which I invite you to look for some proof of.

Grouped by nationality, Poles represent the biggest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rescue_of_Jews_by_Poles_during_the_Holocaust

Over 2 million Poles were murdered by Germany's Nazi regime, Poland fielded 1m troops (including Jews in Polish uniform) who fought against Nazi Germany through the whole war. Jan Karski pleaded on behalf of the Polish resistance government for US help to stop the Holocaust, and America ignored Poland's plea, which you can read about here http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117944784?refcatid=31

You were right when you rolled your eyes and you are wrong now. Pawel Spiewak the director of Jewish Historic Institute in Warsaw (ŻIH) also is rolling his eyes and rightly points out that the phrase can be understood geographically and "as if". until quite recently it meant camps in Poland and was found in all kinds of serious publications about the Shoah in Poland. The so called historical politics entered with nationalists in Polish government and ever since official Poland shows its "sensitivities". But at the same time doesn't care much about disclosing names of countless murderers of Jews who prospered on Jewish catastrope still living here. This is a tipical Polish no news story.