Beyond Semantics: 'Polish Death Camps' And The Suffering Of A Nation
05/31/2012 - 10:41
Steve Lipman
Polish camp, or Nazi camp in occupied Poland?
Polish camp, or Nazi camp in occupied Poland?

In Poland last year to help the small Jewish community of Poznan lead its Pesach seders, I spent some time in a small café down the street from the city’s former synagogue (serving since communist times as a municipal swimming pool) with the director of a small art gallery.

We were discussing a controversial exhibit the gallery had recently mounted, a display of provocative images, most notably a drawing of bare Minnie Mouse posing in front of a swastika. Minnie and the Nazi symbol had been featured on a pennant advertising the exhibit that had flown on a pole outside the building.

The image came under attack from members of the Jewish community, but in Poland and overseas, as insensitive to Jewish feelings. The Nazis, the swastika, the other symbols of the Holocaust, said the critics, were largely, if not exclusively, the emotional property of the Jewish people.

Not so, said the gallery owner and like-minded Poles – the Third Reich, in their mind, was also a national tragedy for Poland. Three million (non-Jewish, mostly Catholic) Poles also died at the hands of the Nazis, the same number as how many Jews perished in the Shoah; a proportionately smaller loss for the country than for its Jewish population, but still mass murder of major scale.

The killings, the atrocities, the death camps that took place on Polish soil were under German aegis, instigated and directed by Germany, Poles – both public figures and plain citizens – will tell you today. They’ve told me that during my frequent visits to Poland.

Which is why Poles take offense when anyone calls Auschwitz or Treblinka or the other killing centers Germany built in Poland “Polish death camps.”

Which is what President Obama did this week, in a White House ceremony that posthumously honored Jan Karski, the late Polish hero of the Holocaust who risked his life to bring details of the Final Solution to Western leaders. His faux pas (in Polish eyes) was only the latest example of someone of stature implying a Polish responsibility for the sites that have become a metaphor for brutality. “German death camps,” Poles insist. They, too, were victims of the Nazis, they say, often minimizing the familiar (to Jews) history of anti-Semitism and stressing the non-Jewish Poles who, like Karski, risked their lives to save Jews from the Germans (Poland has by far the greatest number of men and women recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles).

Despite this, many Poles feel, Jews seem to see themselves as the only victims of the Nazis. Why, Poles have asked me, don’t Jews recognize that Poles also suffered?

This surfaces during discussion of such issues as reparations, government payments for lost property that Poland has been excruciatingly slow to make to Polish citizens of any religion.

Warsaw’s impressive museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising (the ill-fated 1944 fight against the German invaders that is less-known in the U.S. than the fabled 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) devotes attention to the Jews who fought and sometimes died alongside their non-Jewish comrades-in-arms. That’s the message that contemporary Poland embraces, of Jews and Poles united against their common oppressor. (Many would take offense at this distinction between Jews and Poles.)

People like Obama who speak of “Polish death camps” do so in a geographic sense. But Poles don’t understand this. Which is why they took fault with Obama this week. And why they will continue to object each time they hear about “Polish death camps.”

To them, an appearance of blame for a country that suffered eight decades is a historical error. To Poles, calling Auschwitz a Polish death camp is a Mickey Mouse mistake.


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As stated, Poles fought against the Nazis and there were more Polish victims than any other ethnic group, excluding Jews. More Poles risked their lives to save Jews, yet American Jews continue to spew hate against the Polish people. Jewish Soviets tortured and murdered Poles after WWII, yet you rarely hear Polish people raving about these atrocities. This is repulsive and hateful speech on the part of Jews and they should feel very ashamed, although they will never admit this.

Please also consider story of Witold Pilecki, Polish resistance fighter, who was under forged identity went to Auschwitz to collect evidence about German atrocities. He was one of the first, who alarmed about shoah and 'milions' being eradicated by Germans. Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz, took part in Warsaw uprsing. After the war returned to Poland and was captured by communist secret police.

In 1948 was sentenced to death in Warsaw - irony of history - by communist aparatchik of Jewish origin.

That's right, there were black sheeps among Poles, who organized pogroms. On the other hand, there were pogroms of Poles by communist partisans of Jewish origin, in Koniuchy for example.

History is not black-white and it's mistake to perceive whole nations as victims or villains.

Poland was soaked in Jewish blood long before the Holocaust. Indeed, even after the Nazis were defeated, Polish Jews returning to their homes were massacred in pogroms organized and carried out by Poles who had no desire to see their Jewish neighbors return. Those are undeniable facts that need to be recognized. True, the death camps were not constructed or overseen by Poles and it is also true that non-Jewish Poles sufferred terribly under the Nazis and many Poles fought bravely against the Nazis. However, the long and sad history of Polish/Catholic animosity towards the Jews cannot be denied.

Massacre of Brzostowica Mała occurred on September 18, 1939, during the Polish September Campaign, in the village of Brzostowica Mała, which is now located in Belarus. It was a mass murder of Polish inhabitants of the village who lived there, organized by pro-communist militia, which consisted of local Jews and Belarusians...all we hear is only one side of the history

I for one do not consider President Obama's statement regarding Polish Death camps to be a reason to attack him. He misspoke. I am certain he is well aware that the NAZIS BUILT the camps in Poland. Regarding Poland and its involvement that would take volumes of analyses. I have not agreed with the President on certain positions he has taken, but to be fair he should be forgiven for this error. My parents were in Auschwitz and most of my family who were from Poland were murdered by the Nazis.

Regarding Poland itself the parking lot of the municipal building in Wodislav Poland belongs to my family. When I visited Wodislav , I found my father's birth certificate but was told the Mayor had appointments and could not see me. I guess he thought I wanted our property back. In Slomnicki, my mother's town, all the Jewish records were missing and no one new where the synagogue was. I found the synagogue which was on the main road with the sign that read from here all were taken to the concentration camp.IF you want to know how the average NON-Jewish POLISH person felt about the JEWS and how the Jews were treated, just ask any Holocaust Polish Survivor. There were some righteous Gentiles, but very very few. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

Will our President speak next about Cuban Torture Clinic at Guantanamo?
I voted and will vote for him, but I wish him better luck with political advisors and writers of the texts he reads on the prompter. Carter was not smarter or better educated, I think, but he knew how to select advisors.

the poles were happy that the germans rid them of their jews

what happened to the jews who survived the camps and attempted to return home to poland?

how many jews reside in poland today?

polish death camps is very appropriate

I have a mixed Polish Jewish/Catholic background, and I know the Polish culture and language well. Perhaps I can show this episode from the Polish perspective.

Terms such as "Polish Death Camps" are viewed as part of Holocaust denial/revisionism. Especially when combined with the political correctness of using the word Nazis in place of Germans when talking about the Holocaust. The majority of news articles written on the Holocaust never mention "Germany" for example. As the generation that witnessed these events dies it is increasingly common for younger generations to learn things wrong. And terms such as "Polish Death Camps" contribute to the mistaken belief that Poland had a role in the Holocaust. A documentary where Canadian school children said Poles were responsible for extermination camps shocked Poland.

There is also a lot of exaggeration of Poles' collaboration with the Germans in common American thinking. Collaboration was actually minimal, and punishable by death by the Polish WW2 underground. Poles are very proud of the fact that every other nation collaborated significantly with Nazi Germany, except for them. There were incidents of Polish attacks against Jews, such as Jedwabne where 350 Jews were killed, or Kielce after the war where 40 Jews were killed. But to stereotype the entire nation as based these events is not correct. It's estimated that 50,000 Poles were executed for assisting Jews in WW2. And it is therefore shocking to read comments in reply to this Obama statement on various news outlets that say Poland "Polish death camps" is a correct term, and that Poland has as much responsibility for the Holocaust as Germany. This is simply untrue, and such beliefs must be reversed if we are to have a true understanding of the Holocaust. An Obama apology would go a long way towards this.

You are point on. As a Polish American I have been following this story with great interest. Your comment is the best and insightful of any comment or report I have read. You have a unique perspective. What you wrote was awsome.

"People like Obama who speak of “Polish death camps” do so in a geographic sense. But Poles don’t understand this"

Wrong! Poles understund but do not care. Many people quotes phrases out of context, often against oryginal sense, so one's should use more accurate words. That's the case.