Dispute over Polish law feeds anti-Polish hysteria in Israel and online

Seth J. Frantzman
Feb 2, 2018 · 7 min read


History and populism

A dispute over a Polish law that would punish those who claim Poland was responsible for the Holocaust has led to an outpouring of hysterical anti-Polish bashing online. On January 30th I looked on Facebook and someone had shared an article about how the Polish President said something which seemed reasonable. He had insisted that while individuals committed “wicked actions” against Jews, there was no institutionalized role by the Polish state in the Shoah.

The rage on social media against the remarks were extraordinary. “Tell that to my grandparents” wrote one woman. “Tell it to my father, uncle and aunts.” Another suggested “boycott Poland.” Another woman posted a meme that says “Polish Death Camps,” claiming Poland was home to pogroms and anti-semitism and told the Polish state to apologize for the Holocaust. “Tell that to my mother’s aunt, uncle and cousins. Poland gave them a free all-expenses paid trip….. TO AUSCHWITZ,” a man wrote. “No people were more brutal.”

Screenshot of anti-Polish comments on social media

As the Polish law progresses the rage has grown. Some have taken joy at offending Poles online, repeating the term “Polish death camps” just to show that they can use “free speech” ostensibly protesting the Polish law. But the rage and anger is deeper than just manifestations of provocation. I wrote an article about it, but since then I have given it more thought as the comments keep flowing in.

Uri Avnery, the famed Israeli journalist, sent around an article on the subject on February 2nd. He wrote about a visit to Poland years ago about a visit to Warsaw with Rachel Avnery. “After coming home, Rachel happened to enter a clothes shop and hear the female owner talking with a customer in Polish. Still full of her discovery, Rachel asked the owner: ‘Did you know that the Nazis also killed a million and half non-Jewish Poles?’ The woman answered “Not enough!’ Rachel was amazed. So was I.”

The story shows the degree of hatred for Poland and Poles that exists among some Israelis and some Jews. It is based on stereotypes, generalizations and memories from the 1930s. That the anger is pouring out again is simply because it has been hiding just beneath the surface for years. Deborah Lipstadt wrote in 2007 about the enduring myth “the Poles were worse than the Nazis.” She noted “Many people, Jews primarily among them, believe the balderdash that the Germans put the death camps in Poland because the Poles would be happy to see the Jews killed. They ignore the fact that to the Germans Auschwitz was German territory and was to be the site of a major German settlement.”

One of many comments on Facebook (Screenshot)

She also recalls, “One person, who is well-informed and well read, found this notion of Polish non-complicity hard to grasp. Weren’t they guards at Auschwitz? No, I said. Well weren’t they part of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units? Wrong again.”

Yet this false history remains. Its real pedigree could be claims made in the 1930s that Poland was preparing to exterminate Jews. In 1936 the Soviet politician Karl Radek made this claim. “What Poland is preparing for her Jewish population will exceed the cruelty of the German manifold,” Radek said according to the JTA. “He declared that while the Jews were treated worse in Poland than in Germany, the world knew less about it.” He also claims it would be difficult for Poles to commit the “utter annihilation” of 3,500,000 Jews.”

Lapid’s article at Times of Israel

In Israel even senior politicians such as Yair Lapid have continued to spread the claim that the death camps were built in Poland because the “Germans knew that at least some of the local population would cooperate.” There is no evidence to support this claim. Most camps were actually built in German-run areas, not in Polish areas. As Lipstadt points out, the number of camps related to the size of the local population in Poland, where more than 3 million Jews lived. The camps were constructed and run by the Nazis.

However there is still much to the anti-Polish hysteria that must be challenged. Here is a list of some of the major issues.

Map at the USHMM

The was no Polish state that could collaborate with Germany because Germany had invaded and occupied Poland

A map published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows the way Germany annexed most of Poland and administered it during the Holocaust. So there was no “Poland” that could work with the Nazis. The Polish government in exile actually helped bring information about the death camps to Jewish leaders outside Poland. The Polish nation resisted the Nazis in 1939 and continued to resist.

3 million non-Jewish Polish people were murdered by the Nazis

Often forgotten in the claims of Polish collaboration is that Poles were the victims of Nazism alongside Polish Jews. They were one of the countries brutally suppressed by the Germans. An estimated 3 million non-Jewish Poles were murdered and up to1.5 million sent as forced labor slaves to Nazi Germany.

Text of part of the Polish law

The Polish law should be read in full

The text of the Polish law doesn’t criminalize all critique of Poles during the Holocaust. It specifies “contrary to facts” as a part of the law. The law of course is the wrong way to legislate “facts,” but nevertheless it should be read.

Poland had one of the largest resistance movements in Europe to Nazism

Unlike in many countries that actively collaborated or had a local government allied with the Nazis, such as Croatia, France or Italy, Poland always resisted Nazism. Up to 500,000 people joined the resistance. Germany razed Warsaw during the 1944 uprising. Many Poles were sent to concentration camps alongside Jews. In addition there are more Polish Righteous Among the Nations than any other nation in Europe. That means many thousands risked their lives saving Jews. In one case I heard about from a friend a Polish family sheltered Jews and the Jews passed themselves off as Christians with forged papers. Later, during the Polish uprising of 1944 this Polish family and the Jews they were helping were all shipped to a concentration camp. They were all labelled “Christians” by the German Nazis. This shows how people not only helped save Jews, but suffered alongside them.

So why the skewed history?
The Holocaust is often taught without sufficient reference to which countries collaborated and resisted. Increasingly it is also universalized and the Nazis are portrayed as not German Nazis, but rather a general “evil.” The education tends to emphasize individual Jewish stories, which is a good thing, but it often ignores what was happening around the people who are highlighted. In this sense the experience of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel is somehow made to seem the “same” without reference to the hows and whys. This is because sometimes it seems more convenient than mentioning the tens of thousands who volunteered for the SS in Austria, Belgium, Netherlands and the thousands who did so in Denmark, Norway and elsewhere. But this means countries like Poland that did not welcome Hitler or join the SS are not given sufficient credit. There is a historical difference between collaborationist countries, and those that resisted. Poland resisted. That doesn’t mean there are no Poles who harmed Jews or that there was not anti-semitism in Poland. Much of the anger directed at Poland relates to memories about the period before and after. But there is no reason to lump that in with the Shoah and reduce the German Nazi responsibility.

In addition the family stories people have and the lingering anger and stereotypes against Poland are perpetuated. Eventually history becomes myth and myth becomes fact. This twisting of history allows people to make the outlandish claim that “Poles were worse than Nazis” or “Poland was worse than Hitler.” It turns history on its head. But this is easy to do when Holocaust education doesn’t both to differentiate between Hungary, Croatia, Poland, Latvia and France.

Lasting anger

It appears many wounds from the Holocaust have no healed. That is reasonable. But what is unreasonable is the number of people spreading false history against Poland. This is because of a skewed attempt to whitewash Germany’s record because Germany has supposedly taken responsibility, and portray Poland as the “problem” for “denying.” But this warped sense flips history on its head. Poland is right to want the real history to be told and the story of Polish resistance and suffering under Nazism. Unfortunately too few people want to listen to the larger story.

Seth J. Frantzman

Written by

Writer, photographer, historian. Interested in Middle East regional policy analysis, security studies, migration, globalization, counter-terrorism

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