|Child survivors of Auschwitz|
Menachem Begin once famously said that antisemitism is in the mother’s milk of Europeans. I think that’s true – even today. I also believe that the country he had most in mind when he said that is Poland. Which I believe is the poster-child of European antisemitism.
Poland is not one of my favorite countries. To say the least. The history of Polish antisemitism is well documented. It existed long before Nazi Germany did. In fact prior to the rise of Hitler Germany was one of the friendliest countries to the Jewish people in Europe. Jews thrived in Germany archieving high status and prominence with nearly complete assimilation. Jews were all over the place in pre Nazi Germany: the arts, the sciences, academia, the military, the business world, and the professions.
One might compare the life of a Jew in Germany then to the life of a Jew in today’s America. The only difference being that Germans harbored some residual antisemitism deeply rooted in the teachings of Martin Luther. The official religion of Germany is Lutheran. That prejudice surfaced with a vengeance when Hitler came to power.
The Jewish people never experienced such tolerance in Poland - except at the very beginning of their migration there. Because of their reputation as good businessman - Jews were invited to help improve the Polish economy. Which they did. But that tolerance was very short lived. The vast majority of Poles were and still are very religious Roman Catholics who viewed Jews as Christ killers. Pogroms were common both before and after the Holocaust.
My father experienced it. After surviving the Holocaust he tried to rebuild his life in Poland and started a business there. But after experiencing a pogrom he quickly applied to immigrate to the US. (Thank God!) He realized that the antisemitism was still alive and well… and acted upon! My father had always told me that the Poles were far worse than even the Germans when it came to antisemitism. I tend to agree despite the fact that Nazism was founded in Germany.
I also recall my mother telling me stories how the local Catholic priest urged his parishioners not to patronize my grandmother’s business because she was Jewish –haranguing his flock about the ‘Jewish Christ killers’ in their midst. (That priest eventually croaked very suddenly and was replaced by a kinder priest who actually encouraged those same parishioners to patronize her business. There were some decent people there even then. But way too few.)
Claude Lantzmann’s monumental 6 hour documentary, Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust), had a scene where he interviewed an elderly Pole who was a righteous gentile. He actually risked his life to hide Jews during the Holocaust. And yet, this righteous gentile dressed up in his Sunday finest to watch Nazi occupiers marching Jews to the death camps. He felt a religious obligation to witness the fact that Jews were being punished for their sin of killing Christ! That’s how deep seated the antisemtism was among the Poles. Even the righteous among them! The fact is that most Poles (who were not so righteous gentiles) were more than happy to fully cooperate in rounding up their once Jewish neighbors for their Nazi occupiers.
(I hasten to add that ever since Vatican II Church doctrine no longer teaches that today’s Jews are guilty of killing their god and that now we are to be considered a legitimate brother religion and the father of Christianity.)
Which brings me to the reason for this post. A recent decision by the Polish government to make any use of the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ a criminal offense. That has brought condemnation by a number of prominent people, including the Prime Minister of Israel.
Some people are trying to defend Poland in this regard. It is true that the most infamous Nazi concentration camp of all is Auschwitz. Which is in Poland. But it is also true that this camp as well as every other concentration and death camp was built and operated by the Nazis. Not Poles. So it is technically correct that they were not ‘Polish’ death camps.
But they may as well have been. Except for the righteous gentiles among them, the Poles were perhaps the most eager participants of all nationalities in helping Nazis send Jews to the death camps of any other country. Just about every Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust - that I have ever spoken to - has made this claim. They spoke from experience. I have no reason to doubt them.
I understand that Poland doesn’t want to be identified with those death camps. What sane country would?! So of course they want to set the record straight. It was Nazi Germany that was actually responsible for those death camps. Not Poland. It may also be true that Poland was the country that most actively resisted the Nazi occupation and did not collaborate with them. The Nazis didn’t think too much of the Poles either. Which might explain their level of resistance. But Polish resistance to Nazis had little if anything to do with their policy towards the Jews. With that, their citizens could not be more fully aligned.
So if Poland wants to set the record straight they should do so fully. They may not have built and operated those death camps. But they contributed mightily to the death and suffering of countless numbers of Jews interred there. That is a truth they cannot deny!