There is currently a controversy raging over the degree of Polish complicity in the Shoah, the Holocaust of European Jews during WWII. This was initiated by the passage of a law going through the Polish Parliament and supported by the Government of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party. The Law seeks to absolve Poland from any official guilt in the murder of its Jewish citizens and to ensure that the many concentration camps that operated on Polish soil will not be termed “Polish Concentration Camps” but rather “Nazi or German Concentration Camps in Poland.” The difference may be subtle but is important to Poles.
It is true that as a nation the Poles fought the Nazi Germans and that their Army was decimated at the beginning of WWII. Subsequently Poland was divided and to a large extent opposed Nazi rule. Polish President Andrzej Duda stated “there was no systematic support from the Polish side for the Holocaust.” However, the Germans located most of the major camps, including the death camps, Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and many others in Poland for two reasons. Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, over 3 million Jews, and also the Poles were renowned for their anti-Semitism. Many pogroms had taken place in Poland from the Middle Ages through to WWI and therefore the Germans could be confidant that the local population would cooperate in the murder of its Jewish neighbors. Of course, the Poles were only marginally more anti-Semitic than their neighbors, the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians and Hungarians and others. One might ask why, if these peoples were so virulently Jew-hating, why so many Jews continued to live there for so long?
I happen to be in a good position to have seen both sides of this argument. I had a friend in London who died a few years ago named Jerzy Lando, who wrote a book called “Saved by my Face,” obviously his blond hair and blue eyes saved him. He described how many Polish people helped him, how he was an officer in the Polish Home Army and fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and how he managed to survive. However, this is somewhat deceptive, because his father was a wealthy fabric manufacturer who had many Polish friends and who paid them to hide and feed his son. Also, when he was ordered to fight for the Home Army he carefully disguised the fact that he was Jewish, in case his fellow Poles murdered him. Nevertheless, he was an active member of the British-Polish Friendship League.
I also have a friend, Eddie Bielawski, with whom I published a book entitled “Invisible Jews: Surviving the Holocaust in Poland,” which describes how his father and his brothers managed to hide a family of ten people for 3 years in order to survive the War. During this time they were very clever and also lucky to be able to avoid being turned in and/or murdered by the vast majority of hostile anti-Semitic Poles.
The fact remains that over 3 million Jews lived in Poland before the War, and barely 50,000 survived until its end. This terrible program of murder and destruction of Jewish men, women and children by the Germans could not have been accomplished without active and enthusiastic Polish participation. That there were numerous massacres of defenceless Jews by Poles during and after WWII is an established fact.