It should be simple to make the proper distinction: Poland has a long and not distinguished history of anti-Semitism, including before, during, and after World War II. But it was not responsible for the death camps and the Holocaust.
This distinction is, however, too often glossed over and is the backdrop for the fierce Polish reaction to President Obama’s slip in referring to the “Polish death camps” in recognizing Jan Karski, a hero of the Polish resistance to the Nazis, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Poles have heard and read about such references many times over the years and so it is not surprising that they take such comments, especially when they come out of the mouth of the president, as not merely a slip of the tongue or of the pen.
They are wrong about this in the case of the White House, but their anger is understandable. Poland was a victim of the Nazi terror machinery. It was the first country invaded, occupied and partly destroyed by the Nazis. To hear that they, rather than the Germans, set up the camps is galling to say the least. But why does it happen so frequently?
During the Holocaust, the camps were located in Poland because that’s where the Jews were — at least three million lived in the country before the war. The Germans set up Auschwitz and the other camps there because of geography and transit. So some of this is sloppiness of language – it should be referred to as death camps in Poland or occupied Poland.
Some of it, however, is about the conflation and confusion of issues. For some it does not seem easy to speak about prejudice and hatred on different levels. It is much easier to throw things together and out of that comes a complete distortion of history.
To begin with is the question of how people in the Jewish community and beyond look at Poland’s relations with its Jewish population. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism was an integral part of that relationship, particularly in the 20th century.
During the 1920s and ’30s, when fascist parties emerged in Poland, laws were passed restricting Jewish participation in universities and elsewhere. Anti-Jewish comments by politicians became routine.
And then during World War II there was the combination of Polish complicity and indifference as Jews were rounded up and taken to the gas chambers. And the horrible massacre of Jews by Poles at Jedwabne in 1941 also scarred those years.
And then, after the war, the pogrom in Kielce against some of the survivors of the Holocaust signified that anti-Semitism in Poland had survived even the slaughter of six million by the Nazis.
Of course, the history of Polish-Jewish relations over the centuries is a far more complicated one than merely speaking about anti-Semitism. One must ask: why were there three million Jews living in Poland before the war? The answer is that centuries earlier Jews gravitated to Poland from Western Europe because they could make a life there without some of the most extreme manifestations of anti-Semitism found in the West. Under the Council of Four Lands, Jews had autonomy over many parts of their lives and were able to flourish and grow in Poland.
And even during World War II, the largest number of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews was in Poland. This complex and complicated history was evident in my personal experience of being rescued and hidden as a child by my nursemaid, a Polish Catholic woman who clothed, fed and kept me hidden from the Nazis for four long years before I was reunited with my parents after the war.
And yet, Polish anti-Semitism in the 20th century was real and destructive. And it is as if it’s too easy for people to go from that reality to the fact that the death camps were located in Poland — and to the conclusion that they were “Polish death camps.”
Too easy, but dead wrong, highly unfair to Poland, and corrosive to a true understanding of what the Holocaust was.
What to do about it? Of course, we always have to set the record straight and not wait for the Poles to do it.
We also have to educate people about the complexity of the Holocaust without leading people to wrong conclusions. The Holocaust could not have happened without the long history of European anti-Semitism.
It could not have happened without the collaboration and indifference of millions of Europeans. But the Holocaust was committed by the Nazi regime intent on its racially driven goal of eliminating the Jewish people.
As for the Poles, their reaction to the term “Polish death camps” is completely understandable. If, however, they were more open to addressing their own record of anti-Semitism, especially during the 20th century, it might help others see an important difference — that whatever the failings of Polish attitudes toward Jews, they were not the Nazis and were by no means responsible for the death camps.
Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.