Author's note: The original post misstated the name of Dr. Jud Newborn, cited below. Also, a commenter below disputes the accuracy of William Shirer's reference to a Polish cavalry charge against the Nazi invasion.
This week's controversy over President Obama’s use of the words “Polish death camp” is one that has forced me to confront some of my own biases.
My initial reaction when the Polish government blew a gasket over the reference was to roll my eyes, mindful of my discussions with numerous Polish-born survivors who told me how their former countrymen showed an anti-Semitism that rivaled the Nazis before, during and even after the Holocaust. Some survivors were so bitter that they used an ethnic slur for Poles, and kids I went to school with often told nasty Polish jokes they had probably heard from their parents and grandparents, showing how hate can be a vicious cycle.
So, my response was similar to that of JFNA’s William Daroff, who said “Methinks the Poles doth protest too much about this controversy.”
When I started calling around to get some objective feedback from people more knowledgeable than I about Holocaust history, I was confronted with the fact that I myself, back in 2001, had made a reference in an article to "Polish death camps."
The reference in both cases was geographically correct, as the majority of Nazi genocide took place at death camps within the violated borders of Poland, at Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and Majdenek as well as the ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz.
But they were, of course, not operated by the Polish government, which fought tooth and nail against the Nazi invasion of 1939.
In "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," William Shirer writes that after the Nazis staged an attack on a German radio station in Gleiwitz as a pretext for the invasion, the Poles threw everything they had against the blitzkrieg at their border. "Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were — at one point they actually counterattacked Nazi tanks with horse cavalry — the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught," he wrote.
Two years after the invasion, Polish individuals in the village of Jedwabne massacred 340 Jews, with the complicity of the Germans, but there was no official sanction. That act was later investigated by the restored government in 1949, with 11 people sentenced to death for treason, and once again in 2000. On the 60th anniversary in 2001 it was condemned by President Alexander Kwasniewski.
When it comes to historic accuracy, every detail counts, to avoid misimpressions, so it is important for both the White House and Warsaw to set the record straight.
“Polish intellectuals and others were imprisoned in and murdered at Auschwitz and other camps,” Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants told me.
“It is true that, whatever role the Poles played in terms of anti-Semitism as individuals, they were not involved in the running or administration of the camps. There was no Polish SS, unlike the Ukrainians, Latvians and others because the Germans didn’t let them in.”
Rosensaft, the son of two Auschwitz survivors, notes that after invading Poland in 1939 the Nazis did not try to set up a puppet government as they did in Norway with Vidkun Quisling. They simply didn’t trust them.
“As far as the Germans were concerned, the Poles were only slightly higher up in the food chain than the Jews.”
Another Holocaust scholar, Dr. Jud Newborn, noted that this controversy has arisen frequently in recent years and it's common for newspapers, in their shorthand, to refer to Polish death camps as easily saying Swiss watches or French restaurants.
“It’s very important, especially as a new generation grows up that doesn’t know the history of the Holocaust to refer properly to death camps in Poland as Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland,” said Newborn.
“There was a lot of collaboration among elements in Poland as well as Ukraine and other Baltic states, but you can’t say it was more in Poland than in these other places percentage-wise. It was one of the most dominated of all countries in Europe. Still, there is a large number of righteous Gentiles in Poland who helped save Jewish lives.”
It’s hard to bury painful grievances or heal old wounds, and in the case of Poland that gets more complicated when you look at the behavior of some Poles after the war, when fear of the Nazis couldn’t be blamed, and vanquished Jews tried returning to their homes in places like Kielce, only to be massacred by former neighbors.
The question, though, is whether it’s fair to visit the sins of the guilty on the innocent, or the sins of the fathers on their sons and daughters by allowing generalized or inaccurate historic references.
“The Polish government authorities are correct in pointing out when an error has been made,” said Rosensaft. “At the same time they should also simply accept that in certain cases, certainly in the case of Obama, that these are inadvertent errors, shorthand that is used, and move on.”
And yes, I did correct my own prior reference to Polish death camps in that old article.