See the image of a popular souvenir I’ve seen on sale at any number of souvenir shops in Slask (Silesia) this one in Szklarska Poreba. The Polish text translates as ‘If you always want to have money and for it never to run out, you need to have a Jew at home to look after your money. A Jew for money’. And you are supposed to rub the Jew’s Polish Grosz coin for luck. When I have mentioned this to any number of English, German, American and Polish friends, either after a short burst of laughter, or a look of sheer bewilderment people usually catch themselves and go ‘That’s f***ed up!’ Not least because these ‘souvenirs’ are on sale in the region that contained the largest and most infamous of all Nazi Germany’s Deathcamps namely Auschwitz. It is more than a little sick that in the 21st Century you can still find souvenirs plugging the kind of stereotypes about Jews that were doing the rounds at the time they weren’t any of them left to rub. This is about as politically correct as having an Auschwitz snow globe on sale (as per the joke in the Amy Schumer movie, Trainwreck).
It is also perhaps indicative of the lack of education about the Holocaust that about the only country on Earth where any confusion reigns about who the Holocaust was directed against is in Poland. There are plenty of reasons for that. First and foremost, that over half of the Jews murdered during the Holocaust were Polish.
Secondly, the majority of Nazi Germany’s death camps were either in what was or what became Poland.
Thirdly because successive Polish governments have used Holocaust death tolls to try and underpin their own narrative of historical martyrdom. When the German government started building a centre to historically commemorate ‘the post-war expulsions’ (primarily of its own populations) the Kaczynskis stated Poland would build a centre of ‘national martyrdom’ to the suffering of the Polish people. A level of suffering that was utterly horrific and possibly unique, but not to be confused or equated with the Holocaust. However, it is not uncommon to hear Pis (Poland’s ruling right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party) politicians’ state that Poland suffered the greatest per capita death toll of any nation in WWII; but when they make this statement their real underlying narrative is usually to imply that the Jews got and get too much attention and that Polish suffering does not get enough airtime.
The inconvenient truth in this debate is that neither the inter-war Polish state classed its Jewish minority as Poles, nor did most of the Polish nation’s Jews either speak Polish or class themselves as being Polish prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. And Poland’s Jews were certainly not made welcome in post-war Communist Poland either. The politicians who therefore bang on about 6 million Poles being murdered during the Second World War are being utterly disingenuous, just as they are when they suggest that the Holocaust was directed against Poles. That is simply twisting history. Yes, Nazi Germany had plans and did orchestrate a genocide against the Polish intelligentsia and swathes of Poland’s population during its 5.5-year occupation, but the Holocaust was unequivocally designed to exterminate Europe’s Jews, all of them; Austrian, Baltic, Belgian, Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian – all of Europe’s Jews – not Europe’s Poles.
In a country not exactly renowned for its tolerance towards minorities of any kind, past or present, I will now turn my attention to the history of antisemitism in what was, wasn’t and is Poland.
Polish antisemitism increased during the 123 years from 1795 to 1918 when the country ceased to exist as a nation. Without a Polish state, Polishness needed to define itself, and it has been argued that this led to Poles identifying themselves in terms of what they were not. They were certainly not Russian, nor Prussian nor supra-nationally Austrian. Polish identity was deeply rooted in the love of the Polish language and culture, and Roman Catholicism. When the Polish nation re-emerged after the First World War, a fiery brand of nationalism spawned persecution of all of Poland’s substantial minorities; these included Ukrainian, German, Byelorussian and Ruthenian groups, but especially non-Christian Jews. Before their assembled congregations, Priests lost no opportunity to label Jews as ‘Christ-killers’. Attacks on Jews became commonplace, especially in the east of the country. Jews were barred from taking many jobs in government or the civil service. A raft of anti-Semitic legislation in a diverse range of areas discriminated against Jews, which ranged from forcing them to use separate benches in public parks to boycotting their shops and trade.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, there was no shortage of nations in Europe with appalling records of antisemitism that posed as likely reservoirs for renewed genocides against the Jews. At the Versailles Peace Conference following the First World War, John Maynard Keynes, famously said that the only economic activity in a newly reconstituted Poland would be “Jew-baiting”, implicitly referring to the fact that Poland and Russia, along with much of Eastern Europe in general, were synonymous with rabid antisemitism.
During the inter-war period, extreme authoritarian and or Fascist governments in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia introduced anti-Semitic programmes and legislation. Antisemitism fell on the most fruitful ground in Poland, where again the church took the lead in preparing the path, first for ever-greater grassroots action, and then for the governmental persecution of its Jewish citizens. Anti-Semitic appeals came right from the head of the Catholic Church in Poland, Cardinal Hlond, who openly spoke about what he termed the “Jewish Problem”. His utterances included comments such as; “It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic church…that they are the advanced guard of Godlessness, the Bolshevik movement and of subversive actions. It is a fact that Jewish influence upon public morals is to be condemned and that their publishing houses distribute pornography. It is true that they are swindlers, profiteers and are actively engaged in prostitution…” Hlond and the church used their network of thousands of pulpits to rail against the Jews, and although they did not condone the use of violence against them, they created an atmosphere in which more radical anti-Semites flourished. The church, and later the Polish government, forced large swathes of the Jewish community into abject poverty by calling for boycotts against trade with them, or buying goods from their shops, or reading books and papers from their publishing houses.
After the death of Polish leader, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski in 1935, the government became increasingly anti-Semitic. Between 1935 and 1936, a new wave of pogroms was unleashed in over 150 towns in Poland, killing hundreds of Jews. Jewish shops were targeted, as were Jewish students at Polish universities, whose numbers declined dramatically from 20.4% of the university population in 1928 to 9.9% in 1938. The Jewish community in Poland made up ten per cent of the total population, but they were concentrated in the big cities where they often represented more than
thirty per cent of the population.
In the period from 1937 to the outbreak of the Second World War, the Polish state stopped employing Jews, and professional associations did the same, which further curtailed the financial viability of the Jewish community in Poland. The Polish National Democrats had long sought a more radical solution, namely the expulsion of the Jews altogether, aiming to deport them to Palestine. In January 1937, negotiations began between the French and Polish governments about the practicalities of shipping Polish Jews to the French colony of Madagascar. The French government sent an investigative commission, which included two Jewish members, to the island. Elements of the Polish media and government portrayed this as a positive and realistic possibility. Discussions continued well into 1938, ignoring the pessimistic summary of the Jews who had been sent to the island as part of the commission.
The Polish Prime Minister, Felicjan Slawoj Skladkowski, and Cardinal Hlond both supported and encouraged continued efforts to accelerate Jewish immigration out of Poland. On the 20th September 1938 in view of the Polish government’s obvious antisemitism, Adolf Hitler suggested to Jozef Lipski, the Polish Ambassador to Berlin, that, together with Romania and Hungary, they could resolve the ‘Jewish question’ and seek deportation of Europe’s Jews to an overseas colony. Lipski replied that such a plan would be worthy of a nice memorial in Warsaw.
Aronek Kierkowski was one of very few Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust; many of his family did not. Kierkowski’s family came from north-eastern Poland. His family were not typical of the majority of Jews in Poland, both because they were extremely wealthy but also because they spoke Yiddish and Polish regarding themselves as Polish Jews — at least before the war. The Polish census of 1921 shows an oft-ignored picture, as expressed by the Jewish community themselves: Polish Jews overwhelmingly spoke Yiddish, 79.9% of them spoke the language, whilst a further 7.8% spoke Hebrew; in fact, only a tiny percentage gave their mother tongue as Polish. But even more importantly, 73.76% of them defined themselves as Jewish, not only by religion but also by race; they were not classed as Poles by those around them, and many did not class themselves as Poles either. Kierkowski clearly describes the disastrous consequences of the Polish Jewish community’s self-imposed isolation, at the hand of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Russians alike. He writes; “We had no social contact with the Poles and Germans who lived all around us, whether in town or in the countryside. That’s the way the rabbis wanted it. They preferred to have the Jews isolated because then they could control them religiously… Some of our rabbis were like the mullahs in Iran. They were still in the Dark Ages… When I grew up, Suwalki was like the rest of Poland, a very anti-Semitic place… Ghettoisation has always been a problem for Jews. When there’s danger, Jews tend to congregate. Then, of course, you’re a target concentrated in one spot… By living in ghettos for generations, some Jews who spoke Polish pronounced certain words with a Jewish accent. Instead of going to a Polish Gymnasium, many went to a Jewish school because community leaders wanted to keep Jews together. Thus, if your parents spoke Yiddish, so did you. This was disastrous for us… These were problems our leaders could not cope with. For centuries, everyone relied on Rabbis for advice, but they couldn’t help here. They knew how to interpret the Torah, but they didn’t understand what was going on beyond their world… because of their isolation, Jews had very few Christian friends, people who could hide their identities and help them survive. Those Christians who did help should be declared saints, in my opinion. They were true human beings, but unfortunately, there were very few of them in Eastern Europe”.
Perhaps the most shocking of all outbreaks of Polish antisemitism were the two pogroms both at the start of the Second World War and more horrifyingly just after it - murdering those who had survived the Holocaust. Two words that for any student of the history of antisemitism all well know; Jadwabne & the Kielce Polish pogroms against their own Jewish populations. Jadwabne saw Poles turning on the Jewish neighbours in a brutal massacre that had as many as 1,600 Polish Jews beaten and burned to death in 1941 during the Nazi occupation. Even more horrific and hard to grasp was the massacre in July 1946 in Kielce of the very few Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust and returned to their old hometown. A town already synonymous with an earlier Jewish Pogrom in October 1918 before Poland had even regained its independence.
Linda Levi of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, that had been assisting Jewish communities in Poland since the First World War, made it plain that post-1946 Kielce ‘Many Jews who had hoped to return to Poland and live safely there changed their minds.’
There have nevertheless been Polish historians, journalists and commentators who have bravely countered the extreme nationalism of the ruling Pis party and their fairytale narratives. Not least, Konstanty Gebert, a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza who has received death threats for stating Poland doesn’t qualify for ‘the certificate of virginity’ that the Pis led government officials are hoping to obtain.
Jan Tomasz Gross’s 2000 publication ‘Neighbours – The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne,’ reignited the debate on the darker chapters of Poland’s anti-Semitic past. And Professor Jan Grabowski’s book ‘Hunt for the Jews – Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland’ concluded that at least 200,000 Polish Jews who had escaped the liquidation of Poland’s Jewish Ghettos were killed directly or indirectly by Polish citizens. Grabowski’s book recounts Jews who had escaped the Nazis and who had fled to the forests being handed over by Polish villagers in exchange for 2kg of sugar. In some parts of Nazi-occupied Poland, the going rate for handing over Jews was 500 Zloty, in others, two coats for every Jew turned in, always coats taken from the Jews who had been betrayed. And of course, he recounts the actions of the at one time infamous, but now almost forgotten, Polish Blue Police force - a unit obviously ostensibly under German command but which nevertheless stood guard outside the ghettos and according to the testimonies of surviving witnesses to the liquidation of Poland’s Jewish ghettos had the blood of very many Jews on its hands.
The Kaczcyski and Pis governments ruling to make any mention of Poland in relation to virtually anything connected to the Holocaust a crime has been not only ridiculed by historians and governments alike around the World but received a particular rebuke from the US and Israeli administrations.
Poland’s Law and Justice party (Pis) have sought to ban any suggestion that ‘the Polish nation’ has any blood on its hands and all but makes it a crime for anyone, anywhere in the World to make any reference to Poland and the Holocaust in the same sentence.
The sheer lunacy of this law was laid bare in an exchange between the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman and the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Munich recently when Bergman pointedly asked if he could be prosecuted for recounting his mother’s experience of being handed over to the Nazis by Polish informers during the war.
Morawiekci has gone on to argue that any criticism of the new law is an expression of ‘anti-Polish racism’ and added ‘Anti-Polonism (here again leaders of Pis are equating anti-Semitism with ‘anti-Polonism’) around the World has been gaining in power because of a lack of reaction in Poland.’
If we needed another virulent reminder of the historic anti-Judaism of too many of Poland’s Catholic hierarchy, we received it from that bastion of Pis propaganda via a broadcast on Polish state television’s TVP channel (thank ‘God’ for TVN), in which Father Henryk Zielinski, a priest who edits the Catholic weekly ‘Idziemy’ attacked Jewish critics of the law as having ‘a completely different system of values, a different concept of truth. For us, the truth corresponds to fact…For the Jew, truth means something that conforms to his understanding of what’s beneficial.’ (my italics) Now, where have we heard that before?!
While Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum lists nearly 7,000 heroic Poles who helped to save Jewish lives, to suggest that this was ever more than a small minority is to be exceptionally disingenuous. The sad truth is that as in many other parts of occupied Europe, there were very few people who were brave enough to help any Jews. To quote Grabowski ‘The truth is rescuers were the exception, a tiny terrorised group who feared, most of all their own neighbours.’ However great Polish hospitality had been towards its Jewish community during earlier periods in its history, no one gets to cherry pick their history and only point out their charitable bits – especially not about the Holocaust - and then try to muzzle the reporting or discussion of the uglier side of their nation’s past. Not to this extent. That would be like saying ‘Schindler’s List’ was about good Nazis!
To read a new history of Germany and learn about its influence on modern Europe, read my latest book 'Death of a Nation', available now.