With all eyes on the financial bailout of Southern Europe, one Eastern European country recently took the opportunity to launch a surprise attack on the President of the United States:
Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski said Wednesday he had written a personal letter to President Barack Obama urging him to do more to correct the record after Obama referred to “a Polish death camp” in a White House ceremony on Tuesday [May 29].
“We in Poland know well that the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ is not only painful and unfair but simply untrue,” Komorowski said.
Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney tried to set the record straight, telling reporters:
[Obama] was referring to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.
David Frum wasn’t impressed with the apology, writing that the ‘gaffe’ was:
the single most offensive thing he could possibly have said on this occasion.
Even Abe Foxman at the ADL got in on the Obama-bashing, writing:
The misnomer “Polish death camps” unjustly implies that the death camps in Poland were built in the name of the Polish people rather than by the Nazi regime.
Perhaps Obama [slash, his speechwriters] could have chosen better words to describe German-Polish death camps, but that doesn’t mean he owes anyone an apology.
Komorowski – along with other members of his government quoted in the above articles – is somewhat disingenuous in attempting to disavow Polish complicity in what took place there:
The phrase shocked Polish leaders and echoed across media in Poland, where the remark was seen as suggesting that Poles — not Nazis — carried out the genocidal policies of Adolf Hitler.
[Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk] argued that referring to the camps as “Polish,” was akin to suggesting “there had been no Nazis, no German responsibility, no Hitler.”
Listen up, Poland. Nobody forgot about Hitler, and nobody seriously thinks that Poles – rather than Nazis – are responsible for the Holocaust.
That said, the Polish government went to suspiciously long lengths to ‘set the record straight’, so I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight: the Holocaust was only possible – at least to the extent to which it occurred – with the cooperation and sometime encouragement of local populations.
There are European countries where the formulation ‘[country] death camps’ makes no sense whatsoever. There were no Spanish death camps. There were no Bulgarian death camps. And the reason is simple: Neither country acceded to Hitler’s demands for Jews.
Not true of Poland. [Editor’s clarifying note, 6/21: There has been some confusion regarding this line. ‘Not true of Poland’ is not meant to imply that Poland’s government ‘acceded to Hitler’s demands for Jews’, but that the formulation ‘Polish death camps’ does have some independent meaning, i.e. it is referring to the first part of the previous paragraph.]
Granted, Poland fell to blitzkrieg in the opening days of the war, leaving its government in no position to stand up to Nazi demands. And granted, more ‘Righteous Among The Nations’ – recognized at Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews – hail from Poland than from any other European nation.
But at the end of the day, nearly 3 million Polish Jews perished in the Holocaust, and the magnitude of this calamity can be ascribed – at least in part – to a population with significant elements none too upset at the prospect of ridding themselves of the Jews. [Editor’s note, 6/21: For some other reasons, see Jan Niechwiadowicz’s third comment below.]
That this is a historical claim, of course, requires some degree of factual substantiation. On the one hand, I could share articles and anecdotes detailing the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Poland to better illustrate the love between Jews and their neighbors in the years prior to World War II. Alternatively, I could relate a historical account based on the experiences of a family connection.
Because this is a personal blog, I’ll go with the latter.
My uncle’s father, Sam Goldberg, devoted his time during the Holocaust to Treblinka, a death camp in Poland. Historical estimates put the number of people murdered there at around 870,000 people, 800,000 of them Jewish. Only sixty or so Jews are thought to have survived. As you might imagine – given the existence of my uncle – Sam Goldberg was one of them. Yes, his escape from the camp would not have gotten far without the aid of certain helpful Poles. That said, the following is an account of what happened when he returned to his village in a bid to reclaim family property and reestablish his life, as related by my uncle:
After [Sam and Esther’s] marriage, they lived … on their family’s farm and Sam ran a business killing animals and selling the meat. Many Poles came to Sam wanting to buy his property. They brought him potatoes, corn and other food as enticements to sell.
Sam went to see the man who had been his father’s attorney before the war in order to sell his estate. This attorney told him, “Listen to me Goldberg: run away today – not tomorrow – because they are going to kill you right away!”
Sam went to the man with whom he was running the butcher shop and told him what the attorney had said and asked him to help them get out of town. Sam offered that he would leave the entire butcher operation to him for nothing, if he would just help them. At first he hesitated because of the danger of being killed himself. His wife, however, convinced him to help them. That same evening, he took them out of town in his “semahot,” some kind of Polish truck. The Poles shot at the car as he sped out of town.
To recap: after escaping the death camp of Hitler’s wettest dream, Sam Goldberg was chased from the town of his birth in a hail of gunshots – all for the crime of attempting to reclaim what rightfully belonged to him. Remember, these were regular Poles. There were no more Nazis. There was no more Hitler. Still, Goldberg’s lawyer was afraid to help him escape for fear of summary execution.
Yes, the term ‘Polish death camps’ fails to capture quite what occurred during the Holocaust in all of its glorious nuance. But flatly denying its legitimacy in an effort to pretend that Hitler and the big, bad Nazis were wholly responsible for all of its evil is a dubious claim, at best.
It takes a village.
Or in this case, a country.