‘Polish death camps’ is not a term entirely devoid of meaning

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.

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44 thoughts on “‘Polish death camps’ is not a term entirely devoid of meaning”

  1. Cooperation? Are you serious? Poland was occupied and nearly 6 million Polish people were murdered during the WW2. Of course there were no death camp in Spain as Spain was not occupied. The Auschwitz camp was built for Poles, they were the first victims and hundreds of thousands were gassed there or died from malnutrition as well. If you were really interested in the history, you would find Hitler’s and other nazis notes that say the Polish resistance was the strongest and biggest and best organised than anywhere in Europe and that 99% of Polish people prefered to die than cooperate with them.
    Also, I don’t think you have ever heard of Zegota movement: “In September 1942 “The Council to Aid Jews Żegota” was founded by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz (“Alinka”) and made up of Polish Democrat as well as other Catholic activists. Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where there existed such a dedicated secret organization. Half of the Jews who survived the war (thus over 50,000) were aided in some shape or form by Żegota.[23] Most known activist of Żegota was Irena Sendler, head of the children’s division who saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing them false documents, and sheltering them in individual and group children’s homes outside the Ghetto.”

    Poland was betrayed by its allies, France and England, and the US knew about the death camps since, at least 1941. Yet they did nothing to help the Jewish, Polish people, gypsies and others for another 4 years. What you write shows you have not researched the sources properly and it’s very sad.
    I also recommend you “Rising ’44” by Norman Davies.

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  2. You obviously have no idea what you are talking about and your ignorance of history is downright abysmal. Get to a library and quick for your own mental sake.

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  3. You said: like many other Polish death camps, Treblinka was largely run by Poles. With their help

    The truth: The camp was operated by 20–25 SS overseers (Germans and Austrians) and 80–120 guards. The historical records show that the Treblinka camp guards were of varied ethnic groups and nationalities, comprising not only Germans (Volksdeutsche) but also a number of Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Moldovans, Latvians, and representatives of Soviet Central Asia (including a number of collaborating Soviet prisoners of war). The majority of the camp work was performed on a forced basis by 700–800 Jewish prisoners, organised into specialised squads (Sonderkommandos).

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  4. Hi,
    You write that the German Nazi extermination camp Treblinka was largely run by Poles. Can you provide some sources for your statement?
    /Artur Szulc

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  5. I think this reply by Jan says it all. It has the facts about Trblinka. My cousin was in Stutthof and it was run by the Nazis and the Germans and the Kappos were Jewish. Here is Jan’s comment since I don’t see it posted.
    You said: like many other Polish death camps, Treblinka was largely run
    by Poles. With their help

    The truth: The camp was operated by 20–25 SS overseers (Germans and
    Austrians) and 80–120 guards. The historical records show that the
    Treblinka camp guards were of varied ethnic groups and nationalities,
    comprising not only Germans (Volksdeutsche) but also a number of
    Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Moldovans, Latvians, and representatives
    of Soviet Central Asia (including a number of collaborating Soviet
    prisoners of war). The majority of the camp work was performed on a
    forced basis by 700–800 Jewish prisoners, organised into specialised
    squads (Sonderkommandos).

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  6. What an absolute load of tripe you have written.
    Have you thought about the number of non jewish poles murdered in the holocaust.
    Also if Poland was so antisemitic why were there so many jews living there.
    The penalty for helping jews in Poland during ww2 was death for you and your family
    that didn’t stop many poles riskiung their lives and their familys.
    Have a think about what you are saying before publishing this antipolish rubbish.

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  7. I agree that the guards at Treblinka were not Polish, they were Ukrainian, etc. And Jews were co-opted into the role of Kapos, managers for the Nazis. There were Poles who endangered their lives to rescue and protect Jews and other persecuted peoples.
    I think that there were (and still are) also anti-Semitic people who supported Nazi ideology. I think that, for a set of reasons – which could have included their number, their organization and the depth of their anti-Semitic beliefs- cooperation with Nazi extermination of Jews and other minorities was facilitated in Poland relative to other places. It seems to have been better tolerated on Polish soil than anywhere else. I hope this is no longer true.

    Sheldon Z. Goldberg, MD
    the uncle

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    1. The camps were located in poland because there were the greatest number of Jews living there thus it made sense economically to have the camps there as well. Duh. Did you think they would have transported the Jews and Poles back to Germany? No! Poland was “occupied” – thus it made the most sense to build the camps where the people already were.

      “…their organization and the depth of their anti-Semitic beliefs- cooperation with Nazi extermination of Jews and other minorities was facilitated in Poland relative to other places. ”

      A most moronic statement. Did you know that Poland was the only Nazi-German occupied country NOT to install a Quisling government with the Germans? Also no SS Divisions, etc. Tell me why was that?

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      1. During the Holocaust, where you lived mattered: The percentage of Jews who survived the war varied significantly from country to country. Poland performed particularly poorly, losing over 90% of its Jewish population. I’m hard-pressed to believe the term ‘Polish death camps’ is entirely devoid of meaning.

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      2. Yeah you know why – because (a). Poland had the harshest occupation out of all the occupied countries, (b). Poland housed the largest Jewish population in all of Europe, and (c). the penalty for aiding a Jew in Poland was death for the individual and the entire family. Yet despite all of these points, Poland still holds the highest number of rescuers of Jews at Yad Vashem.

        Dude – you obviously know nothing on the subject. Do some lengthy research please.

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      3. My favorite part of this is:
        “(b). Poland housed the largest Jewish population in all of Europe… Yet despite all of these points, Poland still holds the highest number of rescuers of Jews at Yad Vashem.”
        Don’t you think those facts might be related?

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      4. Of course they are related – but that still doesn’t negate the fact that Poland had the harshest occupation out of all the occupied countries. Stop goose-stepping around evidence which you wish to ignore. It’s still there whether you like it or not.

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      5. I still don’t understand why a harsh occupation means killing more Jews on your own after the war ended is acceptable.

        Also, ‘goose-stepping’? Really? You’re just trolling now.

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      6. You’re now shifting your argument. You’re the one goose stepping over to the pogroms which occurred after the War – namely Kielce.

        The objective evidence of the pogroms being isolated, random incidents, and NOT some general, organized, mass movement, completely throws the “anti-semitic” taunts right out of the window. Poland was a country that had been completely razed to the ground. Its people were beyond poor, roaming around, searching for food, shelter, etc. Obviously some conflicts were going to occur. Couple that in with the fact that the Russians were now searching and executing former Polish military officers returning home from the War and you have total chaos.

        Your ignorance is appalling. Do the research. Stop making ill-equipped jabs at a history which you know nothing about.

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    2. Wait did I hear you right? “…killing more Jews on your own after the war ended is acceptable.”

      Are you serious with the above statement? It is beyond moronic.

      Get to a library and quick, before your rabid Polonophobic bias consumes your whole brain. The discussion is over until you actually acquire some real facts. ‘Till then, you might want to consider changing the blatantly ignorant, anti-Polish title of your blog.

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      1. Thank you. And I apologize for my rudeness. The ignorance of most people regarding the vast complexity of Polish-Jewish relations during WW2 is unfortunately quite the understatement, and in general most get it completely wrong. Hence, my short fuse. I appreciate your understanding and willingness to learn.

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  8. It is time that Jews looked in a mirror and took some responsibility for the holocaust. In areas of Poland occupied by Germany The major risk to Jews within ghettos was the collaboration of the Judenräte (Jewish councils) and their Jewish police in the selection for deportation of their brothers and sisters in faith to extermination camps. And, the major risk to Jews in hiding outside the ghettos were the Jewish Gestapo agents known as Greifers (catchers) whose role was to hunt out and betray them. Working against them was Żegota, set up by the Polish Underground State, the largest organisation in Europe dedicated to saving Jews. In areas of Poland occupied by the USSR in September 1939, the local Jewish population were active collaborators in identifying for murder Poles who had held administrative roles, and in 1940 in selecting Poles for deportation and death in the frozen wastes of the Soviet Union. While in the USA, when delegates of the Polish Underground state brought evidence of how the Germans were murdering Jews, together with pleas for their brothers in faith to do something to save them – the Jewish leaders in the US did absolutely nothing at all.

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    1. “anti-semitic?” – You sir, are a hypocrite. What about the title of your blog there bud – “POLAND: STOP WHINING AND TAKE SOME RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE HOLOCAUST”

      That, is anti-Polish. Don’t be a hypocrite. And don’t let ignorance be an excuse for your obvious Polonophobic bias. Do some research:

      “The Forgotten Holocaust” by Richard Lukas.
      “When God Looked the Other Way” by Wesley Adamczyk
      “A Question of Honor” by Lynn Olson and Stanley Cloud.

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  9. “Poland performed particularly poorly. . .” nmtreiger the point is, but you haven’t grasped it, there was no Polish state as such, there was the General – Government under a German governor and then the rest of Poland under German control was directly incorporated into Germany. You’ve compared Poland to Spain – which wasn’t in the war (and who expelled her Jews in the late 15th century after which most of them went to Poland) and Bulgaria which was a German ally and had a large degree of independence. Now you may believe that the extermination camps were all in Poland for reasons other than logistics but no Holocaust scholar of any reputation subscribes to the view that they were there because the Germans could count on the Poles.

    Just what were they meant to do? March from the neighbouring towns and villages in protest? There was a death penalty for aiding Jews, for not reporting Jews who one knew were in hiding and for not reporting those who helped Jews in any way. About a thousand people were executed for aiding Jews including entire families – and the Germans ensured that word got around. It would have scared me, I don’t know about anyone else.

    Now there were extortionists, blackmailers and paid denouncers who profited from the tragedy of the Jews and there were anti-semites who secretly rejoiced at what the Germans and their allies were doing to the Jews. However, even if they numbered tens of thousands that would still be a very small number compared to the total of ethnic Poles even if, to me, it is sad to reflect that there were that many. But in any case why should, Poles who did none of these things and who perhaps sympathised with the Jewish suffering but who did not do anything directly to help, why should they be blamed for the Holocaust? Is this a version of inherited guilt?

    Since you give your personal credentials as to your suitability to comment on these matters via your uncle’s father, let me give you mine via my grandfather who was a doctor in the Warsaw Ghetto, who was shot along with some others at Umschlagplatz while they were loading Jews into the wagons for their final trip. There was no complicity by the general Polish population in the Holocaust.

    My father’s sister escaped from the Ghetto while it was burning. The remaining family paid some Poles to smuggle her out and she survived, hidden by four or five different Polish families in Warsaw. She is still alive and has never said a bad word about those people. In fact she kept in touch with several of them even after we all left Poland until she became too old to correspond. She never resented the fact that they were paid because she knew they risked their lives and she was grateful for her own.

    BTW, I don’t blame Obama but I do blame the person/persons responsible for the text – they should get the bullet.

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    1. I agree with you: many Poles did help or had legitimate excuses why providing help would be difficult. I mentioned some – granted, in passing – in my original post. That said, the same applies to Germans, many of whom also did not participate in the Holocaust. Under your logic, calling them ‘German death camps’ would be similarly painting with a broad brush. But I’m not trying to argue that ‘Poles’ are responsible for the Holocaust, or that they planned it – I am trying to argue that some of them were complicit, and that the situation in Poland was bad enough that the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ does have a specific meaning that ‘German death camps’ and ‘Russian death camps’ does not, and no one deserves the bullet for using it.

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  10. You said in your post: “And the reason is simple: Neither country acceded to Hitler’s demands for Jews. Not true of Poland. Granted, Poland fell to blitzkrieg in the opening days of the war, leaving its government in no position to stand up to Nazi demands.”

    This implies that the Polish government gave in to Hitler’s demands, which is completely untrue. No Polish Government (in any form) ever co-operated with Hitler or gave it to any of his demands. This is both true of the Polish Government in Exile in London, as well as the Underground Polish state. You can’t say the same of France (Vichy regime) or, say, Norway (Quisling).

    Please kindly delete those sections on your blog and adjust accordingly.

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  11. It is true the percentage of Jews who survived the war varied significantly from country to country but this was because each country was different. How did you factor in the following?

    The length of occupation and level of cruelly drained the strength of Christian Poles compared to the treatment of others especially in Western Europe. The length of occupation also mean Polish Jews had to make their money last longer, there was more chance of getting disease etc.

    Poland was the only country with the automatic death penalty for any aid given to Jews.

    Jews in Poland often didn’t speak Polish making it difficult for them to be passed off as Poles but in most other countries they almost always spoke the local language. This lack of a common language made it difficult to offer aid or to ask for aid

    The resistance received less foreign aid compared to other countries

    Poland location compare to most other made it difficult to get Jews to safe neutral or allied countries

    The large number of Jews compared to other countries make it harder to help. With about 33% (estimates vary from 25% to 50%) of the Jews of Europe, the resources needed in Poland were much greater.

    In Poland, the Jews were more true to their faith and as a result were unwilling to accept help e.g. a offer to save the children in Warsaw ghetto was refused as it better for them to die a Jew than be raise a Christian

    There was a lack of leadership due to the Germans and Soviet Russians killing, deporting or imprisoning them and additionally others were fighting abroad

    Polish Jews were targeted first, hence accounting for a higher number of dead compared to other countries

    The imbalance of the numbers of Jews in the towns/cities compared to ethnic Poles further made it difficult.

    The lack of friends or connections stopped Jews from asking for aid as they distrusted Christian Poles

    I have other thoughts but hopefully these will get you thinking whether it is fair to use the percentage of dead the way you appear to be.

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    1. I agree: these are all reasons why the situation in Poland was unique, and why the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ connotes something different from ‘German death camps’ or ‘Ukrainian death camps’. I would also add to your list some degree of anti-Semitism (‘some degree’ meaning: some Poles not meaning every Pole to some degree).

      The preceding paragraphs encompass what I consider the two main points of the original post. Because of my focus on the second, I think I glossed over the first, to which all of what you wrote applies. I have linked to your comment at that part of the post. Take a look above.

      I think at the end of the day, we probably agree more than we disagree.

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  12. Again I have to disagree with the point that Poland housed the largest Jewish population in all of Europe is important. Is it not who had the largest population? There were more French, Germans or Italians than there were Poles e.g. were 4 Germans for every Pole but we have 6,339 Righteous compared to Germany 510.

    A harsh occupation comes into play because Poles were busy trying to save themselves. The US gives more money to help those suffering in Africa than Poland but there are more Americans and on average they are richer than the average Pole.

    I must say I appreciated mntreiger willing to accept parts of this article are wrong and Brian K. accepting he overacted. Well done both of you. I am sure Christian and Jew, Poles and Israeli, etc. can work together.

    This is an interesting debate here regardless of the outcome I appreciate the chance to debate my views with those who doesn’t agree with them.

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  13. Your uninformed article and subsequent lame justifications for your ignorance are exactly the reason Poles are so justifiably offended and angry about using the word “Polish” to describe the concentration camps Germans built and ran on occupied Poland.

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  14. mntreiger, do you have any comments about the US and British governments who refused entry to thousands of Jews when they tried to escape Nazi Germany? Do you have any comments about the American government officials, many of them Jewish, who told Jan Karski his reports were not credible? You are very quick to denounce Poland and the Polish people who were caught between a rock and a hard place but you say nothing of the countries who could have saved tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Also you say nothing of the Danes, the Norwegians, the Hungarians, the French who did have collaborationist governments who did actively help round up their Jewish populations yet you choose your bile and vitriol for a country which was a relatively safe haven for Jews for centuries. Poland may not have been utopia but it wasn’t as bad as historical revisionists like you would have everyone believe.

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  15. Your example of Spain as a country without German death camps defies logic, considering that Spain expelled their Jews (who migrated to…Poland!) more than 400 years before the Holocaust. Moreover, Spain was not a combatant country during World War Two, although 18,000 Spaniards joined the Waffen SS (unlike the Poles).
    By virtue of repetition, many Jews (and others) have accepted as conventional wisdom the fallacy that Germany created their killing fields in Poland because they could count on the complicity of the local population. There is no evidence from German archives — or any other primary source — that this was the case. In fact, Hitler extolled Germans to “kill without mercy all men, women and children of Polish language and origin.” The first victims of these camps you call “Polish” were Polish Catholics; Jews were not sent to them en masse until the implementation of the Final Solution in 1942. Because the Germans were efficient and meticulous in their use of resources, it stands to reason that they established their camps in a country where one-third of European Jews — as a result of centuries of immigration — already lived. There were more Jews in Warsaw alone than in the whole of Denmark, for instance.
    It is easy for armchair historians to be judgmental seventy years after the fact. Rather than indicting the Poles for “performing poorly” in saving Jews, ask yourself whether you would risk your own life and the lives of your family and neighbors to aid a Catholic, or anyone else. Indeed, many Poles did help Jews at great risk to themselves, and the actual number far exceeds those honored at Yad Vashem since those good Samaritans discovered by the Germans were executed along with the Jews they aided. What is “devoid” in your piece is an understanding of the circumstances and harsh conditions in German-occupied Poland and their brutal treatment of the untermenschen Poles in comparison to the more lenient occupations in Western European countries.

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    1. Spain was not an example of a country without German death camps – it was an example of a country whose name could not be included in the formulation ‘[Country X] death camps’ because they simply did not exist. There were death camps in Poland, and there were Poles not at all sorry to see the Jews go. ‘Polish death camps’ is not the kind of thing worth making an international incident over.

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      1. There were anti-semites everywhere who were “not at all sorry to see the Jews go.” In other countries, both axis and occupied, local populations joined the SS in droves. And it is not for you to say whether this terminology is “not worth making an international incident over”. It is not your country whose history is being twisted.

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      2. You’re right, and I blame them all to some degree, as well. I would have no problem – were any other country to host a death camp – to use the term ‘[country] death camp’, because that phrase would have a specific meaning.

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  16. Hitler
    “Kill without pity or mercy, ALL men, women, and children of POLISH descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space [lebensraum] we need”.

    Heinrich Himmler –
    “All POLES will disappear from the world…. It is essential that the great German people should consider it as its major task to destroy all Poles.”

    You might be interested in this article:
    http://www.totallyjewish.com/news/special_reports/?content_id=5962

    As the son of a member of the Polish underground whose unit Zoska was acknowledged by Yad Vashem for saving 350 Jews during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising I want to tell you that your article shows that ignorance DOES lead to bias, as, in my humble opinion, you are simply ignorant AND biased AND arrogant. Hopefully, what you have read here will eventually sink in and you will eventually realize this yourself.

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  17. While your claims are absurd, the previous comenters have hopefully shed some light for you on the subject. What I want to say is that blogs and claims such as yours are now responsible for anti-semitic sentiments among young Poles whose only contact with Jews today is via online media. I will tell you that I have never met a Jewish person until coming to the US and then they were just a great people to hang out with, and others were a nightmare – starting a conversation with: “did you know that Poles were responsible for Holocaust?” I mean, what do you expect this start of the conversation will do? See, what it means to me is that in every nationality there are good people and bad and when you condemn a whole nation because of the few bad ones, you become as bad as they are.

    You really have to understand Polish history well to understand why things happened… like how uneducated Polish peasants were due to the partitioning of Poland, why only 12% of Jews in Poland actually spoke Polish, and then why Jewish culture blossomed in Poland and not in any other European country prior to Hitler’s final solution.

    I also wonder why the survivors who were saved by the Poles aren’t more vocal about their experiences…

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