Let’s get what needs to be said out of the way first.
Millions of Poles suffered and died during World War II. In addition to Polish soldiers fighting Nazi Germany, nearly two million non-Jewish Polish civilians perished in the conflict (this compares to three million of the country’s Jewish citizens). In retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Germans torched the Polish capital, Warsaw, and destroyed something like 85 percent of the city. It had to be rebuilt nearly totally from scratch.
To add insult to injury, the Nazis placed some of their most notorious extermination camps on occupied Polish soil. Not only did the Germans invade Poland to kick off the start of the war in 1939, they exported many of their most horrific crimes and murders – the bones and ashes and moral stench – to their eastern neighbor. It’s no exaggeration to say that some parts of Poland are only now economically (and spiritually) healing.
When people (often innocently and without any rancor toward Poland) make reference to “death camps in Poland” or even “Polish death camps,” they’re almost always referring to the geography of the Holocaust and not implying that Poland had anything directly to do with it. Still, it’s not at all hard to see how this would rankle many Poles. (One of the more controversial provisions of the bill would impose a jail term for anyone using the phrase “Polish death camps.”)
These indisputable facts stand behind the recent moves by Poland’s nationalist ruling party to stifle discussion of direct Polish involvement in the mass killings. And seen from this perspective, those actions don’t appear all that unreasonable.
But there are some other things that need to be said as well.
It’s true that thousands of Poles have been singled out as heroes in the Holocaust, going out of their way -- putting their own lives and the lives of their families at serious risk -- to protect Jewish Poles from persecution. The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, has identified more than 6,700 Polish citizens as among the “righteous among nations.” This is the most of any nationality.
But it’s also true that some Poles, perhaps many thousands, went out of their way to expose Jews or otherwise assist Germans in carrying out the Nazi genocide. Whether Poles did this to spare their own or their family’s lives (or out of hatred or financial or other gain), it doesn’t alter the fact the Germans occasionally found willing local accomplices to their crimes -- and this is part of Holocaust history too. (It must be said here the overwhelming majority of Poles were probably somewhere in the middle – neither risking their lives to save Jews nor going out of their way to harm them.)
Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross's book "Neighbors" provoked a firestorm in Poland on publication in 2001. In the book, Gross tells the story of the July 1941 pogrom of Jedwabne, a small village northeast of Warsaw, in which the village's Polish residents murdered, in Gross's account, more than 1,600 Jews. Gross writes that they carried out the killings under the watchful eye of the village's Nazi occupiers. To get a flavor of the reaction at the time, here is a review of the book appearing in "The Guardian."
A contemporaneous review of the massacre carried out by the "Polish Institute of National Remembrance" (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) concluded that fewer than 1,600 people were killed (around 400), but confirmed the basic findings that the perpetrators were Poles (though also assigning some blame to the Germans).
In 1946, in the south-central city of Kielce, some 42 Jewish residents were killed by their Polish countrymen in a pogrom that shocked outside observers, following so closely on the end of the war and revelations then emerging of the horrifying extent of the Nazi Holocaust.
I’m not here to judge the acts of complicit Poles. I have no idea how I would act – in fact, I think no one has any idea how he or she would act – under such difficult circumstances. I’m only expressing my view that any law that serves to inhibit research or prohibit people from stating what they believe, like the law recently passed in Poland, is inherently unjust and ultimately serves only to perpetuate lies.
It's clear that at least part of the reason behind the law (some would say most of the reason) is simply a way for the ruling PiS party to throw some red meat to its hard-core nationalist supporters to come out and vote, and it may well succeed. But the law could also easily backfire and provoke some unintended consequences. These include spurring even more investigation into Polish war guilt and dredging up yet again the whole idea that maybe Poles really do have something to hide here. It will certainly discourage people from studying the Holocaust or teaching the events in Polish schools.
I try to be something of an optimist in matters like this. And if you play Sigmund Freud for a moment, take a step back, and try to psychoanalyze the underlying impetus for this law, you find a deep shame associated with antisemitism in any form. I’d call that a positive development.
They say sunshine is the best disinfectant. For the purposes of this blog, I’d rephrase that slightly from “sunshine” to “travel.” The best way to learn about the Holocaust is to visit where it took place.
In Poland’s defense, I believe the country has taken significant strides in recent years in presenting the Holocaust to visitors. Under Communism, the Holocaust was both underplayed -- with significant sites badly underfunded -- and unnecessarily politicized. In keeping with the officially sanctioned, overarching political narrative of the working class vs reactionary capitalism, Jewish victims of the Holocaust were often swept under a generic umbrella as “victims of Fascist oppression” or merely “casualties of war” – and not viewed more accurately as targets of a specific ethnically or religiously motivated genocide.
The past couple of decades have seen a welcome shift in this perspective and the arrival of some good museums and Holocaust-oriented places of interest. The jewel in the crown is Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLIN), which devotes part of its core exhibition to the Holocaust, as well as significant attractions in Kraków, Łódź, and other cities. Łódź was the site of Poland’s second-biggest Nazi-run Jewish ghetto during World War II, and I wrote about efforts there to tell the ghetto’s story in an earlier post. Critics might contend these places toe a too-traditional line when it comes to exposing potential Polish complicity in the events, but they remain indispensable historical resources. Let's hope this positive trend line continues.
Every Polish city of any size was touched in some way by the Holocaust, and often the most moving sights are not tied to any specific museum or themed attraction, but rather woven into the surviving urban fabric. Cities like Radom, Częstochowa, Lublin, Białystok, Kazimierz Dolny, Tarnów, Chełm, Płock, and many others had sizable Jewish populations before World War II and were ripped apart by the Holocaust – but they mostly lack top-drawer Holocaust museums or exhibitions.
In these places, instead, it’s up to visitors themselves to find or download old maps, identify the former Jewish neighborhoods, and then locate where the synagogues and cemeteries once stood. From here, it’s usually enough to take a walk through the areas and soak up the vibe.
Insider tip: In most Polish cities, the former Jewish neighborhoods are still invariably the most depressed and least developed parts of these places (so if you can't find a map, simply look for the slum). I often wonder if these neighborhoods are suffering from decades of bad karma or if their lingering state of disrepair is merely a consequence of the Polish government’s program after the war to repopulate former Jewish areas with Roma and homeless people. It’s probably a bit of both.
The Nazi-led Holocaust in Poland was a relatively organized affair – at least compared to the mass killings that took place in countries to the east. The Germans built a series of large-scale extermination camps, where most of Poland's Jews perished.
The best known of these, of course, is the former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oświęcim, west of Krakow, where more than a million Jews were killed. Auschwitz gets no end of criticism for being "overly touristy" or "commercialized," but I’ve never experienced that side of it in the many times I’ve visited over the years. Indeed, I always advise visitors planning a trip to Poland to go. I find the camp moving to the point of life-changing.
Another well-known extermination camp is Treblinka, east of Warsaw (which I've never personally visited). Around 800,000 Jews were gassed here, making it the second deadliest extermination center, after Auschwitz.
But the Holocaust wasn’t simply Auschwitz or Treblinka, and to properly understand the enormity of the tragedy – and the extent, too, to which it was insinuated into the Polish landscape – it’s helpful to see other similar, but less-well-known camps.
A few years ago, I was working on an update to the Lonely Planet guide to Poland and traveling in the southeastern corner of the country. I noticed we didn’t have much coverage on two of the bigger German-run extermination camps in the region: Sobibór and Bełżec. To be fair, these camps are hard to get to and don’t have much in the way of tourism infrastructure, but as a writer, I have a certain amount of discretion over what we cover. I suggested we add the camps, and my editor agreed.
What emerged was a feature called “Forgotten Holocaust: Sobibór and Bełżec” that read partly like this:
"When it comes to the Holocaust, much of the world’s attention has gone to the atrocities of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Here, in the far east of Poland, are two death camps – Sobibór and Bełżec – that are less well known, but which merit a visit to better understand the breadth of the Nazis’ extermination policy.
At these camps, there was no “selection” process, very little chance for the prisoners to work, and crucially no chance for them to survive. In most instances, the victims were simply transported to the camps, off-loaded from the trains, undressed, and gassed.
Both camps were formed under the Germans’ “Operation Reinhard,” their secret plan to murder the Jewish population of occupied Poland, and both operated from early-1942 to 1943. It was here the Germans perfected their mass-killing techniques, like using gas, that they would later apply at other extermination centers, including Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Though the exact numbers of casualties are impossible to verify, the consensus is that at least 170,000 people were murdered at Sobibór and 400,000 to 600,000 at Bełżec. There are only a handful of known survivors from Bełżec.
Though these camps attract a tiny fraction of the number of visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, both Sobibór and Bełżec have small, thoughtful memorials, where you can learn more about these lesser-known killing camps. Sobibór lies about 50 miles (80 km) east of the city of Lublin, while Bełżec is about 60 miles (100 km) south of Lublin."
One last camp worth mentioning also happens to be near Lublin, in fact, practically within the city limits. The Majdanek concentration camp operated from 1941 to its liberation in July 1944 and saw from 200,000-300,000 prisoners (mainly Jews, but also large number of Poles, Slovaks, and Russian POWs) pass through its gates.
Several things about Majdanek stand out. The first is that this is one of the few camps in Poland where the actual crematoria survived the war (the Russians liberated the camp quickly and left the Germans little time to destroy the evidence). Another thing would be the camp’s two oversized – and very moving -- stone memorials by sculptor Victor Tolkin (Wiktor Tołkin) from 1969. One statue stands near the entrance to the camp and the other -- in the shape of an enormous urn -- at the back. In fact, it’s a mausoleum filled with the ashes of thousands of victims.
Probably the most noticeable thing about Majdanek, however, is simply its location, just three miles (five kms) from the center of Lublin, the largest city in eastern Poland, and clearly visible to the many surrounding houses (check out the map plot, below, to see just how close). The Germans obviously felt no need to hide this death camp, and its existence was certainly no secret to the many hundreds, if not thousands, of people living nearby. The way things are going, let's hope it's never a crime to point out this fact as well.
I’d like to thank my friend and World War II researcher, Letitia Rydjeski, for reading through this post prior to publication, though any errors or omissions here are the sole responsibility of the author. MB