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Op-eds

There can be no denying that the Poles were complicit in the Holocaust

  • Jedwabne
Poland’s Senate passed a controversial bill last Thursday that outlaws blaming Poland for any crimes committed during the Holocaust. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda insisted that there was no institutionalised participation by Poland or its people in the Holocaust, but did acknowledge that individual Poles took “wicked” actions against their Jewish neighbours.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Feb 08, 2018

Considering that Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939, those unfamiliar with what the local Jewish population really experienced at the time may be inclined to agree with Duda, and even sympathise with the Polish people.

If you visit the Polish village of Jedwabne, you will find a section of charred planks set in a concrete block on the outskirts of the village. This is all that remains of a barn which local Polish residents filled with hundreds of Jewish women and children in July 1941, and set on fire – after killing Jewish men and boys, and putting their bodies in the same barn. The story that villagers long told was that the massacre happened, but the Nazis did it.

That belief persisted for a while. A monument to the dead on the outskirts of the village bore an inscription that blamed the Germans for Jedwabne’s Jewish dead. Then, in the year 2000, Polish-born American historian Jan Gross refuted that story in his book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. In his research, he dug into the history of the incident and found strong evidence that Germans hadn’t killed the Jews of Jedwabne; their Polish neighbours had.

This is what I was told when I visited the site with a group of other Jews in July 2013. Over 10 days, we travelled across Poland, visiting villages, cities and concentration camps. I stood at a bus stop in a village not 50 metres from the forest of Zbylitowska Gora, in which Jewish children had been massacred and buried in a mass grave. I visited the town of Oswiecim, which is right on the doorstep of Auschwitz. Its Polish residents are known for having assisted Jews, but are also known to have pointed Jews out to SS officers and benefited from the deaths of their Jewish compatriots by acquiring their property after they’d been murdered.

I felt conflicted. Perhaps my judgement is clouded by my bias towards Jews, I thought. Despite occasionally assisting the Nazis, the Poles also suffered under occupation and did help some Jews. Perhaps this notion that the Poles were willing to assist the Nazis in their mission of extermination is nothing but a gross exaggeration of sporadic occurrences.

However, it was after visiting the site of the barn, when we were taken into the village itself, that I reached my own conclusion. Near to a shul that has been restored – and now swarms with tourists – stood a table laden with Judaica. Standing behind this assortment of bric-a-brac was a local man, whose smile and eager demeanour drew a number of passers-by to his stall, including me. What I saw before me were items familiar to any Jew – candlesticks, menorahs, Kiddush cups and other similar items. These were all dented, tarnished and old. The man selling them didn’t appear Jewish.

I realised what I was seeing. Before me lay the possessions of Jews. The cups on which fathers had made Kiddush. The candlesticks with which mothers had lit Shabbat candles. The menorahs around which children had gathered excitedly to celebrate Chanukah.

These were all being offered for sale because their owners were now nothing more than one of the faceless victims murdered by a defeated occupier, which had deprived them of their possessions.

Here were items which were hastily claimed by those who had the power to take them and make them their own. Here were items whose owners couldn’t protest against their loss and who were now no longer able to claim them back.

The only reminder that the people once existed is a section of burnt wood. And their possessions are being sold in the marketplace by a man who doesn’t know their names and never will.

When one person commits a crime against another, that may be considered the perpetration of a “hateful act”. But when the local population of a village massacres their Jewish neighbours, plunders their belongings and leaves them to their descendants to hawk on the street in which the original owners may have lived, Duda’s definition of “institutionalised participation” falls flat.

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