Polish anti-Semitism is serious, but Yair Lapid is overreaching

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Why are the Poles guiltier for witnessing Jewish victims arrive at concentration camps than are the Dutch or Greeks who watched them being dragged out of their homes to get there?

Over the last year, Yair Lapid, the co-chair of Israel’s opposition Blue and White Party, has made several outspoken statements about Poland, Polish anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Each time, his message has been the same: Poland is playing a deceitful game by denying the complicity of many ordinary Poles in the Nazi extermination of the Jews; contemporary anti-Semitism in Poland is reflective of a hatred of Jews going back centuries; any Israeli politician who refuses to recognise this reality is dishonoring the victims of the Holocaust.

All of this has taken place against the background of a government-led offensive in Poland aimed at establishing an unmovable doctrine: that the three million Polish Jews murdered during World War II are the responsibility of the Germans alone; Poles suffered as much as the Jews did from the German occupation; Poles tried to protect Jews whenever the opportunity allowed. Legislation approved by the Polish parliament in 2018 effectively makes it a crime to discuss the notion of Polish collusion with the Nazi regime.

Lapid’s emergence as the loudest voice in Israel opposing Polish revisionism is based partly on his having grown up in a family that was scarred, like nearly everyone else’s, by the Holocaust. Like most of us, he takes the Holocaust personally. But there is also a political calculation involved. Lapid’s nemesis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has looked vulnerable on the issue of Poland, having been criticised by, among others, the famed Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer for allegedly compromising the integrity of the Shoah for the sake of a closer strategic and economic relationship with the nationalist government in Warsaw.

Lapid’s point was inadvertently demonstrated by Netanyahu himself last February. In an off-handed attempt to prove that Poland wasn’t really policing the discourse around the Holocaust as zealously as some were suggesting, Netanyahu told reporters on a visit to Warsaw that no-one disputed that “Poles cooperated with Nazis.” This comment resulted in a furious response from the Polish government, with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Marowiecki promptly announcing that he would boycott a summit in Jerusalem the following week involving Israel, Poland and three other central European countries.

Since then, the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Poland has worsened. A common theme in the media is the claim that the Jews are invoking the specter of Polish guilt as a prelude to forcing Poland into passing a law restituting the individual assets of Polish Jews that were stolen during the war—an act that Polish nationalists would regard as a treacherous abandonment of the principle that Germany, and Germany alone, was and remains responsible for the fate of the Jews.

Then there were the Easter celebrations of two weeks ago — an eerily disturbing reminder, as Jews around the world celebrated Passover, of how persistent the presence of anti-Semitism in Poland is, from ordinary rural folk all the way to the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. In the small town of Pruchnik, we were treated to the spectacle of a group of adults and young children dragging an anti-Semitic effigy of Judas through the streets, while Catholic Bishop Andrzej Jez dedicated his Holy Thursday sermon to blaming alleged Jewish control of the media for the myriad stories of sexual abuse in the Church.

So there is little for reason for Jews to feel positively about Poland at the moment, and doubtless there are many in our community who wholeheartedly endorse Lapid’s latest attacks on Poland’s war record last Friday.

In an interview with a Polish news outlet, Lapid made the following comments. “Poles cooperated in creating and running extermination camps,” he said. “Poles handed over Jews to the Germans and thus sent them to death.”

Later on, he continued: “There were many Polish Righteous Among the Nations who saved Jews, and we are grateful to them for all time. But can you pretend that there were no Polish helpers in the extermination camps? Of course, they were!” And finally, there was this: “It is no coincidence that the Nazis created their center of extermination in Poland. They knew that the Polish population would help them.”

Some of these statements are true and can be illustrated with historical documentation—for example, the betrayal of at least 60 000 Jews to the Gestapo by their Polish neighbors. But the more dramatic claims made by Lapid here have little basis in historical truth, and repeating them only damages the fight against Polish historical revisionism.

No one denies that there was a powerful anti-Semitic political movement in Poland between World War I and World War II, as was the case in many countries of Europe. But when the Nazis occupied Poland, they digressed from their practice elsewhere on the continent by directly administering the country. As a result, there was no Polish equivalent of Pétain in France or Quisling in Norway. Nor did you find Poles serving in the SS, as was the case with Ukrainians or Lithuanians. Nor was there a Polish pro-Nazi paramilitary, like the Ustaša in Croatia or the Arrow Cross in Hungary. Yet Lapid claims nonetheless that the Polish nation bears the lion’s share of Holocaust guilt.

The idea that the Nazis situated the six main extermination camps in Poland solely because of the country’s native tradition of anti-Semitism is also fanciful and needlessly insulting. 

The reasoning in Berlin, if one can call it that, was based far more on strategic considerations. Poland had the largest single population of Jews on the continent, 2.9 million — in other words, about half of the total number of Holocaust victims — most of whom died in the extermination camps built and managed by the Nazis in the same country where they lived. By Nazi standards, this was all very efficient.

Secondly, Poland’s relatively advanced rail system and its central location in Europe influenced the Nazi extermination planners.

Finally, and this is something that Lapid should think about, the trains that carried Jews to the slaughter had to leave from somewhere else before arriving at one of those extermination camps in Poland. The trains came bearing Jews from Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Salonika and all other points of the compass; cities and towns where their neighbors saw their Jewish fellow citizens dragged from their homes and schools, to be herded to their deaths in Poland. 

Why are the Poles guiltier for watching the victims arrive than are the Dutch or the Greeks who watched them leave?

The fact that it is Poland that has chosen to weaponise the Holocaust during its current nationalist resurgence doesn’t license us to be cavalier with the truth, to make vague or inaccurate statements, or to repeat falsehoods that can be simply disproved. 

The moral high ground is always where the truth can be found.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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