13 April 2008

Don't blame Poland for Nazi crimes

In his March 16 column, “Resist the culture of death,” John Bentley Mays argues that without the complicity of the local Polish population, the Nazis could not have carried out their murderous designs. The exception was Denmark, where collaboration was not forthcoming, and was actively resisted, and the Nazis could make no headway with the Holocaust, he says.

The notion that the Holocaust in Poland depended on Polish collaboration has been refuted by Szymon Datner, the former director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Datner stated categorically that the Holocaust “cannot be charged against the Poles. It was German work and it was carried out by German hands. The Polish police were employed in a very marginal way, in what I would call keeping order. I must state with all decisiveness that more than 90 per cent of that terrifying, murderous work was carried out by the Germans, with no Polish participation whatsoever.” Raul Hilberg, the foremost Holocaust historian, came to a similar conclusion.

The Germans had large numbers of forces stationed in Poland. They did not rely on Polish collaborators, but rather employed collaborators of various other nationalities to liquidate the ghettos and to staff the death camps. Sadly, the Jewish councils and Jewish police played a pivotal role in policing and liquidating the ghetto in Warsaw, and many others. This was in stark contrast to what occurred in most other countries, including Western European ones, where German personnel was extremely thin. The Germans had to rely almost entirely on local collaborators to round up the Jews and deport them to the death camps.

It is true that the small Danish underground mobilized local fishermen to transport that country’s tiny Jewish population to Sweden, and the Danes involved in the rescue operation deserve nothing but praise. But, as historians point out, the evacuation could never have occurred without German collusion and a nearby country willing to receive the Jews. The German naval command warned the underground of the planned deportation of the Jews, disabled the German harbour patrol and turned a blind eye to their escape. Other countries simply did not enjoy such favourable conditions. No Dane was ever punished for taking part in this operation. The few Jews who remained in Denmark were either voluntarily handed over to the Germans by local Danish officials or denounced by local Danes. Denmark, it must be remembered, was Germany’s model protectorate. The Danes led a remarkably tranquil existence, with minimal loss of life, under the supervision of a few hundred Germans.

In Poland, the toll was staggering: more than 1,000 Christian Poles were summarily executed, burned alive or perished in concentration camps for helping Jews. A case in point is the Ulma family. After the Germans rounded up the Jews in Markowa, some 30 Jews found shelter with several Polish families in that village. Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma agreed to shelter eight Jews: three members of the Goldman family from Markowa and five members of the Szall family from a nearby town. A policeman, a non-Pole, spotted one of the Szalls when he briefly returned to Lancut. He then tracked the Jews down. On March 24, 1944, an expedition of German military police arrived in Markowa. They executed the Jewish fugitives and the entire Ulma family, together with their four children aged eight to 1-1/2 years. The Ulma family was honoured posthumously as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem in 1995. Their beatification process was initiated in August 2003.

Such punishment was not meted out in Western Europe. Nothing happened to the Dutch people who sheltered the family of Anne Frank. Moreover, morally, one cannot demand that someone risk or lay down their life for another person. Righteous Jews who were rescued by Poles, such as Pola Stein, readily acknowledge this: “I do not accuse anyone that did not hide or help a Jew. We cannot demand from others to sacrifice their lives. One has no right to demand such risks.”

Canadian Polish Congress, Toronto District.)

9 March 2008

Poles suffered greatly

John Bentley May’s charge that Poland “willingly colluded with the Nazis in their attempted destruction of the Jewish people” (Follow Christ’s sacrificial example, Feb. 17) is not only baseless, it is also abhorrent.

Allow me to quote no less an authority that Yisrael Gutman, the director of historical research at the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem and author of numerous studies, who has been unequivocal in lambasting such remarks.

“I should like to make two things clear here. First, all accusations against the Poles that they were responsible for what is referred to as the ‘Final Solution’ are not even worth mentioning. Secondly, there is no validity at all in the contention that Polish attitudes were the reason for the siting of the death camps in Poland. Poland was a completely occupied country. There was a difference in the kind of ‘occupation’ countries underwent in Europe. Each country experienced a different occupation and almost all had a certain amount of autonomy, limited and defined in various ways. This autonomy did not exist in Poland. No one asked the Poles how one should treat the Jews.”

Poles — more than 6,000 of them and growing — form the largest group by far of any nation recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles. Poland was the only country in Europe where the Germans routinely imposed the death penalty for any form of assistance to Jews. More than 1,000 Poles — men, women and children — were put to death for helping Jews.

Unlike other occupied countries, the Poles were also targeted for genocidal policies targeting their “elites” including the Catholic clergy and their vibrant underground. In addition to three million Polish Jews, three million Christian Poles were also murdered by the German invaders

Canadian Polish Congress
Toronto District

Poles maligned

It was with sorrow that I read the column by John Bentley Mays in which he asked: “How could nominally Christian nations, such as Germany and Romania and Poland, have willingly colluded with the Nazis in their attempted destruction of the Jewish people?” (“Follow Christ’s sacrificial example,” Feb. 17). Such casual linking of Poland and Germany has been described by an historian and member of the International Auschwitz Council as “blurring the distinction between victim and aggressor.”

On behalf of the two million Polish Christians killed by the Germans and the one million killed by the Soviets (Germany’s allies for almost two years) during the Second World War, among whom were 12,000 children killed in kinderlager (concentration camps for Polish children) and 100,000 children taken away from their parents for purposes of Germanization; the Polish priests, who were the only clergy in occupied Europe to be used for medical experimentation at Dachau, and of whom, at war’s end 20 per cent had been killed; the nuns who fared little better and who never refused to take in a Jewish child knowing discovery would result in summary execution; the 900 families — parents, grandparents, infants in arms, school children, teenagers — killed when discovered sheltering Jews; the 6,000 women of the Polish underground resistance killed by the Nazis and the young Polish women used in medical experiments at the Ravensbruck camp; the 300,000-member underground army of whom so many perished; the Polish forces fighting with the allies on every front; the 20,000 officers executed while prisoners-of-war by the Soviets during the Soviet-Nazi alliance; all the civilians casually executed in prisons, in secret executions in forests and in public executions throughout Poland; the 2.5 million civilians sent to Germany as slaves and another million to the Soviet Gulag (again during the Soviet-Nazi alliance); and the millions more who were maimed, traumatized, orphaned and mourning their dead and missing; the students sent to concentration camps for studying in underground schools; and all the ordinary Poles who struggled for survival under the most brutal occupation in all of Europe, I would like to say that Mr. Mays’ identification of Poles with their oppressors is both cruel and unjust.

As the German governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, said of his policies towards Poles: “Finis Poloniae.” I respectfully ask the editor of The Register to print my objection and I cordially invite Mr. Mays for a cup of coffee and a conversation.

Fr. Jan Kolodynski, Pastor
St. Jerome’s Parish
Brampton, Ont.

Column distorted truth

I am writing to you to express my profound regret regarding an opinion in the Feb. 17 column by John Bentley Mays entitled, “Follow Christ’s sacrificial example.” The author of this article posed a question: “How could nominally Christian nations, such as Germany and Romania and Poland, have willingly colluded with the Nazis in their attempted destruction of the Jewish people?”

This opinion illustrates a sorrowful misunderstanding of our recent, tragic history and sadly distorts the truth of cruel terror unleashed by Nazi Germany on occupied Poland, which cost the lives of one-sixth of the Polish population — half of them of Jewish origin. This misunderstanding is sadly disturbing to Poles — both those living in Poland and those who live in numerous countries in the world including a large diaspora in Canada.

Poland was the first country that faced the military aggression of Nazi Germany and fought back, defending its territory and continuing to battle on western and eastern fronts, as well as in the underground (including the special organization Zegota, created exclusively to rescue Jews) throughout the whole Second World War. Moreover, while Romania, mentioned in the article, was at that time Germany’s ally, Poland never established or practised any institutional form of collaboration with Nazi Germany.

During the war, many Poles risked their lives in order to shelter and rescue the Jewish people living in Nazi-occupied Poland. Once the Nazis discovered that help of that kind was rendered, not only the heroic Poles but also their whole families faced the death penalty. Numerous historical examples, e.g. the life and work of the Nobel Prize nominee Irena Sendler, some of them commemorated in the Yad Vashem Museum (The Righteous among the Nations), proved the heroism of many Poles in their attempts to save the lives of the Jewish people.

Moreover, it should be noted that some Catholic monasteries in Poland served as shelters for Jewish children and the church itself had been the anchor of spiritual support for all the Nazi victims and those who bravely opposed the German aggressor. The tragic fact that some Poles betrayed their co-citizens of Jewish origin can’t be used as a base to express general opinion. This is precisely how harmful stereotypes are created.

I sincerely hope that by careful studies of our recent tragic history, frequent exchange of opinions and fraternal respect, we will be able to avoid in the future similar sad misunderstandings.

Piotr Ogrodzinski
Ambassador of Poland in Canada
Ottawa, Ont.