Mikhal Dekel’s accusations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust and PiS suppression of the evidence are false.
by Gene Sokolowski, PhD
Mikhal Dekel, in her 1 June article in the Boston Review titled “Poland’s Current Memory Politics Are Rewriting History” argues that Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) has “engaged in an extensive campaign to bury evidence of Christian Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust.” However, closer inspection reveals that she repeats the same flawed theses of other writers claiming Polish denial and revisionism. These include Olivia Waxman in Time, Lawrence Douglas and Edward Rothstein in The Wall Street Journal, Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, Edna Friedberg in The Atlantic, Nick Robins in the Huffington Post, and Rivkah Brown in The Independent. Embedded in each of their arguments is the underlying accusation that Poland was “complicit in the Holocaust.” Based on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s definition of the Holocaust, this accusation is false as well as illogical. The USHMM defines the Holocaust as “the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators.” This means that the Polish state, as it existed during World War II, was either an ally of Nazi Germany or established a collaborationist government controlled by Nazi Germany. Neither was ever the case. The Polish state consisted of the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Polish Underground State. No historian, Holocaust or otherwise, has postulated that the Polish state, while under German occupation, sponsored Hitler’s persecution and murder of Jews.
The allegation that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust is frequently found in the Holocaust literature and continues to be unwittingly accepted as true by the uninformed; in this case, by Dekel and the abovementioned writers. It is important to understand which German-allied and German-occupied countries were undeniably complicit. The Polish state never established a collaborationist government (as did France’s Petain, Norway’s Quisling, Slovakia’s Tiso, Croatia’s Pavelic, Hungary’s Horthy, and Romania’s Antonescu), never established a militia to round up and deport Jews to the death camps or kill them outright (as did Belgium’s Degrelle, Holland’s Mussert, France’s Petain, Norway’s Quisling, Slovakia’s Hlinka Guard, Croatia’s Ustase, Hungary’s Arrow Cross, and Romania’s Iron Guard), and never established SS units to fight under German command (as did Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Latvia, Hungary, Estonia, Italy, France, Holland, Albania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Croatia, and others), which prolonged the war and Hitler’s campaign of racist mass murder. Moreover, in February 2018, Chancellor Merkel publicly admitted on several occasions that the full responsibility for the Holocaust lies with Germany.
The main premises of Dekel’s argument are: (1) Yad Vashem estimates that Poles denounced and killed 130,000 to 180,000 fugitive Jews while under German occupation and Jan Grabowski claims 200,000 deaths (2) PiS has weaponized Poland’s antidefamation law to suppress academic research on “Polish complicity in the Holocaust” (3) To stifle the “bad Poles” narrative that Dekel believes is true, PiS has implemented a false “good Poles” narrative through various programs emphasizing Polish “victimhood and heroism”.
Regarding the first part of the first premise, Dekel fails to identify the primary sources and methodology Yad Vashem used to arrive at its estimates. Also omitted are the estimates of those denounced and those killed. By contrast, Barbara Engelking, in her book Such a Beautiful Sunny Day, concedes there is no reliable way of estimating how many fugitive Jews were delivered to death by Poles. Yisrael Gutman, former Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem and author of The Jews in Poland After the Second World War, also points out that an “infinitesimally small” percentage of Poles collaborated with the Germans. It should be noted that Yad Vashem’s credibility has been called into question, most recently at the January 2020 World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, which was attended by dozens of national leaders. Yad Vashem caved to pressure from Vladimir Putin by falsifying historical fact and engaging in material omissions. At the Forum, the Soviet Union was presented as the main victor over Nazi Germany. No mention was made of any of the Soviet Union’s crimes in World War II nor its responsibility for starting the war. Yad Vashem also did not include any reference to the partition of Poland between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in 1939 or Hitler’s occupation of western Europe in 1940.
Yad Vashem correctly observes there were denunciations and even some killings. This has always been publicly acknowledged by Polish officials and documented by Polish and other historians. However, it is critically important to understand the brutal wartime conditions and situational factors in which this occurred, which Dekel does not address. The severe privations imposed by the Germans caused near-starvation conditions in the countryside, which put Poles and fugitive Jews in conflict. Jews who were suspected of or known to be stealing food and other scare resources were reported to the Germans. The same privations enabled the Germans to bribe some Poles into denouncing Jewish fugitives by offering bread, milk, sugar, or meat. The Germans maintained a standing order in which any Pole aiding a Jew in any way would be executed together with immediate family. Because they conducted recurrent pacification operations, i.e., the physical destruction of villages and execution of Poles found to be harboring Jews, terrorized villagers began to turn against their charges. As news of imminent pacifications spread to surrounding villages, Polish benefactors were placed in an unbearable situation and had no alternative but to turn out, betray, or in some cases, even kill their charges. When fugitive Jews were turned out, they were often captured by the Germans, who then forced them to betray their Polish rescuers, which meant their certain death. Fugitive Jews also threatened to betray their Polish rescuers if they didn’t continue sheltering them. Polish rescuers also betrayed their charges because of German torture.
Fugitive Jews, together with their Polish benefactors, were also denounced by Volksdeutsche, i.e., ethnic Germans who were Polish citizens and supported the occupying Germans. The Germans also sent Ukrainians, pretending to Polish resistance members, to search the countryside for fugitive Jews. In some cases, they were killed by criminal elements who robbed them while posing as the Polish resistance. Fugitive Jews who joined subversive Communist units that robbed, as well as killed, rural Poles were killed in subsequent retaliatory actions. Jewish agents who approached Polish resistance members asking for fake documents, which then resulted in their arrest and execution by the Germans, were targeted to be killed. There were also Jewish agents working for the Germans who uncovered and denounced fugitive Jews and their Polish benefactors, thereby resulting in their deaths. Jewish members of the Communist People’s Army were likewise killed in armed conflict with the Polish Home Army. It should be noted that denouncers did not usually know they were sending a fugitive Jew to his death as Poles generally believed they were being sent back to the ghetto or to labor camps in the East. Moreover, the Home Army considered the betrayal of Jews as collaborating with the enemy and punished offenders with death, regardless of whether they were Polish or Jewish.
Regarding the second part of the first premise, Grabowski’s claim that Poles were responsible for 200,000 Jewish deaths has been exposed as a blatant falsehood. He made this claim in his book Hunt for the Jews, repeated it to The Times of Israel reporter Amanda Borschel-Dan, and cited historian Szymon Datner’s Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute No. 75 (1970) as his source. Datner actually stated the following: “I estimated the number of surviving Jews – chiefly thanks to assistance provided by the Polish population – at approximately 100,000. It may be similarly estimated that another 100,000 Jewish victims were captured by the occupying authorities and murdered.” As can be seen, Grabowski’s claim is a complete reversal of Datner’s findings. The Times of Israel published Grabowski’s falsehood in its 8 February 2018 edition.
Regarding Dekel’s second premise, i.e., PiS weaponized Poland’s antidefamation law to suppress further research on “Polish complicity in the Holocaust”, she cites as evidence the recent civil lawsuit brought against Grabowski and Engelking for libel by Ms. Filomena Leszczyńska, a disabled 82-year-old woman from a small rural village. Leszczyńska held that Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, co-editors of the book Night Without End, violated her good family name by accusing her deceased uncle, Edward Malinowski, of robbing a Jewish woman and collaborating with the Germans, when in fact he saved her life. During the trial, Engelking stated she incorrectly identified Edward Malinowski because she did not know there were so many Malinowskis in the village. Additionally, Grabowski and Engelking had the opportunity to examine six different sources but selected three and used only one. The court ruled that this resulted in libel and directed that they apologize as well as update the next edition of their book. Dekel, however, claims that Grabowski “shows”, i.e., has evidence, that “the local community intimidated” Estera Siemiatycka into testifying in defense of Malinowski. If this were the case, Grabowski would have, and certainly should have, presented his evidence to the court, as it would have invalidated the lawsuit against him.
Dekel further claims that Article 55a of the Act amending the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, commonly referred to as the antidefamation law, and which she calls “Poland’s Holocaust Law”, was the basis for Leszczyńska’s lawsuit. This is false. It was a civil lawsuit filed by a private citizen in which the court’s decision confirmed that libel had been committed because of slipshod research. The court ruled that Grabowski and Engelking were not exempt from adhering to academic standards. Dekel further claims that the court’s decision, if upheld under appeal, will thwart “any research, film, book, or work of art that reveals the role of ethnic Poles in the persecution, extermination, and dispossession of Poland’s Jews.” This is false. Paragraph 3 of Article 55a of the law states that academic research and artistic activities are exempt. The law is not designed to protect individuals who were involved in crimes against Jews.
Regarding the third premise, i.e., PiS implemented a false “good Poles” narrative through various programs emphasizing Polish “victimhood and heroism”, Dekel asserts that the “new museums, holidays, ceremonies, and commemorations” wrongly portray “the average Polish person … as an unequivocal victim and, at times, even a hero.” This portrayal is deemed invalid because there is an “overwhelming discrepancy between this historical picture of heroism and victimhood as opposed to survivor testimonies”. However, Dekel fails to explain what these survivor testimonies actually are or where they reside. If the testimonies constitute irrefutable documentary evidence to the contrary, as she apparently believes, they should have been cited in his article.
As for Polish “victimhood” at the hands of the Germans (never mind at the hands of the Soviets), a review of the history shows that, while Polish Jews were interned in the ghettos, Poles were in a day-to-day struggle for survival because of the brutalities and severe conditions exacted by the Germans, who imposed near-starvation rations, enforced onerous quotas on farmers, confiscated crops and livestock, conducted daily executions to terrorize the populace, randomly arrested and tortured Poles to extract intelligence on the Polish resistance, and conducted recurrent round-ups for deportation to concentration and labor camps. Two hundred thousand Polish children were abducted for Germanization under Himmler’s Lebensborn program and most never returned. Over two million Poles were sent to Hitler’s brutally-run concentration and labor camps in Germany. Excluding military deaths, approximately 5.5 million Polish citizens died under direct German occupation, about 3.1 million of whom were Polish Jews. Most of Poland’s largest cities were in ruins and a significant portion of the buildings in most towns were destroyed. Ninety five percent of farm animals were gone. Virtually all Polish families were subjected to the barbarities of the occupying Germans. Dekel is unclear as to how the survivor testimonies she refers to contradict these facts.
As for Polish “heroism”, the extensive efforts to save Jews and warn the West of their fate are historical fact; however, Dekel trivializes the former and ignores that latter. She omits the fact that the Germans enforced the death penalty for anyone, together with immediate family, who aided a Jew in any way. While approximately 7,000 Poles, many of whom were killed by the Germans, are known to Yad Vashem, many more are known only to God. Dekel criticizes the 7,000 number by stating “Still, these comprise a minority of Christian Poles”, meaning that more Poles should have risked their lives to do so. Clearly, no one has the right to demand that another risk his or her life, and the lives of immediate family, for someone seeking aid. Nevertheless, estimates of Poles who aided fugitive Jews range from 300,000 to 1.2 million and estimates of those killed for doing so approach 50,000. As already noted, the Germans carried out mass executions of entire villages that aided Polish Jews and some of the destroyed villages became extinct. Dekel should ask herself if she would risk her life and the lives of family members to save one or more persons in similar circumstances. As historian Norman Davies points out, “Elementary justice demands that they are duly honored and remembered, not because they were Poles, but simply because they did their duty as Christians and compassionate human beings.” Also omitted is the fact that two Polish institutions were critically instrumental in rescuing Jews. The first, Żegota, was the only government organization in the German-occupied countries specifically established to rescue Jews. The second was the Catholic Church, which rescued Jewish children on a massive scale by hiding them in convents, orphanages, and rectories. Despite the Germans’ ever-present death penalty, no occupied country had such an organizational infrastructure.
There were also significant Polish efforts to warn the West about the mass murder of Jews in occupied Poland. Witold Pilecki voluntarily walked into a German round-up for Auschwitz prisoners and sent reports to the Polish resistance headquarters in Warsaw. These comprised the first inclusive record that convinced the Allies the Germans were engaged in mass murder on an unprecedented scale. Jan Karski was a secret courier who risked his life travelling between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Polish Underground State in occupied Poland. He was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto by Jewish underground leaders to observe the horrifying conditions. Disguised as a Ukrainian guard, he also entered the Izbica Lubelska transit camp, where Jews were confined in appalling conditions awaiting transport to the Bełżec and Sobibór death camps. Karski carried out of Poland a microfilm with this information and it became one of the earliest and most accurate accounts of the beginning of the Holocaust. He was also the first eyewitness to personally meet with President Roosevelt and British Foreign Secretary Eden. Although he provided detailed statements on what he had seen and pleaded for Allied intervention, his reports fell on deaf ears. Based on the reports from the Polish Underground State and Karski, Edward Raczyński, the Foreign Minister of the Polish government-in exile, issued the document The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland on December 10, 1942. It was the first international publication describing Hitler’s mass murders.
Also overlooked are Poland’s military contributions to and sacrifices for the Allies. Breaking the Enigma was perhaps the greatest Polish contribution to the Allied victory, which is believed to have considerably shortened the war and saved many lives. Polish fighter pilots played a critical role in the 1940, three-month-long Battle of Britain, which was a major military campaign fought entirely over the skies of the United Kingdom and became a turning point in the war. There are also less-known but pivotal military victories of Polish military forces fighting under the Allies. General Władysław Anders and his Polish 2nd Corps at the Battle of Monte Cassino broke the Gustav Line and enabled the Allies to advance northward to Rome. There were also his victories at Ancona, Loreto, and Bologna. General Stanisław Maczek and his 1st Polish Armored Division closed the Falaise Gap by destroying 14 German Wehrmacht and SS divisions, which collapsed the German position in Normandy. Maczek went on to liberate six Belgian cities, as well as Breda in the Netherlands, in which there were no losses of the town’s civilians.
There are other deficiencies in Dekel’s argument that bear examination. First is the claim that the PiS government “fought against works such as Night without End”, which Engelking co-edited with Grabowski. No example is given of how PiS conducted its “fight”; however, it is the case that other historians have presented valid criticisms of the work. Hanna Radziejowska points out that Grabowski ignored materials from the German Landesarchives that refute his account of what occurred in Węgrów County. Grabowski also cites a list of 26 German officers who were supposedly responsible for crimes throughout the entire county but he marks only two posts with German units on the adjoined map. In this way, the reader is given the impression that the terror apparatus was mostly made up of the Blue Police, a volunteer fire brigade subordinated to the Germans, and Polish residents. By contrast, the German archives show that the German terror apparatus consisted of at least 300 Germans, which does not include German administrative staff, bureaucratic officials, and other functionaries. As Piotr Gontarczyk notes, Engelking wrote that Poles denounced Jews in the village of Markowizna; however, there was no such village in the area.
Dekel engages in name-calling, stating that “this kind of [PiS] violent pushback is not new” and “Polish nationalists [i.e., zealous chauvinists] have long been enraged by films and books that have contradicted the ‘good Poles’ narrative”. An examination of the films and books cited shows why they were validly criticized. In Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, Poles are accused of assisting in the roundup of ghetto Jews for transport to the death camps. This is false. Those actually responsible were the Jewish Ghetto Police as well as Ukrainian and Lithuanian units. For the film, Lanzmann interviewed Jan Karski and told him it would include accounts of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews; however, this was never done. Wladyslaw Szpilman, about whom the movie The Pianist was made, criticized Lanzmann for not showing Polish rescuers of Jews. There is also no inclusion of Karski’s meetings with Roosevelt and Eden and their indifference to the fate of Europe’s Jews. Lanzmann, a French Jew, is also silent on the collaborationist Vichy regime and its deportation of 75,000 French Jews to the death camps. Marek Edelman, the late hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, criticized Lanzmann as being self-indulgent in making his film.
Regarding Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, historians have documented a number of inconsistencies in his account of what occurred in Jedwabne and the methodology he used to reconstruct it. Alexander B. Rossino, a research historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum wrote: “Gross’s failure to examine German documentary sources fundamentally flawed his depiction of the events. The result was a skewed history that did not investigate SS operations in the region or German interaction with the Polish population.” Marek Jan Chodakiewicz points out that Gross rejects 20 Jewish and Polish postwar testimonies, none of which were coerced and all of which identify the murderers as Germans. Ewa Kurek notes that Gross’s main witnesses, Szmul Wasserstein, Abram Boruszczak, and Eljasz Gradowski, were not in Jedwabne at the time. She also discloses how Gross compromised his credibility with his 2015 essay in Germany’s newspaper Die Welt in which he claimed that Poles had killed more Jews than Germans during World War II. As for Gross’s claim that Poles rounded up 1,600 Polish Jews in Jedwabne, forced them into a barn, set it on fire, and shot anyone attempting to flee, Wojciech Sumlinski points out that Poles were prohibited from possessing firearms by the Germans and were executed if found with them.
Dekel again engages in name-calling, this time claiming that the Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (IPN), or the Institute for National Remembrance, “has [under the PiS] become even more explicitly nationalistic”. As evidence to support this accusation, she quotes excerpts from IPN’s mission statement, none of which even remotely indicate “explicit nationalism”. Yad Vashem’s mission statement affirms that it “provides youngsters with the history of the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective”. Likewise, a key component of IPN’s mission is to provide Polish history from a Polish perspective and an integral part of that history is Hitler’s persecution and murder of Poland’s Jews.
Dekel describes as “unfortunate” the phrase written by Masha Gessen in her 26 March 2021 article in The New Yorker. Gessen stated that the Polish government was engaged in an “effort to exonerate [i.e., free from guilt or blame] Poland—both ethnic Poles and the Polish state—of the death of three million Jews in the country during the Nazi occupation”. This statement is false. It was the Germans (and Austrians) in Hitler’s Wehrmacht and SS, together with Ukrainian and Baltic auxiliaries, who controlled the ghettos in occupied Poland and operated the extermination camps that murdered Poland’s Jews. As neither Poles nor the Polish state were elements of Hitler’s mass-murder apparatus, the proposition that Poles need to exculpate themselves is absurd. Moreover, Poles were victims of the same mass-murder apparatus and were further subjected to equivalent crimes perpetrated by the Soviets.
In referring to her book Tehran Children, Dekel says that it “tells the story of my Jewish father and hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Christian Polish citizens who were deported to Soviet gulags during WWII and later continued to Iran, India, and Palestine.” However, she misleads the uninformed reader by implying that the number of deported Polish Jews was comparable to the number of deported Poles, which is false. It is generally accepted that Stalin deported about 1.5 million Polish citizens from Soviet-occupied eastern Poland. Of these, up to one million were Poles, up to three hundred thousand were Polish Jews, and the remainder were other nationalities. Regarding Polish deportees, Dekel omits the fact that some Jews collaborated with the Soviets by denouncing Polish “class enemies” for deportation and forming militias to assist in the arrests, and in some cases the murders, of Polish officials, priests, and landowners. Various accounts document Jews, including rabbis, greeting the Soviets with welcoming banners and kissing their tanks. By directly aiding the Soviet Union in its objective to destroy the Polish state, these actions constituted de facto treason.
In summary, Dekel concludes that Poles were “complicit in the Holocaust” because some denounced fugitive Jews to the Germans and, in infrequent cases, took their lives. As previously explained, this was the result of various situational factors that occurred under brutal German oppression; it was not due to anti-Semitism. Yet at the same time, Dekel ignores the complicity of others who acted as Hitler’s proxies by facilitating and engaging in the persecution and murder of European Jews. The Jewish Councils and Jewish Ghetto Police, rather than resisting, delivered hundreds of thousands of their own to the German death camps. Jewish collaborators, such as Żagiew and Group 13, denounced Jewish resistance members in the Warsaw Ghetto and revealed their involvement in Polish resistance operations that aided and hid Jews outside the ghetto. Żagiew’s role in the Hotel Polski Affair is notably instructive. Also not addressed are the collaborationist governments of the German-occupied and German-allied countries, their militias that rounded up and murdered Jews, and their SS units that extended the war and Hitler’s murderous campaign. Jewish collaboration with the Red Army constituted complicity in the Soviet Union’s anti-Polish campaign. Jewish participation in Soviet-aligned partisan units that robbed and killed rural Poles who resisted, as was the case in Koniuchy and Naliboki, also constituted complicity in this campaign.
Dekel further concludes that the PiS Administration is “burying Polish complicity in the Holocaust” by employing various government mechanisms to suppress evidence made public through “research, film, book, or work of art”. The Polish antidefamation law is cited as one such suppression mechanism; however, it permits academic research and artistic activities. The courts are named as another silencing tool; however, Leszczyńska’s civil suit was not a proxy for the government. The “extremely nationalistic” IPN, a government organization, is also named as part of the PiS’s suppression apparatus; however, its mission statement, as well as its wide array of publications, confirm otherwise. The “museums, holidays, ceremonies, and commemorations” are cited as another way the government promotes a “narrative of innocence”; however, Polish officials and historians have always acknowledged that there were some Poles who willingly aided the occupiers.
Finally, and as substantiated above, the notion that the Polish government is engaged in a massive scheme to cover up the misdeeds of Poles during World War II is not only false but also baseless.