July 16, 2024
Polish/Jewish Relations

What it meant to be righteous in German-occupied Poland – by G. Gorny

In response to anti-Polish bias in Holocaust scholarship, education, and popular culture, a Polish journalist Grzegorz Gorny published a book “Righteous,” in which he explained what it really meant to save Jews in German-occupied Poland.

Gorny stumbled upon this subject by coincidence. One day, he was approached by a Slovakian weekly to write a piece on how the Poles account for their anti-Semitic past from WWII. Gorny was unpleasantly surprised by this request because it came from the country that has much more to apologize for than Poland. After all, it was Slovakia, which during WWII adopted draconian anti-Semitic laws almost unanimously, with the exception of one vote that came from the Hungarian minority representative.

In response to their request, Gorny wrote an article about lies and manipulations presented in a movie “Aftermath” by Pasikowski that was just released. This was the moment when Gorny realized that anti-Polish narrative contrary to historical facts is aggressively spreading abroad. That is when he decided to write a book about Polish-Jewish relations in WWII presented in a detailed historical context.(1)

Anti-Polish bias

In his book “Righteous,” Gorny presents several key arguments against the popular anti-Polish narrative on Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust promoted by Jewish scholars, educators, movie producers, and their associates.

First, Gorny points out that the Poles were rescuing Jews even before WWII broke out. Right after the so-called Crystal Night of November 1938, the Polish diplomatic missions in the Third Reich began to issue Polish passports to German Jews. Using Polish passports, they were able to leave Germany and many of them survived the war.

Second, it must be emphasized that the destruction of the Polish state was the condition sine qua non for the Holocaust to occur on Polish lands. In other words, the destruction of the Polish state was indispensable to the genocide of the Jews because the Polish state was the guarantor of the security of the Jewish population in Poland. It was the collaboration of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in destroying Poland that open the door to the extermination of Jews.

In 1939 the destruction of Poland was the primary objective of Hitler and Stalin. Therefore, in the first two years of WWII, the Polish population was the primary target of the coordinated German/Soviet extermination process. Synchronized extermination operations such as Action AB on the Polish territory conquered by Germany and Katyn-related operation on the Polish territory conquered by the Soviet Union aimed at exterminating all carriers of Polish national identity among the conquered populations on both sides of the Ribbentrop-Molotov partition line.

In this context it is important to remember that the Auschwitz Concentration Camp was built for the purpose of exterminating ethnic Poles. In fact, Auschwitz is one of the largest graveyards of the Polish people in Polish history. Over 150,000 ethnic Poles were murdered there. Although Auschwitz is one of the places of the greatest martyrdom of the Polish people, today the Poles are practically forbidden to even mention this fact in order not to upset the Jews, who consider themselves supreme victims.

It is also important to keep in mind that on the conquered Polish lands Nazi Germany introduced unprecedented laws and regulations, not imposed anywhere else in Europe, that completely deprived ethnic Poles of basic human rights. Germans closed down all Polish universities, high schools, museums, destroyed archives and libraries. Ethnic Poles could study only in elementary schools up to fourth grade just basic subjects of reading and counting.

On the Soviet side of the Ribbentrop-Molotov partition of Poland, teachers of Polish language and Polish history were primary targets of extermination as well. This was the time where the only high school with the Polish language in Europe operated in Hungary.

The organized extermination of Jews began only after the German army invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. That is when the German special paramilitary death squads known as Einsatzgruppen followed the German army into the Soviet controlled territories. To the German leadership, these death squads appeared not efficient enough in killing Jews. That is why they decided to “industrialize” this process in order to make it more efficient. For that purpose, Germans built death camps in Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and other locations throughout Europe.

Many of these camps were built on the territory of conquered Poland. That is why today we frequently hear the term “Polish death camps.” The proponents of this deceitful terminology that deeply offends the Polish victims of Nazi Germany argue that they don’t mean the Poles were the perpetrators of these crimes but merely that the camps were located on Polish lands.

But, for some reason, no one talks today about Czech death camps although Terezin was such a death camp located in Czechoslovakia. No one talks about Austrian death camps even though Mauthausen-Gusen was located in Austria, etc. Only with respect to Poland, the adjective “Polish” death camp is constantly used.

Therefore, it is never enough to repeat that such death camps operated as German state institutions, were financed from the German budget, and employed German functionaries. All functionaries in Auschwitz were German citizens who worked for the benefit of the Third Reich, including its medical research institutions, and used German transportation infrastructure. In fact, the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp operated on the territory of the Third Reich. Therefore, calling them “Polish” is a perversion and gross falsification of the Holocaust history.

Why German death camps were located on Polish lands?

In response, anti-Polish forces argue that most of the German death camps were located on Polish lands because the Poles were anti-Semitic. This argument is wrong for many reasons. Some of them are highlighted below:

First: It was Poland that was the host of the largest population of Jews in Europe. Therefore, if the Germans wanted to murder as many Jews as possible, naturally Poland was the first target.

Second: The location of Poland in the center of Europe and in the center of the war theater was logistically conducive to such operations.

Third: Poland under Nazi Germany’s occupation was effectively isolated from the rest of Europe as no other country. Hence, it was easier to commit such massive crimes in secrecy. For Germans it was important to protect secrecy of such deeds. That is why Germans frequently murdered witnesses of their crimes. Of course Germans would not dare to build death camp in the suburbs of Paris as the whole world would know about it in an instance.

Finally, the extermination of Jews was part of the larger German plan known as General Plan East. Under this plan, 11 million of European Jews and 51 million of Slavs, including Poles, Russians, Byelorussians, Czechs, Ukrainians, were to be exterminated. The lands up to Ural were to be settled by 10 million Germans colonialists.

Operation Zamość 

In 1942 the Zamość region in Poland became the pilot project for the German General Plan East. In the Zamość operation, all ethnic Poles were either exterminated outright or shipped to the concentration camps. The Zamość operation is famous for the selection process whereby all Polish children from this region were evaluated for features of Nordic race such as blue eyes and blond hair. Those who met such criteria were shipped to Germany for adoption by German families. Thousands of Polish children shipped to Germany in the operation Zamość were never reclaimed by Poland.

The General Plan East failed due to the defeat of Germany in Stalingrad. Nevertheless, between 1942 and 1944 Germans were able to exterminate about 80 percent of Jews in Central Europe.

Response of ethnic Poles to German genocide of Jews

Some Holocaust scholars make an argument that Germans were able to exterminate so many Jews on the conquered Polish territory because ethnic Poles participated in this process. This argument is not only historically incorrect and offensive to the Polish people but also represents deep anti-Polish bias in contemporary Holocaust study.

The Jewish communities, in particular in Eastern Poland, were not assimilated with the rest of the population. Frequently they did not even speak Polish, were very distinct in their appearance and were very distinct from the cultural standpoint as well. Most of them failed the frequently used prayer test.

Therefore, it was very difficult to hide them in non-Jewish settings. They had to be hidden from public view. So, the question arises how many people with such distinctive characteristics it is possible to hide in the condition of mortal terror, where those who help them can be instantly executed together with their entire families. In Poland people were killed even for handing a cup of water to a Jew.

Moreover, at the time of the outbreak of WWII, people were still thinking in terms of their experience from WWI. Back then, the German occupant was viewed as the one who brought law and order, therefore some security. So, many Jews actually trusted the German invaders.

A case from Ostrowia Mazowiecka serves as the best illustration of the risks involved in helping Jews in occupied Poland. In Ostrowia Jadwiga Dlugoborska was hiding 42 Jews. Just before the Soviets entered Ostrowia, Germans discovered the hideout, murdered the Jews, and took Jadwiga to the Gestapo post, where they tortured her in the most brutal way. They pulled out her nails, broke her eye, and eventually murdered her.

At the same time, Gestapo arrested a cousin of Jadwiga for her support of the Polish Home Army. She was not tortured but instead was shipped to the concentration camp and ultimately survived the war. This situation demonstrates that it was easier to survive when caught for support of the Polish Home Army then for support of the Jews. This case shows side by side the treatment of two Polish women who were captured by Gestapo in the same location, by the same Gestapo post, at the same time. One of them is murdered in the most brutal way while the other one survives.

Comparative Analysis

The Ostrowia case illustrates how severely Germans treated the Poles who helped the Jews. What is even more interesting is that in other European countries such as Belgium, Holland, Italy or France, where not a single case of murdering someone for helping the Jews was recorded, the same percentage of the local Jewish population survived the war as in Poland, where the level of terror was unprecedented and unimaginable.

For example, in the very well-known case of Ann Frank, one person who helped her was sentenced to six weeks in prison and another person was sent to the concentration camp. They both survived the war. So, in Western Europe, where no such draconian penalties for helping the Jews existed as in Poland, exactly the same percentage of Jews survived.

Moreover, in several Western European countries the local government collaborated with German occupation forces. France’s Vichy government is the best example. Even without German pressure, they introduced anti-Jewish laws and started round-ups of the Jews.

This attitude stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the Polish State. The Polish government in exile in London, the Home Army, and the Polish underground state in occupied Poland did everything in their power to save the Jews by, for example, sending such emissaries like Pilecki and Karski to inform the West of the scale of extermination and beg for help.

Defying Harmful Holocaust Stereotypes

Many Holocaust stereotypes that are promoted today have nothing to do with facts. For example, among the European leaders the one who saved most of the Jews was General Franco from Spain. He ordered the Spanish consulates in the Balkans to issue passport to Sephardic Jews under the pretense of returning them the Spanish citizenship. By this decision General Franco saved about 60,000 Jews.

The Polish underground organization ‘Zegota’ was the only organization in Europe formed for the purpose of saving the Jews. Another institution that was rescuing Jews on a massive scale was the Catholic Church. In Poland the Catholic Church was issuing birth certificates to the Jews. The process was very risky and complicated because such birth records had to be reconciled with church books. The Church even conducted special trainings how to safely issue birth certificates for the Jews. The Church in Poland also put in place the entire system of smuggling Jews from the ghettos, and placed thousands of Jewish children in Catholic convents and orphanages all over Poland. The example to save and help the Jews came from the top leadership of the Catholic Church in Poland.

According to the study by Monsignor Pawel Rytel Adrianik and doctor Edward Kopówka, about 1000 Jews were saved by local Polish population near Treblinka extermination camp. About 25 of them were subsequently killed by Germans. According to the research conducted by Adrianik, out of 20 Polish bishops 19 of them were actively involved in providing some sort of help to the Jews. The one who did not participate in this process was a bishop of German descent. Their actions are very well documented. Most of them were never recognized for their heroic deeds by the Jews.

Pitfalls of interpretation

Today about 7,000 people are recognized as “righteous.” When Gorny published his book, he thought that the Jewish institutions and Holocaust scholars would welcome it. But he was wrong. The book was not well received at all. It turned out that one thing is to talk about individual people and show dramatic human stories as single cases, but something very different is to show the political situation of the entire population and the historical context in which these stories took place.

It is something very different to view such events in the context of the reality on the ground. It is very enlightening to learn about implications of helping Jews for the entire families and communities. For example, what did it mean to shelter the Jews? What did it mean to share starving food rations with the hidden Jews? What were the consequences of such actions for children, the entire families, and communities of those who were hiding and helping the Jews? It is also worth to learn about German provocations where German agents posed as Jews seeking help. Those who provided them help were subsequently publicly condemned and murdered, sometimes by the very people whom they offered such help. Only with full knowledge of such circumstances one can fully appreciate and properly judge what it really meant to provide help to Jews in German-occupied Poland during WWII.

However, learning such key details about the circumstance in which the Poles, themselves victims destined for extermination, provided help to Jews, destroys the promoted narrative of a few righteous heroes among the degenerated masses. The narrative adopted today presents stories of a few righteous individuals in the sea of cruel and hostile cowards and looters who surrounded them. Such narrative does not adequately represent the real situation that existed in German-occupied Poland during WWII but is widely and with great ease promoted by Holocaust scholars with ill will towards Poland.


(1) Initially Gorny thought that this project would gain support of the Polish government. To his surprise, he quickly realized that the Polish government led by Donald Tusk and Ewa Kopacz was hostile to his project. Thus, he found sponsors in the private sector. They also sponsored the English translation of this book.

Published: June 25, 2018

Source: Current Events Poland

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