Don't blame Poland for Nazi crimes

By  Hanna Sokolski, Catholic Register Special
  • April 3, 2008

{mosimage}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.”

(Hanna Sokolski is media relations officer for the Canadian Polish Congress, Toronto District.)

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