On Jan. 26, the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Polish Parliament approved a controversial draft law outlawing the term “Polish extermination camp” and criminalizing discussion of any Polish crimes relating to the Holocaust.
The law’s language is slightly arcane and even ambiguous about scholarly work, but its purpose is clear: to restrict discussion of Polish complicity. Violation is punishable with a fine or imprisonment of up to three years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians have condemned the law, which threatens to create serious diplomatic tensions.
Polish legislators say they are simply trying to correct the record, clarifying that Germans, not Poles, built and ran the Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland. Many Poles surely feel unfairly blamed for Nazi crimes when the camps are characterized as “Polish.”
Scholars do not, as a rule, refer to the camps as Polish. However, a growing body of research both within and outside Poland has established that some Poles were indeed complicit in the Nazi crimes. Even if Poles did not create the extermination camps, some of them collaborated. That cannot be legislated away.
Consider the weeks after the German invasion of eastern Poland on June 22, 1941. Public authority collapsed in the face of the advancing German army. In many communities, local Poles and other non-Jews beat, robbed, raped and murdered their Jewish neighbors. Our forthcoming book, “Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust,” documents 219 such pogroms in cities and small towns across eastern Poland, nearly 10 percent of the 2,304 localities where Jews and non-Jews dwelled together. Ethnic Poles were the primary perpetrators in approximately 25 percent of the pogroms; in the remaining instances, ethnic Ukrainians predominated.
Some argue that the Germans compelled Poles and other non-Jews to commit violence. It’s true that the Germans encouraged non-Jews to do their dirty work; some pogroms took place with the Germans observing. But in many other cases, the violence began before the Germans arrived or after they left.
A minority of towns were like Szczuczyn, where many Poles fanned out to kill their Jewish neighbors
Consider Szczuczyn, a town of approximately 5,400 inhabitants located near the Lithuanian border that was half Polish and half Jewish. The Germans arrived immediately after the war began and pushed on quickly, leaving behind a small field troop. That same night, groups of local Poles fanned out on the main streets and began murdering the town’s Jews. Not all Poles participated in these crimes, but many did.
According to Chaya Soika-Golding, a Jewish survivor from Szczuczyn, the perpetrators roamed the main streets and broke into apartments to steal goods and to murder women and children. In 1945, she wrote a letter to a friend, saying: “They killed Rozental’s children in the marketplace. They had also killed Kheytshe with her six-month-old child at breast and her older boy Grishen.” One Polish eyewitness reported seeing someone grab a Jewish child by the foot and smash the child’s head on the ground. The testimony we’ve assembled reveals that these events had a carnival-like atmosphere to them. In the end, approximately 300 of Szczuczyn’s 2,500 Jews died in this festival of violence.
And as strange as it may sound, here’s what brought the violence to an end: The town’s Jewish women appealed not to the Polish elite, who refused to do anything, but to the otherwise diffident local German troops, bribing them to stop the pogrom.
Similar events happened in dozens of other places, as we found in testimonies in multiple archives, especially those located in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Most Polish towns where Jews and non-Jews lived together did not erupt in pogroms. Polish violence flared mainly in places where Jews and non-Jews had been politically at odds long before the war.
It’s also true that many other Poles and ethnic Ukrainians heroically defended Jews and fought the Nazis, and that millions of ordinary Poles and Ukrainians endured terrible violence both from the Germans and the Soviets. Acknowledging the full and well-documented historical picture merely reminds us that, in some local circumstances, ordinary people can commit ghastly acts.
Poland’s Holocaust legislation is trying to outlaw historical facts
But if Poland’s Holocaust legislation becomes law, publishing or publicly presenting the scholarly findings we have described here would risk fines or even imprisonment. Poland’s current government will likely face the unpalatable prospect of enforcing an unenforceable law and denying what the mainstream scholarly community has increasingly shown to be true: Some Poles were complicit in the Holocaust.
Jeffrey Kopstein is a professor and the chair of the department of political science at the University of California at Irvine.
Jason Wittenberg is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of California at Berkeley.