Correction: An earlier version of this column relied in part on a wire report from Warsaw that quoted the U.S. ambassador to Poland. Stephen Mull told reporters, “Any suggestion that Poland, or any other countries other than Nazi Germany, bear responsibility for the Holocaust, is a mistake, harmful and insulting. Director Comey certainly didn’t intend to suggest in any way that Poland bears responsibility for those crimes.” But only the first of those sentences was in the wire report, leading Richard Cohen to report incorrectly that Mull had criticized Comey’s remarks. The following version has been updated.
In the category of “no good deed goes unpunished,” we now have the speech of FBI Director James B. Comey at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He said some remarkable things. The first is that he requires all his agents and analysts to visit the museum so that they can acquaint themselves with evil. The second is that he personally is so “haunted” by the Holocaust that “it has long stood as a stumbling block to faith.”
That stopped me right there. “Who is this guy?” I wondered. J. Edgar Hoover would never have confessed to a substantial crisis of faith, never mind sending his agents to any museum. Comey is not your basic Washington bureaucrat.
What followed though was not applause, but condemnation. The president and prime minister of Poland, as well as Anne Applebaum, The Post columnist whose husband is the speaker of the lower house of the Polish parliament, all unloaded on Comey. Why? Applebaum explained: “Because James Comey . . . in a speech . . . arguing for more Holocaust education, demonstrated just how badly he needs it himself.” Ouch!
Applebaum and the others took Comey to task for the following two sentences: “In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t so something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do.”
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski called the comments an “insult to thousands of Poles who helped Jews.” The prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, added, “To those who are incapable of presenting the historic truth in an honest way, I want to say that Poland was not a perpetrator but a victim of World War II.”
Nowhere in Comey’s speech did he blame Poland for the Holocaust. He simply mentioned “accomplices,” of which Poland had its share. This doesn’t negate the fact that no European nation suffered as much under Nazi rule as did Poland — and no nation had as effective an underground movement. Many Poles risked, and sometimes lost, their lives trying to save Jews. Poles were often splendid. Most just tried to survive.
But even before the 1939 conquest by Germany, Poland had evolved into an anti-Semitic state. In her book “On the Edge of Destruction,” Celia S. Heller wrote that the Jews of Poland “came to represent a conquered population.” They were legally discriminated against. Quotas for Jews were established in colleges and universities. Jewish students were forced to sit in certain areas, the so-called ghetto benches. If they resisted, they were beaten by their fellow students, sometimes by the faculty as well. Jewish merchants, who already closed on Saturday, were forced to close Sunday as well and were required to post their names, often recognizably Jewish, on their storefronts.
Many of these and other measures were implemented by Poland’s elected government, not by the Nazis who would later show the Poles how anti-Semitism could really be done. In Poland, anti-Semitism was not imposed from above. It was simply politically expedient.
What amounts to the Polish version of Jim Crow laws hardly rises to the level of mass murder. But it was its predicate, and scholars such as Princeton’s Jan Gross in his “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” did find that Poles murdered Jews on their own — as the Germans looked on. If not every Pole was an anti-Semite, then not every Pole had clean hands, either. Even after the war, pogroms erupted in Poland.
I don’t begrudge the Poles their sensitivity. For too long their nation was unfairly characterized as an anti-Semitic cesspool and its incomparable suffering during World War II was largely ignored. But this effort to blame the Holocaust solely on the Germans — and soon, I bet, only on those Germans who were Nazis — is a historical whitewash. The Nazis originated and implemented the murder of Jews. Still, they had help, less in Poland than in some other nations — France, are you paying attention? — and they were often operating in areas where Jews had already been dehumanized.
Comey might have chosen his words better. But I know what he meant. I applaud him for what he said and for sending his agents to the Holocaust museum. He wants them to recognize the universality of evil. In police lingo, it remains armed and dangerous.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.