I’ve long had a conflicted emotional relationship to Poland. I know that Poland bore the brunt of the first official Nazi invasion in WWII, back in August 1939. I also know that the Poles suffered horribly under the Soviets. In the modern era, it was the Poles whose bravery exposed the weaknesses in and started the destruction of the Soviet system, and the Poles have been a staunch American ally in the post-Cold War world.
All that I know, and yet I’ve never been able to forgive them for the fact that Jewish genocide in Poland worked so well because so many Poles were gleeful and enthusiastic participants in the process. There was a reason why the most successful death camp of all (Auschwitz) was in Poland. The Germans knew that the local population would be more amenable to its presence than would be true in other nations. Other nations showed themselves willing to give their Jews away (the French, the Dutch, etc.), but they still might balk at mass slaughter on home ground. The Poles wouldn’t. (One could say that the other nations were hypocritical, and the Poles were not, but that’s a post for another day.)
Of course, that held true for so many Slavic and Baltic nations — and it turns out that Yad Vashem has been paying attention to all those little, regional killing fields and death camps. There’s a heart wrenching article in today’s New York Times about a project to document the local killings. This is an extremely important project because it helps to explain what we still see today: neighbor turning on neighbor, whether in Serbia or Rwanda, or somewhere else in the world.
UPDATE: Eric‘s fact-filled comment deserves to be up in the post:
I just had to come to the defense of Poles regarding the Holocaust. Poles were essentially given a bad rap by the Communist. I know this is not a prevailing wisdom, especially among my fellow Jews. But the World War 2 history is a hobby of mine, and I am especially interested in the Jewish resistance. So, I researched the subject. The better known ZOB (Jewish Combat Organization) indeed did not get much support from the Polish Home Army. The ZOB came into being only in mid-1942, and the Poles considered them a bunch of leftist demagogues. But there was another organization, ZZW (Jewish Military Union). That one was an integral part of the Polish Home Army, starting from late fall of 1939. They received weapons and ammo from the Poles. They were also as big in numbers and much better trained than ZOB. Unfortunately most of their leaders were killed in action during the Ghetto Uprising. And the Polish officer to whom the ZZW leader reported was jailed by the Communists after the war. Just as a side note, his name deserves to be mentioned: Henrik Iwanski. He lost both sons and a brother in action during the Ghetto Uprising and was heavily wounded himself. Another interesting tidbit is that the Polish Auxiliaries were not used by the Germans against the Jews during the Ghetto Uprising. The Germans brought in the Lithuanians.
I would recommend the book “Two Flags” by Marian Apfelbaum, the nephew of the ZZW leader. Sorry, for the plug, but here is my review of the book:
I suspect that the reason why the majority of the death camps were in Poland was the simple fact that that was where the majority of the European Jews lived. The French were by far worse than the Poles, and the French Government has finally admitted it recently: