Poles and the Holocaust
Richard J. Green answers:
You've asked some very difficult questions. I don't think I can answer them, but maybe I can provide some perspective. I think it should be remembered first that the Polish people suffered terribly under Nazi rule. 5-6 million Poles (about half of them Jews) were murdered by the Nazis. The Nazi plan for the Poles was to undereducate them and use them as slaves and/or low wage manual labor.
In almost all cases it is dangerous to say that nationality X behaved in a certain way. Nonetheless, there are some nationalities for which such generalizations help describe the big picture as long as one keeps in mind the exceptions. For example, the Danish people set an example for the world in helping Danish Jews to escape. Austrians overwhelmingly welcomed Hitler.
For Poland the case is much more difficult. The bulk of the Holocaust occurred in Poland and many Poles were confronted directly with whether to participate, resists, ignore, or try to mitigate the crimes.
Chrisopher Browning points out (I believe in Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Finals Solution in Poland, but it might be in The Path to Genocide) that the SS had to import guards from the Ukraine and elsewhere (mainly trained at Trawniki) because they could not trust local Poles to do the bulk of the dirty work. This fact reflects well on the bulk of Poles, I think.
Antisemitism was widespread in Poland, but there is a difference between not liking Jews and killing them. It should also be noted, however, that there were pogroms after the war in Poland.
I think this topic runs deep,is complex, and is worthy of books in its own right.
Gordon McFee responds:
What role, if any, did ordinary Poles play in the the Holocaust?
Poland had had a long history of antisemitism before World War II. That in fact was common in eastern European countries. During the Holocaust, many Poles assisted the Germans. But the same is true of Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians and others, so the Poles certainly were not unique in this respect.
How well has Poland tried to come to terms with the fact that their country was "center stage" for the Holocaust?
They have tried, but it is not an easy thing to deal with. The controversy over whether there should be a Christian monument at Auschwitz is one example of the difficulties here. Remember that the Poles did not choose to be "center stage"; that decision was made for them by the Germans.
What have post-war Poles' attitudes been towards the fact that the Polish Jews were virtually wiped out and that Jews are no longer a significant part of the Polish population?
I can't help you here. Sorry.
Hope this is useful.
For further information, you might try Raul Hilberg's Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders.
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Last modified: December 30, 2000