Europe

"Polish Death Camps" Controversy

It was a cold winter night in 1942—probably January, maybe February. I was never told the exact time.

What I know for certain, was that it happened in Sosnowiec, Dandowka at 6 Zdrojowa Street in German occupied Poland.

My mother Ida just turned 14 when the gestapo took her from her family home as a hostage. They really wanted her older sister and my aunt Bogusia, who was with the resistance and was in hiding for a few weeks. My mom was pulled from her bed and dragged outside onto the crackling frost, barefoot and in a nightgown. Her mom, my grandma Klara, heard from the officer that Bogusia needed to surrender herself before dawn, or my mom would be hung.

So, as ordered, my aunt presented herself at the police station just before sunrise, and within a few days she “took” the train to the concentration camp. As for my mother: she was locked in a sort of orphanage and forced to slave labour until the last day of the war.

Whatever you may think, this story is nothing unusual, just an every day ordinary occurrence happening across the German occupied Poland at the time. Hundreds of thousands of families and millions of people experienced a similar or much worst fate.

The statistics were terrifying: for every one thousand Jews and Polish citizens, 220 of them lost their lives.

Six hundred and forty-four thousand died due to direct warfare, more than 3,577,000 were lost because of imprisonment, deportation to death camps, roundups, executions, pacification, liquidation of ghettos and slave labour. Another 1,286,000 passed away due to epidemic and hunger, etc. And 521,000 died of exhaustion, wounds, mutilations, or health-devastating work. Ultimately the losses in the population between 1939 and 1945 amounted to 6,280,000, including 3,200,000 thousand Jewish citizens of Poland.

Poles never formed collaborative structures of power (government, army, or Polish Waffen-SS units), which was an exception among European countries occupied by the Third Reich.

Poles and the Polish State have frequently been accused of taking an active part in the genocide and being on par with the Germans. And yet facts about the collaboration and active participation in genocide on a massive scale by many other European countries are little known and sometimes even ignored.

Belgians, Danes, Dutch, Estonians, Hungarians, Latvians, French, Italians, Ukrainians, Russians, Croatians, Romanians and many other nationalities, not only served in the Wafen SS, but formed their own units: the Belgian 27th Volunteer SS Panzergrenadier Division (Flemish) "Langemarck" (23,000 people), 28th Volunteer SS Panzergrenadier Division (Walloon) "Wallonien" (15,000), also Belgian.

Ten thousand Danes reinforced the 5th SS Viking Panzer Division and the 11th Volunteer SS Panzergrenadier Division "Nordland."

Dutch volunteers, numbering 50,000 served in the 23rd Panzergrenadier Division, the 34th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division "Landstorm Nederland," and in the 5th SS Viking Panzer Division.

In France, the Vichy government, headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval actively collaborated with the German administration, contributing among other things to the extermination of European Jews. French police led by René Bousquet captured and deported to the extermination camps 76,000 Jews who mainly ended their lives in Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, and Sobibor. Some eight thousand French volunteers were a part of the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS "Charlemagne." 

In Lithuania, the German administration directed and supported the organized killing of Lithuanian Jews by encouraging local auxiliaries of the German occupation regime to carry out logistics for the preparation and execution of the murders. This effort resulted in a massacre in Ponary, committed by German SD and SS units, but with the active participation of Lithuanian Sonderkommando Squad (Ypatingasis burys) from Vilnius. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered in Ponary, along with 20,000 Poles and 8,000 Russian POWs.

Ukrainians formed the 14th SS-Volunteer Division "Galicia," in which approximately 25,000 men served.

Another 20,000 Estonians formed the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS.

And the Hungarians cruelly handed over Jewish refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Germans.

Similar anti-Jewish examples can be multiplied to dozens or even hundreds, but it is not my intention to burden anyone with greater or lesser responsibility for crimes against the Jewish people.

The problem is much more complicated—it is a question of differentiation of roles and naming the executioner and the victim. It is also, if not above all, about empathy, about backing up the victims by clearly indicating the perpetrators.

What has happened in recent days, all this hysteria regarding the "subject" of "Polish concentration camps" is incredibly unfair and unjust.

Especially to the Polish people who have experienced the cruelty of war.

I thought I would never say this, but I'm glad that both of my parents are gone.

It is hard to imagine how they would react to concentration camps that were built and run during World War II by Nazi Germany in German-occupied Poland as "Polish death camps" and "Polish concentration camps."

In Poland, and elsewhere in Europe and around the world, there were despicable and evil people, individuals who made their fortune on someone else's tragedy. There were many Poles who, because of their prejudices did not hesitate to kill their neighbours like in Jedwabne.

But there should be no doubt as to who was responsible for the Holocaust.

Why should several thousand scoundrels in Warsaw result in the entire country of Poland to bear the brunt of the blame?

What about the almost 40,000 thousand Belgians in the ranks of the Waffen SS? Are they the outcasts or is it the entire nation?

What about the Dutch, Lithuanians, Russians, Ukrainians?

The German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel pointedly and decidedly stated that Germany alone carried out the Holocaust. "Individual collaborators in Nazi-occupied regions during World War II did not change the fact that Germany was responsible for the Holocaust, every form of historical falsification such as the term 'Polish concentration camps' runs into explicit rejection on our part and will be sharply condemned. […]  This organized mass murder was carried out by our country and no one else. […] There is not the slightest doubt as to who was responsible for the extermination camps, operated them and murdered millions of European Jews there: namely Germans."

After such a strong message no one should ever be in doubt.

And yet, the Polish government has implemented a new rule. Poland's upper house has passed a contentious law that could punish anyone who accuses the country of complicity in the crimes of Nazi Germany.

Some of the European states and the U.S. have raised concerns regarding the new legislation.  And Israel has gone even further by condemning it as "offensive and wrong" because it could deny the responsibility of some Poles in crimes against Jews, even in cases where their guilt has already been proven.

Regardless of voices from outside, the Polish President Andrzej Duda has signed the bill to protect Poland from what he believes is confusion about who bears responsibility for death camps Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland.

In a recent speech, Duda had this to say: “We do not deny that there were cases of huge wickedness” on the part of some Poles toward Jews. But he stressed that “there was no systemic way in which Poles took part in” Nazi crimes.