Poles and the Holocaust

Question:

As a recent, first-time visitor to Poland, including the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, it really struck me that a vast, thriving people who were here for centuries are now virtually gone. At the same time, the Pope's visit has once again highlighted the painful issue of Poland's relationship with the Holocaust.

After scanning your essays and topics, I could not find what I was looking for. I have 3 questions (I hope that's fair):

What role, if any, did ordinary Poles play in the the Holocaust? How well has Poland tried to come to terms with the fact that their country was "center stage" for the Holocaust? 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?

Thank you very much for considering my questions.

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.

Best,

Rich Green

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