Auschwitz memorial. Poland and the Holocaust

By August Grabski*

On 27 January the presidents of Israel, Poland and Russia as well as the representatives of over 40 governments honoured the victims of the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz. Auschwitz is built near the town of Oswiecim in Poland. Here, during World War 2, the Nazis killed one million Jews, 19,000 Gypsies and 70,000 Poles and Russians.

Marxists view the Holocaust as an example of a crime committed by one capitalist ruling class, in this case the German, in its fight for imperialistic rule over the world. It shows what barbarity the capitalists are capable of when fighting for lands, profits, slave workers and when fighting against democracy, the workers’ movement, the equality of races and peoples.

But how is the legacy of Holocaust dealt with in Poland today, in the land which was chosen by the Nazis as their main centre to exterminate European Jews?

Polish society and the Holocaust

The Holocaust was an efficient, systematic, industrial-scale attempt to assemble and murder as many Jewish people as possible, using all the resources and modern technology available to the Nazi German state at the time. In the Holocaust the Nazis killed 5.7 out of 9.6 million European Jews.

A large number of Europe’s Jews were killed in Poland, where before the war Europe’s biggest Jewish community lived. 3.5 millions Jews lived in Poland (about 10 per cent of all Polish citizens). The Nazis chose Poland as their extermination centre for a few reasons:

  • Poland had the biggest Jewish community in Europe;
  • There were specific cultural features about Polish Jewish society. For example, only 10 per cent of Polish Jews had Polish as their first language. For more than 80 per cent, Yiddish was their first language. As a result, many Jews were isolated from the rest of society;
  • The Poles, as Slavs, were also regarded by the Nazis as a “lower race” but they were not doomed to be liquidated. The Nazis planned to kill millions of Slavs and make the rest into the uneducated forced servants of German masters;
  • Poland, for the Nazis, was located on the periphery of “civilised” Europe, bordering the “barbarian” Soviet Union, which also had a big Jewish minority.

At the beginning of the war Jews were pulled out of Polish society, taken from their homes and shut up in closed-off ghettos. Until 1941 they were murdered in indirect way through the effects of forced labour, hunger and disease.

After 1941 Jews were transferred to the death camps: Auschwitz; Treblinka with one million victims; Belzec with 430,000 victims; Chelmno (Kulmhof) with 360,000 victims, Sobibor with 260,000 victims, Majdanek with 230,000 victims. Majdanek was unique among the death camps in that the Jewish victims were not an overwhelming majority.

The majority of prisoners were killed soon after their arrival at the camps, in gas chambers. To avoid mass panic, the victims were told that they were going there for showering; to reinforce this impression, shower heads were fitted in the gas chamber, though never connected to a water supply.

The camps were places of death not only for Polish Jews but also for Jews sent there by the Nazis from all over Europe. Many Jews never made it to camps but were killed on the spot — especially in the Soviet Union. During the invasion of the Soviet Union, over 3,000 special killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the German troops and conducted mass killings of Communist officials and of the Jewish population that lived on Soviet territory. Entire communities were wiped out.

The attitudes of Poles towards the tragedy of Jews varied. The majority was terrorised by Nazis — we should remember that during World War Two, the Nazis killed three millions Poles. They were unable to help Jews in the closed-off ghettos. It is important to remember too that in Poland the Nazis ordered the automatic death sentence for anyone caught trying to help Jews, and the penalty was extended to the family and even neighbours of any rescuer — a penalty that only existed in Poland. Probably a few thousand Poles were killed by the Nazis for helping the Jews.

Against all the odds a few hundred thousand Poles helped with different forms of relief for the Jews. The Polish people are, in fact, the biggest ethnic group among the “Righteous Among the Nations”, that is the rescuers of Jews under the Nazis rule. Only a small group of Poles — extreme nationalists and criminals — supported and actively helped the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews. Blackmailers, who lived on the money of Jews in hiding, were an especially big problem.

A courier of the Polish émigré government in London, Jan Karski, was the first person to inform US President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill about the mass extermination of Jews in Poland. However, as we know, the Western allies did not even bomb the rail lines going to the Auschwitz camp.

The attitude of Poles towards the Jewish tragedy depended in large part on their political outlook. A section of Jewish refugees who had escaped from the ghettos joined the Communist guerrilla “resistance”. Inside the ranks of the Polish Communists there were 17 guerrilla units with a large number of Jews. At the same time, extreme Polish nationalists, mainly from the National Armed Forces, were responsible for more than 120 cases of killing Jewish refugees (individuals and groups) in the Polish forests.

The arrival of the Red Army ended the slaughter of Jews in Poland. By then 88 per cent of Polish Jews had been wiped out in the Holocaust.

Jews in “People’s Poland”

The Stalinists took power in Poland in 1944–1945. Their policy was the exact opposite of the anti-Jewish Polish bourgeois government of the late 1930s.

An important factor in this change was the fact that 40 per cent of the pre-war Communist Party was of Jewish descent. For the first time in Polish history, the Jews stopped being second class citizens.

The Communists killed and suppressed members of the right wing armed groups, some of which had participated in a series of anti-semitic killings after the liberation of Poland and right up until 1947 continued to hound Jewish survivors.

Until 1949 there were eleven different Jewish political parties in Poland: non-Zionist, Zionist, left, right wing, religious organisations. And all were able to operate without harassment from the Stalinist state apparatus. In the first two post-war Polish parliaments there were a few Jewish representatives from the Bund, the workers’ Zionist parties and the moderate Zionist right wing party, Ikhud (Unity in Hebrew). In 1948 the Polish government helped train eight thousand volunteers for the Israeli Army, and they were sent to Israel to fight against the invasion of the Arab states.

Jews were allowed relatively free emigration to the West. Jews and Jewish-descent Poles held hundreds of important posts in the state apparatus and in the Communist Party.

Fortunately at the beginning of 1950s the Polish Stalinist government remained unimpressed by the Stalinist anti-Zionist (in reality anti-Semitic) trials taking place in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries.

The state financially supported the development of Jewish culture. At the beginning of 1950 Poland, with a very small Jewish community (less than 100,00), was one of the main centres of publishing for Yiddish books.

The attitude of the Stalinist regime towards the Jewish minority did not mean that it conducted an internationalist policy towards all the national minorities of Poland, e.g. those Germans, Ukrainians and Byelorussians who were not resettled by force in Germany and the Soviet Union after the war and remained in Poland. They had to wait to launch their cultural organisations until after the Polish October (the mass anti-Stalinist protest in Poland in 1956).

But at the beginning of the 1960s the nationalistic fraction inside the leadership of the Communist Party — the “guerrillas” or “partisans” — became stronger. (A few of the fraction leaders participated in the Communist guerrilla in the war). This fraction organised a brutal propaganda campaign against “Zionists” in 1967–1968.

In June 1967, at the (Stalinist-controlled) Congress of Trade Unions, and after the defeat of the USSR-backed Arabs in the war against Israel, the first secretary of Communist Party Wladyslaw Gomulka, said that every Polish citizen should have only one fatherland — People’s Poland. He accused the Polish Jews of having dual loyalty.

Despite its “anti-Zionist” disguise the campaign was strongly anti-semitic. As a result of the campaign anti-semitic purges were conducted in the central apparatus of the state, the Communist party, the media and in cultural and scientific institutions. A half of the Jewish community still living in Poland decided to leave. More than 13,000 Jews left Poland.

After the emigration, most Jewish cultural institutions collapsed or were severely weakened. All the dozen Jewish primary and secondary schools in which Yiddish was taught ceased to exist.

The Polish authorities changed the way World War Two was taught in Polish schools. The tragedy the Jews had endured started to be faded out. Instead the books and scholars talked only about the murder of six million Polish citizens. The Jewish identity of half of this six million was hardly mentioned.

In the 1970s, and to a lesser extent in the 1980s, books about the Holocaust written in Poland were treated by the authorities as less important than books about crimes committed against the Poles. Books about Jews were not publicised, their print run was limited. Because of state censorship historians had to avoid talking about how Poles, during the war, looted Jewish property or blackmailed Jews who were in hiding, living on their money.

After the rise of Solidarnosc in 1980–1981 the Communist authorities tended to use anti-semitic slogans, gossip and feelings against the leaders of this workers’ movement. In 1981 a number of Communist Party hard-liners launched the Patriotic Association Grunwald. (Grunwald is a village where in 1410 one of the biggest battles of the Middle Ages took place, often called the battle of Tannenberg. In this battle Polish, Lithuanian and Ruthenian troops defeated the German Teutonic Order.) Nevertheless anti-semitic slogans spread by Grunwald were universally rejected among the ranks of Solidarnosc.

After 1989

After the collapse of the Stalinist police state, historians linked to right wing parties and milieux started to rewrite Polish contemporary history. Despite the concerns of the Jewish community that a return of parliamentary democracy and freedom of speech would also bring the return of anti-semitic slogans and parties, this has happened only on a minimal scale. For every more serious politician, openly anti-semitic declarations would mean political suicide. Despite the efforts of extreme nationalists in different elections after 1989, they have never been able to gain more than a fraction of one per cent of votes.

Since 1989 the respectable Polish right has made some effort to rehabilitate the leaders of the anti-Communist armed organisation which fought against the Communist regime in 1944–1947. As has been said, some of those groups killed not only officials of the new regime but also Jews. In 1996 the Association of Jewish War Veterans in Poland protested against the rehabilitation of Jozef Kuras (known as Fire), one of the most famous anti-Communist guerrilla commanders. He was responsible for killing about 50 Jewish survivors. The Association of Jewish War Veterans asked the question, “How many Jews someone must kill to become the national hero?”. But their statement was published only in a few left papers.

“Neighbours” by Jan Gross

In 2000 a Polish historian of Jewish descent, Jan Tomasz Gross, from New York University. published The Neighbours. The book looked at the exceptional case of the village of Jedwabne, whose inhabitants in July 1941 massacred a thousand Jews. The main organisers of this slaughter were tried and sentenced after the war, yet the story about this mass murder remained unknown to the public.

Gross’s revelations caused a huge shock in Polish society, which had seen the Poles generally only as honest rescuers of Jews during the war. The real scale of Polish anti-semitism before the war and during the war had been largely ignored.

The mainstream liberal press started to discuss about Polish guilt in the Shoah, about how Poles were by-standers and had a passive attitude towards the anti-Jewish persecutions of the Nazis.

No doubt the discussion was needed and positively fruitful. It helped to destroy the nationalistic stereotypes which present Poles only as heroes or victims, but never as persecutors of other nations. But as socialists we should reject any conception of a collective guilt of one ethnic group towards another. The blame for modern Polish anti-semitism is not the Polish people as such, but concrete social forces: the nationalistic right, a part of Catholic hierarchy. We would not blame the pre-war Communist Party of Poland or the Polish Socialist Party, which fought the racism in a direct way.

The radical left and Anti-Semitism

Regretfully “anti-Zionism”, or a part of this discourse, seems only to repeat the false propaganda slogans made by the Kremlin after the Six Days War of 1967.

And a majority of Polish “alterglobalist” (anti-capitalist) activists do not condemn the suicide bomb attacks in Israel, or even support them, even though innocent Israeli civilians are killed by them. And many in the alterglobalist milieux would prefer to back the “anti-imperialistic” Islamic fundamentalists rather than help internationalist campaigns in solidarity with emancipatory social movements.

According to different sociological research studies in the 1990s, about one fifth of Polish society have clear anti-semitic outlooks and feelings. Fortunately no one radical anti-semitic organisation is growing. Among the institutions unofficially soft on moderate anti-semitic attitudes are the Catholic radio station of Saint Mary (Radio Maryja) which has about four million listeners, and a part of the nationalistic and Christian right wing party, the League of Polish Families (which now gains 10-15 per cent in polls).

However, the still living widespread remembrance of Auschwitz means that open anti-semitism remains discredited in a public life. Only no tolerance for racists and their politics can guarantee that anti-semitic ghosts do not return in the future.

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