"Polish death camps": Nazi collaborators or victims?

It should be noted without equivocation that Poland’s Holocaust record, while far from perfect, is better than most countries under Nazi occupation. Unlike most of Germany’s European colonies, Poland produced no native SS division. Those who served with the German army were primarily Volksdeutsch (Polish citizens of German extraction), and, unlike citizens of other countries under occupation, no Poles eagerly worked as death camp guards.

But wartime Poland was a strange case of deeply rooted, historical anti-Semitism coexisting with anti-Nazi resistance. In 1942, the celebrated Catholic writer and resistance figure Zofia Kossak-Szczucka appealed for outside assistance on behalf of the Jews languishing and dying within the Warsaw Ghetto. But, lest it be seen as a philo-Semitic gesture rather than an act of Catholic decency, she added: “Our feelings toward the Jews haven’t changed. We still consider them the political, economic and ideological enemies of Poland.” The idea that Polish Jews were an alien political body, disproportionately active in pro-Soviet politics and therefore an obvious target for partisans, persists among many contemporary Polish historians…

But this controversy isn’t about a lazy speechwriter or the United States’ shameful record in rescuing Jews; it’s about controlling the story of Poland’s past. It is undeniably true that the “Polish nation” was not complicit in the Holocaust, that the country fiercely resisted invasion and occupation, that Poland was uninvolved in the industrialized killing of Jews, and that Poles often displayed tremendous moral courage in hiding Jewish fellow citizens. But in upending one myth, let’s not consecrate another. As the Jedwabne pogrom shows, victims can also be perpetrators.

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