Anger over Poland’s new law penalizing all mention of Polish “responsibility” or “co-responsibility” for the annihilation of Polish Jewry continued to smolder, as Israel’s President Rivlin told Polish president Duda that “no country can legislate that the murder of Jews be forgotten.”
The two were holding a joint press conference in Krakow ahead of the 30th annual March of the Living, where over 12,000 participants, including some of Israel’s top brass, thousands of students, rank and file citizens from all over, and scores of survivors, marched through the infamous Auschwitz Birkenau death camp. A million Jews were slaughtered here between 1940-1945.
Poland’s new legislation calling for prison terms of up to three years for anyone accusing the Polish people of collaborating with the Nazis has sparked a bitter dispute with Israel. The law was criticized by the EU and denounced by Israel, the U.S. and Jewish groups the world over.
Many see it a pernicious form of Holocaust denial in its drive to repress unsavory facts implicating Poles in atrocities, and to inhibit Holocaust research and discussion. The law and subsequent backlash have unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland.
Attempts between Polish and Israeli diplomats to resolve the dispute have failed. “They [Rivlin and Duda] were like two deaf people talking to each other,” one observer noted, referring to a high level meeting in Israel earlier this month between the two.
Poland’s government today is led by the Law and Justice party, a right wing nationalist party that has been criticized for its anti-Semitic elements. In the weeks leading up to the passage of the “Holocaust Law,” media outlets captured crowds of Poles demonstrating outside the Parliament, demanding that the Polish President sign the bill. “Duda, take off your yarmulka!” the crowd chanted derisively.
No Law Can Abolish Accountability for Murder
As the law took effect, there were calls in Israel for President Rivlin to boycott the March of the Living in protest. Under pressure from the White House to resolve the diplomatic crisis, Rivlin went ahead with the trip but used the joint press conference as a vehicle to drive home a pointed message about Polish accountability.
While some Poles fought the Nazi regime, he told the Polish president at the joint press conference in Krakow, “we cannot deny that Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination of its Jews. The country of Poland allowed the implementation of the horrific genocidal ideology of Hitler, and it witnessed the wave of anti-Semitism sparked by the law you passed now.”
Rivlin noted that Israel honors those Poles who sacrificed their lives to save Jews, but pointed out the widespread anti-Semitism that existed in Holocaust-era Poland and fueled Polish complicity with the Nazi’s program of annihilation.
“People murdered and then inherited [the victims’ property]. Here was the foundation” of Jew hatred “that allowed the Nazis to do as they wished, not only in Poland but throughout Europe,” Rivlin said.
“This land was a forge of the Jewish nation’s soul, and also its largest Jewish graveyard. You can’t erase such a rich, painful history,” Rivlin told the Polish president. “Historians have a duty to describe the past and investigate history.”
Addressing the dispute over the Holocaust legislation, Duda acknowledged, “there is great disagreement” on the matter but did not back down an iota. He reiterated that “at no point did we want to block testimony [on the Holocaust]; on the contrary we wanted to defend the historical truths, and as a leader, I want to do this at any price, even when it is difficult for us.”
Despite the glib words, Duda has refused to admit there were more than a few Polish collaborators with the Nazis, insisting that this minority did not represent the state. His position is not surprising inasmuch as he was elected partly on a campaign promise that he would safeguard Poland’s honor by instituting changes in “history policy.”
Poland Tells Yad Vashem To Remove Offensive Caption
In line with Duda’s campaign promise, his government recently demanded that authorities at Yad Vashem remove an “offensive” caption describing the guards in a picture of the Lodz ghetto as “Polish guards,” as this depiction “slanders” Poland.
In addition, since the passage of the new law, Polish citizens are being encouraged to report to authorities in Polish embassies throughout the world all anti-Polish comments and opinions that “malign” Poland and could harm its reputation.
Poland’s bid to control international discourse to and rewrite the past has massivelybackfired. Instead of burying history, the government’s arrogance has thrust that history into the spotlight.
As the new law was making its way through Parliament a few months earlier, foreign media began publishing stories about Holocaust-era massacres of Jewish communities by Polish mobs.
Headlines revisited the postwar period in Poland as well, citing the pogrom in Kielce and other outpourings of violence in which the Polish people treated Jewish survivors returning from the death camps with murderous cruelty.
THE ACTIVITIES OF THE POLICE “BLUE” POLICE – IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Professor Jan Grabowski of Ottowo, a Polish-Canadian who has written and lectured extensively on Holocaust in Poland, says he has suffered death threats and “a campaign of hate” for delving into what he calls “an ugly but little told piece of history – Polish participation in the killings of their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust.”
Grabowski was given the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for his book Hunt For The Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-occupied Poland. He based his findings on years of combing through Polish archives from the Holocaust and post-Holocaust period, and on interviews with survivors.
“What I found were little known areas of human misery that have been insufficiently reported – or never,” he said in an interview with an Israeli paper. One of these “areas of misery” was the catastrophe Polish Jews suffered at the hands of the Polish Blue Police. This was the only armed force the Nazis officially equipped with weapons and ammunition, and allowed to operate continuously in several Nazi-occupied lands.
In a 2016 lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Grabowski went into detail about the activities of the Blue Police that he called “the deadliest armed force, after the Nazis, in the program of extermination.” The historian gathered much of his information from reports written by the Polish Blue Police themselves, documentation that is today archived in Warsaw.
His lecture, “Polish Police: Collaboration in the Holocaust” describes in detail events in hundreds of ghettos in Poland where “liquidations followed a horrible pattern—one in which the Blue Police, the firefighters, the so-called ‘bystanders’ and even children had a role to play and choices to make.” Excerpts from this lecture follow.
The Bilgoraj Ghetto
“The ghetto in Bilgoraj, fifty miles south of Lublin, was liquidated on November 2, 1942, ten days after the liquidation in Wegrow. Jan Mikulski, a Polish forester, described what he saw there as he was on his way to the bank.”
“Many bodies of women and children lying in the streets, in the gardens and on the squares. Wiesiolwski, the commander of the Polish police, surrounded by scores of kids aged 6 to 12, searched the attics, cellars, and sheds. For each Jewish child brought to him he gave the [Polish] kids sweets. He grabbed the small Jewish children by the neck and shot them through the head with his small-caliber revolver.”
The Ghettos of Wegrow and Wodzislaw
“On the day of the aktion in Wegrow, the German-Ukrainian Liquidation Force, with the assistance of the Blue Police, local firefighters and “bystanders,” murdered more than 1,000 Jews in the streets of the city. Another 8,000 Jews were marched to the Sokolow railway station, eight miles distant, and delivered to Treblinka.”
“The Liquidation Force left Wegrow the following day. Their job, however, was far from complete: more than a thousand Jews remained hidden inside the ghetto. In the subsequent days and weeks the Polish Blue Police and the local firefighters conducted intense searches and found most of them. They either killed these Jews themselves, or delivered them to the German gendarmes for execution.”
While Jewish Wegrow ceased to exist, the Jews of Wodzislaw, a small town halfway between Kielce and Cracow, were still clinging to hope. Their ghetto, created in 1940, had a population of close to 4,000. There were no Germans to speak of in Wodzislaw, attests Grabowski; the forces of order were represented by the local Blue Policemen.
“And so, in November 1942, in anticipation of the upcoming liquidation of the ghetto, the Germans provided the Polish officers with a fresh supply of ammunition. In the aktion that followed, 90 per cent of the Wodzilaw’s Jews were butchered.”
The records of the Polish Blue Police, noted Grabowski, testify that a full contingent of this force was involved in the mass murder. Platoon leader Jozef Machowski noted his role in this slaughter in his request for additional bullets to replace the “36 bullets fired during the Aktion.”
Machowski’s report reads: “I request a fresh supply of ammunition for the local detachment of the Polish Police. The bullets were fired against Jews by the officers of this police station during the most recent deportation of Jews from Wodzislaw. [The officers’] names follow.”
In 1949 Machowski and a fellow officer from the Wodzislaw detachment were prosecuted for murdering Jews and Poles. According to witnesses, shortly after the liquidation of the ghetto was complete, Machowski boasted of having shot on the day of the ghetto’s liquidation “at least thirty Jews.”
Eyewitness: Murder in Lopianka
Grabowski’s lecture turned to events in June, 1943, eight months after the liquidation of the last small ghettos in Poland and during the period of the so-called Judenjagd, or “hunt for the Jews.”
“Constable Lucjan Matusiak had apprehended four Jews: two men, one woman and a child. In fact, he did not catch the Jews himself; they were delivered to him, hands tied behind their backs with wire, by local peasants. We do not know whether the four Jews who found themselves at his mercy were local Jews hiding in the area, or people who had escaped from the death trains.”
Grabowski quoted from the testimony of eyewitness Waclaw Chomontowski: “I saw with my own eyes how officer Matusiak executed four Jews using one bullet in the village of Lopianka. He stood these four Zydek (Jew-boys) in a row, one behind another, and shot the last one in the back. There was also a young Jew-boy, so he killed him with a separate bullet.
“Once he had shot the Jews, he told me and the others to dig a grave… When we laid them into this ditch, one Jew, who had only been wounded, started moaning and pleading: ‘Officer please, have mercy, finish me off!” to which Constable Matusiak responded: ‘You are not worth a bullet.”
Then he told us to bury them and he stomped on the dirt with his feet, not listening to the pleas of the wounded Jew.… So we buried them, but when I came back a while later I could see the earth moving and I could hear the wounded Jew still moaning beneath.”
The killings of Jews in Lopianka occurred in the absence of any Germans and without any German knowledge or direct involvement, attests Grabowski, based on eyewitness reports in the post-war prosecutions of the Blue Police officers.
Asked in an interview why he has immersed himself in a field that has netted him so much hostility from his Polish compatriots, Grabowski said his work has a very personal dimension. “My father is Jewish…He survived the war by posing as a Christian. I was raised and educated in Poland, imbued fused with the belief that Poland was a heroic nation facing terrible persecution…while preserving its virtue. The entire direction of my book goes against that grain.”
“There are so many layers of lies and propaganda surrounding Jewish-Polish relations during the war,” the historian added. “It’s a festering wound that has to be cleansed… I hope my work will help the healing process by facing some truths about Polish complicity so that we can move on.”