Poland’s president recently signed legislation that forbids citizens from “publicly and untruthfully assign[ing] responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or the Polish state for Nazi crimes,” sparking much conversation about the Polish role in the Holocaust. Certainly, writes Edna Friedberg, the phrase “Polish death camps”—specifically proscribed by the new law—is highly misleading. Yet absolving the Poles entirely of “co-responsibility” is equally unfaithful to history:
A clear-eyed look at the facts demonstrates that the record of Christian Poles, amid the German occupation and the crimes of the Holocaust perpetrated in their country, is not uniformly one either of complicity or of innocence. Poland was the victim of German aggression, suffering one of the most brutal occupation regimes among countries in the Nazi orbit. Despite severe penalties [for rescuing Jews], more Christian Poles have been recognized as Righteous among the Nations—those who risked their lives to aid Jews—than citizens of any other country in Europe. But many others supported and enabled Germany in its campaign to exterminate the Jews. . . .
The Nazis viewed Poles as racially inferior and deliberately targeted Poland’s leadership for destruction, killing tens of thousands of Catholic priests, intellectuals, teachers, and political leaders. . . . At least 1.5 million Poles were deported to Germany as slave laborers in support of the war effort, and hundreds of thousands of others were incarcerated in concentration camps. . . .
As German authorities implemented killing on an industrial scale, they drew upon Polish police forces and railroad personnel for logistical support, notably to guard ghettos where hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were held before deportation to killing centers. . . . Individual Poles also often helped in the identification, denunciation, and exposure of Jews in hiding, sometimes motivated by greed and the opportunities presented by blackmail and the plunder of Jewish-owned property. . . . There are, [in addition], well-documented incidents, particularly in the small towns of eastern Poland, where locals—acutely aware of the Nazis’ presence and emboldened by their anti-Semitic policies—carried out violent riots and murdered their Jewish neighbors. . . .
In contrast, the Polish Government in Exile based in London sponsored resistance to the German occupation, including [efforts] to help Jews in their native land. Jan Karski, who acted as an emissary between the Polish underground and the government in exile, was one of the first to deliver eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to Allied leaders like President Franklin Roosevelt in the hope of spurring rescue. . . . On the ground in occupied Poland, the Zegota group (the clandestine Council to Aid Jews) saved several thousand people by supplying false papers and organizing hiding places or escape routes.