The Legacy of Poland’s Post-War Holocaust Justice

April 19, 2021 | Konstanty Gebert
About the author: Konstanty Gebert, a columnist and international reporter with the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, is the author of eleven books and co-founder of Midrasz, a Polish Jewish intellectual monthly.

In the ten years following the end of World War II, special Polish courts tried over 30,000 suspected collaborators with the Nazis. Because of the timing of the decree creating these courts, these proceedings are known as the August trials, which is also the title of a new book about them by Andrew Kornbluth. Konstanty Gebert writes in his review:

Poland was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe not to have had a Quisling administration collaborating with the occupiers: the Germans, simultaneously determined to crush the country’s national will and contemptuous of Polish “sub-humans,” refused to allow one to be set up. Yet the country had no shortage of individual and institutional collaborators against whom post-war charges could be brought. Overall, those accused in the August trials were found guilty in approximately half of the cases. In cases where the victims happened to be Jewish, though, that rate fell to 14 percent. This was true even though crimes against Jews had been mostly more serious than those against non-Jews.

Kornbluth is excellent in dissecting the complex dynamics among the Soviet-imposed post-war regime, the judiciary (largely composed of pre-war and anti-Communist judges), and the post-war Polish population. Contrary to accepted myths, he does not find that the judiciary was necessarily following the Soviet-backed Communist regime’s orders.

Jewish victims often could not testify, for they were either dead or had fled, while those who did survive and remained were most often too terrified to testify against Poles. Even Poles who had saved Jews asked them after the war to keep this heroism secret, out of fear of retaliation.

Kornbluth shows brilliantly how, when those actually found guilty and sentenced for crimes against Jews challenged the verdicts, the description of facts would be totally changed between the original trial and the appeals trial, exonerating the perpetrators and strengthening the legend of Polish innocence. Sentences were reduced, amnesties applied. In a final, particularly obscene gesture, Polish courts after 1989 rehabilitated some perpetrators of crimes against Jews, designating those crimes as “acts done in the defense of Poland’s independence.”

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