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Understanding Poland’s record during the Holocaust


The Polish government’s recent legislation making it illegal to suggest Poland bore any responsibility for Nazi atrocities committed on its soil, is a step in the wrong direction, even if some of the motivations for this move are understandable. To be sure, the history of the Holocaust contains areas of complexity and diverse opinions. However, when it comes to the Shoah, the following facts must be acknowledged and are not negotiable:

1) The Holocaust was primarily initiated, devised and implemented by Nazi Germany.

2) The death camps established and operated in occupied Poland were Nazi Germany’s death camps – and had nothing to do with Poland or the Polish people. Many thousands of non-Jewish Poles were murdered in Auschwitz.

3) Poland experienced severe persecution by Nazi Germany and suffered massive losses among both its Jewish and Christian population. Millions of non-Jewish Poles were murdered during the Second World War.

4) Poland was not immune to anti-Semitism before, during or after the Shoah.


The Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, once said: “The Poles were neither as good as they would like the world to believe, nor as bad as many Jews claim.” The motive for the government’s proposed legislation stems, in part, from a feeling of frustration – not without basis – that Poland is too often unfairly labelled as one of the main protagonists of the Holocaust. Of course, it was Nazi Germany, along with countries that officially participated in the genocide against Jews, who were the main culprits, not Poland.

Poland’s record toward Jews during the Second World War was a mixture of exceptional nobility and sacrifice (there are over 6,700 documented Polish Righteous Among the Nations), abject cruelty and brutality (even after the war), and indifference (virtually a worldwide phenomenon at the time, granted) – and everything else in between. By comparison, Canada’s record toward Jewish refugees was abysmal at a time when Canadians had a much greater opportunity to help. (And unlike in Poland, Canadians were not subject to the death penalty for helping Jews.)

Stifling open discussion on Poland’s historical record during the Holocaust – indeed on any country’s response to Nazi Germany’s war on Jews – only leads to overreactions, extreme views and wild and baseless generalizations on both sides, as we indeed have already witnessed. Criminalizing opinions – even blatantly wrong ones – will not serve the purpose of clarifying the historical record. It will only fuel the fire of discord and controversy. We can best impart the lessons of the Shoah with dialogue and education, not through coercion and the heavy hand of the law.

“We can best impart the lessons of the shoah with dialogue and education”

The late, eminent historian and Holocaust survivor Israel Gutman used to tell this story: A Jew knocked on the door of a poor farmer’s cottage and asked for food. He, his wife and their two children had been wandering in the woods for several days seeking shelter from the Nazis. The farmer and his wife took them in and in time, the two families bonded so well that they became as one.

One day, the farmer returned from a trip to a neighbouring village with news. The Germans had discovered that a Polish family had been sheltering a Jewish family, and murdered both families. They all lapsed into silence. That night, the Jewish family, realizing they couldn’t keep endangering their Polish protectors, packed their belongings. But in the morning, the Poles came to their room and said, “Stay. Whatever happens to you, will happen to us.”

Were there any more beautiful words spoken during the Holocaust? In the face of unspeakable consequences, both parties exhibited a nobility of spirit, care and concern for the other at the risk of their own beings. It is in their footsteps, and in homage to their exceptional spirit, that I believe Poles and Jews should engage in constructive discussion and build their future together. Education, not legislation, is the best route forward.

Eli Rubenstein is the religious leader of Congregation Habonim and the national director of March of the Living Canada.