Poland grapples with legacy of WWII death camps

The Belzec Memorial on the site of the former Nazi death camp in southeast Poland.  

By Robert Stein

The walls, higher in memory than in reality, form the central path that leads to the gas chamber. Stacks of inorganic, valueless furnace slags raked from the top of molten steel are strewn about a vast acreage, lifeless. I stood at the entrance to the memorial at Belzec, Poland.  

The memorial at this dismal place, profound in its silence, was built by the American Jewish Committee (AJC, ajc.org) in collaboration with the Polish government. At this place, a Nazi death factory once stood, so ruthlessly efficient that it murdered and disposed of half a million of our Jewish ancestors in less than a year.   

I walked the path and into the chamber where tens of thousands of my people died horrendous deaths. My emotions swelled as I thought of their fear as they struggled for non-existent oxygen, and of the ubiquitous photograph of the young Jewish boy with his look of fear and innocence, his arms raised in surrender.  Was he, too, murdered in this room?   

I turned and walked out the door into the bright sun, a simple act impossible for the victims whose lifeless bodies were taken for cremation or burial. This was the place that separated the past from today. A visual metaphor of moving simplicity, a place of destruction. The devastation of a multilayered and complex, interwoven culture of two groups, Poles and Jews, whose ways of life together over the course of almost 1,000 years were brought to an abrupt end by a common enemy, Nazi Germany.   The Germans stole the lives of our people and in doing so they stole an integral element of Polish culture. 

For the past 20 years, Forum for Dialogue (dialog.org.pl), a Polish nongovernmental organization, hosts a small group of AJC leaders on a weeklong exchange trip in Poland. As a board member of AJC St. Louis, I was fortunate to have been chosen as one of nine participants from the United States in this year’s exchange.  

Forum for Dialogue’s mission is to inspire new connections between contemporary Poland and Jews. Its initiatives encourage communal and individually led efforts to preserve Jewish/Polish heritage and to challenge long-held stereotypes, notably focusing on middle and high school students who often live in areas where Jewish shtetls once existed. These students usually have no idea that in their very hometowns, a vibrant and important community of Jews once lived.   

It was my fourth trip to Poland, two for business and one Jewish-focused. Nothing I had seen or experienced on those other visits led me to believe that Poles were anything but responsible for what took place on their soil during the war and in the years that followed during Soviet-controlled communism. I wanted to believe that Poles were a universally anti-Semitic people influenced by the Catholic Church, which did little or nothing to dispel the belief that Jews were guilty of deicide until the 1960s. That would have been too easy.  

But the truth, the facts, as I learned throughout the week, can be difficult to understand. The answers to many of our questions were prefaced by the words “it’s difficult.” 

Histories of the annihilation of 3 million Polish Jews, 10 percent of Poland’s population at the time and half of the total number of Jews murdered by the Germans, were often lost to time, to records destroyed, jurisdictional changes, ambivalence, and denials official and otherwise.   

It became clear to me that Poles were victims, too, that it was not a Polish Holocaust but a German Holocaust. The concentration and death camps were not Polish, but German.   

There were, of course, Poles who were complicit in the horrors. How could there not have been? But there were also heroic Poles who sheltered and aided Jews.  

Poles make up the largest number of Yad Vashem’s honorific Righteous Among the Nations, with almost 7,000 recognized to date. The Holocaust story is being told in Poland, but only minimally. It is not in any way a priority in schools, with only a mandatory one hour of class time appropriated during a young person’s schooling. The curriculum is not uniform and it can vary by a teacher’s personal leanings and/or by regional prejudices.  

The one mandatory book read by every Polish student is the short-story collection “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” by Tadeusz Borowski, a non-Jewish Polish political prisoner of Auschwitz who had some access to the out side world as a prisoner-laborer. His stories evidence the grim realities of the plight of Jews in Auschwitz. The book’s recurring portrayal of Poles as victims with minimal or no knowledge of the goings on behind the walls of the camps is perhaps why it was purposefully chosen, lest Jews be seen as the singular victims.  Forum for Dialogue steps in to bring an enhanced reality to students and others, not just about the Holocaust, but about the role that Jews had, and have, in Polish history.  

The postwar communist regime, which ended with Polish democracy and the end of the Soviet Union in 1989, had done nothing to enlighten Poles about their Jewish connections. In fact, it was an agent of anti-Semitism, most notably in 1968 when Jews were harassed by the Polish government resulting in mass Jewish emigration from the country. Poland was not immune from “the summer of discontent” nor from the demonstrations and riots that occurred in Prague that year, which ended in a Soviet invasion of the country.  

From 1989 there were almost three decades of improved relations between the few Jews remaining in the country and ethnic Poles. The relationship between Poland and Israel, with very influential support from AJC, provided a viable collaboration that remained strong. Poland joined NATO, again with the support of AJC and its far-reaching diplomatic efforts. 

But in February 2018, that progress hit a stumbling block when the current right wing government passed a law, generally referred to as the Act of Remembrance, made it a criminal offense to refer to the actions of the Nazis as Polish. With a jail sentence of up to three years, the law was condemned by the European Union, the United States, Israel, and socially conscious governments and groups around the world. It has since been moderated, but the damage has been done.  

PiS (the Law and Justice Party, a populist and very conservative party that holds the majority of seats in the Polish Parliament) has also unconstitutionally politicized the judicial system, resulting in the EU’s imposition of its Constitution’s Article 7 — allowing for the suspension of certain rights from a member state — for the first time ever.Poland’s government, through its actions and through the statements of some of its leaders, is responsible for a reported rise in anti-Semitic sentiment and xenophobia, notably among the young and, surprisingly, among better educated Poles, according to one recent academic study.   

Poland today allows no refugees to enter, and it is the only country that refuses restitution to Jews for their property losses during World War II except under extremely unrealistic criteria.

I saw no overt signs of anti-Semitism in Poland, no damaged icons, no graffiti at obviously Jewish sites. I do not believe that Poles are any more anti-Semitic than other Europeans; in fact, I would feel safer wearing a kippah in Warsaw or Krakow than I would in Berlin or Paris.   

But the signs are there that in this, the most homogenous nation in Europe, currents of anti-Semitism do exist. With the continuing collaborative efforts of Forum for Dialogue and of the AJC through its Central European office in Warsaw, we can hope that such feelings are put to rest.  

My hope is that the path to the gas chamber in Belzec might one day extend beyond the piles of lifeless slag to the forests beyond, to a place of peace and of life honoring the memory of what should have been but wasn’t. 

Without knowing who they were, we can’t know who we are.  

Despite their deaths, they are in every way an important part of who we are, and who we’ve become. We have a responsibility to remind the world that human beings are not disposable, with the hope that none shall again succumb to such horrific genocide.  

Not us. Not Poles. Not anybody. Not anywhere.

Robert Stein is a member of the AJC St. Louis board. He traveled to Poland in June as part of a multiregional AJC delegation, with stops in Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, Bełzec, Rzeszów and Auschwitz. AJC sends annual leadership delegations with members from across the United States to Poland in partnership with the Polish organization Forum for Dialogue.