St. Louis voices shed light on Holocaust controversy in Poland

By Myrna Meyer and Jean Cavender

On Feb. 13, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a bill banning the use of terms such as “Polish death camps” in relation to Auschwitz and other camps located in Nazi occupied Poland. In addition, the law would make it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust.

The voices of survivors from our St. Louis community expose the historical dishonesty of this legislation.

In his presentations at the museum, Holocaust survivor Jerry Koenig (of blessed memory) acknowledged the risks taken by the Polish family who kept his family, and several other Jews, hidden in a dugout under their barn for two years.   Child survivor Felicia Graber expresses gratitude to the Polish family, with whom she maintains contact, who gave her family shelter after they fled from the devastation of Warsaw. Yet Felicia and Jerry’s testimonies both include incidents of betrayal, violence and murder of Jews by Poles. 

When Simon Kohn’s three brothers returned to their Polish town after the war, they were murdered by Polish nationals. Jerry Koenig always said it was the Kielce pogrom, the murder of 44 Jews a year after the war that confirmed for his family that Poland was not a safe place for Jews.

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In 2015, the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC) presented an exhibit called, “They Risked Their Lives,” about righteous Poles recognized for rescuing Jews, on loan from the Polish Consulate in Chicago.  We would not have supported such a show if we felt stifled from sharing the darker side of Polish – Jewish relations during and after the Holocaust. 

It is historical fact that Poles suffered horrifically under Nazi occupation. Painting history with too broad a brush obscures the range of actions and reactions, both positive and negative, of a nation comprised of millions of individuals. 

HMLC staff, lay leadership, survivor speakers, docents and other volunteers remain committed to telling the historical truth, however difficult or painful, about the Holocaust, its causes, aftermath and lessons for today.

Myrna Meyer is Chair of the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center (HMLC). Jean Cavender (right) is Director of the HMLC.