Earlier this week President Barack Obama talked about "a Polish death camp" while honoring resistance hero Jan Karski rather than wording that would have made clear that he meant a death camp that Nazi Germany operated on Polish soil during its wartime occupation of Poland. Obama was widely criticized for the gaffe and wrote a letter to the Polish president expressing regret for his mistake.
But the mistake raised an important discussion in the country regarding the actions of Poland during World War II. How innocent were the Poles as a whole?
Before delving into the subject, it is important to acknowledge that there were crimes against ethnic Poles by Nazis and there were also Polish resistance movements filled with Jews and non-Jews who fought for liberty and against the Nazi regime. There were also individuals and families of Polish non-Jews who took action to save their Jewish neighbors. Many of the courageous non-Jews who helped save lives during the period are memorialized at Yad Vashem in Israel.
These actions and movements were few and far between when you consider the pre-WWII population of Poland was around 35 million people. Out of a population of 24 million Poles, around 3 million were killed -- roughly 10%. And out of a population of 3.2 million Jews in Poland, more than 1.8 million were murdered in extermination camps and another 1 million were murdered in prisons and ghettos. More than 85% of the Jews in Poland were murdered during the period of 1939 to 1945. These numbers -- which are conservative estimates -- are taken from Demographic history of Poland.
There is a reason why Poland was so easily occupied by the Germans: A majority of Poles were eager to round up Jews and put them into gas chambers. In the Jedwabne pogrom in July, 1941, a group of Polish men from around the village rounded up the local Jews as well as those seeking refuge from nearby towns and villages such as Wizna and Kolno. The Jews of Jedwabne and the surrounding areas were taken to the square in the center of the village, ordered to pluck grass, and then attacked and beaten to death. A recent study concluded that it was the Polish inhabitants of the village who carried out the action.
After the war, scores of Jewish Holocaust survivors were summarily murdered in Lublin, which had become a gathering place for Jewish refugees. Among those murdered by Poles include Sobibor uprising escapees Leon Feldhendler and Josef Kopf. In July of 1946, an outbreak of violence against the Jewish community in Kielce, Poland took place. Following the false tale of child kidnapping, including allegations of blood libel which led to a police investigation, violence broke out which resulted in the killing of around 40 Jewish Holocaust survivors. Similar incidents also happened in Parczew and Lublin. Other such examples of anti-Jewish actions by Poles are extensively documented in "Polish Complicity During the Holocaust" by Jacob Flaws and available online. Anti-Jewish violence in Poland from 1944 to 1946 is also documented here.
From 1939 to 1945, the Nazi murderers had a difficult time identifying who was and who was not Jewish in Poland. They relied on Polish non-Jews to point out the Jews to them. And a majority of the Polish non-Jews complied. Some Poles operated as extortionists, others snitched on Jews in hiding, and many waited outside Jewish homes with sacks to loot the places while the homeowners were led to their deaths.
The attitude still continues among some Polish non-Jews: Polish bishop Tadeusz Pieronek recently stated that the Holocaust "is a Jewish invention used to obtain advantages that are often unjustified" while complaining about how Jews in Israel treat the Palestinians.
No regret. The distaste for Jews continues in Poland, more than 50 years after Jews who survived the massacres left Polish territory. A recent Polish law bans Jewish kosher slaughter of animals, taking away the rights of any Jewish person to eat kosher meat in Poland. Little has changed.