Problems with Article in “The Atlantic” by Doctor Edna Friedberg of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Problems with Article in “The Atlantic” by Doctor Edna Friedberg of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The below was letter was submitted to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on December 22, 2019 by Gene Sokolowski, PhD in response to the following article: 

The Truth About Poland’s Role in the Holocaust

Dear Doctor Friedberg,

I recently came across and am writing in response to your article entitled “The Truth About Poland’s Role in the Holocaust” that was published in The Atlantic on 8 Feb 18. There are a number of problems, which I address below.

You’ve correctly described the first component of the antidefamation law, i.e., the Polish state did not participate in Germany’s crimes against humanity. However, you’ve distorted and falsified the second component. The law’s second component exempts artistic activities, academic research, and claims of individual actions. You instead write that the second component “would criminalize perceived attacks on Polish actions during World War II”. The phrase “Polish actions” is ambiguous, which apparently was your intent so that uninformed readers would conclude that any criticism is prohibited. You then misrepresent the second component by stating it would “criminalize minimization of Polish collaboration”. This is false; objective criticism of an individual’s action is not prohibited.

You assert “many others [i.e., Poles] supported and enabled Germany in its campaign to exterminate the Jews.” The two examples you use to support your assertion are invalid.

First, you rely on Jan Grabowski vel Abrahamer for accounts of the Blue Police; however, Grabowski has ruined his credibility as a scholar. Recall that he manipulated the data of Szymon Datner to arrive at and publicize the false conclusion that Poles killed 200,000 surviving Jews at the end of the war. By contrast, Datner’s research showed that 100,000 were killed by the Germans and the remaining 100,000 lived, generally because of Polish assistance. You claim that “Polish police forces” were “collaborators”; however, you forget that all higher officers in the Blue Police were removed or demoted and replaced by German policemen. By mid-1941, the Germans drafted candidates who spoke German, had “Aryan” ancestry, and espoused pro-German political convictions. There were some collaborators, particularly Volksdeutsche and ethnic Ukrainians; however, some Blue Police Poles aided Jews and a large segment were in the Polish Underground, for which the best proof is the Karski reports. It is estimated that out of the 15,000–20,000 members, 50 percent belonged to the Armia Krajowa and 20 percent were killed by the Germans for underground activities. They did not “actively assist the Germans in hunting Jews”; they were forced to do so and often refused German orders to kill Jews. For example, on June 3, 1942, they stood and wept as German soldiers massacred 110 Jews in Pawiak prison after the Poles refused to do so. Some members were shot on the spot by the Germans out of suspicion of assisting the Jewish fighters. It should be obvious that the Blue Police were hostages to German terror and were not stereotypical collaborators. You portray the Blue Police as a special unit created to pursue and oppress Jews. This is false. They were pre-war local policemen conscripted by the Germans under pain of death and tasked with public safety and order. Note that local policemen in all of the occupied countries were conscripted by the Germans. You state that they “guarded the ghettos”. You forget that order in the ghetto was enforced by the Jewish Ghetto Police whom Emanuel Ringelblum reported were more brutal than the SS guards. You are wrong about the liquidation of the ghettos. This was done by the Germans assisted by Ukrainian and Baltic auxiliaries. You may wish to read up on the Hilfswillige and Trawniki men, who were largely Ukrainian and assisted in the liquidation of ghetto Jews in Warsaw, Częstochowa, Lublin, Lwów, Radom, Kraków, and Białystok. As for the “hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children held before deportation to killing centers”, Holocaust scholars Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt have logically and correctly asked, why did the Judenräte deliver many hundreds of thousands of their own people to the Germans rather than resist and make the Germans do their own dirty work?

Second, you are wrong about Jedwabne because you mistakenly rely on the writings of Jan Gross, a sociologist who is uninformed of the methods of historical research. Gross holds a nation of tens of millions guilty for the deeds of a handful of Poles who were motivated by revenge for Jewish collaboration with the Soviets, which resulted in the deportation to Siberia and death of their Polish neighbors during 1939-41. Consider that Gross overlooked a number of inconsistencies, which include the following: No Pole was permitted to store enough fuel to burn a barn; German bullet casings were found at the site of the aborted exhumation; however, no Pole was allowed by the Germans to possess firearms; Gross claims the number of victims was 1,600; however, based on the aborted exhumation, the number is about 250; Hermann Schaper and four other German SS functionaries were convicted for the crime in German courts. Note also that Gross previously claimed Poles killed more Jews than Germans, which is preposterous and false. As for Gniewczyna Łańcucka, please cite your source so that others may assess it.

You also ignore factual historical context by stating “these cases of rescue and resistance represent only a tiny fraction of the Polish population.” You directly imply that most Poles were able to help fugitive Jews and ghetto Jews, yet only a few were willing to do so. This is false and dishonest. When Hitler and Stalin jointly attacked Poland in September 1939, the destruction of Poland was their main objective. In the first two years of the war, Poles were the primary target of a coordinated German and Soviet extermination process designed to annihilate them on both sides of the Ribbentrop-Molotov line. During this two-year period, virtually all of Poland’s Jews were imprisoned in German-operated ghettos; however, Poles were in a day-to-day struggle for survival because of the brutalities and severe conditions exacted by the occupiers. The Germans imposed near-starvation rations, enforced onerous quotas on farmers, conducted daily executions to terrorize the populace, randomly arrested and tortured Poles, and conducted recurrent round-ups for deportation to concentration and labor camps. The Germans would also kill up to 100 civilians for the death of one German soldier. You omit the fact that only in Poland did the Germans have a standing order that anyone aiding a Jew in any way would be executed together with immediate family. You further omit the fact that, despite the German death penalty, the largest number by far of any country honored by Yad Vashem (about 7,000) are Poles, many of whom were killed for aiding Jews. While these are known to Yad Vashem, thousands more are known only to God. Estimates of Poles who aided Jews range from 300,000 to 1.2 million and estimates of those killed for doing so approach 50,000. Note that German death squads carried out mass executions of entire villages that aided Jews and some of the annihilated villages became extinct. Note also that in no other occupied country or in Germany itself were there such large-scale round-ups, searches with dogs, and blockades of whole districts in all of the larger cities that were conducted by the Germans in an effort to find Jewish fugitives. Ask yourself, Doctor Edna Friedberg, if you would risk your life and the lives of your family to save one or more persons in similar circumstances. Many Poles did so because they believed it was the Christian thing to do.

You greatly diminish the accomplishments of Żegota and omit important facts. It was the only government organization in the occupied countries established to rescue Jews and consisted of Poles and Polish Jews. Estimates of Jews saved by Żegota range from 30,000 to 60, 000, not “several thousand” as you claim. Under death-threatening conditions, Żegota members did the following: forged “Aryan” documents that enabled Polish Jews to pass as Poles and about 50,000 such documents were provided; located safe houses; provided medical assistance and food; provided monthly allocations of money to prevent starving; placed and cared for thousands of Jewish children in Polish homes, orphanages, and convents. Note that two thirds of Polish nunneries took part in the rescue of Jewish children. Note also that Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse and social worker, was the head of the Children’s Section of Żegota and her team alone saved 2,500 Polish Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Sadly, some Jewish parents did not allow Sendler to rescue their children for fear they would become Catholic. Although many members were arrested and executed by the Germans, the legacy of Żegota is clearly one of unparalleled courage and valor in the midst of Germany’s barbaric atrocities and is intertwined with the exceptional legacy of Irena Sendler.

In your paragraph on Gertruda Babilińska, you directly imply that Poles only saved Jews “with whom they had personal connections”. This is false. It was not the case with Żegota and many fugitive Jews aided by countryside Poles often did not know their rescuers.

Your assessment of Polish anti-Semitism is incorrect and you conveniently ignore Jewish anti-Polonism, which was widely prevalent among Polish Jews. Polish anti-Semitism stemmed chiefly from Jewish domination of the economy and Jewish opposition to the formation and advancement of the Polish state. Polish anti-Semitism was not racist. By contrast, Jewish anti-Polonism was exclusively racist. Polish Jews, like the Germans, firmly believed that Poles were racially inferior. Polish Jews neither wanted to assimilate nor live among the Polish goyim. They lived in closed, tightly knit, isolated communities of their own making. Unlike Poland’s Armenian and Muslim Tatar minorities, who welcomed cultural Polonization and gained acceptance by Polish society despite their religious differences, Jews guarded their communal life closely and wanted as few dealings with the outside world as possible, except for those necessary to sustain their economic livelihood. Assimilation into Polish society automatically put one outside the mainstream of the Jewish community and even led to ostracization. This sense of Jewish separateness, coupled with the Poles’ justified belief that Polish Jews, unlike others who settled among the Poles, were by and large an unassimilable group, constituted the most serious impediment to Polish-Jewish co-existence. And even if some Poles were openly anti-Semitic before the war, this feeling disappeared during the war because the prevailing attitude was awareness of the Jewish killings and the common suffering.

In the case of economic dominance, the 1930s exclusionary policies you refer to were done to reduce Jewish hegemony, which prevented the commercial advancement of Poles largely because Jews transacted exclusively with their co-religionists and refused to deal with Polish entrepreneurs who emerged after the 1918 revival of the Polish state. Also, the large Jewish presence in urban areas significantly hindered the urbanization of Poles seeking business and employment opportunities. Note that Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky rejected the idea that such actions reflected Polish racial hatred and recognized that Polish national and economic self-interest, even when directed against Jews, was the same as a parent’s preference for her own children over that of another’s offspring.

In the case of opposition to the Polish state, Jews in Prussian-ruled Poland became fully Germanized and vehemently opposed the rebirth of Poland while the pro-Russian attitudes of eastern Polish Jews were little better. Interwar Jewish political parties worked against Polish national aspirations. The Communists, with a highly disproportional number of Jews, and the pro-communist Bund, fervently advocated Jewish autonomy and opposed the re-establishment of the Polish state. The Zionists, who dominated the joint committee of East European Jewish delegations at the Paris Peace Conference and enjoyed the support of the American Jewish Congress, demanded that Poland recognize Polish Jews as members of a distinct nation with the right to collective representation at both national and international levels. This would entail the creation of a separate Jewish parliament in Poland alongside a national parliament representing all of the country’s citizens, and it would mean the creation of a Jewish seat at the League of Nations. By demanding formal, corporate, political, and diplomatic status, the Zionists challenged traditional notions about the indivisibility of state sovereignty. Additionally, the tendency of Polish Jews to identify with communism, socialism, and liberalism clashed with Polish Catholic values, which served as the underpinning of Polish society.

You state: “On the eve of the Holocaust … some Polish politicians even pressed for the mass emigration of Poland’s Jewish population.” This is false. The idea of resettling Polish Jews in Madagascar was investigated in 1937, which was five years before the German death camps were activated. Note also that the idea of Jewish emigration to Madagascar originated from pioneering Zionist Teodor Herzl. Additionally, the Zionist Revisionist Union, together with influential Jews Isaac Gruenbaum, Leo Glassman, and Vladimir Jabotinsky all favored mass emigration of Jews from Poland. Note further that Avraham Stern, the head of the Zionist right-wing paramilitary group in Palestine, and his followers held talks with Polish officials before the war that were aimed at expediting the emigration of Jews from Poland to either Palestine or Madagascar.

You claim that Polish actions “abetting the German occupation authorities” were motivated solely by anti-Jewish hatred. This is false. Denunciations of fugitive Jews resulted from the extreme deprivations and incessant brutalities inflicted on the Poles, which I’ve outlined above and which you fail to consider and only offer armchair condemnation. Several circumstantial reasons explain the denunciations. In Polish villages, they were the result of valid fears of German “pacification” reprisals. As news spread to surrounding villages of Germans searching for Polish Jews and planning to execute their Polish rescuers, villagers understandably turned out or denounced their Jewish charges. Fugitive Jews were also betrayed under torture. Poles captured by the Germans were tortured to force them to identify others who were harboring Jews. Because of the severe privations the Germans enforced on Poles, they denounced fugitive Jews who were suspected of or known to be stealing their food and other scarce resources. Also, because of the starvation rations imposed on the Poles, the Germans were able to bribe some into denouncing fugitive Jews by offering bread, milk, sugar, or even meat. Some Jews blackmailed their Polish rescuers and threatened to denounce them to the Germans if they didn’t continue providing shelter. In light of imminent German pacification reprisals, this placed Poles in an unbearable situation who had no alternative but to betray their charges. It’s also important to remember that a denouncer did not usually know he was sending a fugitive Jew to his death. Poles generally believed that ghetto Jews were being sent to labor camps in the east and commonly thought they would be sent back to the ghetto.

You accuse most Poles of willingly collaborating with the Germans; however, as I’ve explained above, this accurately applied to a few. It’s important to remember that, at the time, ethnic minorities comprised about 30 percent of the Polish population and Volksdeutsche, along with ethnic Ukrainians, were Polish citizens who willingly collaborated. However, their behavior is wrongly generalized and attributed to ethnic Poles. Moreover, Polish officials have repeatedly and publicly acknowledged that some dregs of Polish society willingly collaborated. By contrast, Israeli officials have never publicly acknowledged Jewish collaboration with the Germans or Soviets, both of which are historical fact and resulted in Polish deaths.

It is further interesting that, while condemning Polish behavior under merciless German occupation, you ignore Jewish collaboration with the Germans. The criminal groups headed by Abraham Gancwajch, Group 13 and Żagiew, not only denounced Poles who hid Polish Jews but also blackmailed Jews and their Polish rescuers. Similar groups and individuals operated in towns and cities across German-occupied Poland, which included Józef Diamand in Kraków and Szama Grajer in Lublin. Żagiew members were given firearms by the Germans and operated as Jewish Gestapo agents. At the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, the Gestapo had around 15,000 Jewish Gestapo agents in the General Government, and in Warsaw alone there were some 1,000 agents. Polish archives hold documentation with an incomplete list of 1,378 Jewish collaborators. One of them, named Hening, directed a 70-member team at the Gestapo premises on Szucha Street and was responsible for obtaining information about Polish underground units. Hauptsturmführer Alfred Spilker led the special Sonderkommando AS, which worked with the Abwehr in countering the efforts of the Polish underground. Sonderkommando AS consisted of groups of renegades from various nationalities., among whom were 820 Jews. There are also the treacherous Hotel Polski betrayal and Jewish Greifers, who played a shameful role in hunting down and betraying Jews who tried to hide or pass as Poles. Evgeny Finkel points out that a number of Judenrat leaders were corrupt, despotic, and abusive towards their ghetto populations. They were often driven by desires for personal enrichment and survival, to the detriment of their communities, with Chaim Rumkowski as a foremost example. Jews who aided the Germans by informing on and betraying other Jews often did so voluntarily in order to receive monetary rewards, power, and status. Jewish Ghetto Police worked against the Jewish underground and managed to arrest several of its leaders.

You also overlook Polish Jewish collaboration with the Soviets against the Poles. In this case, Polish Jews were clearly motivated by racist hatred and committed treason against the Polish state. Various accounts document Jews, including rabbis, greeting the Soviets and kissing their tanks; Jews who formed militias and revolutionary committees to support the Soviets; Jews who apprehended, robbed, and murdered Polish officials, policemen, teachers, politicians, priests, community leaders, landowners, and interwar settlers; Jews who identified Poles for execution by the NKVD; Jews who identified Poles for Soviet deportation to Siberia (about 1 million Poles were deported and many thousands died from the harsh conditions of the gulags and labor camps); and Jews who plundered and set fire to Polish property and destroyed Polish national and religious monuments. There were also the Jewish-aided massacres in Naliboki and Koniuchy. In contrast to the many Poles who risked death to rescue Jews from the Germans, I challenge you to find one recorded instance of a Polish Jew who rescued a Pole from the Soviets, despite the fact that no Jew risked death or punishment for doing so.

Lastly, you wrongly debase Poles by referring to them as “non-Jewish Polish civilians”, “non-Jewish residents”, “Christian Poles”, “Christians”, and a Polish family as a “Christian family”. Interestingly, you didn’t include the word “Gentile”. By contrast, you would not dream of referring to Polish Jews as “non-Polish civilians”, “non-Polish residents”, or “Jewish Poles”. Your amorphous descriptors are a deceptive attempt to convey that Jewish suffering must be elevated above Polish suffering. This is because if it becomes widely known that Poles similarly suffered, the Jewish “unique victim” identity typified by Holocaust literature is undermined. I would point out that Timothy Snyder assesses the number of victims the Germans killed as a result of “deliberate policies of mass murder” only, was 10.4 million persons including 5.4 million Jews. While the number of Polish Jewish victims exceeds the number of Polish victims, it is nonetheless historical fact that the Germans killed Poles because of deliberate policies of mass murder and did so well before targeting Jews. This empirical fact invalidates the unique victim identity espoused by various historians, yourself included. Additionally, the literature promotes the view that Hitler’s sole objective was the eradication of European Jews, which justifies the elevation of Jewish suffering above all other groups. This is false. Between 1933 and 1938, nearly 150,000 Jews emigrated from Germany, which represented about 30 percent of Germany’s Jews. Jewish emigration continued even after Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939 and was finally stopped in October 1941. Also, German Blood Certificates (Deutschblütigkeitserklärung) were issued to German Jews that were judged as persons of “German blood.” This freed Mischlings from most Nuremberg racial laws and allowed them to be designated deutschblütig in identification papers. Additionally, the Bernese Group issued Paraguayan, Honduran, El Salvadorian, and Haitian passports that were smuggled from Bern, Switzerland, into Nazi-occupied Poland and provided to European Jews who were then able to pose as non-European Jews. Instead of sending these “re-identified” Jews to concentration and extermination camps, the Germans held them in internment camps until the end of the war. Moreover, many Jews who were accessible to Nazi Germany were spared. The Jews of Finland, an ally of Germany, were not given up. Bulgaria’s Jews were only pursued halfheartedly while the neutrality of Switzerland and Sweden was respected despite their Jewish populations. Danish Jews were evacuated to Sweden with the collusion of the local German naval command and known Jewish Allied POWs were spared.

In closing, the Jewish Theological Seminary website notes that you are the historian for the USHMM’s online Holocaust Encyclopedia. A number of Poles and Polish groups rescued Polish and European Jews on pain of death as well as informed the West of the actions of the Germans, yet they are missing from your encyclopedia. While you have one unjustifiably brief article on Jan Karski, you have no entries for the following: Irena Sendler, Żegota, Witold Pilecki, the Bernese Group, Władysław Bartoszewski, Jan and Antonina Żabiński, the Ulma family, Maximilian Kolbe, and the 10 December 1942 “Note” issued by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the governments of the United Nations entitled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”. Also, you have no entry for Tadeusz Romer, who teamed with Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk in issuing needed transit visas, asylum visas, and immigration certificates for Polish and Lithuanian Jews. Kindly uphold your responsibility as a historian and include these unmistakably significant and relevant entries.


Gene Sokolowski, PhD

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