Let’s be honest about Poland


To the Editor:

I happen to hold a rather low opinion of the present Polish government and its chauvinistic ideology, but the recent outcry about the projected Polish law against calling the death camps which were established and maintained during World War II in Poland by the German occupying regime “Polish death camps” needs to be corrected as a bit of knee-jerk anti-Polishism. (Sorry, I had to invent the word since it did not yet exist — I wonder why?)

It happens to be the plain historic truth that the death camps were not a Polish idea. I happened to be in Germany during WWII, and I saw plenty of Polish slave laborers working in German industry and on farms, in place of the Germans who had been drafted into the war. By coincidence, I also learned during the war of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Polish educated classes in order to leave a population of helpless manual labor for the Reich.

Yes, it is true from all we know that there were anti-Semites in Poland at the time — but they did not hold power in their occupied land.

And I am sorry to have to remind everybody that there have been and are anti-Semites in many other countries, occupied or not. Anti-Semites have been known to exist even in the United States of America.

Would it therefore be right to blame all these countries for the Holocaust? I think not.

Brigitte Lent


  1. Those were difficult times, and Polish complicity not always optional. But there were pogroms in Jedwabne and other places during the war, in Kielce after the Germans were gone, and many other places before. And Poles helped. And Poles took property from their dead Jewish neighbors. And now, Poles deny any of it ever happened. Sorry, Grandma, not buying it.

    • You said it, ascot_wearer. It may currently be illegal to say, “Polish death camps” in Poland but it’s not illegal to say it here. POLISH DEATH CAMPS. My dead relatives would agree the camps they died in were indeed Polish death camps. Nazi ideals were not just German, Ms Lent. Who care whose idea it was? Poles were complicit. You can’t rewrite history.

      • Ascot and aisra, you both paint a gleefully naive and myopic picture of a complex issue. Please stick your heads in the sand, where you are more likely to have a better view of your curiously small world.

        In fact there was a wide range of response to the occupation in Poland. There were Poles who aided the Nazi’s, and Poles who died fighting them (and everything in between). I would remind you of the million+ Poles who died in these same camps (and the deliberate systematic destruction of the Polish intelligentsia) by the Nazi’s.

        I believe the narrow issue the original poster raises is the term “Polish death camps”. This term is offensive in its ignorance. These camps were designed and built by the Nazi’s for the systemic death of millions of people.

        Assign the name of the darkest evil to the right place folks. These camps were designed, built, and run by the Nazi’s. Poland has a right to be indignant when people suggest otherwise.

        Bill MacKenty
        Warsaw, Poland

        • The Jewish community, and especially the Children of Survivors, have 3 words for the ignorant, reality-challenged mansplainer: Polish. Death. Camps.

          • Please don’t confuse these 2 issues:

            The horror of the holocaust and the sins of Polands past

            – and –

            The camps were built and run by Nazi’s. The Poles didn’t build and manage these camps. The Nazi’d did. The camps weren’t Polish.

            I’m afraid you have confused the narrow use of “polish death camps” with the broader story of Polands painful past. These two things are not linked (at least in my mind, others may disagree).

            This is kind of sad, because I often read two opposing narratives about Poland and the holocaust: every Polish man, woman and child actively helped the Nazis kill Jewish people, , AND every Polish man, woman, and child fought bravely against the Nazi’s. The truth is in the middle somewhere, muddled and distorted, as the truth usually is in politically passionate topics.

            By using the inaccurate and offense term “Polish death camps” you distort the truth. Assign this badge of shame to the right place; “Nazi death camps” we aren’t ignoring what Poland (and other countries) did before, during and after the war – but Poland doesn’t own or deserve this ignorance.

            A last point, this isn’t mansplaining, it’s reason. Could you please try to use some in this discussion?


            Bill MacKenty
            Warsaw, Poland

  2. My mother was born and raised in Poland until she was lucky enough to escape in the summer of 1939. Her family were poor, Jewish capmakers. They suffered the indignities of being second-class citizens in a country where Jews were only allowed to go to substandard schools and were denied entry into professional employment.
    Were they subject to imprisonment or worse just for the fact of being Jews? Not that I’m aware of, (though there’s no doubt that the country’s ruling elite made good use of scapegoating as a means of manipulating the masses0. Did my Mom have Catholic Polish friends? Certainly. But you can be sure that when the Nazis came into Poland, there were plenty of Poles willing to give up their neighbors and acquaintances at the drop of a hat (as well as some who did what they could to help save their neighbors and acquaintances). My Mom made it to England, joining some relatives and eventually met and married my father, a G.I.. They returned to America after the war; my mother had no desire to ever visit Poland.

  3. Bill MacKenty: You cannot deny history or cover it up with pretenses. History will not allow the world to forget this truth: Poles were complicit. Of course there were exceptions, but history shows many Jews were killed with the complicity of the Poles who denounced Jews and/or who directly participated in killing them. End of story. Except for: Polish. Death. Camps.

  4. Granted this is a very complicated issue, however there is a reason why the Nazis chose to build their death camps in Poland and that is because there was already a long history of anti-Semitism there. On the other hand, a “survivor” once told me that you do not know what you would do if your family were at risk. You want to think that you would act honorably but you do not know what you would do if you had to face a crisis involving your own children. This man was hidden as a child, came to the US as an orphan after the war, and became a psychologist who spent his whole life studying altruism, specifically why would someone do the “right” thing at the risk of their own life and the lives of their family? If he can have that generosity of heart to believe that people are complicated and vulnerable and that it is natural to want to protect your own family even at the expense of others, then can we not also have some compassion for the horrible choices the Nazis forced on the Poles?

      • My history read is the 6 camps were Nazi built and run and there were pogroms by some Poles. Doesn’t forgive the Poles that murdered but all this presents to me as encouraging nationalism by stirring up animosity between peoples and countries.

        • Were Poland not presently dithering in the antechamber of Fascism -and large portions of their population already seated comfortably within- Americans would probably be less hung up on the finer points of Polish Holocaust complicity.

          • When portions of America are trying to find seating in a similar room, what does that do to their interpretations of history?

          • In my case, nothing. Comparing our presently weak government to Poland’s robustly authoritarian government is apples and oranges. I’m not worried about history repeating itself in the United States, but if I lived in Poland I would be looking to emigrate.

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