Having attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941, the Germans were racing through Eastern Poland (or Western Ukraine, as it had become after the Nazi-Soviet Pact) at march speeds. The Soviets, routed all along the frontline, hastily left Lwów on 29 June, 1941.
The Nazis occupied it on 30 June. During the one day of interregnum, the Poles and Ukrainians inhabiting the city were left to their own devices – and vices.
One such vice was the almost universal hatred of their 200,000 Jewish neighbours. The glowing embers of that unenviable sentiment were fanned into a violent flame when the locals broke into the three NKVD prisons, only to find out that their 8,000 inmates had been massacred by the Soviets before their retreat.
The mob blamed the Jews, even though many of the victims were themselves Jewish. However, when the heart speaks, reason falls silent – especially when people renounce their individuality to join a herd.
That particular herd went on a stampede, and, when the Germans entered the city, they found out that much of their work had already been done. Some 10,000 Jews had been murdered by their gentile neighbours in ways that must have made the victims beg to be simply shot.
But the job wasn’t done yet. Einsatzengruppen and the local collaborators began to round up and shoot Jews. Most of the firing squads didn’t include a single German – there was no shortage of local volunteers. By the end of the war, only a couple of hundred Lwów Jews were still alive.
Thus three times the number of Jews were killed in that one city than in the whole of occupied France, where local enthusiasm wasn’t exactly in short supply either. Why such disparity? What made Lwów so much more efficient?
Actually, it wasn’t just Lwów. Simply compare the numbers of massacred Jews relative to their overall numbers in a small sample of European countries.
Western Europe: Germany, 142,000 out of 565,000; Austria, 50,000 out of 185,000; Denmark, 60 out of 8,000; Finland, 7 out of 2,000; Italy, 7,500 out of 44,500; France, 77,000 out of 250,000.
Eastern Europe: Greece, 65,000 out of 75,000; Hungary, 550,000 out of 825,000; Latvia, 70,000 out of 91,500; Lithuania, 140,000 out of 168,000; Czechoslovakia, 78,000 out of 118,000; Poland, 3,000,000 out of 3,300,000.
You’ll notice that a much higher percentage of Jews were killed in Eastern Europe than even in Germany, which after all initiated the Holocaust and built the death camps.
Why such disparity? I can think of only one answer: Eastern Europeans didn’t mind the Holocaust as much, and were more than willing to lend the Germans a helping hand.
Another question: why did the Nazis set up all the extermination (as opposed to concentration) camps in Poland? Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Jasenovac, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibor and Treblinka were all there.
To some extent, it must have been a matter of logistics: most of Europe’s Jewish population lived there or thereabouts, in what used to be the Pale of Settlement.
But it couldn’t have been just logistics. After all, the Nazis didn’t mind using hundreds of trains badly needed for military freight to transport Jews from, say, France all the way to Poland. It would have been more efficient to kill them in situ.
Also in the back of the Nazis’ mind must been the issue of post-war deniability for the Germans. Had those crematorium chimneys been spewing clouds of black smoke in, say, Hamburg, it would have been hard for its denizens to claim they didn’t know.
As it was, such claims weren’t all that credible anyhow, as Daniel Goldhagen demonstrates convincingly in his instructive book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. But he also shows that the Nazis were wary of a potential backlash from the Germans had they had to watch mass murder committed on their own doorstep. No such fears in Poland.
This is the backdrop to the bill recently approved by the Polish parliament that will outlaw any public association of “the Polish nation” with crimes committed by the Germans. In other words, had a Pole written the previous paragraphs, he could get three years in prison – the kind of literary prize that’s rapidly gaining popularity in the low-rent part of Europe.
Poland’s president Andrzej Duda navigated the perilous undercurrents with laudable celerity. Yes, he admitted magnanimously, some individual Poles did do “wicked” things to their Jewish neighbours (like hacking them to death with shovels, but the president didn’t go into such graphic detail). But there was no institutional Polish participation in the Holocaust.
Actually, as far as I know, no one has ever suggested that the Polish government in exile issued an order to kill Jews. So Mr Duda is on safe grounds there.
But he then went on to bemoan that Poles are being “vilified” with “false accusations”. I suppose Mr Duda believes that any accusations against Poles ipso facto constitute unfounded vilification.
He also objects to the death camps being referred to as ‘Polish’. I agree that ‘German camps in Poland’ would be more accurate. But those camps wouldn’t have been in Poland if the locals had detested them.
They didn’t. At best, they shrugged their shoulders with indifferent acquiescence. At worst, tens of thousands of them took an active part in the atrocities. And those who deny these facts are the murderers’ accomplices after the fact.
The Poles are Catholics, so perhaps they should begin to act accordingly in this painful matter. Redemption won’t come from denying their sins – it can only come from confession and repentance. Especially since history lays their sins bare for all to see.