The Polish village of Jedwabne was almost all Jewish. It isn’t any longer. On 10 July, 1941, almost its entire Jewish population, 1,600 souls in all, were murdered.
After the war a cenotaph was erected to the victims, with an inscription blaming the SS for the crime. But for once the SS wasn’t the culprit. The Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours wielding knives, axes and clubs. The survivors were locked up in a barn and burned alive.
Such crimes were committed all over Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Russia. The local populations rivalled, sometimes outdid, the Germans’ anti-Semitic atrocities.
Where the local support for the Holocaust was lower, so was the percentage of the Jews murdered. In France, regarded as Western Europe’s most anti-Semitic country, the survival rate was 75 per cent. In Poland it was 10 per cent, but then Poland isn’t in Western Europe.
It was no wonder that the Nazis sent Jews from all over Europe to the death camps built in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. They knew the Poles were more likely than even the Germans to ignore the smoke billowing out of the chimneys, to shut their eyes on the crime.
Speaking of crimes, as far as the Polish government is concerned, the Princeton professor Jan Gross has committed one punishable by three years in prison.
Prof. Gross, who is himself of Polish descent, will stand trial in Katowice for writing that during the Nazi occupation the Poles inflicted heavier losses on Jews than on Germans. That, according to the prosecution, is tantamount to “publicly insulting the nation”.
Leaving aside the understated commitment to free speech, so lamentable in our EU partner, one would still like to get to the bottom of Prof. Gross’s allegations. Are they true?
The honest answer is, I don’t know. That is, I don’t know how many Germans the Polish underground, Armia Krajowa, killed. I do know Poland had 2.5 million Jews in the 1930s, while now there are only 10,000.
Given such a low number in a country of almost 40 million, it’s no wonder that 90 per cent of Poles say they’ve never seen a Jew. But absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder: 63 per cent believe that a global Jewish conspiracy exists, while 23 per cent believe that Jews use Christian blood in their rituals.
That would suggest that the Poles were less horrified than the Germans when the Holocaust made them look deep into their own hearts after the war. The Germans tried to atone for their sin as best they could; the Poles didn’t even acknowledge they had sinned.
This raises many interesting questions, among them that of collective guilt. Interestingly, those Poles who deny such a thing exists, don’t mind emphasising their nation’s collective heroism in confronting Nazism. Come on chaps, you can’t have it both ways. If you feel no collective guilt, you aren’t entitled to collective pride.
Yet there’s much to be proud about. Poland fought against the German aggression more heroically than any other European nation until the winter of 1941, when the Russians stopped surrendering in their millions and began to fight back.
In fact, once the Polish army got entrenched on the eastern side of the Vistula, the German juggernaut began to run out of steam, and the Poles only succumbed when knifed in the back by the Russians on 17 September, 1939.
During the war, Armia Krajowa mounted a real resistance from the first days of the occupation, as opposed to, say, France, where serious resistance only began when the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt.
Armia Krajowa, however, offered only a limited support to the uprising in the Warsaw Jewish ghetto in April-May, 1943. When Armia Krajowa staged its own Warsaw uprising in August, 1944, the Soviet army didn’t lift a finger to help – tempting one to think about poetic justice.
However, we shouldn’t forget that many pilots who won the Battle of Britain were Polish – or that, unlike Norway, Poland didn’t have a Quisling government and, unlike France, Holland, Belgium and the Ukraine, she didn’t form national SS divisions.
However, denying any possibility of collective guilt doesn’t come naturally to someone who, like me, believes in original sin. Of course, there were many Poles who, risking their own lives, saved Jews. Such heroes are of course exempt from any collective responsibility.
But that, however, doesn’t mean that no collective responsibility exists. God was willing to spare Sodom if he could find 10 righteous men there and only destroyed the city when the required number wasn’t reached. But he did spare the righteous man Lot and his daughters.
I’m not suggesting that Poland should be destroyed or that she deserved the suffering she received at the hands of the Germans and Russians during the war, or the Russians and her own communists after it.
However, our joy at having all those Polish plumbers should be tempered by the awareness of the cultural differences between Britain and Poland, or Eastern Europe in general. Although we’re all residually Christian, I’d suggest the differences outweigh the similarities.
A single European state, anyone?