Poland and the Holocaust: Clearing Up Some Misconceptions

Today (1 March 2018) a Polish law criminalising accusations of the country's complicity in the Holocaust or other Nazi crimes came into effect. The law has already caused a huge amount of controversy and elicited condemnation from many in the international community, particularly in Israel. Whilst the wording of the law is rather vague - I myself admit to being confused by its ambiguities, such as where the line is drawn between national and individual complicity, especially in scholarly research - the media coverage has made me realise how many misconceptions there are about Poland and its actions during the Second World War and the Holocaust. The following is a collection of the kind of questions I have been asked over the last few weeks in relation to Poland, the Jews, and the Nazis.
I have aimed to write these answers as neutrally and objectively as possible, because for many of these questions, there really are two sides that can be considered. I hope this helps to dispel a few myths.

Why should we not talk about "Polish death camps" if the camps are in Poland?
It's important to remember that Poland effectively ceased to exist as a country during the Second World War. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, 1939, the country was partitioned into separate areas. The Western part of Poland - including Silesia, the area where the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp was eventually built - was annexed into the Third Reich, and considered German territory. Then, on 17 September the same year, the Soviet Union invaded Poland, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and claimed a large part of its Eastern territories. The remaining middle section of Poland, including the major cities of Warsaw, Kraków and Lublin, was controlled by Germany and was called the General Government. Therefore, when concentration and extermination camps such as Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibór, Treblinka and Bełżec were established, these were set up in occupied territory: there was no 'Poland' to speak of. This is just one of the reasons that we refer to Auschwitz, for example, by its German name and not its Polish name of Oświęcim.
Once Poland had reformed as a country after the war, the camps (or what was left of them) remained, and it was decided that they should be preserved and/or memorialised - primarily, at first, to remember the 'martyrdom' and suffering of the Poles that had been imprisoned and killed in the camps, on account of a narrative led by the Communist powers that minimised Jewish suffering and genocide. It is right, therefore, that they should be referred to as "Nazi death camps" or "Nazi German death camps" as opposed to "Polish death camps" (although the new law's potential to fine or imprison people for using this phrase is a point of contention, considering how many people get this wrong through such misconceptions).

Weren't there Polish concentration camp guards at Auschwitz?
No. Whilst a few Polish civilians were recruited to work as police auxiliary guards at places such as Treblinka, there were no Polish guards at Auschwitz. The camp was primarily run by Germans but also Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) from some other Eastern European countries. As stated by Deborah Lipstadt in a 2007 blog, there were also no Polish members of the Einsatzgruppen (killing squads).

Didn't a lot of Poles rescue Jews during the Holocaust?
Yes; it is crucial that we remember that many non-Jewish Polish civilians risked their lives to save Jewish people who were earmarked for deportation and death. At present, there are 6,706 Polish people recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, the largest number from any country occupied during the war.
But as in other countries, those who saved Jews were primarily in the minority. On one hand, there were many bystanders - those who feared what would happen to them if they provided assistance to the Jews or spoke out against the regime. This is more than understandable; the Poles were also persecuted by the Nazis, as they were considered to be racially inferior. The Nazis attempted to imprison and murder the Polish 'intelligentsia' so that, eventually, the Polish population would function as a slave labour race for the Germans. At least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War.
On the other hand, there were those who perpetrated crimes against their Jewish neighbours. In 1941, for instance, the Jews of Jedwabne were killed en masse by the local Polish population. Others betrayed their Jewish neighbours and informed the Nazis of their whereabouts, as in the case of Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon. There were also pogroms committed against the Jews after the war, when survivors of the camps or places of hiding returned home to what had previously been their property. In some places, antisemitism also clearly remained, as in Kielce in 1946, where 42 Jewish people were murdered following accusations of a blood libel (although here, it should also be stated, that two non-Jewish Poles also died, either killed by Jewish residents or by non-Jewish Poles for offering assistance to the Jewish victims).
So, just as in other Nazi-occupied countries in Europe, there were resisters, bystanders and perpetrators. People behaved in various ways for various reasons, but it's important to acknowledge all of these actions.

What about the "Jewish perpetrators" the Polish Prime Minister recently talked about? Who was he referring to?
Recently, in response to a question regarding the prosecution of people who say Polish people were involved in the Holocaust, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated: "It's extremely important to first understand that, of course, it's not going to be punishable, not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators - as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian...not only German perpetrators."
Understandably, this has caused a lot of backlash, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling Mr Morawiecki's comments "outrageous". My interpretation of this comment is that Mr Morawiecki was referring to Jewish people who were forced into the machinery of destruction against the Jews, such as the Judenräte (Jewish Councils) in the ghettos that were tasked with, amongst other things, preparing lists of people to be deported "to the East", and the Sonderkommando, those who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria in the extermination camps. The issue of whether such people were perpetrators or collaborators has been discussed since the end of the Holocaust itself. Some Jewish Council members were threatened that their families would be killed if they did not prepare deportation lists, and so drew them up; some, such as Adam Czerniaków, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Council, committed suicide so as not to have to carry out the Nazis' orders. If those selected to work as part of the Sonderkommando refused (and some did), others would simply have taken their place. Furthermore, as evidenced by 'The Scrolls of Auschwitz', some men purposely carried out this abhorrent task to bear witness to the Nazis' crimes. Besides, who are we to say what is right and what is wrong, given that we have never experienced those kinds of situations? The question of Jewish 'collaboration' is one example of 'choiceless choices' faced by many people during the Holocaust. Therefore, whilst Mr Morawiecki was correct to point out the multiple nationalities of the perpetrators, including the Jewish population in this list was rather tactless.

Poland is quite an antisemitic country, isn't it?
Antisemitism exists in every country, to various degrees. It's true that this new 'Holocaust law' is causing concern amongst the Jewish community that there will be a surge in antisemitism, as there was in 1968 in the aftermath of the Six Day War, but it would be totally wrong to pin this new law and its controversies all on antisemitism or anti-Jewish feeling. Antisemitism has never been, is not, and will never be an exclusively Polish problem. Unfortunately, antisemitism does appear to be rearing its ugly head once again in a lot of places; even in the UK, reported antisemitic incidents are at an all-time high. It's up to all of us to be vigilant in the face of such incidents, and show our support to those who are discriminated against, whether they be targeted for being Jewish, Muslim, homosexual, black, disabled etc.