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The Holocaust Truth: A Victim of Ad Hoc Politics

Statements about the Holocaust often evoke such overwhelming emotion in Poland that it’s almost as if over 80 years haven’t passed. That’s partly due to the fact that during the communist period many topics were forbidden –– state censorship didn’t allow for free exchange of opinions. So what essentially hadn’t been expressed or discussed for over 45 years of communist rule has only finally been “reintroduced” in the last 30 years.

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However, the more resonant reason is something else entirely: the presence of the Jews left a bleeding, “unhealed” wound in Poland. And it’s the principal reason why the Jewish topic is arguably as intense as ever.

Jews lived in Poland for hundreds of years. For generation after generation it was the only place where they found the best conditions in Europe for the development, preservation, and flourishing of religious, cultural, and economic life. Poland was the last refuge for Jews when they were expelled from Western European countries.

And ironically, it was only the fall of the First Polish Republic and the division of Poland between Russia, Germany, and Austria at the end of the 18th century that caused the destruction of an anachronistic political and social system of aristocratic Poland –– precisely the period during which Jews held an essential and pivotal place. Jews lost their unique role and autonomy in the economic structure of the state, and this phenomenon was compounded by Jewish emancipation, which only intensified national conflicts.

Nonetheless, despite fundamental social and political power shifts, for the next 150 years Poland continued to define the lives for the majority of Jews in Europe. In general, Polish territories before the partitions were inhabited by the largest concentration of Jews in the world before the great emigration to the United States. And even after Poland regained its independence in 1918, the Jewish population in Poland was over 3 million. In 1939, Warsaw was second only to New York in terms of the number of Jewish inhabitants.

And then the catastrophe…

German antisemitism led to state-administered genocide on an unprecedented scale and to a near complete annihilation of Polish Jewry between 1939 and 1944. That’s precisely and profoundly why the subject of the Holocaust is nowhere in the world as vivid, emotional, and strongly endured as in Poland.

Today there’s only a few Jews in Poland –– perhaps several thousand –– but the degree of involvement in Jewish issues here is as strong and prevalent as if there were hundreds of thousands of them.

In fact, it’s stronger than ever.

In particular, the subject of Polish attitudes towards the Holocaust –– the sentiments and opinions of Poles themselves –– has entered the bloodstream of national politics like never before. It’s become one of the country’s main political and cultural axes.

In the traditional media –– especially modern social media –– and in the activities of journalists dealing with history and professional historians, two viewpoints function by explicitly clashing with each other.

One outlook is characterized by emphasizing Polish aid and assistance provided to Jews during the Holocaust. The other emphasizes Polish passivity and negligence by strongly and intentionally displaying examples of attitudes that favored the activities of the German occupiers or took advantage of the tragic situation of Jews to obtain material benefits for Poles themselves.

In fact, it’s little more than a dispute about proportions, which unfortunately for the discussion, disposes of rational thinking. In other words, thousands of Poles helped Jews, which displayed absolute heroism because in many cases that act itself was punishable by immediate death. Furthermore, aiding Jews essentially became official policy because The Council to Aid Jews was active as an organ of the Polish Underground State. Yet at the same time, there remained not only overwhelming indifference (which was the most common attitude), but also intentional blackmailers, traitors, and even murderers.

During communist rule, all mentions of compromising attitudes of Poles were not allowed through censorship and propaganda, so the now “unblocked” topics of treason, blackmail, and collaboration are dominating –– even overwhelming –– public conversation. But there’s even more to it; the arguments rely on the finest points possible, a detailed and relentless focus on the worst at the expense of the best.

The exceedingly precise and programmatic criticism of Polish history and Polish attitudes has seemingly inverted historical research. Archival and historical research should focus on a full spectrum of attitudes and positions. However, the conflicting parties now express and manipulate exceptionally distorted tendencies to perceive Poles one-sidedly.

The political motivation behind it is quite simple. In Poland there’s a permanent conflict between a culturally conservative party, affirming “Polishness” while practicing postmodern socialist economics, versus a party identifying itself with the West, and specifically its left-wing progressivism, while still rallying behind a “free market.”

Or to put it even more simply: one side emphasizes what’s best about the Polish past because that’s what voters who value traditional patriotism expect, while the other side emphasizes what’s worst because that’s what voters who value a critical attitude towards traditional patriotism expect. While the former approach is simply “21st century new media nationalism and revised patriotism,” the latter attitude manifests itself more aggressively and therefore takes on a caricature form, tending towards self-hatred in its relentless criticism of Polish attitudes.

An effective, although not necessarily precise analogy could compare Poland’s critical attitude to extreme, one-sided assessments of United States history dominated by racism and slavery. Like I said, it’s not an exact analogy, but it captures the emotion, the tension, the myopic self-hatred.

First, the sheer level of sensitivity to these issues is quite high. Understandably, there are several reasons for this sensitivity, but the main one is the growing effectiveness of the “pedagogy of shame” utilized by politicians, historians, and most importantly, by the “progressive” media. The idea of “pedagogy of shame” is to educate society by shaming it with its history, showing how prevalent and corrupting Polish sins, dark spots, and systemic failures remain.

And of course those accused of using “pedagogy of shame” immediately react by accusing their critics of a “pedagogy of pride,” the adverse attempt to educate by emphasizing the good, the noble, the patriotic characters, accomplishments, and movements in Polish history. The conflict between these antithetical approaches can be compared to the opposition between the cult of American guilt and the belief in American exceptionalism.

Therefore, these propagandized “educations” become a type of “camouflage” for political manipulation. The practical application of “pedagogy of shame” is to lower the morale of political opponents, to break their spirit, deprive them of self-confidence and faith in the moral right of their values. And similarly, the “pedagogy of pride” fulfills exactly the opposite role –– it reinforces and reimagines their own morale and mission as a nation. As said, both approaches are purely political in their means and their ends, because in the long run they’re both active attempts to “remodel” consciousness itself.

And ultimately the only victim here becomes the truth –– the truth about Polish attitudes during the Holocaust for better, for worse, for everything in between.

Because politics is cynical and nobody cares.

A recent example of the “pedagogy of shame” is an interview with Professor Barbara Engelking, director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, conducted by the popular television station TVN on the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It caused equal outrage and appreciation, perfectly defining the “extremist” sides of the political spectrum.

During the half-hour conversation, Engelking devoted herself to describing the attitudes of non-Jewish inhabitants in occupied Poland, primarily Warsaw, and the uprising in the ghetto where human beings fought for their very dignity.

After the interview, four words remained most memorable: “The Poles simply failed.”

We often hear opponents of so-called “hate speech” warn against unjust “generalizations,” especially in terms of nationality, ethnicity, or race. Yet here you go –– the epitome of negative generalization! “The Poles simply failed.” It wasn’t just some tragic dilemma or a momentary yet complicated internal struggle; it was a failure in the most crude and common way.


The implicit, subconscious editorializing here is unbelievable. It’s essentially asserting, “What else can you expect from Poles?” She could have practiced that valuable intellectual characteristic of “nuance” by saying, “Some Poles may have failed,” or even, “Some failed while others didn’t.” Nope. Not this time. They all “failed.” “Simply.”

To hell with the activities of the Council to Aid Jews, “Żegota.” Who cares about Jan Karski, an emissary from Poland informing Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942 about the Holocaust? And Irena Sendler, some random Polish woman saving Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto? Nonsense. The thousands of other Righteous, the nuns hiding Jewish children in monasteries? Nice try, “pedagogies of pride!” And forget about Yad Vashem with over seven thousand Polish trees. It’s just a waste of dirt, right?

“The Poles simply failed,” said Professor Engelking. That’s that.

But she added one more sentence just to confirm: “Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war.” A definitive evaluation and assessment.

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But let’s forget that evaluating attitudes of those facing a direct threat to their lives –– especially when there’s absolutely no discernible way to compare these attitudes to the behavior of other groups in similar situations –– is non-academic, ridiculously irrational, and intentionally subjective. That statement served a single purpose: to apply and display the “pedagogy of shame.”

Did it work? Well, it’s obvious that most Poles felt… something. It’s just that it wasn’t “shame” this time. Poles were offended; offended by the generalization, the implication, and the condemnation.

Politically, it became an unintended gift to the ruling party. Why a gift? Because after the broadcast of the conversation, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki appeared on television and vehemently opposed and dismissed this negative commentary. Obviously opposition politicians could only remain silent. And voters remember things like that. This is a good example of how historical issues enter current political games and affect the mood and predisposition of the electorate.

Again, these issues have become matters of emotion, not of a historian’s thinking. Here’s another example: when the interviewer mentioned that Poles have the most Trees of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Professor Engelking immediately responded with a punch aimed at evoking strong emotions: “There were the most Jews in Poland. If we calculate according to the proportion of Jews per one righteous person in a given country, then Poland loses its first place.”

It’s not serious. It’s ahistorical. It’s intentionally misleading and misinformed. Because the Professor forgot or consciously omitted the key element of the situation that explains, well, everything. In Poland there was a completely different level of occupational terror than in the countries of Western Europe conquered by the Third Reich. And it was the level of threat for helping Jews that became the decisive factor influencing the decision to voluntarily provide it.

“But near the ghetto… a lot of people came there… some came, actually just staring… the comments were various, and most often you could hear on the Warsaw street that, ‘kikes are burning,’ ‘kikes are frying,’ ‘bedbugs are burning.’ These were the sentences that were heard in public.” So continued Barbara Engelking. With her “unique” level of research and analytical precision.

It’s just another example of malicious statements intended to provoke knee-jerk protests. After all, no historian is able to claim that such sentences or phrases were heard “most often.” It’s just unverifiable. (And ridiculous.) Even if these sentences were noted in memoirs of the witnesses, it hardly makes them heard “most often.” If anything, perhaps most witnesses remembered them because they were most shocking. (Or loud, or distinct, or laughed at, or whispered.)

Claims about what was “heard” is hardly a reliable method to assess such memories or experiences. Even the journalist managed to react by mentioning that there were also people who sympathized with the Jewish fighters. Engelking agreed, but immediately added that it was a very rare occurrence. How did she know it was rare? What’s even the definition of “rare” in this context? Once an hour? Twice a day? A few times every week?

Compassionate people are most often silent in pain and grief. It’s impossible to evaluate such phenomena and claim –– after 80 years, more than half of which were propagandized and therefore silenced –– that only a few felt sorry for them. It’s also completely unverifiable. And Engelking knows perfectly well what “most people heard on the street” and that “few sympathized.”

So all it really proves is that she was unwilling to provide reliable information about the facts we know. Instead, she’s got a manufactured narrative about reactions to the ghetto uprising, her intention was to deliver it, and she was clearly willing to share details not only impossible to determine as certainties, but by definition are not subject to discussion or deliberation.

This is the approach of a publicist, not a historian. It’s delivering a ready-made testimonial, not discovering and presenting archival material.

Here is another example of manipulation in Barbara Engelking’s statement. Engelking said, “Giving the impression that all Poles were ready to help [Jews] is also falsifying history.”

What’s the manipulation here? The simple fact that no one ever claims or “gives the impression” that all Poles were ready to help. Whoever would suggest such a thing would expose themselves to ridicule, because any thesis about “everyone” is simply absurd. (And should be relegated to the dustbin of “studying” history.)

Barbara Engelking is using the “straw man” argument here. The opposition is artificially attributed with some contrived, absurd view in order to present it as antithetical to reason itself. Here, the view is the alleged “impression” that “all Poles were ready to help.” So of course, while it’s easy to challenge such an absurd view, no one would ever do it because they don’t want to needlessly present themselves as some idiot or madman who’s never heard of hustlers, blackmailers, or street thugs before.

In other words, it’s quite easy to fight an idiotic argument that you’ve yourself invented precisely because you’re looking to attribute it to the other side.

And finally, another caveat to Barbara Engelking’s statement. With clear and concerted disapproval, she claimed, “The ghetto uprising also served as a spectacle”.

Hold on! In the very center of a city of 1.5 million people, in areas surrounded by a wall, an exchange of fire begins, a mutual attack from both sides explodes, and Germans ultimately burn down house after house, murdering people hiding in the basements. So what exactly is unexpected, surprising, or outrageous about people from the other side of that wall looking at what is happening in the ghetto?

After all, it’s quite natural for human beings to display “interest” in dramatic events. Don’t we even stop in the middle of the street or slow down our car as we “stare” at a traffic accident? Don’t people still “stare” at their TV when it shows rockets killing Ukrainian civilians or ISIS terrorists beheading people?

I’m going to assert a “radical” statement here: Perhaps there’s nothing unusual about our interest in shootings, fires, attacks and defenses, torture, or brutality. The accusation that Poles viewed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as “spectacle” is strange, tendentious, far-fetched, and ludicrous.

To fully realize and confirm that Barbara Engelking’s pretentious statement was absurd, let us imagine the opposite situation. The uprising breaks out, fights continue, the ghetto burns, and what are the reactions of the neighboring Poles? Nothing. Not a single inhabitant of Warsaw on the other side of the wall is remotely interested. No one stops, no one climbs their roof, no one lines the wall to watch. It’s just another regular day in Warsaw, so life goes on. Wouldn’t it be treated as some monstrous, inhuman indifference?

As mentioned, Barbara Engelking’s statements met with both criticism and defense. A letter backing her arguments on May 11th, 2023 was signed by several hundred researchers from around the world, including over 70 historians from Israel and about 40 from the United States. Most of them probably haven’t even watched the Engelking interview, but in their letter you can find statements that closely resemble the subtle manipulations I’ve listed above.

Here’s one excellent example: “Potential rescuers had their own neighbors to fear more than anyone else.” It must give people who don’t know the subject –– the vast majority of people –– the impression that there must’ve been neighbors who’d burst into apartments and shoot the rescuers and the rescued. Because, again, the single most important fact was completely (and intentionally) lost –– that death for hiding was solely the responsibility of the German authorities. Without the Germans murdering both the Jews and the Poles helping them, the fear of neighbors would never exist.

I forced myself to watch the conversation with Barbara Engelking carefully and I do believe that accusations of “anti-Polishness” and labeling her words “scandalous” are unjustified. They’re unfair.

Because my argument is more specific and deliberate. In my opinion, the statements Barbara Engelking uttered were highly unfortunate, tendentious, and unbecoming of a competent and rigorous historian. She failed to present actual historical knowledge, but shared personal statements characterized by journalistic rhetoric, clear subjectivism, and the intention of provoking extreme emotional reactions.

And she succeeded. Her statements –– and such statements in general –– arouse overwhelming surprise, indignation. and protest in Poland. The most significant aspect here is that when Polish faults are tendentiously emphasized, most of the time, attention, and debate is devoted to them. Only them. Not the context, not the “bigger picture,” not the issue or the circumstances.

And therefore the preeminent truth about the Holocaust is lost: that Jews –– a religious, cultural, linguistic minority –– inhabited Poland for hundreds of years and that only the conquest and enslavement of the Polish state by the Third Reich created the conditions for Germans to commit a monstrous and intentional crime on millions of innocent human beings.

For this new generation –– and the generations that will continue to define Polish identity and history –– this truth is gradually being blurred, it’s being desensitized and reformulated, it’s ceasing to present obvious historical facts precisely because essential proportionality and subjectivity is being disturbed and manipulated.

The result is arguably as impactful as the subject itself. By forcing the political and perceptive entanglement of the Holocaust as a historical subject, the truth itself –– which should always be the focus –– is being overwhelmed and redefined by the intensity of current social media politics and the dangers of fusing historical knowledge with emotional retribution.

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