“Polish Death Camps” — More “Fake News”

Most people are unaware that World War II began when Hitler, from the west, and Stalin, from the east, attacked Poland. They do not know that Poland never surrendered to Hitler. They do not know that the first person who uncovered the true purpose of the Nazi German concentration camps in occupied Poland was a Polish Home Army Soldier, Captain Witold Pilecki. To be able to inform public opinions around the world about the facts, Poland believes it needs to stop the reiteration of the false narrative, “Polish Death Camps.”


By Maria Juczewska l February 22, 2018

“The Auschwitz concentration camp was a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.” Wikipedia

On January 26, the Polish Parliament passed a bill outlawing use of the expression Polish Death Camps. The aim of the bill is to insist on historical truth and fact checking with regard to Poland and her history. However, the timing of the vote in the Polish parliament – right before the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on January 27 – prompted militant reactions abroad. Polish MPs were accused of attempts at whitewashing Poland’s alleged anti-Semitic past or limiting the freedom of speech. Reactions of public opinion in Poland, in turn, were generally supportive of the bill, as many Poles consider the expression slander.

A case in point here is the discussion on Twitter under a Knesset member’s tweet criticizing the Polish bill. The discussion was a true battle between Israeli and Polish Twitter users, with Poles being accused of Nazism, hatred for the Jews, complicity in the Holocaust or at least inaction in the face of massive extermination of the Jewish nation.

In response to arguments describing Poles saving Jews, it was implied that Poles might have saved all the Jews during the war and that they failed to do so out of hatred. This discussion was interesting because it revealed numerous misconceptions about the situation in Europe under Nazi German occupation and motivations of the Poles experiencing it – alleged loathing, meanness, pettiness, or indifference. Meanwhile, placing the Holocaust in the proper historical context of those times may help to restore balance in this black-and-white narrative about the past.

It is rarely understood outside Poland why the Holocaust happened partly within the territories of present-day Poland. People assume it had to be due to the alleged anti-Semitism of the Poles.

In fact, it was quite the contrary. Poland for ages used to have a unique system of republican government. It resulted in unprecedented religious tolerance, including Jews. While they were persecuted and isolated in other European countries, in Poland they enjoyed royal privileges and far-reaching autonomy. As a result, by the 18th century, Poland had grown to become known as paradisus iudaeorum – a paradise for Jews – having become home to 80% of European Jewry. When Poland regained independence in the 20th century after the era of partitions, it emerged as a multi-ethnic country with considerable minorities, also its sizable Jewish population.

In September 1939, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia attacked Poland, and its territories were partitioned once again. The lands conquered by the Germans were either directly incorporated into the Third Reich or became a German outpost in the east known as The General Government.

In this way, a considerable percentage of European Jewry found itself in the German-occupied zone. It was much simpler to build concentration camps in The General Government than to transport over three million Polish Jews to camps already existing in Germany. One needs to remember here that the German population was quite sheltered throughout the war and until 1944 lived in peace-like conditions. The true content of the trains transporting thousands of Jews from all over Europe had to be concealed from German public opinion.

What is more, the Poles were staunchly anti-Nazi. Contrary to other German-occupied countries in Europe, Poland never surrendered to Nazi Germany and never had a government in collaboration with Hitler. Poles were the only nation in the German-occupied zone in Europe who did not volunteer for the Waffen SS units. Instead, they organized a massive resistance movement and recreated their institutions of state, underground. Why did they have to do it? Because, like other non-Aryan minorities living under the Third Reich, they were next in line for extermination.

In their former state, theirs was a pariah status. Poles were denied education, more lucrative professions, their food was rationed at a subsistence level, they could be expropriated at any moment or rounded up in the street to be sent to forced labor or concentration camps. Poland was the only occupied country, where, by helping Jews one could be legally shot on the spot with all the members of one’s family, and even neighbors in certain circumstances, as evidenced by the unfortunate Ulma family.

Provided by the Jewish Virtual Library; A Project of AICE

Nevertheless, the ongoing effort to save the Jews was not only individual, but also systematic, with the Polish Underground State and Home Army organizing help for Jews on a scale impossible for individuals, especially the smuggling of people out of ghettoes and providing them with false documents and shelters, as well as helping Jews organize resistance. Moreover, the Underground Polish State penalized any attempts among the citizens of Poland at betraying Jews to the Germans or profiting from their desperate situation. People who used to do that, the so-called szmalcownicy in Polish, were being systematically executed by the authorized representatives of the Polish Underground State.

Being pariahs in their former state, the Poles did the same for Polish Jews as what they did for Polish Poles. They took personal risks higher than anywhere else in Europe to save more Jews than any other nation in Europe, as per the records of the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, Israel. Every Pole awarded by the Institute with the title of the Righteous Among the Nations was supported by dozens of unnamed others. The process of sheltering was dangerous; therefore, to minimize risks, a hiding person would often be transported from one sheltering family to another multiple-times. The title is usually awarded to the final shelter-provider but it is hard to estimate how many precisely made the saving of a life possible.

Given all the misconceptions about the wartime situation in The General Government revealed in the Twitter discussion, Yad Vashem’s calling on Poland to educate in the matter of concentration camps sounds rather ironic. How could today’s Polish government possibly inform public opinions around the world when knowledge of facts is so sparse and imagined narratives abound?

Most people are unaware that World War II began when Hitler, from the west, and Stalin, from the east, attacked Poland. They do not know that Poland never surrendered to Hitler. They do not know that the first person who uncovered the true purpose of the German Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland was a Polish Home Army Soldier, Captain Witold Pilecki. He volunteered to be dispatched to Auschwitz to gather intelligence about it. It seems that it does not even matter whether the death camps were Polish or German – never mind the historical truth. People picture life under the German occupation as regular daily life, without any restrictions or violent compulsion, with emotions as primary source of human motivations in that era. The farther in time from the war, the more abstract become the notions of German national socialism, totalitarian terror, suffering, sacrifice, and heroism.

By now, a false narrative about the Poles has been entrenched in the collective imagination. A journalist who carelessly writes in the U.S. about Polish Death Camps rarely realizes how it sounds to Polish ears; namely, as if he had written about Japanese Atomic Bombs in reference to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the era of Fake News, Poles seem to be sentenced to the ungrateful role of pariah, once again.

To be able to inform public opinions around the world about the facts, Poland believes it needs to stop the reiteration of the false narrative, “Polish Death Camps.” The controversial Polish law is an attempt at restoring conditions enabling a reasonable discussion of historical facts.


Maria Juczewska is an MA candidate in International Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC where she works for the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Ms. Juczewska is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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