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What's In a Name?

What’s in a name? Evidently, a lot. This week, on the eve of the International Holocaust Commemoration Day, the government of Poland thought it prudent to push a bill through its Parliament making it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to refer to the Nazi death camps as Polish death camps.

Understandably, the Israeli government, Yad Vashem, The U.S. Holocaust Museum, and the Simon Weisenthal Center in LA among others, have come out strongly condemning both the move and its timing.

I remember back in 1989 when I travelled for the first time to Poland, I saw some of this attempted white-washing of history. At the time, Poland was still under communist rule, but Lech Welesa and his Solidarity movement were well on their way to toppling the regime and creating a democracy in Poland.

Auschwitz/Birkenau was among the death camps that we visited that summer. Even back then, one could sense the revisionist history that the Polish government was forcing on the camps. At Auschwitz there were these giant memorial stones depicting the nationalities of those that were murdered there. The main memorial stone said that over 1.5 million men, women and children died there. No mention of the fact that most were Jewish. Less than two years later when I would return to Poland and visit Birkenau again, the memorial stone was changed to read “….about one and a half million men, women and children, mostly Jews, from various countries in Europe.” It was a welcome change because it spoke to the Polish ambivalence about taking any responsibility for the slaughter that was perpetrated against one particular population more than any other. Yes, there were other groups that were targeted, for instance gypsies and homosexuals. Yes, many Christian Poles died at the hands of the Nazi’s as well. However, it was the Jewish population that bore the brunt of Germany’s atrocity.

But, and this is an important but, because it speaks to why I think we can and should continue to refer to them not just as Nazi death camps, but Polish death camps. But, the Poles were for the most part willing executioners. There was a reason Hitler chose to build the death camps in Poland and it was not just because it held the largest concentration of Jews. Polish participants, collaborators and informers far outweighed the righteous gentiles in Poland.

I have a vivid recollection of visiting Majdanek, the death camp located four kilometers from the city of Lublin. As we stood outside the crematorium in Majdanek we could see the smoke stacks of the factories in the town. There is no doubt, the citizens of Lublin could see the smoke stack in Majdanek.

If there was any doubt about how the Christian Poles felt about their Jewish neighbors, one need only remind ourselves of the massacre that took place in the town of Kielce on July 4, 1946 almost a year after the war was officially over. Around one hundred and fifty Jews returned to their homes in Kielce after the war. Then the next summer during an attack by Polish soldiers, police, and civilians, over forty Jews were killed and another 40 were wounded. No German death camps to blame there.

At a time when we have not only individuals, but governments of countries denying the history of Holocaust, it is unconscionable that Poland would seek to pass such legislation. It is time for them to come to terms with their involvement in the murder of six million Jews, and not try to hide from it. They were not the perpetrators, but they were also not innocent victims. They were Nazi death camps, but they were also Polish death camps.

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