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Wednesday
Mar072018

THE ROLE OF THE POLES IN THE NAZI KILLING MACHINE

The recent controversy emanating from Poland these days began with the passage of a law prohibiting referring to Nazi death camps as “Polish camps.” It only intensified with the statement of the Polish Prime Minister, about “Polish perpetrators” and “Jewish perpetrators.” Chabad Holocaust researcher, R’ Shneur Zalman Berger, presents his research findings that there were a lot more Poles who killed or betrayed Jews than there were who risked their lives to save Jews. * Also, an update about the work of Chabad in Poland.           

Rabbi Eliezer Gourarie, shliach in Cracow, in the March of the Living

The new Polish law prohibiting any references toPolishdeath camps has caused a tremendous storm in the Jewish world at large, and especially among those Jewish survivors who witnessed the atrocities perpetrated against them by their Polish neighbors.

The law in question was based on the argument that it was the German government that set up and administered the camps located in Poland and should therefore be referred to exclusively as German camps. During the debates over the new law, many leaders and public figures in Poland seemed to get swept up in a tide of anti-Semitism and even seemed to mock the Jews when speaking of the death camps.

The passage of the law in the Polish parliament, along with the statements of support for the law from government leaders, came as somewhat of a surprise to many Jews. Poland had recently elected a new Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who had shown an unusual degree of affinity with the Jewish people when he participated in a public Chanuka lighting together with the shliach of the Rebbe in Warsaw, R’ Sholom Dovber Stambler.

His recent statement, in which he drew parallels between “Polish perpetrators” who collaborated with the Nazis and “Jewish perpetrators” during the period of the Holocaust, caused tremendous shock. In his words defending the law, “It is not going to be criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian perpetrators, and not only Germans,” seemingly trying to diminish the role of the hundreds of thousands of Poles who helped the Nazis in their horrific massacres.

The strong statement of Morawiecki and the sharp response of Prime Minister Netanyahu, making it clear that these words were unacceptable and that it was baseless to draw any comparison between the action of Polish gentiles and Jews during the Holocaust, has raised an unprecedented level of interest in everything connected with the behavior of Polish citizens during the war. Morawiecki himself seems to harbor no anti-Semitic sentiments, and on the contrary, even sent his children to a Jewish school. But he has argued that Poles did everything in their power to save Jews.

What is the truth here? What role did the Polish people really play in the terrible events of the Holocaust?

THERE ARE POLES AND THERE ARE POLES

Poland was the first country to fall to the Nazi war machine, who invaded the country in September of 1939. In a period of a little over a month, the Nazis conquered the entire country, with the help of unceasing bombing raids by the German Luftwaffe. The Polish government ceased to exist, the Polish army collapsed and fled, and the citizens of Poland, including in their number 3,000,000 Jews, found themselves under Nazi rule, which mercilessly persecuted the Jews with tremendous cruelty. The Germans also looked upon the Poles as an inferior people and treated them with contempt.

Most Polish citizens responded with silence to the entire system of annihilation which the Nazis carried out against the Jews in Poland during the war years. Some did so out of fear, and some because of their anti-Semitic views, and these displayed their satisfaction over the killing of the Jews. Despite that being the case, there were also those citizens who helped Jews, neighbors and acquaintances, by sneaking food into the ghettos, and there were even those who endangered their own lives to hide Jews in their homes. There were also some underground Polish organizations that helped Jews, despite the great danger involved to them and their families, and many of those were eventually given recognition as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

However, these were few and far between, relative to the hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens who provided real assistance to the Nazis. These include those who delivered Jews into the hands of the Nazis, knowing full well what would happen to them, as well as many occurrences of Poles actually murdering their Jewish neighbors. There are differing assessments as to the exact number of Jews who were killed by their fellow Poles. The Polish history professor, Jan Grabowski, puts the number of Jews killed by Poles at over 200,000.

At the end of the war, after the defeat of Germany, there were the rare survivors who returned to their old homes. To their horror, they discovered that their Polish neighbors had taken over their homes. Quite a few Jews who managed to survive over five years of fire and fury were murdered by their former neighbors who were afraid that the survivors would reclaim their homes and push them out.

After the war, a communist government was established under the direct administration of the Soviet Union. Local governments who were busy dealing with their own war wounds, did little to record the crimes of their citizens against the returning Jews. Over the years, many research studies have been carried out, which revealed ever more details about the extent of the Polish collaboration with the Nazis, such as the “Jedwabne Pogrom,” which took place in the Polish city of Jedwabne, in which many Jews were slaughtered, with most of them locked into a barn and burned alive.

In the year 2000, the historian Jan Tomasz Gross published his book called “Neighbors,” in which he made public the fact that it was the Poles who carried out the massacre, putting the number of Jews killed at 1600. (This number is under heated dispute, as forensic studies of the mass graves seem to indicate that the number is more likely a few hundred.)

THE BETRAYAL OF SHMIEL BOYMELGREEN

Most of the Lubavitcher Chassidim living in Poland at the time of the outbreak of the war perished at the hands of the Nazis, and there were among their number those who were killed or betrayed to the Germans by the Poles. An example of just such an occurrence is the story of Shmiel Boymelgreen, a Lubavitcher bachur.

I heard the story about 15 years ago, during an interview that I conducted with the late Mr. Tuvia Friedman, the famous Nazi hunter (published in the English Beis Moshiach, issue #875). We sat in his office in the Institute for Documentation of the Holocaust in Haifa, where he shared his personal story during the war years. During the interview, there were many painful moments in which old wounds were reopened.

One such moment was when he shared the story of his Lubavitcher friend, “Shmiel” Boymelgreen, who was handed over to the Nazis by Polish gentiles. Here is the story that he told me, in his own words:

“Everybody knows by now what the ghetto was like. Starvation, no clothes and no heat. In a word, there was nothing, and the despair was overwhelming. The ones who mobilized in this time of such suffering to help, wholeheartedly, the residents of the Radom ghetto, were the Lubavitcher Chassidim, who numbered thirty families. At the head of the assistance effort were two young bachurim, my friends, Shmuel and Mordechai Boymelgreen, may Hashem avenge their blood. These two brothers had been sent to Radom from their hometown of Zvolin, from where their father had been taken away to Treblinka. These two youths, who had been successful in business, distributed bread to the hungry, passed along clothes and shoes to those in need; and in those times, who was not needy?!”

In August of 1942, the two ghettos in Radom were liquidated. At the time of the liquidation, thousands of Jews were killed, with the rest sent off to the Treblinka death camp. 4,000 were selected to do forced labor, and the two brothers were sent to the two labor camps that were set up, one on Szwarlikowska Street in the large ghetto, and the other on Szkolna Street in the small ghetto. Shmuel “Shmiel” Boymelgreen and Tuvia Friedman were sent to the second one.

In July 1944, with the Russian army approaching Radom, the Nazis decided to send all the slave laborers in the Radom camps to Auschwitz. One morning, SS soldiers appeared with wolfhounds and drove all the Jews to the rollcall area in front of the factory. Inside the factory pandemonium ensues, and everybody dispersed, running in terror and confusion, some to try and escape and others to present themselves in the line. Tuvia Friedman and a few others in the group succeeded in escaping through the sewer pipe, and Shmuel escaped some other way.

Apparently, Shmuel managed to make his way to his hometown of Zvolin, but the local gentiles handed him over to the Nazis, who killed him. The killing took place in November of 1944, in the forest near their hometown of Zvolin, in the Kielce region of Poland.

HOW GUILTY ARE THE POLES?

Professor Sara Bender, a recognized expert (who served a fellowship in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) on the history of the Jewish communities in Poland during WWII, offers her response to the current controversy over the new law. She states emphatically that Polish antisemitism was and continues to be of a more murderous bent, even more so than in any other country.

Professor Bender is of the view that it is a mistake to refer to the deathcamps as “Polish camps,” but that the involvement of many Poles in cruel acts of slaughter of Jews cannot be allowed to be covered up or forgotten:

“We are talking about a country that was and continues to be anti-Semitic. Polish antisemitism is possessed of a murderous character. Seventy-five years later, it is impossible to avoid attributing responsibility to Poland in having a hand in the murder of Jews during WWII and the Holocaust. There were many who took the initiative to murder Jews, some were individual Poles or groups, and some were underground fighters fighting in the forests.”

Despite this, she points out that it is important to note the Poles that did hide Jews, even if they are not many in number. Bender also notes that some of those who hid Jews were murdered after the war by their fellow Poles, and she adds that a lot of these activities were not just carried out by individual and independent Poles, but was known by the Polish government in exile, situated in London.

“There were extortionists in Warsaw, and countless studies have been written about these extortionists. A Jew could not even stick his nose out into the open air, because thousands of Poles set out to hunt down Jews. There were those whose full-time occupation was hunting down Jews. The Germans would not have been able to get to many Jews without the snitching of the Poles, who were only interested in grabbing away Jewish property.

“In Kielce, fifty Jews were murdered in one day, a year and a half after Poland was liberated. The ones who killed those Jews and threw their bodies from windows, were Poles. Many Jews were killed after the war when the Poles would not allow them to take back possession of their old homes.”

Professor Bender served as the editor of the encyclopedia on “Righteous Gentiles,” produced by Yad Vashem. Although the encyclopedia is a two-volume work covering these heroic gentiles, she says that it is still a relative handful. Her own father was saved by a Polish gentile, but despite this she says that the facts have to be acknowledged and you can’t deny the historical facts.

About the motive for the current Polish law, she says, “This hounds them. They want to deny and delude themselves. They are doing something terrible and atrocious, but the historians have to show what is what.”

CHABAD IN POLAND – 2018

It should be pointed out that for all intents and purposes, Polish Jewry was completely wiped out during the Holocaust. A tiny number of Jews, brands plucked from the fires of hell, managed to return, but the glory days of the past were gone, never to return.

Over the years, the Rebbe sent shluchim to many countries around the world to prepare them for Moshiach, but Poland was not among them. It may be due to the strong communist influence that was in force in the country, and the danger involved, or it may be for other reasons.

A year and a half after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Rebbe was visited by Mr. David Chase and his adviser on matters relating to Poland, R’ Chaskel Besser, who had been in close contact with the Rebbe for many years. Mr. Chase, who had begun doing business in Poland, suggested to the Rebbe that he send a shliach there to revive the place, but the Rebbe did not accept the suggestion: “If someone were to ask me whether to establish a Jewish community in Poland at this time, I would tell him, in all honesty, that I do not see any benefit in this. Today, there is a future for Jews in America, Eretz Yisroel or England, and the like. But not in a country that is not suited for Jewish life.”

Despite this, the Rebbe did not negate the possibility of outreach work targeting those who live in Poland and are in need of Jewish assistance (see box).

In 2004, Shalom Dovber Stambler, a bachur at the time, saw the difficulties faced by Jewish businessmen visiting Poland in getting hold of kosher food, a minyan and basic Jewish needs. In response to this need, he helped set up a Chabad House in Warsaw. After his wedding, he arrived there together with his wife, and they established an official shlichus presence in the city.

Today, in Adar 2018, the work of Chabad in Poland continues to grow. In Warsaw, the capital of Poland, the work is carried out under the leadership of the shliach, R’ Sholom Dovber Stambler, and in Cracow, the work of Chabad is based out of the ancient “Aizik Shul,” by the local shliach, R’ Eliezer Gurary. Relatives of R’ Gurary lived in Warsaw before the war, suffered in the ghetto, and some were killed in the camps.

The shluchim integrate their daily work with the Jews living in Poland with their work with business people and tourists who come to see the camps and the remnants of the ghettos up close. One of the especially broad opportunities for outreach is the “March of the Living” on Holocaust Remembrance Day, when tens of thousands come from around the world to Auschwitz and other camps. During those days, the shluchim operate a vast and unique operation, during the visits to Warsaw and Cracow, as well as during the march in Auschwitz.

It should be noted that the Polish government is very respectful of the shluchim operating there, and pictures of shluchim with top leadership in the country are quite common. As mentioned previously, the Prime Minister chose as one of his first public appearances after being elected to attend the menora lighting with the shliach of the Rebbe.

THE WORK NEEDED IN POLAND TODAY

On the eve following 20 Teves 5750, in the Rebbe’s house, following a sicha said after Maariv, and during the distribution of dollars that followed, Mr. David Chase and Mr. Ronald Lauder were in attendance accompanied by R’ Chaskel Besser.

Mr. Chase presented Mr. Lauder and said that they had just returned from a trip to Poland and would be traveling there again in the coming days, and that Ambassador Lauder came to ask the Rebbe about how to operate there. Mr. Lauder said that they had been in Cracow, and since there were very few Jews there, they thought of bringing Jews from America to help establish a community there.

The Rebbe: In order for a given activity to be successful, it is essential that those working on it derive satisfaction from the work. If they will send young Jews now to Poland, it will be impossible for them to be content there, because the surviving Jews there are elderly people, and it is impossible to build a community of young people.

Mr. Lauder: There are also young Jews there, and they need a community to be able to join.

The Rebbe: For them, it is possible to send individual Jews, but it is impossible to transplant there an entire community. If someone were to ask me whether to establish a Jewish community in Poland at this time, I would tell him, in all honesty, that I do not see any benefit in this. Today, there is a future for Jews in America, Eretz Yisroel or England, and the like. But not in a country that is not suited for Jewish life, in which they will not have continuity in another three generations, or even two generations. This is a goal that is unattainable in Poland.

On the contrary, an attempt to build a community in Poland could lead the youth there to become assimilated, because there are not enough Jewish marriage partners for the young Jews. And since there is nothing there at this time, it is not proper to cause them to stay in that country. Therefore, I do not believe that someone would take upon himself this job, of building Jewish life there for the youth, because this would have no benefit.

On the other hand, there is tremendous benefit and would be highly recommended, and not just recommended but an issue of life and death, saving lives, to deal with the adult population living there. For those for whom it is difficult for them to find a new country and start their lives anew, it is obligatory to provide them all of the opportunities and resources in order to lead Jewish lives there.

As far as the youth, as stated, I do not see any long-term purpose for the young generation of Jews in Poland, and so too for Czechoslovakia and the like. And more so, this is in opposition to my beliefs:

I believe that the True and Complete Redemption will come soon. Therefore, what benefit is there in a plan to build Jewish life in Poland for fifty years from today?! If that is the case, telling people to move to Poland is telling them to do something that is in conflict with their own interests, and not only in conflict with their material interests, but also – and this is the main thing – in conflict with their spiritual interests.

Mr. Chase: To the best of our knowledge, there are currently thousands of young Jews in Poland, although some of them are from mixed marriages, who are very interested in their Jewish identity. As opposed to their parents who were communists, they want to know more about their Judaism. The question is what can be done about this?

The Rebbe: There is a need for immediate action, but at the same time, it is an obligation to operate also in the long-term. If possible, it is necessary to immediately send teachers and counselors there (but not to invest effort in community building, as mentioned). And in the long term, everything must be done to enable them to lead true Jewish lives in their day-to-day living, and for this need it is necessary to do everything possible to convince them to emigrate from Poland to Eretz Yisroel, America, France, or England, countries where normative Jewish living has been conducted in recent decades. Whereas, the experiment to begin this in Poland, is according to my understanding, and forgive me if you think differently, an experiment that is destined to failure and is definitely not recommended.

Mr. Chase: Among the young Jews, there were those who told me that they see themselves as Jews and would like to know more. Is the Rebbe of the opinion, regarding them, based on his well-known approach all along, that they need to be helped?

The Rebbe: Absolutely!

Mr. Chase: In other words, according to the Rebbe’s position there is a need to send counselors, but not to send families to build a young generation. However, do we not need to provide assistance for those Jews who want to know more?

The Rebbe: Certainly it is needed to send them as much as possible, but also not to let the young generation remain there.

Mr. Lauder: In another week we are opening a Jewish nursery school in Warsaw.

The Rebbe: That is certainly a very good thing, since as mentioned, the plan to get the Polish Jews to emigrate is a long-term plan, relatively speaking, and it cannot be that children currently in Poland should remain without a Jewish education. Therefore, I said that it is necessary to send them as much as possible, meaning books, teachers, counselors and the like, and this is no contradiction to the fact that there is no place for sending a large number of Jewish families so that in a few decades there will be a new Jewish generation there.

Mr. Chase: Rebbe, we are asking for your blessing that whatever we attempt to do should be consistent with the Jewish responsibility that is placed on us.

The Rebbe: You should merit “a double measure of understanding” in this direction, and you should do this with good health and good livelihood. 

(Hisvaaduyos 5750, vol. 2, p. 497-499)

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