Divide and Conquer:
Poland and the Holocaust

Once during my 2005 book tour with A Polish Son in the Motherland, I was speaking and signing books at the Forest Hills branch of the Queens Library in New York. The program was billed as “An Afternoon of Polish Culture” and included a performance by the Polonaise Folk Dance Company.

Although my book is essentially about family, it also contains stories about the Second World War and the Holocaust, a subject I alluded to in passing during my talk. As I was speaking, a woman in the front row raised her hand and asked, “Why did the Poles so willingly collaborate with the Nazis?” Before I could answer (and God knows what I would have said), another woman on the other side of the center aisle blurted out in anger, “What are you talking about? My father died in a Nazi concentration camp.” I lost control of the program for several minutes while the two of them argued passionately, with their Yiddish and Polish accents, over who had suffered more, Polish Jews or ethnic Poles.

The polarizing political rhetoric that is currently enveloping the USA has also swept across Europe, and the government of Poland has thrown itself into the fray by passing a law making it illegal to say that the Polish state or nation was complicit in the Holocaust. For instance, saying “Polish death camps” to refer to the extermination camps in Poland, rather than saying “Nazi death camps,” could lead to a fine and up to three years in prison.

President Obama, Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, 2012.

President Obama, Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, 2012.

I was in the room at the White House in 2012 when President Obama made that mistake as he bestowed upon Holocaust hero Jan Karski, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. All of us behind the Karski nomination were in the audience, and we rolled our eyes and wondered who had vetted that speech. Obama later apologized, calling the gaffe a misstatement. There were no “Polish death camps” during World War II; there were “Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.” The Polish government found the apology insufficient.

Last year, as president of the Polish American Librarians Association I wrote a letter to the editor, which was published in Polish American Journal, decrying the effort to outlaw speech, following author and Princeton University professor Jan Gross’s widely publicized statement that “Poles killed more Jews than they did Nazis during the war,” a claim that the Polish government vehemently denies. As this controversy grew, I felt it was time PALA made a statement urging Poland to expose this and other claims that Poland was complicit in the extermination of some six million people.

Here is the text of the letter, addressing the controversy from a librarian’s point of view:

During the Kaczynski brothers’ administration in Poland, a law was passed criminalizing “slander against the Polish nation,” promising to punish anyone who “unjustly accuses the Polish nation of participation, organization, and responsibility for Communist or Nazi crimes.” Under this law, Polish prosecutors are now threatening to sue writer Jan Gross over an article in a German newspaper in which he was quoted as saying that Poles “did kill more Jews than Germans” during World War II.

The writings of Jan Gross have been received by many as a welcome indictment of Polish anti-Semitism but by others as biased, tendentious, and filled with historical inaccuracies. Mean and hurtful as Gross’s accusations may be, librarians and others who believe in free speech cannot support the notion that the best way to expose a hate monger is to silence him. We must always remember that Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf while imprisoned.

Jan Gross relies heavily on the assumption that his facts in many cases cannot be disproven. In an October 15 Agence France-Presse news story, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marcin Wojciechowski said that Gross’s article was “historically untrue, harmful, and insulting to Poland,” but AFP also quoted Warsaw historian Andrzej Paczkowski saying that “there are no reliable figures regarding the number of Jews killed by Poles and the number of Germans killed by Poles.” We must also remember that Gross’s book Neighbors prompted then Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski to apologize to Jews worldwide for the murders committed in Jedbawne.

If Gross’s assertions about Poland are indeed false, scholars, journalists, and the Polish government should be methodically checking every claim and exposing every error. Discrediting Gross’s research and claims would enable librarians to move his books to the fiction shelves, where many say they belong.

Leonard Kniffel, President
Polish American Librarians Association


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