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Polish Americans Fight Against WWII Media Errors

May 31, 2014

Brooklyn, N.Y…”Nowhere else is Holocaust history as distorted and as misrepresented as it is about Poland.”

These are the words of Michael Preisler, a Polish Catholic who survived the German occupation of Poland in World War II and spent 3 ½ of those years as a prisoner of the Nazis in Auschwitz.

As a past president of the Downstate N.Y. Division of the Polish American Congress, Mr. Preisler helped create a special committee in the Congress to correct misrepresentations about Poland appearing in American media. Such misrepresentations usually occur when the Holocaust is fictionalized in a novel or a TV, motion picture or theatrical production.

A book review just published in the Weekly Standard is an example of the typical misrepresentations to which the Holocaust Documentation Committee of the Polish American Congress is forced to continually respond.

Although Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial today honors Poland as the country with the largest number of Righteous heroes (mostly Catholics) who rescued Jews in the Holocaust, the Weekly Standard expresses no such honors for Polish Christians. Instead, its book review opens with the condemnation that “In October 1940, with the help of the Poles, the Germans crammed 400,000 Jews into the Warsaw ghetto.”

This is the response of the Holocaust Documentation Committee:

***

To The Editor:

Diane Scharper, reviewing "The Train to Warsaw" by Gwen Edelman (May 12), summarizes the book in two questions: "Why did Poles allow the Germans to torture the Jews? Why did Poles conspire against Polish Jews?"

These questions could only be asked by an author or reviewer who was unfamiliar with, or indifferent to, the historical record.

The Poles -- invaded, occupied, and persecuted by the Germans -- did not have the option to allow or disallow whatever the Germans wanted to do. The Poles did not cause the Holocaust and were powerless to stop it. If the Poles had the ability to save the 3 million Polish Jews murdered by the Germans, and failed to do so because of anti-Semitism, why did they not save the almost 2 million non-Jewish Poles the Germans also murdered, to whom that prejudice would not apply?

The Polish underground resistance condemned the few Poles who betrayed Jews, and tried them in underground courts. There was a Polish conspiracy, but it was an underground organization to rescue Jews (code named Zegota), which has been honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel. Over 6,000 individual Poles have also been so honored, more than any other nationality.

The novel's Jascha "wants to confront ordinary Poles with the evil they've done." But the great majority of "ordinary Poles" were neither evil betrayers nor heroic rescuers of Jews. They had minimal contact with Jews in the ghettos and camps, and simply tried to survive the war as best they could, which is not an evil thing.

The Germans did not need Polish help to find Jews, most of whom could be identified by their distinctive lifestyle and dress, as is evident in the prewar photography of Roman Vishniac and Alter Kacyzne.

The image of the carousel next to the ghetto wall during the 1943 uprising is well known from the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, who later commented that people behaved differently in other parts of Warsaw, "so there's no question of leveling any accusations here." Ghetto fighter Yitzhak Zuckerman recalled that "At that time, there was a lot of sympathy and admiration for the Jews ... With my own eyes, I saw Poles crying, just standing there and crying."

Charles Chotkowski
Director of Research
Holocaust Documentation Committee
Polish American Congress