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Giving Poland its due

The writer Alan Furst was on the Charlie Rose show the other night, and Rose kept asking him why none his novels have been made into movies. I was distracted at the time, so it’s possible I missed Furst’s explanation, but it sounded to me that he, regrettably, had none. In that case, let me suggest one of my own: The last book of his I read, the 2008 “Spies of Warsaw, “ was mostly about the Polish capital on the eve of World War II and not, say, Paris in the same era. In a certain sense, Warsaw gets no respect.

The respect I have in mind is that few people know that the Polish resistance to the Nazis was greater -- and far more effective -- than the one the French mounted, which was far more important on the screen than it was on the battlefield. This is a great source of annoyance to the Poles, because Poland suffered greatly during World War II -- Hitler considered the Poles to be Untermenschen, less than human, and ordered his killing squads to “send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.” He carved out an exception for Poles with so-called Aryan features -- blond, blue-eyed -- whose children were often seized, given to German parents and raised as good little Nazis. As for the rest of the Poles, they were slated for extermination.

The Poles fought back. They fought the Nazis and they often fought the Nazis’ attempts to kill Jews. This, too, is not widely known. Instead, much more emphasis is given to that part of Polish society that aided the Nazis in implementing the Final Solution or who simply didn’t care one way or the other. Still, the fact remains that some 6, 135 Poles are recognized by Israel as “Righteous Gentiles” for what they did to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Almost always, these people risked the most awful penalties, including the virtual certainty of death for themselves, their families and anyone who helped them. From 1939 and the German invasion to 1945 and the end of the war, 3 million Polish Jews perished. During that same period, anywhere from 2 million to 2.5 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were also killed. Poland had the largest population of Jews in occupied Europe. It also had 25 percent of the Righteous Gentiles.

I am writing this as sort of a special request. Recently, I took Helen Thomas to task for what she apparently did not know -- namely Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust could not return to their homes because they feared for their life. Even after the war had ended, Jews were still being killed in Poland, no longer by Germans, but by Poles. This is an historic fact, as is the appalling anti-Semitism of the Polish Catholic Church at the time. When I wrote about this, many Poles -- including Polish Jews -- felt I had not given due attention to the many Poles who risked their lives to save Jews. I do so now.

Further, I need to acknowledge that Poland has made great efforts to come to grips with some of the more unsavory chapters of its own history. It has faced up to the anti-Semitism in its society -- past and, of course, still -- and tried to do something about this. The effort has to be both acknowledged and better known. The Poles have earned it.

A newspaper column consists of about 750 words. They are exercise in miniaturization. It becomes impossible to say everything that needs to be said -- the vaunted other side of the story or, in the case of the Poles, an unknown side of the story. (In some cases, as the historian Norman Davies points out, the Nazis “destroyed the living memories which could put Jewish history into an appropriate context.”) There is much more to say about the utterly admirable and courageous aspects of Polish history. This is just a start.

By Richard Cohen  | July 1, 2010; 11:03 AM ET
Categories:  Cohen  | Tags:  Richard Cohen  
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I continue to think that Helen Thomas has as much right to form and express her own opinions as you Israel-centric thinkers do.

Posted by: Provincial | July 1, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

By happenstance I met Helen Thomas in Chevy Chase, Md, June 7, 2010 at 9:30 a.m,, a few hours before it was announced that she retired. She was not ambulatory and seemed disoroented. She had a young woman who had to hold her..Sadly, it seems that she was not well when she had her outburst to a little known rabbi from New York who intended to use her to publicize his web site. Mr. Cohen , a coreligionist also from New York, assisted in the set ip piece. Now , mr. Cohen pretends as he has sop often that he did not know about the Poles who saved Jews at the peril of ther lives. I have read Mr. Cohen for decades, and I assure you I would not buy a car from him. Once he wrote that the Nazis exempted Jewish world veterans of World War One from deportation,.Two of my uncles decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery in World war One were deported and became Holocaust victims.

Posted by: lejeune421 | July 1, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

By happenstance I met Helen Thomas in Chevy Chase, Md, June 7, 2010 at 9:30 a.m,, a few hours before it was announced that she retired. She was not ambulatory and seemed disoriented. She had a young woman who had to hold her..Sadly, it seems that she was not well when she had her outburst to a little known rabbi from New York who intended to use her to publicize his web site. Mr. Cohen , a coreligionist also from New York, assisted in the set up piece. Now , mr. Cohen pretends as he has so often that he did not know about the Poles who saved Jews at the peril of ther lives. I have read Mr. Cohen for decades, and I assure you I would not buy a car from him. Once he wrote that the Nazis exempted Jewish world veterans of World War One from deportation,.Two of my uncles decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery in World war One were deported and became Holocaust victims.

Posted by: lejeune421 | July 1, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Too bad Mr. Cohen didn't have the courage to write this during the 20 years he and Helen Thomas collaborated in the Washington journalism establishment. The rest of the country knew Helen Thomas was a nut decades ago.

Makes one wonder what else the Washington journalism establishment is hiding.

Posted by: Delongl | July 1, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

One reason the Poles fought so hard was because they too were scheduled to be eliminated. The nazis wanted them only as farmers for the reich, to subsist on minimal calorie intakes, until they died. When they finally were starved out the nazis would then take over Poland which was, until WWII and beyond, the breadbasket of Europe.

Posted by: spike591011 | July 2, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Well, that's nice to read. Even though, I must say I didn't find the other article particularly biased. I am Polish and I am frequently irritated by certain claims, but besides one phrase (and members of contemporary Polish Jewish community took care of that in a letter), it made sense to focus on post-war anti-Semitism in the context of response to Helen Thomas. As the author says you can only say so much in an article. Whatever Polish resistance during WWII (of which I'm very proud) it's understandable that people do not feel "home" in a country where there are pogroms against them. And you can say many things, including that it didn't feel like home to many ethnic Poles either (with the communist takeover going on) but it remains that this is how things were.

Posted by: justine1364 | July 2, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

But as of today, how many Jews live in Poland? My estimate is less than ten thousand compared to more than three million prior to 1939.

Posted by: johnson0572 | July 2, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Dear Mr Cohen,

First, I should declare that I have one Polish parent, and some distant Jewish roots as well. I happen to be a specialist on Polish history, with a keen interest Holocaust Studies and Polish Jewish Life.

You hit the nail on the head here when you wrote that Poles (including Polish Americans) get annoyed about generalizations and misconceptions about their role in WW2. I am deeply impressed by your civilized and gracious response to the complaints you received. I hope the new life we can now get out of this is your new-found interest in Polish-Jewish relations, and history.

Sometimes, Jewish public figures do exhibit unacceptable levels of prejudice, even hatred, against the Polish race. This is despite the very strong and well-documented anti-Nazi and pro-Jewish current that has always existed in Poland, even (and most vitally) during the Holocaust. The modern Jewish hatred of Poles itself causes Poles now to want to answer back, to fight back, and finally to hate. Both peoples have to be extremely careful about language, and history.

You might like to know that in postwar Poland there were in fact around 50,000 deaths between around 1945-1945, in the "mini Holocaust" you mentioned. This was caused by Soviet repression, Polish resistance, lawlessness, anarchy, Soviet military indiscipline, civil war, anti-Communist sentiment, and ethnic hatred including anti-Ukrainian sentiment, anti-Polish sentiment and anti-Semitism. In the "mini Holocaust" you described, there were not just the deaths of about 52 Polish Jews at Kielce and hundreds more elsewhere. There were 50,000 Polish deaths, around 2000 (4 percent of the mini Holocaust) were Polish Jews, some 48,000 (96 percent of the mini Holocaust) were Polish gentiles.

Historians say that at most half of 2000 the Jewish deaths may have been caused by anti-Semitism. All of this was the product of the Soviet takeover of Poland sanctioned by the British and Americans at Yalta and Potsdam.

Data shows Polish Jews received positive discrimination from the communists, and that they were over represented in the (extremely brutal) secret police. Put it this way - if in 1946 you went to a town hall meeting in Kielce with 100 people, there would have been about 10 Jews. If you went to meet the Soviet-backed military police leadership in Kielce of 30 people, somewhere between 10 or 20 of them would have been Jewish. This did cause an anti-Semitic reaction which was nothing to do with fascist propaganda, Catholicism, or small town bigotry; it was a reaction to terror. Innocent, helpless Jews who who had nothing to do with communism were given a bad name by the high profile Jewish presence in the apparatus of the terror state, and these powerless innocents unfairly received the reprisals.

One should not draw conclusions about Kielce without including the big picture.

PS watch the Furst clip again - he says "The Spies of Warsaw" is in development, in a PBS - BBC joint project coming 2012.

Posted by: erty1 | July 2, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Typo above, the dates should read: 1945-1949

Posted by: erty1 | July 2, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

I enjoyed reading your article but I must tell you there are a few points, I'd like to clarify. Historically, the Kingdom of Poland was one of medieval Europe’s most tolerant countries. In fact, in the 15th century it's estimated that 80% of all Jews in the world lived in Poland. Poland in 1939 had one of the largest Jewish population in the world, only 2nd to the US. Poland not only refused Hitler's request for a pact to attack the USSR in 1938, it was the 1st nation to stand up to the appeasement requests of Hitler. It was the only country in German occupied Europe where helping a Jew was punishable by death. Nevertheless, Polish gentile make up close to 25% of Israel’s Righteous among Nations. Somehow reactionary history likes to link the Holocaust to the people of Poland. How many times do you read about Nazi Poland?
Make no mistake, the Germans were the Nazi's and the Nazi's were the Germans. While you had a pro Nazi Vichy French government in France, Polish government never surrendered to the Nazi's. It was an occupied land governed by the Nazi's from Germany. Over 6 million Poles lost their lives by the end of WWII, the largest % of
any country. It included 3 million Jewish Poles & 3 million non-Jewish Poles. With the Communist take-over of Poland in 1945 all reminders of a Jewish Culture were
obliterated. Since, it’s become a free nation it has tried to re-establish its ties with its Jewish past & is probably the strongest ally of Israel in modern Europe. I'm proud and happy that modern Poland is trying to reclaim its Jewish Heritage. Where is the rest of Europe?

Posted by: jerzygurl | July 2, 2010 9:28 PM | Report abuse

Dear Sir,

I read your article with interest. Because you seem to be an experienced journalist, I would like to address some of the ideas your article contained.

I believe that the article is constructed in a way that might lead readers to come to the wrong conclusions.

On the one hand, you note some clear facts.

May I point out here that I have heard that more "Righteous In the World" awards have been presented to Poles than to members of any other nationality. Rabbi Shevach Weiss, the former Israeli Ambassador to Poland, who is a well-known friend of Poland, as written about this many times. I mention this here because it is one point on which we agree.

On the other hand, your thesis about the violently anti-Semitic mood in postwar Poland is at best dubious, since for example the anti-Jewish attacks were provoked by the UB (secret police), which cannot serve as a basis for generalizations about the attitude of the Polish population as a whole. Despite this, you portray postwar Poland as if it were indisputably and inherently anti-Semitic.

I also cannot agree with the thesis that the Catholic Church in Poland was anti-Semitic, since on the basis of its official declarations it was not. Being a non-believer myself, I am formulating my disagreement with this thesis in a delicate fashion, according to the norms of normal discussion rather than argument.

In a brief response such as this, it is not possible to engage in a deeper analysis of the differences between Catholicism and Judaism, as you will undoubtedly agree.

This response to your article is also an opportunity to bring up the question of why American Jews essentially did not respond to the Holocaust in Europe, even though they knew it was occurring. Not as a religious community -- but as a community that could have wielded serious influence with the highest levels of government.

Another question, although it may seem a bit abstract today, is -- why is the question of Polish anti-Semitism so alive in the United States, and particularly in the American media? Why does it so often happen that Nazi death camps are so painlessly renamed "Polish death camps"? As an experienced author, probably you have also observed this condemnable practice.

We both know that the problem is not a simple one. Let us take care, however, that these difficult and even prickly problems are discussed in the future in a way that is in keeping with historical truth, which leads to reconciliation and mutual understanding.

Respectfully yours
Szczepan Woronowicz, Warsaw, Poland

Posted by: woron | July 3, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I find this article remarkable. Mr. Cohen's hatred of Poles seems to be waning as he opens up to the wider history of Polish World War II history, relatively unknown in this country, and certainly to this ignoramus, Mr Richard Cohen, American journalist exemplar.
Some things not mentioned. To be considered righteous amongst nations by Yad Vashem there must be testimony of Jews saved, correct me if I'm wrong. There are still untold numbers of Poles not honored at Yad Vashem because they AND their families perished along with the Jews they sought to save. There is no memorial for them. Please google Zycie za zycie.
As far as the Polish Catholic church is concerned many, if not most, Jewish lives saved involved the Catholic Church as they were often hidden in monasteries, convents, and homes of parishmembers, and usually involved baptysmal certificates, etc. Also the founders of Zegota, the only underground organization in occupied Europe dedicated solely to the saving of Jews, were mostly very religious Roman Catholics. One, Zofia Kossak, was actually considered anti-semitic, but her supposed anti-semitism did not translate into annihilation of Jews, but in support for the creation of an independent Jewish state in which Jews could feel at home, and for which they would leave Poland.
Again, post World War II, when a communist of Jewish background was killed because he was Communist, the Communist authorities touted this as anti-semitism. When a non Communist Jew was killed by the Soviets or the Communists, no one heard of this, or it was blamed on the Polish population, anyway. The US media took Soviet propaganda at face value. No one heard of Polish Jews killed by the Communists and Soviets. Did anyone hear of the Chief Rabbi of the Polish armed forces being killed by the Soviets. Of course not. According to the US media the Soviets liberated Auschwitz. When the Soviet imposed Communist government, which had no standing in Polish society, kicked out the remaining Polish Jews in 1968 from Poland because the Soviet Union sided with Arabs over Israel, who did the US media blame? Poles and Poland!
Remember how Hitler staged an attack on a German radio station by alleged Poles in army uniforms (they were Polish prisoners who were drugged and shot and left at the scene as "evidence") to rile up German public opinion against Poles, and therefore get them to support the impending invasion of Poland? I suppose, according to the misguided US media, the Soviets weren't capable of staging such incidents, right? Well, it is common knowledge amongst Poles who know anything about post World War II Poland, and I am talking about educated people, that Kielce was staged. If nothing else, the main perpetrators were Communist police and military IN UNIFORM. The little boy who claimed he was kidnapped by Jews was the son of a Communist official. Certainly, food for thought. Never mentioned in the left leaning, Polish bashing US media.

Posted by: Corrector | July 3, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I just noticed this:

"Hunker Down With History

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; Page A19

The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself."

I have to say that the Thomas comment is surely based on the very same idea that Cohen had, that "Israel itself is a mistake." Something seems unfair, or double standards, when one looks at the Thomas and Cohen comments side by side. As such, the implication is that it is OK for a Jewish-American to compose in writing that Israel is a mistake, but not OK for an elderly Arab-American to give an off-the-cuff personal opinion on how to fix the mistake. Go figure.

Posted by: erty1 | July 4, 2010 6:15 AM | Report abuse

Too little, too late, and no where near prominent enough, actually hidden in a blog at the beginning of a holiday weekend, you anti-Pole, Richard Cohen.

You should be ashamed of yourself for feeding into and propagating the smear campaign that has been waged against World War II Poland and Poles for at least 20 years.

Why don't you write about Jewish killing of Poles during the war by Jewish partisans? Why don't you write about the Jewish communists who put to death and imprisoned Poles during and after the war? No ethnic group was without blood on its hands. Why don't you ever write about American, British, and other anti-Semitism throughout the world during and after the war?

It's not anti-Polish "sentiment." The word to describe the war waged against World War II Poland by Jewish-American "journalists" is anti-Polonism, and is identical to anti-Semitism.

Posted by: Jessie5 | July 4, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Is the Washington post engaging in censorship? Why can't I post a second comment in several days. Reminds me of Communism ....

Posted by: Corrector | July 5, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Is the Washington post engaging in censorship? Why can't I post a second comment in several days. Reminds me of Communism ....

Posted by: Corrector | July 5, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Keep an open mind, Mr. Cohen.
You do not mention why the French underground was frequently featured in Hollywood films, while the Polish underground, by far more effective and greater, was not mentioned AT ALL. Please read Hollywood's War with Poland by M.M. Biskupski. Did you know that every single founding member of the Screen Writer's Guild, except one, who was still leftist, were card carrying members of the US Communist Party!? This is THE Communist Party of the USA which gave us Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who gave our atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets for ideological reasons - not for profit. According to the book, since its inception in 1934, THE Screen Writer's Guild was a front to spread Communist ideology and to glorify the Soviet Union. Since the newly recreated Poland defeated the newly created Bolshevik Russia in 1920, thwarting thereby the spread of Communism to the rest of Europe, (besides the fact that this country was ultra religious, both Christian and Jewish, totally against Communist doctrine) Poland was targeted for defamation by this group which was loyal to the international communist movement headquartered where - in the Soviet Union. Then the Roosevelt administration sought to make the alliance with the Soviet Union against the German Nazis more acceptable to US public opinion and worked hand in hand with communist and left leaning writers and producers, as well as the Soviet Embassy and representatives, to sell a cleaned up version of the USSR. Poland thus became a taboo subject because that would remind the public of the initial alliance between the Soviet Union and Hitler, the unprovoked 1939 invasion of Poland by the USSR and the subsequent atrocities committed on Poles by the Soviets. Books with positive Polish characters, once the Communist party screenwriters and Soviet reps got involved, turned into scripts and movies with no Polish characters or into scripts and movies with negative and repulsive Polish characters. A movie about the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, won by Polish troops with great casualties, was screened with no mention of Polish troops, whatsoever. Now I know why Steven Speilberg chose to make a movie, "Schindlers List" , which makes a hero of a German who used Jewish slave labor for personal profit and incidentally save Jews, as opposed to making a movie about more worthy Polish heros such as Witold Pilecki, Irena Sendler, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Jan Nowak-Jezioransk, Jan Karski, Henryk Slawik, Division 303 Polish air force Squadron, Zoska underground Unit, etc. Why? Most of the above were persecuted, arrested, and/or tortured, murdered, executed, tried in mock trials, blacklisted, sentenced to poverty and obscurity, etc. by the Soviets and Communists, and therefore the founders of the Screenwriters Guild would turn over in their graves! Can't make the Soviet Union look bad, you know. Can't make the Polish look too good, either,

Posted by: Corrector | July 8, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

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