Teaching the Role of Poles in the Shoah

by: David I. Bernstein

David I. Bernstein, Ph.D., a historian, educator and guide to Eastern Europe, has been teaching general and Jewish history – including the Holocaust – for more than 30 years in the U.S., Israel, and on Jewish heritage trips in Poland and Prague. Formerly the Director of Midreshet Lindenbaum, he is now the Dean of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and the Educational Consultant of Heritage Seminars. In this article, he asks difficult questions about the way we view non-Jews through the Shoah period.

A phenomenon that I have witnessed both in the classroom, and especially on Jewish heritage trips to Poland, is the blaming of the Poles (or other non-Jewish nationalities) for the Holocaust.

This should not surprise us: the fact is that often Poles (and other non-Jews in Europe) actively aided the Germans in their persecution – and murder – of the Jews. In Poland in particular, this came after a period of increasing anti-Semitism in the 1930’s. Prof. Jan Gross’ Neighbors (published in 2000) goes one step further, and describes in detail the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne in northeastern Poland – not by the Nazis, but by their Polish neighbors, with minimal German incitement, and with almost no German involvement. (There are numerous historical accounts of much more widespread murder of Jews by their neighbors in other countries, e.g. Lithuania and Rumania.) Prof. Gross’ latest book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz documents the surge in Polish anti-Semitism in the post-war years as well.

In the case of the teaching of the Shoah, there is often an almost equal condemnation of the bystanders, i.e. those Poles or others who “stood idly by” while their fellow citizens (Polish Jews) were tortured, persecuted, and killed. They are often considered as “accomplices to the crime.” This attitude toward the bystanders is also found amongst educators who use the Holocaust as a means to teach against prejudice, and towards tolerance.

All of this certainly supports the Rabbinic statement that Eisav sonei leYaakov (Esau hates Jacob), and Jewish history is filled with such examples. And while Righteous Gentiles (hasidei umot ha-olam) are usually mentioned, they are presented as a small minority, with the looming, often unasked question of, “Why weren’t there more of them?”

I must confess that there was a time when I related to Eastern European non-Jews the same way. What changed my mind were both historical and educational factors.
I don’t mean to refute all the claims made in the above paragraphs; I want to refine them and make them less simplistic when I teach the Shoah, so that our students will have a deeper understanding of the real, and complex nature of the Shoah. History is at its most boring when it is simply a set of dry facts; it is at its most exciting when it is studied as it really happened, within a context of human choices, based on limited knowledge and personal emotions.

Righteous Gentiles

Let’s begin with the Righteous among the Gentiles. Yad Vashem uses very strict criteria to identify these heroic individuals, including that only a Jewish party can put a nomination forward, helping a family member or Jewish convert to Christianity does not count, the assistance has to be repeated and/or substantial, and that the assistance has to be given without any financial gain expected in return (although covering normal expenses such as rent or food are acceptable). Many righteous people who saved Jews, at the risk of their own lives are not included in this number, either because they do not meet the strict criteria, or because they have never been nominated. There is a wonderful film, “Hiding and Seeking,” in which a Polish family of righteous gentiles who hid three Jewish brothers for almost 22 months was finally nominated to Yad Vashem only a few years ago – and then only because the children and grandchildren of the rescued Jews travelled back to Poland to explore the story. Had they not made the trip, Yad Vashem would never have known the story. Thus, there were many people who helped Jews during the Shoah who will remain unknown, perhaps forever. As of January, 2008, Yad Vashem listed more than 22 000 Righteous Gentiles from 45 nationalities. Of those nationalities, the largest representative group is the Poles, with more than 6 000. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that Poland had the largest Jewish population in pre-war Europe, offering the most chances for non-Jews to save Jews. Just as the memory of so many victims has been consigned to anonymity, so too has the memory of many of those who helped Jews (with a loaf of bread, or by putting them up for the night) at the risk of their lives — and the lives of their families. This is especially true with the passage of the generation of the survivors, many of whom (understandably) never wanted to look back.

The question I bring to students when discussing this category of exceptional people is this: if you knew that the punishment for hiding someone – or giving them any aid – was death for you and your family, would you risk your own life, and the life of your loved ones? To save a Jew? To save a non-Jew? While I ask the question rhetorically, I always answer for myself: I’m afraid that I would not. In Hiding and Seeking, the adult grandchildren of the saved Jews – now yeshiva students in Israel – honestly admit that they, too, would probably not have.

Can we reasonably expect people to risk their lives for others? In an ideal world, perhaps yes. If you are educating toward that kind of self-sacrifice, then please do. But if not, then it seems to me that we need to hold those Righteous Gentiles in very high regard, in a category reserved for the exceptional, not ordinary, people. The question is not why were there so few, but why were there so many! As educators, we need to exercise a strong measure of humility in this area.


Moving on to the condemnation of the bystanders, they are often described as if they were living in a vacuum, that they were reasonable people in reasonable circumstances, and they just did not care! They are described in the same terms of the bystanders in the famous Kitty Genovese case in New York in 1964, in which thirty-eight people heard the cries of a woman being brutally murdered but did noting, not even call the police.(Read the chilling article in The New York Times, March 27, 1964.)

However, even crime-ridden New York of the 1960’s is a far cry from Nazi-occupied Poland. As many as 3 million Polish Catholics were murdered by the Germans, including most of Poland’s leaders and potential leaders, who were arrested and sent to concentration camps even before the Nazis began to deport the Jews. In Poland, as elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe, the draconian measures employed by the Germans created an element of intense fear among the local populace. Most people just tried to get by during the difficult war years, with food shortages, arrests, and in the case of Poland, deportations of Polish children to be Germanized. While the indifference to Jewish suffering (and of course, active support of German actions!) is hard for us to accept, probing a bit deeper reveals that their choices were actually quite limited.

None of this is meant to justify those Poles, Dutch, Hungarians, or other European Christians who informed on Jews, or worse, took part in the murder or looting of the Jews. And there certainly were many such cases. And the Shoah itself could never have taken place without the two millennia of Jew-hatred promulgated by the Catholic Church and Protestant leaders; this was the necessary prerequisite to the Holocaust.

Yet it must also be stated that Hitler’s eliminationalist anti-Semitism was a departure from traditional Church policy, and even from Church anti-Semitism. The former was a widespread feeling in Poland and some other countries on the eve of the war; the latter was the Nazi’s Final Solution. Jewish children smuggling food into the Warsaw Ghetto found that anti-Semitic neighbors would often have pity on them and give them food. It is one thing not to like Jews or to think they have too much power; it is quite another to want to kill every living Jewish man, woman, and child. The distinction between Polish anti-Semitism and the Nazi policies of “liquidation” and “special treatment” can be measured in millions of Jewish lives.

When I hear students blame the Poles on such trips, I feel the need to remind them that while there was much Polish anti-Semitism before, during, and after the war, the Final Solution was not a product of Polish anti-Semitism; it was a product of German Nazi ideology, careful planning, organization, and relentless implementation. Without the presence of the Germans (either as conquerors, or in a few cases as Allies), there may have been anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish boycotts, and even pogroms – but no Shoah. To the extent that some Poles aided the Germans, the Germans’ job was made that much easier. However, short of risking their lives (as some did), there was little that Poles or other European Christians could do to prevent the Holocaust once the Germans conquered their respective countries. This is the tragic reality, one that is very hard for us to swallow, and for some of us to teach.

Neither heroes nor villains

Some are familiar with a remarkable phenomenon that has taken place since the fall of the Iron Curtain in Poland: the revelation to many young and middle-aged Poles that they are not Catholic, as they always thought, but that they are really Jewish. The shocking revelation that one is an adopted child of Jewish parents killed in the Shoah, who desperately sought a way to save their child, is usually seen in the context of the many Polish families who refused to give up such children after the war. (The young Polish parish priest who became Pope John Paul II took a strong stand against this.) The recent mini-renaissance in the Polish Jewish community after the fall of Communism has been fueled by these recent revelations, often on the death bed of an adoptive parent, or after the death of the parents, when neighbors informed the grown-up child about his/her secret past. One can be quite certain that many more of those children will never learn of their Jewish origins, as many parents probably took the secret with them to their graves. These Polish families saved the lives of these Jewish children, at the risk of their own. Even if they were a childless couple, or (as in most cases) wanted to convert the children, they did so at the risk of their lives.

I grew up in a survivor family, and married into another one; I’ve engaged over the years with many other survivors as well, including on Jewish heritage trips to Poland. One often hears them say, “The Poles (or Hungarians, or Rumanians, etc.) were worse than the Germans!” When they say this, some are referring to Hungarian or Rumanian fascists who murdered Jews with little encouragement from the Germans. But more likely is that many of them are referring to a great sense of betrayal, saying, “The Nazis were the Nazis – but our neighbors and supposed friends turned their backs on us, or jeered at us, or looted our homes, or informed on us!” It is their version of Julius Caesar’s Et tu, Brute?

With apologies to Steve McQueen and The Great Escape, the largest prisoner escapes of WWII were not by Allied POWs but by Jews from Sobibor and Treblinka. Of the hundreds of escapees, most were captured and killed; dozens somehow managed not to be detected, and to survive the war. And while we may not ignore that many of the escapees were turned over by local Polish peasants to the Germans, we must also acknowledge that those who survived were able to do so only because of the help given them by Polish peasants, at the risk of their own lives.

This is history in its reality – shades of gray, not black and white; complex, not simple. It is harder (perhaps impossible for younger students) to understand complexity rather than a more simplistic branding of a nation, or of all non-Jews, as being anti-Semitic. But it is the historical truth; and that is important for our students to know in order to prepare them for the real world. Charles Dickens famously begins his A Tale of Two Cities with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and describes the era of the French Revolution as both an age of enlightenment and an age of darkness. He concludes his opening paragraph by saying that it was, in short, like our time – and isn’t that the truth!

But it is also pedagogically correct, as it is far more interesting for students than a facile understanding of the world around them. For many years, I taught an integrated course in world and Jewish history at Ramaz High School in New York. Before final exams, I would often review the era we had just studied with the students through the lens of the French proverb, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I would ask them to show how this quote applied, and/or did not apply, to political, social, economic, and religious developments during that time period. Of course there was no one right answer, and students were forced to confront the fact that history does not move in a straight line, but is filled with tensions. Rather than the “what” question, which is all too often the focus of history instruction, this is what Bloom’s Taxonomy would see as a “higher-order” question which develops a more sophisticated and critical approach to the world.

Last, but not least, it is part of the Jewish understanding of the world that things exist in tension. Consider, for example, the first two blessings of the Amidah, which instruct us three times a day, every day of the year, about the particular and universalistic aspects of God; or the nature of matzah, which is the symbol of both slavery and redemption. Dialectics – which are in fact multiple truths – exist all around us. It is by uncovering these seeming contradictions that we are able to see the truth of each side more fully.

Early on in my reading about the Holocaust, I learned from Elie Wiesel that a certain measure of humility is a good thing when approaching this subject area – we can never fully put ourselves in the place of the victims. It is critical to teach about Polish (and other) anti-Semitism before, during, and after the Shoah. To judge harshly those who put their own lives and those of their families first during the war – before those of others – is unfair. To pretend that most of us would react differently strikes me as hubris.