Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project
preserving the past to protect the future ...

A Presidential Exoneration
.By Efraim Zuroff***
Shimon Peres's Exercise into the Absurd


Tel Aviv, Israel
April 18, 2008

It's unlikely that April 14 will become a national holiday in Poland in the future, but I have no doubt that this past Monday provided much cause for jubilation in Warsaw. Sixty-three years is a long time to wait for exoneration, but on this April 14, the Poles finally received it - from none other than our own [Israeli] President Shimon Peres. In a speech at the site of the Treblinka death camp, where 875,000 Jews (most of them Polish), many of whom were caught with the help of their neighbors, were murdered over a 15-month period, the president of the State of Israel declared that the tragedy that took place there "was not the fault of the Polish people."

There is in fact a kernel of truth to that statement, but anyone acquainted with the history of the Holocaust in Poland knows very well that such a presentation of events grossly misrepresents the historical record. So while it is true that the Poles did not build or run the death camps operated by the Nazis on their territory, and that Poles - unlike Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Estonians - were never integrated into the mass-murder machine that carried out the Final Solution, numerous Poles bore a heavy share of responsibility for the fate of Polish Jewry, approximately 90 percent of whom were murdered during the Shoah.

In this respect, who can forget the notorious Polish informers who helped the Nazis find Jews in hiding, who were so numerous that they were even known by a special name - shmaltzovniki? Or the many Jews murdered by the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) underground, affiliated with the Polish government-in-exile in London, which was notorious for the refusal of many of its units to accept Jews into their ranks, in better cases, and for murdering them, in worse ones. And then there were the Polish killers of Jedwabne and other nearby towns, who were unwilling to wait for the Nazis to transport their Jewish neighbors to Treblinka, and so undertook to murder the Jews themselves. In Jedwabne they did this by locking 1,600 of them in a barn, which they then set on fire.

A typical case, one that can serve as a metaphor for Polish complicity in the murder of Jews, is that of the Lerner family of Komarowka. The episode came to light two years ago, in the wake of the efforts of their grandson and nephew Roni of Tel Aviv to find his family's remains and bring their killers to justice. On October 30, 1943, Gitel Lerner, her daughters Miriam and Chana, and her sons David, Zvi-Hershel and Chaim, as well as two other Jews, were tortured and murdered in the village of Przegaliny. Their killer was Jan Sadowski, who had agreed to build them a hiding place, at their expense, in return for a hefty monthly sum for rent and food. The Lerners, incidentally, kept their part of the bargain, but the temptation to rob them was apparently too great for Sadowski and his four accomplices. Unfortunately such incidents were quite common in World War II Poland.

Had the Poles been making a serious effort to honestly and courageously confront their complicity in the Nazi war crimes, the damage caused by Peres' distortion of the history of the Shoah in Poland would not have been so significant. But Poland, like most of its post-Communist neighbors, has not been particularly zealous in uncovering the crimes committed against Jews during the Holocaust, preferring to concentrate on those carried out after World War II by the Communists against Poles. Neither Poland nor its Baltic neighbors have a problem commemorating Jews murdered during the Shoah, but they lack virtually any political will to identify and expose, let alone prosecute, those who did the murdering. This serious failure helps to pave the way for the cover-up of crimes by Poles and the presentation of a guilt-free narrative of the history of World War II.

This phenomenon, which is prevalent to varying degrees throughout post-Communist Eastern Europe, worsens as the passage of time reduces the opportunities to bring previously unprosecuted criminals to justice. (In

Poland, for example, only one such perpetrator has been prosecuted and punished since 1989.) Soon there will be no one left to put on trial, which will make it even easier to cast the entire blame for the murders on the Germans and Austrians. They were indeed the primary guilty parties, but that fact should not free their local collaborators of responsibility for their crimes, or their societies of the necessity to tell the truth and confront the often widespread complicity of locals in the mass murder of the Jews.

In recent years, the phenomenon of Holocaust denial has gained widespread public attention, and aroused sometimes-hysterical reactions. And while it is understandable that the attempts to claim that the Shoah never took place should prompt genuine concern, the truth is that, at least at this point, it hardly poses any serious danger to Holocaust memory and has had little success in arousing anti-Semitism, which is its real goal. On the other hand, the growing manifestations of the deflection of Holocaust guilt and/or attempts to distort its history, problems that have received almost no serious attention in the Jewish world or elsewhere, constitute a serious danger. Distortion of the record can cause irreparable harm to the memory of the Holocaust, and prevent the creation of a solid and genuine basis for true reconciliation between the Jewish people and the peoples of post-Communist Eastern Europe.

It is for this reason that President Peres' blanket dismissal of Polish guilt is so unfortunate and mistaken. More than anything else, it will strengthen the contemporary Polish tendency to ignore the role of individual Poles in Holocaust crimes and provide convincing ammunition for all those seeking to whitewash Polish complicity. After all, if the president of Israel absolves the Poles, how can anyone even think that some of them might be guilty? In that respect Peres provided the Poles with the ultimate exoneration.




***Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and director of its Israel office.
Copyright ©2008