An Unnecessary Divide

We live in a time of labels and hyperbole and I don’t like it. Too many groups are being defined by labels that are then used to stereotype and marginalize. This tendency has been brought to my attention with two particular groups since my trip to Switzerland. The groups in question are the Poles and the Jews. I am not an expert in this area, but let me explain to the best of my ability.

Earlier this year the Polish government passed a controversial law that made it a criminal act to accuse Poland of helping the Nazis exterminate the Jews.* For example, this law made it illegal to call Auschwitz a “Polish death camp.” The truth is that Auschwitz was a Nazi death camp and it was located in Poland. The law is controversial because many people see it as an attempt to rewrite history. You can’t dictate history — what happened happened. But for many people the law is more than a controversy or an inconvenience. It affected careers. Historians were personally attacked for their research on Poland. And they sued for libel.

My understanding, albeit limited, of Poland during the Holocaust is that many, many people did horrible things. Germans** murdered Jews and Poles alike. Germans** set up a system of fear. Often people were faced with a choice of kill or be killed. Some Poles handed their Jewish neighbors over to the Gestapo or actively participated in their murders. At the same time, there were heroic acts happening in German-occupied*** Poland. People like Irena Sendler and Jan and Antonina Zabinski (The Zookeeper’s Wife) rescued large numbers of Jews, and many, many Poles sheltered their Jewish neighbors.

These same types of savage and courageous actions happened all over Europe. Some people chose to join forces with the Nazis. Others chose to resist. Many traded their morality for their own lives. Given some of the impossible choices people faced, I dare not predict what I would have done in similar circumstances.

When I went to Switzerland last month I briefly spoke with Polish President Andrzej Duda. I met Ambassador Kumoch and Honorary Consul Blechner. I met their staffs. I had many conversations with these Poles and I found them humble, honest, and warm. We were celebrating the fact that a group of six men — three Polish diplomats, Ładoś, Rokicki, and Ryniewicz, and three Jews, Kühl, Silberschein, and Eiss — worked together to save as many Jews as possible. They broke Swiss and international laws. They wrote letters to dignitaries around the world. They created false passports and sent them to Jews around Europe on the premise that the Nazis would use these newly anointed South Americans in trades for German nationals and POWs.

Since my trip to Switzerland I have seen nasty posts from both sides of this Jewish/Polish divide. Who is contributing to this name calling? Jews that are anti-Polish? Poles that are anti-Semitic? People who like to stir up trouble? Each group blaming the other for wrongs done to their people in the past. We need to stop lumping people into groups and identifying them by one characteristic. We need to stop looking at various people as “other.”

When my mother tells about her Holocaust survival she always talks about the false Paraguayan passport that saved her family. It turns out it was created by a group of men, Polish and Jewish, working together to save lives. My mother never knew where that passport came from. We only figured this out in the last year.

Right now there are historians around the world — Jewish, Polish, Swiss, American, Israeli — working together to understand the whole story of these passports. History isn’t static. It is still being discovered. We’re still finding truths that were buried in the rubble. My wish is that today we’ll discover that listening to each other and getting along is better than pointing fingers and fighting. My hope is that we drop the labels. And my goal is that together we can continue to uncover the truth — that all men and women are created equal and deserve a fighting chance at a decent life.

My interview with the Polish press corps

*A few months later the Polish government softened the law taking out the criminal penalties.

**After a few comments I realize that my original word here, Nazi, is offensive to some as it leaves out the fact that Germany created the Nazis. So I have corrected myself and changed the term to “German” twice.

***One more correction – Poland soil was no longer Poland at this time. It was occupied by Germany and was not being ruled by a Polish government. So “German-occupied Poland” may be more accurate.

Published by K Heidi Fishman


6 thoughts on “An Unnecessary Divide

  1. A couple of things to help you understand the Polish point of view. First of all, Poles when called “Poles” do not like when Germans are called “Nazis.” I was told that not all Germans were Nazis but not all Poles were bad either… We do not call Americans who bombed Iraq “Republicans” although it happened during the rule of the Republican party and many supported that attack. In the media, when Germans are referred to as Nazis, sometimes “Germans” are not even mentioned once. It was not some Naziland that attacked Poland , it was Germany. Why don’t we call it by name? My friend who teaches about the Holocaust, also a Holocaust survivor, during her career met many students who assumed Poles were also Nazis, and this is the result of such manipulation. If it’s intended or not, I’ll leave you to decide. Back then, if you lived in those times in Poland, it was simple, you were either on their (German side) or our (Polish side). These days the facts are being twisted to the media’s liking and it helps those who have an interest in whitewashing the real enemy’s name. The second problem that Poles see in the presentation of pre-war, during the war and post-war events, is the fact that Poles are presented unfairly as perpetrators, and any time they want to clear their name, as any nation would do, any normal person would do, and tell their story, they are met with anti-Polish slurs and comments about them being anti-Semitic, etc., possibly to silence them. Publishers and journalists’ use of double standards, calling Poles names and blaming them for crimes committed by others, while “good Germans” and Jewish people seem to have a monopoly on the truth, is just not fair. Just as there were good and bad Germans, Poles were good and bad as well, so were the Jews. Stop demonizing Poles. It’s as simple as that… 🙂


      1. Hitler was elected by the German People and willingly most of them enter de Nazi party German were converted into Nazis methodically. They were brainwashed in the superiority of the German Race. Of course yo can find good people, but not were the majority. Most of them were happy with the Grandeur of Germany after the humiliating peace Deal of Versailles.. Today Germany recognizes it’s guilt so to try to excuse the Germans or the Bad poles is stupid. My perents are from Warasaw they left just before the war, when many knew or suspected what was comming nd their story as well as from other Jews is he continuous harassment of Jews by Poles in every city in Poland was common. Of course there were also Just Poles. Some Jews like the Blue Police of the Guettos were forced top collaborate,, either that or death. But they were very few.


  2. One fact left out of your essay is that in Nazi occupied Poland, you AND your entire family would be killed for the act of helping a Jew escape or assisting in their rescue. I have come to the moral decision that an individual has the right to give up their own life but does not have the right to sacrifice others. So sad when people accuse the average Pole of indifference.


  3. Heidi, those Poles who did help Jews out of generosity and at great risk are even more to be admired if the spectrum of the feelings in the public in general was between indifference and bigotry. But I am weary of pedestals and heroization. Even Malala who impresses me time after time is to me a remarkable young woman whose faith I do not share and an example, not a hero.


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