Last week I was in Poland. While there I kept stressing to the people with whom I was travelling that it is wrong to depict Poland as a place of unending antisemitism or to fall prey to the absurd but, nonetheless, oft-heard comment made by Jews who visit the place, "The Poles were worse than the Nazis."
Many people, Jews primarily among them, believe the balderdash that the Germans put the death camps in Poland because the Poles would be happy to see the Jews killed. They ignore the fact that to the Germans Auschwitz was German territory and was to be the site of a major German settlement.
One person, who is well-informed and well read, found this notion of Polish non-complicity hard to grasp. He kept trying to find links:
Weren't they guards at Auschwitz? No, I said.
Well weren't they part of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units? Wrong again.
Well how about in the Sonderkommando units [the groups of prisoners who essentially pulled people off the trians, pushed them into the gas chambers, and then disposed of the bodies and who, themselves, were gassed by the Germans every few months because they knew too much]? No those groups were composed, in the main, of Jews.
This is not to say, of course, that Poland does not have a long and enduring history of antisemitism. It does. [Remember the scene in Lanzmann's Shoah in front of the Chelmno church?]
But then again, so does the Ukraine, Russia, and, of course, France. In fact, the late George Mosse, the great historian of European Jewry, was reported to have said that if someone in 1905 described in a prophecy what the Holocaust would be and how it would decimate European Jewry, the logical response would have been: "What a terrible thing for France to do." [Remember Dreyfus?]
In fact when the French deportations took place there was not a German official, officer, or uniformed man in site. All French police. The Germans wanted the foreign adults deported. The French sent them the adults and the children.
Yet we have no qualms about visiting Paris.
While Poland had terrible and extensive examples of antisemitism [read Jan Gross' Neighbors or his more recent work Fear for compelling examples of this], nonetheless let's not confuse that with the German plan to wipe out European Jewry. [I reviewed Gross' Fear and may have myself gone a bit overboard in condemning an entire nation. ]
Auschwitz, Maidanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, and Belzec were not "Polish" death camps. They were German camps that were placed in Poland by the Germans because that was where most of the victims were.
This is not a brief on behalf of the Poles of the 1940s. It's a reminder to keep one's historical eyes where they belong, i.e. on Germany.
I strongly recommend Rethinking Poles and Jews: Trouble Past, Brighter Future edited by Robert Cherry and Annamaria Orla-Bukowska for a series of essays that pierce the stereotypes which have obscured historical reality.