The Jewish experience of the Holocaust has been remembered and honored in numerous books, movies, and museums. The movie “Schindler’s List” gave us insight into the valiant efforts of businessman Oskar Schindler’s rescue of eleven hundred Jews. Irena Sendler, a Polish Christian nurse and social worker who served in thePolish Underground in German-occupied Warsaw saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust (besides diplomats who furnished visas.) Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, but it was instead awarded to Al Gore for his work on climate change.
Both Schindler and Sendler were awarded the status of “Righteous Among the Nations, ” but almost nothing is known about the many millions of Christian Poles who were slaughtered or placed into Nazi forced labor and death camps? All of the people in Poland suffered enormously during the Holocaust−both Jews and Christians. Six million Polish people died, and half of these were Christians.
What about this other half who have been forgotten or at times ignored, trivialized or maligned? The unintended consequence of forgetting their story has resulted in minimizing the persecution and immense tragedy of the Polish Christians during the Nazi reign of terror. Too often false generalizations about Christian collaboration with the Nazis against the Jews were made to deflect attention away from the huge numbers of Christian who were victimized and perished during the most destructive war in history.
Poland has a long history as a country that welcomed the Jews since the early middle ages. Before the outbreak of World War II, there was a thriving social and cultural life for Jews in Poland. The Jewish press flourished, and more than fifty percent of all physicians and lawyers in private practice in Poland were Jews. The Jewish population was at 3.3 million in Poland, the second largest Jewish community in the world.
Of all the occupied countries during WWII, only Poland had a highly structured organization dedicated to rescuing and smuggling Jews to safety. The Polish underground safely rescued an estimated 100,000 Jews. After the war, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem awarded the distinction of “Righteous Gentile” to 6,620 Poles, more than any other country.
A great number of the noble rescuers will never be known. To receive the award, one must be identified by name. Many Poles did not want to be identified due to the risk of death for the individual and their family. What about those who like many others simply provided food and temporary shelter or directions on where to find the next safe house? Many Poles knew about the Jews hiding in their midst but refused to be complicit with the Nazis. There must have been many thousands who died while attempting to save a Jew. Their names will likely never be placed on a plaque in Israel.
Sadly, Yad Yashem, the Israeli organization that honors “The Righteous Among the Nations” promotes the stereotype that Europeans did little to assist the Jews during the Holocaust. On the first page of their website are these paragraphs:
“Attitudes towards the Jews during the Holocaust mostly ranged from indifference to hostility. The mainstream watched as their former neighbors were rounded up and killed; some collaborated with the perpetrators; many benefited from the expropriation of the Jews property.
In a world of total moral collapse, there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.”
No group of people, gentile or Jew, has a monopoly on virtue or evil. In German-occupied Poland where policies were the most ruthless, the Polish Christians were preoccupied with their own dire predicament and wanted only to survive the war.
The frightening realities of the Polish population during WWII cannot be overstated: Hitler wanted to extinguish all Polish people, their culture, and language from the face of the earth. In a speech delivered immediately before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler declared:
“… It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me. I have issued the command – and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad – that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need.”
Heinrich Himmler echoed Hitler’s decree: “All Poles will disappear from the world… It is essential that the great German people should consider it as its major task to destroy all Poles.”
Once the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the Polish people, both Jews, and non-Jews were stripped of all their rights and immediately subjected to numerous oppressions:
- Thousands of Polish community and religious leaders were executed while many other were sent to concentration camps where they later died. These included mayors and town officials, priests, teachers, lawyers, judges, and doctors.
- Rationing for only the barest of foods and medicine
- Forced conscription of young Polish men into the German Army
- All secondary schools and colleges were closed, and the Polish press was liquidated
- Polish art and culture, including many churches and religious buildings, were burned.
This series of articles will hopefully give readers some perspective of the persecution and imprisonment of the countless villagers in Poland, specifically the tiny village of Niwiska with its predominantly Roman Catholic population and nearby Blizna, the site of Hitler’s top-secret V-1 and V-2 research facility. The bravery of the Polish Home Army and Operation Wildhorn III will be detailed. There is no topographic map showing degrees of suffering during the Holocaust. All the people of Poland were trapped in a brutal war they had no part in starting.