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The Noble and the Base: Poland and the Holocaust

Anti-Semitism in twentieth-century Poland

It is worth looking too at the increasingly strident anti-Semitic politics that infected Poland in the 1920s and ’30s with the rise of nationalistic parties supported by the Catholic Church. In this period the Jews (3 million out of a population of over 30 million) were very clearly conceived as a separate, un-Polish execrescence that was a danger to the State. Onerous exclusionary and fiscal laws against the Jews were passed that were lesser versions of those being installed by Nazi regime. This explains in part why hatred for the brutal German occupation did not generally lead to a communal (as opposed to individual) sympathy for the Jews during the war and immediately after it. There were countless acts of bravery and compassion amongst Poles with regard to Jews (Karski of course was one), but there was no widespread political identification with Jewish suffering as there had been, in much more favorable circumstances to be sure, in Denmark or in Bulgaria. Polish suffering was much greater than most other countries’ at the hands of the Nazis during the war, but their anti-Semitism was not necessarily that different from most other Slavic countries’, and it preceded the German occupation and survived it (even less excusable given what most Poles knew had happened in the camps). We must try to hold both of these understandings together. For Poles who resent this, I would say that African slavery poses similar issues for most Western countries assessing their own humanitarian records.

Mark A. Cohen

USA

Nov 18 2012 - 3:50pm

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