Pedantic, politicised Polish pilpul

Warning: Any hateful comments from historical revisionists will be deleted and the commenters blacklisted. If you can’t agree to disagree respectfully, you can leave.

Since today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I wanted to discuss Article 55a of the 2018 amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance–Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation.

Sections 1a and 1b of Article 55 outlaw historical denialism of Nazi and Soviet crimes against Poles, crimes against peace and humanity, war crimes, and political repression. Shoah denial isn’t outright mentioned, but is understood to be included as a criminal offence.

In 2007, an amendment was passed regarding lustrations in Poland; i.e., limiting the participation of former Communists in government, esp. members of the secret police.

It sounds great so far! Many other countries have similar laws.

And then came the infamous 2018 amendment, which has drawn international criticism.

What makes that latest addition so controversial?

The amended Article 55a makes it illegal to honestly discuss the difficult issue of Polish complicity in the Shoah. Article 2a, now null and void, was also criticised for condemning crimes against Polish citizens by Ukrainian nationalists, since most of those Ukrainians were Polish citizens at the time.

Historical consensus agrees:

1. The most Righteous Among the Nations (as per 1 January 2019) are Polish, 6,992 out of 27,362 total. (The Netherlands is #2 with 5,778, France is #3 with 4,099, Ukraine is #4 with 2,634, and Belgium is #5 with 1,751.

2. Poland disappeared from the map during WWII, carved up by Germany and the USSR.

3. There’s a strong case to be made for Poland suffering the most of any occupied nation during WWII.

4. While many local authorities were left in place, Poland was directly governed by Germany instead of a puppet government.

5. Poland was hurt by the postwar borders decided at the Yalta Conference. She lost 20% of her land, and the Polish residents east of the Curzon Line were expelled.

6. The Polish government-in-exile was actively involved in matters regarding their country, and gave the Allies some of the earliest and most accurate reports of the Shoah.

7. Under Lebensraum, 923,000 Poles were expelled to make room for ethnic Germans. Sometimes entire towns were expelled, and everyone was forced to leave most of their belongings behind. Many houses were left with half-eaten meals and unmade beds.

8. The Polish Resistance was very active, and never stopped fighting the enemy in their midst. There were also strong underground rescue efforts.

9. The penalty for being caught helping Jews was death, as compared to the prison terms meted out in most other occupied countries.

10. After the war, the Polish government prosecuted and executed many collaborators and people guilty of crimes against humanity.

11. There was a LOT of anti-Semitism in countries without Jewish emancipation. Interfaith relations in 1940s Europe were a far cry from what they are today, and many survivors say they never felt at home in their own native countries, were afraid of local Gentiles, spoke Yiddish instead of the national language.

12. Many people in Nazi-occupied countries were active collaborators and silent bystanders.

13. The Shoah couldn’t have happened on its tragic scale if not for the above. E.g., the swift, brutal process in Hungary was carried out entirely by native gendarmes. Many people never saw a German till the death trains changed hands in Košice, Slovakia.

14. More than a few people in Poland shouted epithets and made throat-slashing motions as death trains came through.

15. Many people in hiding, and their helpers, were betrayed by locals.

16. During the war, there were pogroms in Jedwabne, Szczuczyn, and Wąsosz, carried out by locals. After the war, there was a pogrom in Kielce.

Under Article 55a, points 11–16 can’t be discussed honestly and openly. History is a dialogue between past and present, not a forced narrative with a political agenda avoiding difficult questions and conclusions.

This has led to people demanding journalists “correct” articles which dare say, e.g., “Auschwitz was in Poland.”

Showing WWII maps with Poland and referring to Poland as simply Poland isn’t a cruel act of Polonophobia or historical ignorance. It’s a geographical reference everyone understands, not an implication Poles created and ran those camps. Likewise, the term “Polish death camps,” used as early as 1944 but now widely rejected as misleading, is in reference to geography, not culpability.

Should all books about the Shoah be rewritten to specify the country as “German-occupied Poland,” even when no one would’ve spoken or thought like that in real life? E.g., “I could tell by the road signs we were heading towards Poland,” “It’s a good thing we’re still in Poland, since the natives might be kinder to us, and we speak the same language.” How many Poles thought of themselves as suddenly really living in Germany?

Also, how could Poland celebrate 100 years of independence in 2018 if they didn’t really exist during WWII? By that logic, 2045 should be their centenary. Are these people saying they accept Germany’s annexation as legal and valid?

Compelled speech hurts everyone. We need simple, immediately-understood words, not hair-splitting, pedantic verbal gymnastics avoiding calling a spade a spade. It’s like TRAs using grotesque terms like “womb havers,” “cervix owners,” and “people who menstruate” instead of “women.” And why use 5-10 extra words when a single one easily suffices?

Juno Beach and the Jewish Hospital of Lublin

Calm after the storm, Copyright Jebulon

Juno Beach is one of the five beaches which was used for the heroic Normandy landings of D-Day, 6 June 1944. The battles were mostly fought by Canadians, with some British support, and servicemen from the Free French Forces and the Royal Norwegian Navy.

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division got further inland than any other landing force.

Copyright Nitot

The main objectives were to seize the Carpiquet Airfield, cut the Caen-Bayeux road, create a link between Gold and Sword Beaches on either side of Juno, and reach the Caen-Bayeux railway line by nightfall.

Germany’s 716th Division and 21st Panzer Division put up a brutal fight, due to preliminary bombardments’ lacking success. Bad weather also delayed the first landings till 7:35 AM.

The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were among the companies who suffered devastating casualties during the brutal first minutes of the first landing wave.

Copyright Ordifana75

Juno was initially code-named Jellyfish, since the British beaches were Swordfish and Goldfish (shortened to Sword and Gold). It was changed because Winston Churchill felt Jelly a highly inappropriate name for a place in which so many might be killed.

Copyright Joestapl

Though none of the objectives were achieved, the Juno Beach landing ranks up there with Utah Beach as the most strategically-successful of the five D-Day landings. In spite of the terrible early casualties, most of the coastal defences were cleared within two hours.

Only the equivalent of one full German battalion remained by nightfall. The Canadians also destroyed or captured 80% of the Germans’ divisional artillery.

Those who want more details on the order of battle, preparations, preliminary bombardments, and the landings can check out the links and books listed at the end of this section. I don’t want to go back to routinely having posts over 1,500 words!

Copyright Jebulon

My character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov is among the Canadians landing at Juno Beach. Since he’s a medic and not initially allowed to be armed, making it all the way across the beach and into town safely is a much more perilous ordeal.

The day after the invasion, Yuriy returns to the beach to catalogue and bury the dead. Strewn among the dead are a few who haven’t succumbed to their wounds yet, including one guy who played dead because he was confused and scared, and made his own tourniquet.

The entire beach is pervaded by an eerie, unnatural silence, as though yesterday never happened.

Further reading:

The Juno Beach Centre
Juno Beach – The Canadians On D-Day
“No Ambush, No Defeat”
“Canadian Participation in the Operations in North-West Europe, 1944: Part 1”
Valour on Juno Beach, T.R. Fowler, 1994
D-Day: Juno Beach, Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny, Lance Goddard, 2004

The Jewish Hospital of Lublin, on 81 (formerly 53) Lubartowska Street, was inaugurated in 1886. The two-story building in the Old City was designed by architect Marian Jarzyński in Neo-Romanesque style.

Initially, it had 56 beds, but grew to 100. By the 1930s, it was Poland’s most modern, state-of-the-art hospital. It was well-known outside of Lublin, and employed many renowned specialists.

By the 1930s, the hospital also had a stable, three guesthouses for patients’ loved ones, a mortuary, a cellar, and a synagogue.

On 27 March 1942, the occupying Germans took the most seriously ill patients to the Jewish cemetery and murdered them. The other patients and medical staff were murdered in Niemce forest. For the rest of the war, the building was a Wehrmacht hospital.

In 1949, the building was given to Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, and started a new life as an OBGYN clinic.

The building today, Copyright Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Source

My character Inessa Zyuganova is taken to this hospital by her expatriate cousin Matviyko after she and her children escape the USSR in June 1937. While they were wading across the creek-like River Bug which forms part of the border between Poland and Belarus, the NKVD shot Inessa in the leg.

Vitya Zhirinovskiy, her old friend Inna’s little brother, shot all five of the NKVD goons to protect his baby Damir, whom Inessa has been wetnursing. At the hospital, he has to be reassured no one’s going to circumcise Damir!

Lublin is the closest major city to border town Włodawa, and Matviyko previously took his youngest child Maja there for heat rash during a summer holiday. He prefers Jewish doctors to Christian doctors.

Who knew what when?

IMG_1076

The question about who knew what, and when, about the Shoah is one of those questions without any one answer. Just like the question of why people in some countries, or areas within certain countries, were more or less likely than others to protest and engage in rescue operations, it all depends upon so many factors.

There’s no question that people living near ghettoes and camps had at least some inkling of what was going on. They saw those walls and barbed wire fences, saw people being marched to and fro on work details. Near camps with Kremchies, it was impossible to miss that horrific smell. They might not’ve known exactly what was happening, but they had some idea.

By the end of the war, many people in Poland and Germany, and some regions of Austria and the former Czechoslovakia, had seen death marches in action. They also knew something was going on.

In occupied Western and Northern Europe, where there were only some transit camps (like Drancy and Westerbork), people wouldn’t have been directly exposed to the things going on in Central and Eastern Europe. However, they did know people were being taken away and persecuted. The brave people of Amsterdam staked a strike in February 1941 (as commemorated in the above plaque), in protest of what was happening to Dutch Jewry.

The people of Denmark also had some sense of what was going on, as word from other countries trickled in. They knew enough to smuggle almost all of their country’s Jewish community into Sweden (among them famous scientist Niels Bohr, whose mother was Jewish). It’s just an urban legend that King Christian X wore a yellow star, but the vast majority of Danes still stood up to fascism and did the right thing. They were like the Italians, unwilling to obey Nazi orders.

IMG_1104

Many people saw the death trains, and caught glimpses of the people trapped inside. There were also some escapes from the trains (some successful, some not), and the civilian population would’ve seen that too. It still rankles when I think about those know-it-all agents who dogpiled me in a pitchfest some years back. Among other things, they claimed no one ever escaped from a death train, though there were actually a number of successful escapes. Guess I know my history a lot better than they do!

The most popular melody of “Ani Ma’amin” was created by a Modzitzer Chasid on his way to Treblinka. He promised to give half of his share of the World to Come to whomever could bring the melody to the Modzitzer Rebbe, who’d escaped in 1940. Two men jumped out of the train, and the one survivor indeed brought that melody to the rebbe’s son in Israel, who in turn sent it to his father.

A lot of Polish historical revisionists like to claim Claude Lanzmann’s 9.5-hour documentary Shoah is full of Polonophobic lies for interviewing a lot of peasants with less than enlightened interfaith attitudes, and because some of his Jewish interviewees reported Poles shouting anti-Semitic epithets and pretending to slit their throats. Polish historical revisionists might not be as vile as Shoah deniers, but they’re still freaking ridiculous. How do you just ignore obvious evidence from multiple sources? History, like science, only cares about truth, not preserving and validating your delicate feelings.

If you truly love your country and people, you shouldn’t be afraid to admit and address black marks in its history. I’m a passionate Russophile and Slavophile, but that doesn’t mean pretending there’s no long history of anti-Semitism (often bloody) in countries like Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Slovakia. I’m a quarter Slovak myself, and have no choice but to deal with my discomfort at Slovakia’s ugly role in WWII.

Part of the French section of Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Communities, one of the many sections I wasn’t able to see due to not being on my own schedule, Copyright Utilisateur:DjampaUser:Djampa. I’d never complain about any of my so far three trips to Israel, but it’s such torture to be yanked along on someone else’s schedule when you want to go through an entire museum, not just parts, and spend the entire day there.

It’s fair to say ordinary people in all countries, even active collaborators, typically didn’t know what was really going on. But it’s also fair to say many people near the camps, ghettoes, and death marches certainly had some idea of what was going on, particularly during the closing months of the war.

The lingering Germanophobia, Polonophobia, and Magyarphobia among many Shoah survivors

Another of the issues which I’ve come to realize Gentile readers may see much differently than Jewish readers, thanks to certain well-meaning comments from critique partners, is the whole issue of many Shoah survivors’ fear, paranoia, avoidance, hatred, etc., towards the German people, and, to at least an equal degree, the Polish and Hungarian collaborators and bystanders.

IMG_1099

First off, a recurring theme in many survivors’ memoirs, interviews, and testimonies is a fear, hatred, paranoia, etc., of Germany and all things German. We’re not talking about people who lived among ordinary Germans and therefore understood not everyone was a Nazi or silent collaborator. We’re talking about people whose first and only experience with the German language and German people was in ghettoes and camps. They associated that with terror, fear, and Death.

Perhaps decades later, some of them might’ve developed a more nuanced, complex understanding, but in the immediate aftermath of the war, it doesn’t make a lick of sense for the typical non-German survivor to have any positive things to say about the German people. At most, they might wish more Germans had been like the precious few righteous souls they encountered, like a political prisoner who befriended them, or someone who provided shelter after an escape.

Many survivors have also said they hold no ill will towards the younger generations. They’re innocents. It’s the older Germans they remain fearful and suspicious of. Many refused to return to Germany, buy German products, or live near German immigrants.

IMG_1093

Many Polish survivors have mentioned never really considering Poland their homeland. According to the 1931 census, 79% of Polish Jews reported Yiddish was their first language. Only 12% spoke Polish as their first language, and the remaining 8% spoke Hebrew. While a growing number of young, modern, upwardly-mobile people (esp. in the big cities) had begun using Polish names and speaking the native language, a vast majority still spoke only Yiddish, had shtetl names (like Feige, Moishe, Avrumie, Gitl, and Shternie), wore pre-modern clothes, and essentially didn’t do anything to blend into the wider society.

I’m truly sorry Yiddish has become a dying language, but it really didn’t do people any favors to keep using Yiddish exclusively and ignoring the language of their host countries. However, I understand why so many people shunned learning Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian. Interfaith relations weren’t exactly good, and there were so many barriers standing in the way of higher education, jobs, housing, etc.

More than a few people returned to Poland after the liberation, and remained there for the rest of their lives, but many more got the hell out of there. They were greeted with suspicion, annoyance, and hostility, like how dare they survive or return. The most famous example of continuing postwar anti-Semitism was a pogrom in Kielce in 1946. More information on this topic can be found in Jan T. Gross’s excellent book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. Typically, far-right Polish historical revisionists attack all his books as Polonophobic lies, when all he’s doing is reporting established facts. History, like science, only cares about the truth, not your delicate feelings and nationalist pride.

Keep in mind, I like Polish literature, culture, history, cuisine, and language! There’s nothing Polonophobic about owning up to the less than positive aspects of Polish history. It doesn’t negate how many Poles have been honored as Righteous Among the Nations, nor does it assume every single Pole throughout history was an anti-Semite.

IMG_1101_2

The situation was similar yet different in Hungary. Due to the 19th century policy of Magyarization, very few Hungarian Jews spoke Yiddish by the time of WWII, and there were only a small number of officially-approved Magyarized versions of Hebrew names. Hungarian Jews spoke Hungarian, had Hungarian names, went to public schools, dressed in Hungarian clothes, had good relationships with their Gentile neighbors, you name it. They considered themselves fully-integrated parts of society. It was therefore a huge shock when these lifelong friends and neighbors turned on them so swiftly after the Nazi invasion in March 1944.

Ghettoization took place in April and May, and from mid-May to early July, 437,402 people were deported from the countryside. Budapest was relatively safer, though many Budapestis died in the ghetto or were murdered by the Arrow Cross. The Hungarian gendarmes, NOT the Nazis, were the ones who enacted anti-Semitic laws, forced people into ghettoes, and carried out deportation. The Nazis only took control when the trains reached Košice, Slovakia.

Many people came home to hostility, avoidance, denial, and dismissal. Strangers were living in their houses, and many people refused to give back their belongings. Some people were lucky enough to regain possessions, and even to find their old homes abandoned, but that wasn’t most people’s experience. Many survivors also reported their former friends and neighbors lining the streets and cheering as they were marched to the train stations.

This wasn’t a world of “Kumbaya.” This bitterness, anger, fear, hostility, and suspicion were more than justified. There’s a reason many people could never forgive and forget. It wasn’t so simple as telling a survivor, “Well, many Germans were anti-Nazi” or “Not all Poles and Hungarians were anti-Semites.”

Malka (Mala) Zimetbaum

 

This post is edited from the Find a Grave biography I wrote for this amazingly brave young woman.

Z

“Do not cry; the day of reckoning is near. Remember everything they did to us.”

Mala_Zimetbaum_(1918-1944)

Malka (Mala) Zimetbaum, 26 January 1918–1944

Mala was the youngest of Pinkas and Chaya Zimetbaum’s five children, from Brzesko, Poland. They moved back and forth from Germany and Poland for several years, and settled in Antwerp in 1928.

Mala was a brilliant student, particularly in languages and math. She fluently spoke German, Flemish, English, Polish, French, and Yiddish. Mala also joined Hanoar Hatzioni, a Zionist group committed to moving to Israel. After her father went blind, Mala put her education on hold to help to support the family. She worked as a seamstress at Maison Lilian, a very important fashion house, and as a secretary and linguist in Antwerp’s diamond industry.

In summer 1942, Mala went to Brussels, hoping to find a hiding place for her family. On 22 July, upon her return to Antwerp, she was arrested as she got off the train and taken to Fort Breendonk. Five days later, she was taken to Dossin Barracks at Mechelen Town, and worked in the registry until her deportation to Auschwitz on 15 September 1942.

Mala’s extensive knowledge of the European languages earned her a job in the camp administration. This privileged position gave her luxuries like decent clothes, access to many areas of the gigantic camp, the ability to bathe, and a bunk with only one other person. Mala also got to keep her hair.

She never used this prestigious position to her advantage, but rather to help others, such as sneaking them extra food, newspaper clippings, messages from other inmates, and medicines, and urging them to take better care of themselves so they might survive. One of her duties was selecting work details, and as often as possible, she selected weaker people for details where work wasn’t so hard. She paid no mind to whether they were Jewish, Christian, Polish, German, Belgian, or anything else. Mala saw them as people, not members of a particular group.

She regularly warned people about upcoming selections, so they knew to leave or avoid the “hospital.” She also sent messages to her family, cryptically warning about what might happen. Unbeknownest to her, her parents and three of her nephews had already been murdered. Everyone loved, trusted, and respected her, and even the S.S. eventually grew to trust and respect her.

Edward_Galinski_(1923-1944)

Edward (Edek) Galiński, 10 May 1923–15 September 1944

Mala fell in love with Edward Galiński (Edek) in late 1943 or early 1944. Edek was one of the earliest prisoners still alive, from the very first transport, with the very low number of 531. They had one of the camp’s few successful romances, with fellow inmates putting their lives on the line to arrange meetings and keep the affair secret.

Edek was making plans to escape with a friend, and Mala begged to come along. Edek agreed, but his friend wasn’t so sure three people could make it undetected. It was decided only Edek and Mala would escape.

Edek got an S.S. uniform, and Mala obtained a map of southern Poland, a work pass, and a dress to wear under overalls. On 24 June 1944, they escaped and weren’t discovered missing till that evening. The three women she’d shared her quarters with refused to reveal anything, and were sent to the Penal Company.

Mala and Edek were recaptured on 6 July while attempting to cross the border into Slovakia, taken to a police station in Bielsko, and positively identified the next day. They were held in separate cells in the notorious Block 11 upon their return. Neither gave any names or information, even under torture. To avoid implicating one another, they maintained they’d escaped separately, wearing S.S. uniforms.

Despite being in different cells, they sometimes whistled to one another down the hall, and sometimes Edek stood by the window he believed to be Mala’s and sang Italian arias to her.

Auschwitz_I,_april_2014,_photo_14

Block 11, copyright Agatefilm

Various dates are given for their executions, ranging from mid-July to 22 September, but the most likely dates were 22 August or 15 September. At the gallows, Mala slit her wrists with a smuggled razor blade and slapped one of the S.S. guards.

Pandemonium broke out, and Mala was beaten, tied up, and taken to the “hospital,” where nurses were forbidden from helping her. Accounts vary on whether she died on her way to the crematorium, if she were put in alive, or if the S.S. shot her or gave her poison.

Survivors regularly gather to remember Mala; there’s a plaque on her house in Antwerp; and a scholarship and B’nai B’rith lodge have been named for her. In 2005 and 2006, the U.K.-based Holocaust Project produced a play, Mala and Edek—A Tale of Auschwitz, which toured at various locations around the U.K. and continental Europe.