Consult the Web site of Poland’s Consulate General in New York and you’ll find a link to a photo of the gates of Auschwitz, featuring the infamous promise, Arbeit macht frei. Beneath this the Consulate has pasted a protest: “Against ‘Polish camps.’” The Polish government does not want you to think of Auschwitz as a Polish camp. But why not? It was on Polish territory, after all.
The problem for Poland’s diplomats is that Americans misunderstand some basic facts about World War II—for example, that the Nazis did not set up a puppet government in Poland, but rather seized the western half of the country in 1939. As a corollary result of that year’s Hitler-Stalin Pact, the USSR annexed eastern Poland, then lost that territory after the Germans double-crossed them with the furious assault of June 1941. In sum, the Polish state did not exist during World War II, and the death camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek were built and run by the Germans. Poles know that many who hear the words “Polish camps” assume Polish complicity in the mass slaughter of the country’s Jews, and they are touchy on the subject. Touchiness turns to outrage when Poles recall that theirs was the first country to defy Hitler, and that half of the 6 million citizens it lost during the war were not Jews. Poles have long considered themselves among the foremost opponents and victims of Nazism.
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About the Author
John Connelly, author of From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews (Harvard), teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley.