James Comey, former US Attorney and current head of the FBI, gave a speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington last week commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day. He stated: “In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, Poland and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.” (NYTimes, 4/21/15) Immediately, the Polish president took umbrage at this, reminding us that Poland was a victim, not an aggressor during the war and that Mr. Comey’s comments were the result of “ignorance, lack of historical knowledge and possibly large personal aversion” towards Poles. Rick Lyman, the Times reporter offered the following clarification: “And while there were certainly episodes in which Poles were responsible for the deaths of Jews, there was no widespread complicity with the Nazi policy of extermination.” Let’s be grateful for small favors.
Mr. Lyman omitted mention of any specifics relating to the “episodes” - for example, the townspeople of Jedwabne asking the Germans who captured their town from the Russians in 1941 whether it was now permissible to kill the Jews. Nor did Lyman refer to the massacre one short month later when 1600 Jews were rounded up by those Polish “victims”, herded into a barn and burned alive. In a book titled “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland,” the author Jan Grabowski explains that he did his research trying to understand why so few Jews who lived in hiding during the war managed to survive. He stresses the foundation of hostility towards the Jews before World War II that increased dramatically once the war began. Poles considered it unpatriotic to help the Jews during the war, although there were also the greatest number of Righteous Gentiles among their population. Certainly after the war, the Poles were no longer the “victims” of German occupation, yet pogroms against the Jews continued. There are 327 documented acts of violence against Jews immediately following the war, perhaps the worst having taken place in Kielce in 1946 as 42 Jewish refugees who had managed to survive the war were killed by Poles.
It would seem that President Komrowski’s accusations against Comey are better suited to himself, a man who should not be denying the horrific participation of many Poles in plundering Jewish property and making sure that no survivors came back to claim it. There should be no apology by the U.S. for Director Comey having spoken the truth about Polish anti-Semitism during and after the war. Turning his comments into a diplomatic imbroglio is a distortion of what he clearly said and a whitewash of an ugly chapter in Poland’s history. Polish sensitivity to that past is an acknowledgment of guilt, the necessary step in changing hateful attitudes and showing remorse for unspeakable crimes.
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