On the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the world once again failed to recognize the Polish victims of the Nazi concentration camps. Instead, frequent remarks about “Polish concentration camps” once again reminded us of the extent of distortions and bias against the Polish cause in World War II that appears to be ever present in the English speaking world. Accordingly, some remarks on the legacy of Auschwitz are in order.
Created pursuant to the 1933 decree on the protection of the German State, the first concentration camps were built in Pre-war Germany. After the September 1939 invasion of Poland, most of the new concentration camps were built on the conquered Polish territory for the explicit purposes of exterminating undesirable population. In addition to the well-known Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, at least seven other hub-like concentration camps were built in Poland, each one with a wide network of sub-camps. Thus, the Germans set up Treblinka Concentration Camp for the Warsaw district, Majdanek Concentration Camp in central Poland for the Zamość region targeted for Arian colonization, and the Stutthof Concentration Camp with over forty auxiliary camps in northern Poland “to serve the needs of the Polish population in Pomerania,” as the German documents phrased it.Not all concentration camps were equipped with advanced gas chambers such as the dramatic Auschwitz chamber. To gas the local Polish population, the Nazis masterminded a simple technique of recycling deadly combustion gasses into large passenger truck containers. Tightly locked truck containers efficiently gassed the Polish enemies of the Reich on the way to the crematoria. Such methods were widely used throughout Poland under German occupation. Recently discovered records indicate that truckloads of Warsawians were routinely gassed in the tunnels under the Warsaw-West train station in the Wola District.
American academic press recently published several important memoirs of the Polish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. A memoir by Jerzy Pindera Liebe Mutti; One Man’s Struggle to Survive in KZ Sachsenhausen concludes that the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was organized as an effective system aimed at killing prisoners. Mass murders were never random events but always calculated occurrences committed on orders of the camp managers.
Pindera’s observation about carefully planned random terror has been expanded in another recently published book Forgotten Survivors; Polish Christians Remember the Nazi Occupation by Richard Lukas (University Press of Kansas, 2004). The Lukas collection of war memoirs extends the “planned terror” observation to the entire occupied Poland. War experiences of twenty-eight Polish Christians from different parts of Poland, from different social groups, and of different ages are shockingly similar. In the concentration camps, a passer-by from the street roundup meets the fate of the resistance leader. Lukas’ book demonstrates that the occupied Poland became one gigantic concentration camp. The seemingly random terror was carefully planned and organized on a mass scale.
The Poles were among the very first prisoners of Auschwitz. Mass street roundups in Warsaw in the spring of 1940 supplied first mass transports of prisoners to Auschwitz. Throughout the entire period of camp operation to the very last days of German control, the prisoners marked with the letter “P” (meaning a “Pole”) had been among the largest groups of Auschwitz prisoners.
Accounts of the Polish prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, as presented in Forgotten Survivors, demonstrate that the key to the survival in the concentration camp was a network of people willing to offer help in the life threatening circumstances. The reports demonstrate that the Poles were able to develop effective underground support structures. The type of work the prisoner performed in the concentration camp was critical to his or her survival. The ability to change the job at the point of extreme exhaustion was the greatest help the camp community could offer their members. As one of the largest and most experienced groups in terms of camp seniority, the Poles had the ability to move prisoners around to save them from certain death.
Some Holocaust literature and occasionally the press suggest that the Poles operated Nazi concentration camps. To prove this point, the following factors are quoted: concentration camps were built on the Polish territory, Polish language was commonly used in the concentration camps, and the Poles held many positions within the lower camp structure.
The testimonies of the Forgotten Survivors show how cruel and ironic such reasoning is. In reality, the same quoted factors serve as a direct proof of the enormity of the Polish Christians’ martyrdom in the Nazi concentration camps. Polish Christians were among the first prisoners of Auschwitz and quickly became leaders in developing resistance within the camp. Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki, known among the prisoners as Tomasz Serafinski, set up the first and the largest underground resistance organization in Auschwitz. Local Polish population that was fiercely anti-German provided important backup support for the camp resistance. Polish underground forces repeatedly sent reports from Auschwitz with desperate pleas for help to the Western Allies. And to the very end, Polish Christians represented one of the largest groups of the ever-present brothers-in-suffering in the vast network of all Nazi concentration camps.
Horrific stories of Polish children under the Nazi occupation are also included in the Forgotten Survivors. In June of 2003, a child survivor of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp featured in the Forgotten Survivors was informed that, as a Polish Christian, she was not entitled to the status of a Holocaust victim. Thus, because of her race and religion, she was denied the status of the Holocaust survivor. Some would argue that it is ridiculous to compete for the status of a “better victim.” So why is it important that the Polish Catholic victims of the Nazi regime be properly acknowledged for their pain and suffering? It has been recognized in the post-conflict societies that to provide victims of ethnic cleansing with comfort, sense of compensation for pain, harm and injustice, and to assure closure, their pain and suffering must be raised to the highest level of dignity in their own eyes. This closure should be achieved through the proper public recognition and demonstration of respect.
By denying the Polish Christian child who survived the Nazi concentration camp the status of the Holocaust victim because of her race and religion and by portraying the Polish Christian victims of the Nazi extermination system as co-perpetrators of the Nazi crimes, grave injustice persists and the high moral ground of the Holocaust ideology becomes severely undermined. Denying the Nazi victims their due respect because of their ethnic origin and religion constitutes a racially motivated act. Standing up against the evil of racism must also entail standing up against discrimination of the Polish Christian victims of the Nazi regime and against anti-Polonism.