Yes, the Descendants of Murdered Polish Jews Should Be Compensated
Last Saturday, American Thinker published an article by a pseudonymous author called Mike Konrad that asked why Jews should seek to reclaim property lost during World War II in Poland. Mr. Konrad's piece never answers that question. Instead, Konrad spends his time setting up and demolishing a straw man – to wit, non-Jewish Poles suffered under the Nazis, too, more so than most other occupied nations, and actively collaborated less. From this Konrad then draws the conclusion that it was okay for non-Jewish Poles to expropriate the property of their much more comprehensibly murdered countrymen and that it is unwise for Jews to think otherwise.
Konrad's argument includes a litany of German misdeeds against non-Jewish Poles, a lame excuse for one obvious case of direct Polish violence against Jews (Kielce), omission of others for which there is no credible excuse (Jedwabne), and the use of a moral equivalency comparing the expropriation of Jewish property in Poland with that of Palestinian-Arab property in Israel.
No responsible historian questions that Poland suffered mightily in World War II, but the nature of that suffering and its relationship to the Holocaust is more complicated. Konrad wonders why the Nazis were so harsh on the Poles, when, as he puts it, "anthropologically speaking the Poles were every bit as Aryan/Nordic in phenotype as the Germans, if not more." The reason for this is that Nazi racial policies and ideas were nonsense, not based on any type of accepted science, and purely an expression of ingrained nationalistic and racial prejudices. In this, the Nazis saw non-Jewish Poles as somewhat superior to Jews but inferior to Germans and Western Europeans in general. It doesn't matter that statistically more Poles have blue eyes than Germans.
This misconception hides another more important one, which is that anti-Semitism was endemic in Poland both before and after the war into the present. It is the one thing that the Poles had completely in common with the Germans.
When Konrad wonders why his "Jewish friends" spoke of Poland as if it was allied with the Nazis, it is because of Polish anti-Semitism. Perhaps as children they heard stories, as I did, from relatives who lived there before and after the war. My grandfather told of being stoned by Polish villagers going to and from school, just for being Jewish. His sister escaped after the Nazi invasion with her husband to France. After the Nazis conquered that country, her husband was rounded up and died in a labor camp. She joined the resistance, survived the war, and afterward returned to Poland, but she was forced to move back to France in the early 1960s when another periodic wave of anti-Semitic persecution swept the country – even under Communist rule. My grandfather's cousin had similar experiences, escaped to Britain after the German invasion, became a sergeant major in the British Army, and moved to Israel.
Last year I took a student group on a tour of Eastern Europe, one that included Poland. It was my first visit to the country, and although I have spent a lot of time in Europe, including three years in Germany with the Army, I went with some degree of trepidation.
Our tour guide was a young Polish woman. She was well educated and cosmopolitan. We spoke in English and German, she learned I was Jewish, and we got along famously.
My initial impression of Poland was wonderful. Our first dinner there, chicken soup and pierogis, was so good, it could have come out of my grandmother's kitchen. I began to understand why a small number of Jews, despite everything, have returned to Poland. I even started to believe that perhaps I'd been misinformed.
The next day we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz was a standard Nazi concentration camp, which is to say it was an awful place where tens of thousands of people, mostly Polish gentiles, died. Birkenau is a few kilometers away. There about one million Jews were murdered. More Jewish children alone died at Birkenau than Polish gentile adults died in Auschwitz, because Birkenau was a death camp. Death camps were only for Jews, not non-Jewish Poles.
Konrad notes that between 1.7 and 3 million non-Jewish Poles died in the war – an awful accounting no matter which figure is correct, but one that represents somewhere between 5-10% of the pre-war population. On the other hand, Polish Jews were almost completely annihilated.
Mr. Konrad also mentions the Warsaw revolt of 1944 but omits the Warsaw Ghetto uprising a year earlier, waged entirely by Jews with almost no assistance from their gentile neighbors, some of whom picnicked while the fight raged a few blocks away. The Polish resistance suffered terribly during the 1944 revolt. The ghetto was entirely wiped out.
Several hundred brave Poles helped save Jews during the war and are duly honored by Israel as "righteous gentiles." Poland's pre-war non-Jewish population was about 32 million, so that represents an infinitesimal percentage of the populace, making those people all the more courageous, but it says much less of the general population, which in retrospect has sought to claim a share of moral and physical heroics its members do not deserve. Poles never as a community raised their voices in defense of their Jewish neighbors, gave communal assistance or succor, or even expressed sympathy. Yes, non-Jewish Poles were oppressed, but in no other European nation were Jews such a vital part of the community, nor did they suffer as savagely as Polish Jews did.
After Auschwitz-Birkenau, we visited the lovely former imperial city of Krakow. There we picked up a local tour guide. She did not know I was Jewish, and as she described some buildings downtown, apropos of nothing, she mentioned that Jews were trying to reclaim one of the buildings and how this was a general problem in the country.
Why, I asked, was it a problem?
"Well, because Jews already own 90% of the country," she replied.
"Surely, that can't be true," I offered. "There are hardly any Jews in Poland anymore."
"No, no," interrupted my tour leader friend. "She's right. Why, in fact, in my own home town, the Jews are trying to reclaim a children's hospital. They say it is theirs and want to kick out the children. What can we do?" What, indeed? No wonder the Polish Supreme Court is fighting the Jews, who want their property back so that they can kick children out of hospitals – a modern version of classic anti-Semitic blood libel if ever there was.
None of this explains why Jews should not try to get their property back, sick Polish kids notwithstanding. Konrad asks, "[I]s this a wise fight?" Why wouldn't it be? The property (or its value) belongs to the heirs of Hitler's victims, not Polish squatters, however long they've taken advantage of their fellow citizens' misfortune. Nor is this akin to the Israeli-Arab fight, where Arabs lost land and property when they attacked Jews, not when some outside power murdered them and Jews moved in. Plus, Israel has paid compensation and has always been open to paying more in return for a comprehensive peace settlement. On the other hand, nearly a million Jews kicked out of Arab countries in the late 1940s and 1950s never received a penny in compensation for their lost land and property.
Finally, as a practical matter, what do the Jews need from Poland now that would compel them not to fight for their property? It's Poland that is buying Israeli weapons hand over fist in fear of Russian planes and tanks and Poland that seeks to tighten its relations with Israel.
I hope the Jews who lost property in Poland can get it back. Once they do that, they'll own the whole country, just as they did before the war, which is what most Poles believe now and believed then. That's pure anti-Semitism, and that's what Mr. Konrad didn't mention.