No sooner had FBI Director James Comey delivered comments that revealed a deeper and more vital regard for what he called “the responsible exercise of power,” than critics from Poland demanded an apology for a reference he made in a speech about the Holocaust.
As reported in The New York Times (Apr. 20), “Polish political leaders have been taking turns angrily denouncing James B. Comey… over comments he made last week that suggested to them that he blamed Poles for being Nazi accomplices during the Holocaust.
“ ‘To those who don’t know the historical truth, I would like to say today, Poland was not an aggressor but a victim during the Second World War,’ Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said during a news briefing. ‘We would expect officials discussing these matters to know this.’ ”
The passage from Comey’s speech that upset the Polish prime minister was this:
“In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and 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.”
For years, Poland has been fighting the misconception that they were complicit with Nazi Germany due to the fact that several death camps were located in Poland.
“Polish officials stress,” The Times continues, “that Poland was conquered by Germany, which imposed its own rule on the region; there was never a collaborationist government like Vichy France or the Quisling regime in Norway. 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.”
While Director Comey has yet to personally respond, “Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, on Monday said, ‘Director Comey certainly did not intend to suggest … that Poland was somehow responsible for the Holocaust.’ ”
As reported in the Jerusalem Post (Apr. 20), “ ‘The director clearly wanted to make an important moral statement,’ said the country’s American-born Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.
“ ‘His intention was positive and good. However, even an unintended distortion of history is nonetheless a distortion of history and disrespectful to the Polish nation.’
“Piotr Kadlcik, the immediate past president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, said, ‘From my perspective he was referring to the group of German collaborators active throughout the entirety of Europe,’ he said. ‘I agree that choosing both Poles and Hungarians [being an active part of the Axis] was a wrong choice, but I do not think that it was done on purpose.’ ”
Shortly before posting the major portions of Comey’s speech on my website, I had read about the controversy, found the questionable passage and deleted it from the final version of my posting. I had neglected to spend the time to research the accuracy of the claim by Polish officials. While I certainly understand and sympathize with the sensitivity that Poland may have, in my own reading of Comey’s remarks, I interpreted him to indicate a small group of European sympathizers as well as those who simply closed their eyes to the horrors happening around them.
However, lost in all the controversy is the real message that Director Comey was offering, as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (Apr. 20), points out.
“In the category of ‘no good deed goes unpunished,’ we now have the speech of FBI Director James B. Comey at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He said some remarkable things. The first is that he requires all his agents and analysts to visit the museum so that they can acquaint themselves with evil. The second is that he personally is so ‘haunted’ by the Holocaust that ‘it has long stood as a stumbling block to faith.’
“That stopped me right there,” Cohen writes. “ ‘Who is this guy?’ I wondered. J. Edgar Hoover would never have confessed to a substantial crisis of faith, never mind sending his agents to any museum. … What followed though was not applause, but condemnation.”
Cohen then continues by offering historic evidence.
“Nowhere in Comey’s speech did he blame Poland for the Holocaust. He simply mentioned ‘accomplices,’ of which Poland had its share. This doesn’t negate the fact that no European nation suffered as much under Nazi rule as did Poland — and no nation had as effective an underground movement. Many Poles risked, and sometimes lost, their lives trying to save Jews. Poles were often splendid. Most just tried to survive.
“But even before the 1939 conquest by Germany, Poland had evolved into an anti-Semitic state. In her book ‘On the Edge of Destruction,’ Celia S. Heller wrote that the Jews of Poland ‘came to represent a conquered population.’ They were legally discriminated against. Quotas for Jews were established in colleges and universities. Jewish students were forced to sit in certain areas, the so-called ghetto benches. If they resisted, they were beaten by their fellow students, sometimes by the faculty as well. Jewish merchants, who already closed on Saturday, were forced to close Sunday as well and were required to post their names, often recognizably Jewish, on their storefronts.
“Many of these and other measures were implemented by Poland’s elected government, not by the Nazis who would later show the Poles how anti-Semitism could really be done. In Poland, anti-Semitism was not imposed from above. It was simply politically expedient. …
“I don’t begrudge the Poles their sensitivity. For too long their nation was unfairly characterized as an anti-Semitic cesspool and its incomparable suffering during World War II was largely ignored. But this effort to blame the Holocaust solely on the Germans — and soon, I bet, only on those Germans who were Nazis — is a historical whitewash.
“The Nazis originated and implemented the murder of Jews. Still, they had help, less in Poland than in some other nations — France, are you paying attention? — and they were often operating in areas where Jews had already been dehumanized.”
Bottom line: Nazi Germany and their leadership rightly deserve the lion’s share of shame and blame for the genocide of approximately 6 million Jews. Further, according to About.com, “In addition to Jews, the Nazis targeted Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the disabled for persecution. Anyone who resisted the Nazis was sent to forced labor or murdered. It is estimated that 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust.”
Nonetheless, given the fact that I was aware of the debate over the passage, I should have been more diligent in researching the issue before posting. At the very least, I should have made known the controversy to readers, and apologize.