Sorry, Poland

Under the Nazis Poland became a prison where the Germans created their ‘largest camps of annihilation’

And suddenly there we were in the midst of another international controversy. We have grown used to this sort of thing here at Maclean’s, whose editor once said, “If you don’t think you’ve gone too far, you haven’t gone far enough.” This can be a pretty rock ’n’ roll place to work. But just this once, the uproar wasn’t one we meant to cause. It’s worth the tale. Here’s the tale.

In our issue of Nov. 16, “Our Biggest Ever” university issue, we carried a long, thoughtful feature by Katie Engelhart about the imminent trial in Munich of John Demjanjuk, who is “charged with 27,900 counts of accessory to murder for his role as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.” Without in any way making excuses for atrocity, Katie’s four-page article managed to air some of the discomfort with trying Demjanjuk, who is 89, visibly feeble, and was not a senior figure in the Nazi mass-murder apparatus in the first place. Sensitive stuff, but Katie is a very good young reporter and that’s not where the trouble lay.

No, the trouble was in three phrases I didn’t even notice when I read the article. Engelhart wrote that Demjanjuk had been mistaken for “a notorious sadist at Poland’s Treblinka death camp.” She refers again to “Poland’s Treblinka death camp,” and notes that Demjanjuk, who was Ukrainian, “served at three Polish camps.” Well, did we ever hear from the Polish Embassy and Polish Canadians after that. The comments under the story when we published it online were furious. The letters were angrier. “This is not acceptable that you spread absurdity that slanders Poland and Polish citizens!!!!” one letter began, under the subject line PROTEST AGAINST YOUR LIE. Almost simultaneously I received a plaintive email from my friend Sylwia Domisiewicz, the press and protocol officer at the Polish Embassy in Ottawa. “I just got bombarded by emails and phone calls from the Polish-Canadian community,” she wrote. We would be getting a letter from the ambassador, she said. To whom should they send it?

I forwarded Sylwia’s email to our senior executive editor, Peeter Kopvillem, who knows a thing or two about murderous foreign occupations, being Estonian. This kicked off a correspondence between Maclean’s and the embassy, and the letter from the ambassador appears elsewhere in these pages. But I’m spending more time on this issue because it is an example of the insistent demands of horrible memory.

If you go to the Polish Foreign Ministry’s website today and pull down the menu under the “Foreign Policy” tab, the first issue listed—ahead of “Asia and Pacific Region” and Poland’s “Eastern Partnership” with the countries of the former Soviet Union—is “Against ‘Polish Camps.’ ” Follow that link and you’ll find a list of erroneous references to the offending phrase in the news media of 24 different countries; more than a dozen corrections and press-council judgments sought by Polish authorities in several of those countries; and excerpts from the 2005 annual address to Poland’s parliament by the country’s then-foreign minister, Adam Rotfeld. “I believe the time is ripe, 60 years after the end of the war, for the elementary truth about what really happened in occupied Poland” to come to light, Rotfeld told his colleagues. “It was in Polish territories that the Germans created the largest camps of annihilation, where—alongside the Jewish people—Poles and members of other European nations were murdered on a mass scale.”

In that context, Rotfeld said, “use of the term ‘Polish death camps’ . . . not only conceals the truth about the perpetrators of that crime, but slanders our nation, which was the first victim of the criminal practices of Nazi Germany.”

I called the ambassador, Piotr Ogrodzinski, who is leaving Ottawa this week after five extraordinarily productive years here. During that time he successfully urged Canada to remove visa restrictions on visitors from Poland, strengthened military and economic co-operation between our two countries, and wrote perhaps 30 letters of complaint to news outlets that had not made the Nazi origin of the death camps clear.

Poland has hardly been innocent of anti-Semitism, Ogrodzinski told me. “It is a fact that there was a very strong anti-Semitism in the interwar period and it continued during the [Second World] war,” he said. But the camps were a different story. “It’s absolutely false that Poles had anything to do with concentration camps, with the exception that they were the first prisoners.”

The war began, of course, when Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The brave Polish army was shattered. The country’s hell was compounded on Sept. 17 when Stalin’s armies invaded from the east, in fulfillment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The entire country was a prison after that. The Nazi penalty for protecting Jews was death for the protector’s entire family. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, has written that the camps “were most emphatically not ‘Polish camps.’ This is not a mere semantic matter.”

Ogrodzinski’s father was a key organizer in Zegota, Poland’s wartime clandestine Council for Aid to Jews; a photograph of Przemyslow Ogrodzinski hangs in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. He knows our choice of words meant no harm. I asked whether he’s visited Canada’s Rocky Mountains, then reminded him that Canada had no choice in the location of the Rockies. But the Rockies are a treasure, not an abomination. Imagine a consummate evil being committed in your home by invaders. You would wish the world knew it wasn’t your choice. You wouldn’t ever stop wishing it.