I case you missed it (I guess you probably have), a little diplomatic row has been going on between Poland and Germany over the past two weeks or so. Bone of contention is a three-part TV film that recently aired on the German channel ZDF, called “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” (Our Mothers, Our Fathers). The film follows the lives of five young Germans between the years 1941 and 1945. Two of them become soldiers and end up committing atrocities in the Soviet Union, one of them sleeps with a Gestapo-commander to advance her career, one of them signs up for the red cross, where she denounces a Jew, and the fifth, a Jew, escapes from the train to a death camp, joins Polish partisans and survives the war. The film’s message is simple: War can bring out the worst in people, and in some way or another, it fundamentally changes everyone.
The film has caused a positive stir in Germany because it urges people to critically reconsider the role their own grandparents played in the war. In Poland, however, it led to an angry outcry. The reason is the film’s depiction of the Polish partisans of the AK (Armia Krajowa, Home Army), the largest nationalist partisan group in Poland. In the film, AK fighters go on anti-Semitic rants, claiming to “drown Jews like cats”, decide to let Jews die in a stranded train rather than open the doors and let them out, and kick the newly admitted Viktor out of the group once they realise he is a Jew. The Polish ambassador to Berlin expressed his “shock” over such a “grotesquely one-sided” depiction of Polish resistance, claiming that the movie is trying to blame other nationalities for the destruction of the European Jews, thus somehow lessening German guilt. Multiple TV networks and newspapers have joined in on the criticism, largely echoing the ambassador’s arguments.
A look at the historical facts indicates that the filmmakers have done their research diligently. Numerous official statements by the AK leadership made it unequivocally clear that Jews were not considered to be part of the Polish Nation. On November 10 1942, the AK’s commander-in-chief set out the group’s position vis-à-vis the Jews: Active resistance against Nazi mass murders would only begin once they systematically targeted Poles (i.e. not Jews). Although some exceptions are known, Jews were generally deemed unreliable and not admitted into the AK, and the group’s leadership similarly refused to absorb Jewish partisan groups. Antony Polonsky, a well-respected historian of Jews in Poland, argues that the leadership “was not sympathetic to the plight of individual Jewish fugitives, seeing them as security risks likely to endanger its own position.” Furthermore, AK-commanders often referred to Jews as “Bandits”, echoing Nazi-terminology. In his survey of over 9000 testimonies of Jewish survivors after 1945, Polonsky finds that a majority of the encounters Jews had with the AK were negative. Several statements claim that AK-fighters searched for Jews and murdered them. A Jewish man called Zelman Baum claimed that he “feared the Poles no less than the Germans”. Karolina Kremer saw her entire family murdered by Polish partisans, only to face them again a year later, in 1944:
AK bandits hunted us like wild animals … I came across a wall of AK people. (The leader) asked me to come closer to me and came up behind me with a rifle. “Now you’re a dirty Jewess who has fallen into my hands. From my hands you will surely not escape.” I started to cry horribly pleading with him to spare my life. I knelt down and started kissing his legs hoping he would not kill such a young person. “No one will help you. Your dead body will be lying here”, he said, showing me the place. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, got up and ran into the nearby shrubs. He shot at me several times unsuccessfully.
There were also cases in with AK fighters helped Jews, but they seem to be the minority. In sum, it would have almost been a distortion of history had the film not depicted the AK fighters as anti-Semites.
Hundreds of thousands of Poles risked their lives during the war hiding Jews, and their heroic acts must never be forgotten. However, it is equally clear that anti-Semitism was rampant in Polish society, and nowhere more than within the ranks of the AK. The film does not blame the AK for the Holocaust, not one bit. It simply points out that the AK’s anti-Semitism made the destruction of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis easier to carry out.
The unwillingness of many Poles to accept a negative depiction of the AK is part of a dangerous trend in Eastern Europe: The nationalist hero cult. While Poles are unwilling to see the AK-fighters as anything other than knights in shining armour, Russians have increasingly reverted to the old Stalin cult, ignoring his mass murders and praising him for his role in defeating Nazism. The surprising popularity of proposals to change the name Volgograd back to Stalingrad is just the most recent example. This cult is dangerous because it leads to a propensity to glorify totalitarianism (in the case of Stalin) and racist nationalism (in the case of the AK). Some of the women and men who bravely fought against the Nazis murdered Jews. Accepting this may be painful for some, but refusing to do so only makes things worse in the long run.