(JTA) — A Belarusian Nobel Prize laureate has stirred controversy in Poland by saying that many Poles, including priests, participated in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.
Svetlana Alexievich, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, made the accusation last month during a visit to New York, the news website WPolityce reported earlier this week.
“You know what the Poles did with the Jews,” Alexievich was quoted as saying on June 12 at the Brooklyn Central Library during a meeting with readers. “Poles were worst of all in how they treated the Jews. Priests directly called for killing Jews in their sermons.”
The statement touched a nerve in Poland, where the government is engaged in a campaign that seeks to counter claims of Holocaust-era complicity by Poles and highlight efforts to save Jews.
Poland’s right-wing government is advancing legislation that would criminalize the use of the term “Polish death camps.” In February, Poland’s deputy justice minister, Patryk Jaki, told reporters in Warsaw: “Stop attributing to Poland the role of Holocaust author.”
Polish citizens are said to be responsible for the direct killing at least 1,500 people in pogroms during and directly after the Holocaust, according to Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland. Thousands more died because of Poles who betrayed them to the Germans. Three million non-Jewish Poles were murdered by the German occupiers.
Jan Gross, a well-known Poland-born historian from Princeton University, is currently the subject of a criminal investigation in Poland for saying that during World War II, a greater number of Jews died at the hands of Poles than the number of Germans who died at the hand of Poles. He is suspected of violating a law against “insulting the Polish nation.”
In absolute numbers, Poland has the highest amount of any nation of Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who have been recognized by Israel for risking their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Poland has 6,620 righteous gentiles, followed by the Netherlands’ 5,516.
Relatively seen, however, Poland would have had nearly 120,000 righteous gentiles if it had the Netherlands’ ratio of saviors per Jews in 1940.
The government-operated Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum opposes even mentioning that the former death camp is in Poland, urging journalists to change the geographical characterization to “German-occupied” territory.
Maciej Świrski, founder of the Polish League Against Defamation – a nongovernmental body devoted to “prevent the vilification of the Polish People,” as it is described on its website — wrote Alexievich an angry letter challenging her assertions.
It is regrettable, he wrote, that some people “propagate a false thesis about ‘terrible Polish anti-Semitism’ for their own career, applause, and then stupidly think that they are brave and progressive.”
No priests in Poland called for the murder of the Jews, he added in the open letter.
“It is simply a lie. What is this based on? Can you name one Polish priest who called for murder, and where?” Swirski asked. “You are repeating unproven lies, and this is not befitting a documentarist of your class.”
Alexievich wrote extensively about the reality of life for people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to more accurately state the position of Jan Gross — that during World War II, a greater number of Jews died at the hands of Poles than the number of Germans who died at the hand of Poles. It originally cited Gross as saying more Jews died at the hands of Poles during World War II than at the hands of Germans.