„Polish death camp” controversy

The term ‘’Polish death camp’’ or ‘’Polish concentration camp’’ when used about concentration camps and extermination camps established by Nazi Germany in German-occupied Poland have been widely recognized as misnomers. These phrases although occasionally used by politicians and mass media about the camps’ geographical location in German-occupied Poland met strong resistance from the Polish officials and organizations. These officials and organizations objected that the phrases as ‘’Polish death camp’’ and ‘’Polish concentration camp’’ are misleading and can be misunderstood as death camps set up by Poles or run by Poland. In addition, some Polish politicians would say that the use of these expressions by foreigners is a deliberate attempt of the disinformation campaign.

To talk more about this controversy, we need to talk about the historical circumstances of Poland at the time. After the German invasion, Poland experienced a direct German administration, unlike the Vichy France which had an indigenous puppet government. Western Poland was immediately annexed by Germany. In addition, some Poles were directly expelled from the annexed areas to make room for German settlers. Moreover, parts of eastern Poland became part of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine and Reichskommissariat Ostland. The rest of German-occupied Poland became the General Government, which was viewed as German-occupied territory.

During the occupation of Poland, around 3 million Polish Jews, which is around 90 percent of the prewar Polish-Jewish population, were killed as a result of Nazi Germany’s genocidal agenda. 2.5 million of non-Jewish Poles were killed as well, this includes civilian and military populations. 70,000 ethnic Poles of non-Jewish ethnicity were murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Generally, historians have agreed that relatively few Polish collaborators existed in comparison to other German-occupied countries. These collaborators were condemned and executed by the Polish Underground as soon as they were found. Some Poles were more or less complicit in, or indifferent to the roundups of Jews while many risked their lives to help and/or hide their Jewish neighbors.

Coming back to the controversy of the expression ‘’Polish death camp’’ some argue that the expression directly and strictly refers to the geographical location of the Nazi death camps and does not indicate the involvement by the Polish government in exile. Some politicians and news agencies have apologized for using the term after the Polish officials complained. While others never apologized stating that its merely denoted geographic location. Israeli politician Yair Lapid justified the expression with the argument that many Jews were killed without ever meeting a German soldier.

On the other hand, those who see the expression as inaccurate and misleading argue that ”Polish death camps’’ suggest that the camps were the responsibility of Poles, when they were constructed, and operated by the Germans. Moreover, those camps were used to exterminate both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles as well as the Jewish population across Europe. Abraham Foxman of the ADL described the strict geographical defense of the terms as „sloppiness of language”, and „dead wrong, highly unfair to Poland”. Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Adam Daniel Rotfeld even said that under the pretext that 'it’s only a geographic reference’, attempts are made to distort history.

Our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau

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