Dr. Richard C. Lukas, a respected authority on modern European history, has written six books on various aspects of Polish history.
the Children Cry: Hitler's War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945
Why Do We Allow Non-Jewish Victims to be Forgotten?
by Dr. Richard C. Lukas
When it comes to the history of World War II, the American media has developed a black hole concerning the genocidal policies of the Nazis against Christians. Everyone should know by now that not all of Nazism’s victims were Jews. Millions—we do not know and probably will never know the precise number—were Christians, mostly civilians selected for destruction for ethnic, religious, social, cultural, or political reasons. When Christians of that era are mentioned in the media, their victimization is either ignored, trivialized or distorted. Too often false generalizations about pandemic Christian collaboration with the Nazis against the Jews are made to deflect attention away from the huge numbers of Christian victims during the most destructive war in history.
No group’s victimization has been more distorted in American film, television and journalism than the Polish nation, which lost 3 million of its largely Catholic citizenry, most of whom died at the hands of the Nazis. Among the last few refugees of bigotry in the United States are the anti-Catholicism and anti-Polonism. Since most Poles are Catholic, they have been especially vulnerable.
The most disturbing Polonophobic slander is the obscene claim, repeated with nauseating regularity, that Catholic Poles were complicit in the Holocaust of the Jews. A recent example of this kind of journalism appeared in the pages of IN THESE TIMES, whose masthead claims it is dedicated to “Independent News and Views” as well as “Liberty and Justice for All.” One of the publication’s contributing writers gratuitously slapped the Poles for what he described as their “Homegrown massacre of Jews.” When challenged by an informed reader, the writer asserted either in appalling ignorance or with unabashed ethnic hatred, “The fact of mass Polish participation in the fascist slaughter of Jews, Roma and gays.”
During World War II, only minorities of Christians approved or collaborated with the Germans in their grisly campaign against the Jews. There never was mass Polish participation of Poles in the slaughter of anyone. Bob Lamming perceptively observed, “Holocaust denial makes frequent straw-man appearances in the U.S. media. I have never seen this thesis seriously advanced in any reputable venue. Yet, across the spectrum, from left to right, the doctrine of Polish complicity in the Holocaust—a similarly insolent deception—cannot be recognized for what it is.”
No group of people, gentile or Jew, has a monopoly on goodness or evil. Most Christians, especially those in Eastern Europe, where German occupation policies were the most severe, were preoccupied with their own grim predicament and wanted only to survive the war. Many, if not most non-Jew, felt compassion for Jews and were, in historian Philip Friedman’s words, “passive humanitarians.” Still others, acting on their compassion, actively aided them.
In Poland, Christians took risks unknown elsewhere in Europe. It was the only German-occupied country where aiding a Jew automatically resulted in the death penalty. Yet, according to author Ed Lucaire, “The Yad Vashem Museum in Israel honors the Righteous Among the Nations and Poland ranks first among the 34 nations with 5,373 men and women, almost one-third of the total of all Christians honored for their compassion, courage and morality and who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews.” To be sure, the number of Jews aided or saved by Christians far exceeds those honored by Yad Vashem, whose criteria for inclusion among the honorees have made it possible to recognize only a fraction of courageous Christians.
The insidious mythology of Christians, especially Catholic, complicity in the Holocaust is so persuasive that even many Catholics, including the clergy, subscribe to it. Little wonder there is a conspicuous paucity of commemorations in Catholic and Protestant churches of Hitler’s other victims during Holocaust Remembrance Week.
Unlike the Jews, most of whom perished in gas chambers, Christians died in slave labor and concentration camps, were shot to death in individual or group executions, and died of hunger and ill treatment. Years ago, a Polish Catholic who had the unique experience of surviving two internments in Auschwitz, told me, “Death is death. I don’t understand why Christian victims of the war are ignored by their own churches.” In order to find our moral and historical compass in this matter, we Americans should ask ourselves how we would feel if foreign invaders tried to impose a racial reconstruction of our society and after the war was over, witness commemorations of some but not all of our citizens.
Pope John Paul II, who witnessed the terror and genocidal actions of the Nazis in his native Poland, knows better than most of us what happened to Jews and Christians in his ravaged country. His efforts to promote Christian-Jewish reconciliation never included admonitions to ignore the Catholic and other Christians who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
The Pope knows what all of us should be aware of—namely, failure to broaden our understanding of World War II imposes a narrow, distorted interpretation of historical events. This view of history can only be partial and incomplete. One of its terrible consequences is that the Christian victims of yesterday have become the victimizers in today’s journalistic pop history. Ignoring or falsifying the victimization of Catholics and other Christians diminishes the magnitude of German totalitarianism. Is this the historical message we want to convey?
This is not the place to discuss why history is treated like a loose-leaf notebook by the American media, which removes the pages with which it disagrees and substitutes new ones that suits its own prejudices and political agendas. Christians of all denominations should realize that the tragedy of non-Jews during World War II must not be high jacked and manipulated to serve objectives that have nothing to do with history.
One effective corrective to what passes for history in the American media would be for Christians to hold regular observances in their churches, similar to those that are routinely held for Jewish victims of the Holocaust, for the millions of Christians who died in the genocidal bloodbath of World War II.
What better way to further Pope John Paul II’s plea fro Christian-Jewish reconciliation than for Jew and Christian to remember and honor the victims of both tragedies?