UPDATE: I plan to discuss this tonight on my show. Tune in at 9pm Eastern at this link.
It’s great that President Obama has awarded the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a Polish Catholic who acted bravely as one who resisted the Nazis during World War II. It is not so great that President Obama referred to the Izbica camp as a “Polish death camp.” Poles are not happy about this, and are demanding a clear apology. I support them in their request, particularly considering that so many Poles are Catholic and since this could be perceived as ignorance about Catholicism on the president’s part, not to mention the role of Catholics during the Holocaust. Poland is a Catholic nation, for all intents and purposes.
There is no doubt that Izbica was in no way a “Polish” camp but rather a camp run by the Nazi SS, a part of Aktion Reinhard, wherein executions were carried out by the SS.
Although Aktion Reinhard was organized mainly against the Jews living in the Generalgouvernement, people from Germany, Austria, Böhmen und Mähren, and Slovakia were among the victims as well.
From March until June 1942 around 27,000 Jews from abroad were deported to Izbica (17,000 persons), Piaski (5,000 persons) and Rejowiec (5,000 persons). Transit ghettos (organized by the headquarters of Aktion Reinhard) were also installed in Opole Lubelskie, Deblin, Zamosc, Chelm, Wlodawa, and Miedzyrzec Podlaski.
Very early on, most of the deportees lost contact with their relatives and friends back home. According to a special order by the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) from end of May 1942, they were not even allowed to send letters to areas outside the Lublin district.
According to testimonies, the SS killed around 2,000 Jewish victims in the course of Izbica’s last execution (early November 1942) at the local Jewish cemetery. Before the extermination, people had to spend several days in the overcrowded fire-station building. Many died from lack of fresh air or water.
Certainly, the Catholics of this district were, for the most part, terribly anti-Semitic, not allowing Jews to settle in this region. This deserves our condemnation, but there were no “Polish death camps.” The death camps and transit camps like Izbica, were fully Nazi operations.
On 14 September 1939 German units captured Krasnystaw after a short battle, and during the next few days German soldiers looted valuables and goods from many Jewish families in the town. In addition, 13 Jews from Krasnystaw were executed as hostages at that time on the grounds that the Jews had organised resistance against the German army during the fighting in this region.
Jews were also forced to work as slave labourers for the German Army, which was a common occurrence during the early days of the occupation..
On 24 September 1939 the Soviet Army, which had invaded eastern Poland on 17 September, arrived in Krasnystaw and remained there for about two weeks. During the subsequent withdrawal of the Soviet Army, many Jews, especially younger members of the community, decided to leave with them. However, it is difficult to accurately estimate how many Jews went with the Soviets.
The Germans returned to Krasnystaw and new atrocities against the Jews were organised. Poles were also extensively persecuted during this period of the Nazi occupation. At the beginning of 1940, many members of the Polish intelligentsia in Krasnystaw were arrested and deported to concentration camps in Germany. Additionally, a number of Polish intellectuals were executed in Chelm, at Kumowa Dolina (Kumowa Valley).
It is often forgotten that the Slavs of Poland were considered to be “sub-human” and, as such, were intended by the Nazis to be slaves of the Third Reich. The Jews were considered to be “non-human” and were intended to be completely wiped out through genocide. The Polish people included both Slavs (the vast majority of whom were, and still are, Catholic) and Jews, the vast majority of whom were murdered. Generally speaking, they were all victims of the Nazis. Certainly, there were Polish Catholics who participated in the genocide, just as their were Jews who participated via the Judenrat with degrees of culpability known only to God, but also a great many who resisted to protect Jews and many who protected both themselves and Jews. Each person makes such decisions in his/her heart as an individual.
It is possible that the president used the term “Polish death camp” because the speech was written for him by his staff, and that neither he nor his speech writer were aware of how such a term might be received by the Polish people. At minimum, this is a case of gross insensitivity due to ignorance about what happened in Poland during World War II. It’s troubling to me to see this coming from my president, particularly since the Polish people are predominantly Catholic. It has the “feel” to me of my president saying Catholics purposefully instigated the Holocaust, on some level. Yes, many participated, but the death camps and transit camps like Izbica were instigated by, and run by, the Nazis.
Though I am grateful that Jan Karksi was awarded the Medal of Freedom, I can’t help but think this award was a political maneuver on the part of the president, to make some sort of statement about Catholicism considering that he simultaneously awarded the Medal of Freedom to Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts. The Girl Scouts is an organization now under scrutiny from Catholics, in unison with their bishops, due to the group’s participation in some instances with Planned Parenthood’s agenda which is not in keeping with Catholic teaching on human sexuality. I would dub the whole Medal of Freedom affair as a poke in the eye of not just Poles, but all Catholics. How intentional it was remains to be seen.