While the issue of collaboration and complicity of local populations in the persecution of the Jews and other minorities in Nazi occupied countries has been lurking under the surface ever since the end of the war, such questions, despite the passage of time, seem to have risen to public attention more frequently, and acutely, in recent years. Most likely this intensified interest is related to the perceived need by individual countries to define national identity positively in the face of increasing, and commendable pressure by the European Union to forge a multinational, European identity held together by commonly accepted values. Hence, there is a discernable movement in some countries, both inside and outside the EU, to define the Holocaust, and the Nazi murder of millions of Jews and other minorities, as a purely German, and Nazi evil, proclaiming the innocence of the local population, even in the face of massive documentation of widespread public complicity. Hence, from their perspective, the dignity of the national identity would be preserved.
Holocaust survivors have long been encouraged by Yad V’Shem, the Israeli government supported Holocaust memorial institute, to write detailed memoirs of the persecution. The large majority of these accounts, especially those written by survivors from Eastern Europe, detail not only persecution by the Nazi occupiers, but also by the local population, by the victims’ gentile neighbors and colleagues. The written documentation and evidence of popular complicity is there, in abundance. It is, therefore, an established fact. There is simply no room for disputing this issue. The issue now, rather, is to what extent contemporary governments are whitewashing the crime, both at home and abroad.
Although the resurfacing of this issue has produced negative reactions, such as the case in Poland, where even a suggestion of Polish public complicity has been determined to be a crime, under which reputable Holocaust historians have been prosecuted and intimidated, there have been, on the other hand, some enlightening and even reassuring effects. The case in point has been recent discussions on this issue in France. These discussions have been particularly significant since it has become quite fashionable in the US media, especially in the face of the several serious acts of antisemitic violence in France since 2015, to intimate that France has a serious and generic problem with antisemitism. However, at least in reference to possible complicity of the French population with the persecution of Jews during the Nazi occupation, some encouraging information has come to light.
While the accusation of active and even aggressive participation of the Vichy regime with the persecution of Jews in occupied France has been well documented and clearly accepted by successive French governments, it has been recently brought out that despite the Vichy regime’s active collaboration, about 75% of the Jews resident in France at the time survived. This is an appreciably higher rate of survival than in most other Nazi occupied countries, despite the active collaboration of the official French government during the Nazi occupation. It has, moreover, also been noted that the 25% who did not survive were mostly non-French Jews who happened to be in France at the time.
Lest Francophobes, in view of the non-French identity of most of the Jewish Holocaust victims in France, launch a campaign accusing the French of xenophobia, there is a rather positive explanation. French Jews had lived in France for years, if not generations, and had non-Jewish French contacts who risked their lives to hide their Jewish friends, colleagues, and neighbors. In fact, the previous owners of my Paris apartment, who had no indication of my own Jewish identity, casually mentioned, while showing me the apartment, that they had hidden a Jewish family in the “cave” or basement storeroom, during the Nazi occupation. I emphasize that it was not mentioned as an act of heroism; it came up just as a casually mentioned statement of fact concerning the history of the property. Evidently, this was not an uncommon practice. The Jews who made up the tragic 25% were mostly recent arrivals in France, and, therefore, had no such contacts willing to risk their lives to hide them. They were, therefore, easily rounded up by the Nazis.
Perhaps it should be noted, parenthetically, that this situation may be the reason relatively few French citizens have been designated “righteous gentiles” by the State of Israel. Hiding your Jewish friends and colleagues was considered a normal occurrence in Nazi occupied France. Nothing to be particularly proud about.
So much for “generic” French antisemitism. There is indeed a problem with antisemitism in today’s France, but this problem seems related to the large influx of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries with strongly antisemitic government policies, and an ongoing problem in France with Islamic radicalism. And it should be noted that almost the entire French political spectrum has come out strongly protesting antisemitic acts and supporting prosecution of the perpetrators. Crowds of non Jewish French men and women have joined them.
While there has been no major public discussion of the possible complicity of the Italian population during the Italian Fascist regime and afterwards, during the German occupation post 1943, it can be noted that the situation of Italian local population complicity, or lack of such, was similar to the situation in France. The small Italian Jewish community, before the fascist period, had been totally integrated into Italian society. The Italian fascist regime had, through its racial laws, stripped the Jewish community of its civil rights and even means of livelihood, but was not life threatening. The more serious threat came during and after 1943, with the German invasion and occupation, where Jews were rounded up and sent to extermination camps. But 85% of Italian Jews avoided deportation, precisely, as in France, because of protection offered by their gentile Italian compatriots.
An almost diametrically opposite situation obtains in Poland. Several years ago, when I headed a regional office in Vienna of an international Jewish refugee assistance agency, I had under my supervision several excellent non-Jewish Polish caseworkers. One day, at lunch, we discussed antisemitism in general, and my Polish colleagues made clear that antisemitism in Poland was so ingrained in Polish society that it was practically part of Polish DNA, despite there being almost no Jews left in the country. One extremely bright Polish colleague, a rather non conformist, somewhat bohemian woman, told me that the epithet “Jew” was generally applied in Poland to anyone, like her, who ran askance of convention. Of course, her allegation was supported by Polish post war history, by the hostile and even deadly reception that Polish Jews who had escaped the Holocaust had received when they attempted to return to Poland after the defeat of Germany. Then again, in March 1968, the Polish communist government expelled the remaining Jews. What more evidence does one need to confirm my colleagues’ allegation that antisemitism had profoundly infected the Polish soul?
The more recent, 2018 Polish law making it a crime to imply that the Polish population was complicit in the execution of the Holocaust, which is still stubbornly in force and practice, and has severely intimidated reputable Holocaust scholars, is simply a further manifestation of Polish antisemitism. The new tack taken by the Polish government, implemented by its government sponsored Ministry of National Truth, is to distribute programs dealing exclusively with the Nazi persecution of the non-Jewish Polish population, with no mention at all of the millions of Jews who were murdered. For them, the Nazi occupation involved exclusively the victimization of Poles. Of course, very substantial numbers of Poles were in fact murdered or enslaved by the Nazis, and they deserve to be commemorated; but not at the expense of erasing the memory of the murder of 90% of the substantial prewar Polish Jewish community. Furthermore, by stressing that the Polish population were victims, the clear implication is that they were only just that, and not complicit or collaborators with the murder of their Jewish neighbors.
The Polish government was not content with distributing this shameful distortion of history within Poland; it was sent out to forums outside of Poland. One such program was distributed to my university in Venice, Ca’ Foscari, almost simultaneously, in 2018, with the enactment of the law prohibiting mention of Polish popular complicity. The implication of such a program is, of course, to paint the Polish population as victims, and not as collaborators with the Nazis. Thus, the present Polish regime is not simply guilty of a version of Holocaust denial; it has made refusal to accept such denial a crime; and has attempted to spread such denial abroad. The result, of course, is to silence even a suggestion that the Polish population had collaborated with the Nazi near total extermination of the Polish Jewish community.
A similar controversy concerning local complicity with the Holocaust is currently going on in Lithuania, although, unlike the Polish government, the Lithuanian government has not declared allegations of Lithuanian popular support of the Holocaust to be illegal. In Lithuania, however, as is the case in Ukraine, the question of collaboration with the Nazis in the persecution of Jews is complicated by the belief by many during the war that the Nazis would free the nation from Soviet domination. Nevertheless, the widespread popular support of the Nazis for whatever reason, and the elevation of rabidly antisemitic anti Soviet national “heroes,” factored out into active participation of much of the local population with the Nazi extermination program.
A recent book by Silvia Foti, the granddaughter of a Lithuanian officer whom she accuses of aiding and abetting Lithuanian popular complicity with the Nazi slaughter of what eventually amounted to be practically the entire Lithuanian Jewish community, has created a furor in Lithuania. Her grandfather is considered a hero in Lithuania because of his nationalistic, anti Soviet activities, although his granddaughter’s allegations of his anti Jewish activities are clearly well founded. Although the Lithuanian government has supported respectable Holocaust memorials, it has nevertheless avoided giving support to Ms Foti’s allegations. Furthermore, a Lithuanian court has denied a suit lodged by an American Jew of Lithuanian descent against a Lithuanian government agency claiming Nazi collaboration and persecution of Jews by Ms Foti’s grandfather and others. The lower court’s decision has been confirmed by Lithuania’s highly politicized Supreme Court. Hence, despite some positive actions, the Lithuanian government is solidly behind the denial of any major Lithuanian complicity with the Nazi persecutions.
An almost parallel situation seemed to have obtained in Ukraine, where, as in Lithuania, nationalist movements and leaders active in fighting the Soviets, ultimately collaborated with the Nazis, persecuting Jews, and instigating popular antisemitic complicity. And in Ukraine, thanks to political figures and nationalistic movements allied with the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, which was supported by previous Ukrainian governments, the problem has an even higher profile. Paradoxically, unlike Poland and Lithuania, Ukraine still has, miraculously, a vibrant and active Jewish community and currently has a Jewish president who enjoys substantial popular support. Nevertheless, in 2017 the previous Ukrainian government sent Volodimir Viatrovich, the head of their Institute of National Memory, which, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, had steadfastly denied Ukrainian popular complicity with the Nazi extermination program in Ukraine, to an important Holocaust conference in Paris, at the Sorbonne in the spring of 2017. Viatrovich had also been noted as having clearly voiced antisemitic views independent of the Holocaust issue.
Hence, Ukraine had even anticipated Poland in spreading its venomous historical distortion abroad. But unlike the situation of distorting Polish propaganda at my Italian university, where, despite my efforts, there was little protest, the reaction at the Sorbonne against Viatrovich’s participation was very strong. It has taken a while, but Ukraine’s Jewish president has removed Viatrovich from his position of leadership at the Institute of National Memory, but the antisemitic agitator still has managed to hold a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament. He still has a certain amount of public support.
A few years after the Sorbonne controversy, in a visit to my grandfather’s birthplace in a small town outside of Lviv , in a region where Ukrainian nationalism is very strong, I was shocked to find the town studded with flags of a political party sympathetic to Viatrovich. The central square of the town still has a statue celebrating one of Viatrovich’s “heroes,” a Ukrainian collaborator with the Nazis in the persecution of the Jews. This “hero” had fought against the Soviets; his well established role in the death of thousands of Jews simply didn’t matter, or even received popular support. Even today, despite positive signs, there is substantial resistance in Ukraine to recognition of Ukrainian complicity in the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews.
In short, while there are still strong currents of denial of popular complicity in the Holocaust throughout the major centers of prewar Jewish population, there are both positive and negative signs. Despite persistent denial of complicity with the Nazi persecution of the Jews, by removing the noxious director of the Institute for National Memory, Ukraine seems to have taken first steps to clear the air. The situation in Lithuania, however, continues to be disappointingly ambiguous. And Poland has simply dug itself deeper into denial.
Furthermore, the data from France and Italy puts the issue of public complicity with persecution in a more significant light. It shows that where there was little complicity with the Nazi persecution, that persecution became substantially less effective. Immense numbers of lives were saved. Hence, it suggests that in the Eastern European countries where the complicity with the Nazi persecution was much more prominent, the Nazi persecution was substantially more effective. Hence, it seems clear that the complicity of the local population was an essential part of the Nazi murder machine. It is not simply an historical detail. It involves a serious indictment of those societies and explains the dishonest scrambling of those governments to clear themselves of the indictment of complicity.
Header image: Kovno, Lithuania, February 1944 – Avraham Rosenthal, aged 5 and his two year old brother Emanuel
The two brothers perished in the Holocaust. [Yad Vashem Photo Archives 4789]