Since the fall of the Soviet Empire, no former Soviet captive nation has fared as badly as Poland in the American press. In the last year alone, unqualified denunciations of alleged Polish atrocities against Jews, most open to question, have been put into the New York Times, Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, Toronto Star, Toronto Globe and Mail, and smaller newspapers scattered across North America. Almost all of these accounts have a similar provenance and make the same sweeping accusations: they are, for the most part, written by Polish Jews or by their descendants and combine attacks against the Poles as an irredeemably anti-Semitic nation (in a reference to the current Polish pope, Yitzhak Shamir charged that “Poles suck in anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk”) with stories about pogroms attributed to Poles.

In commenting on earlier attacks of this kind, Polish primate Josef Glemp, known for his sharp tongue, urged American Jews to call off their newspaper campaign, before (one might infer from his remarks) the Poles retaliated. Despite his tactless phrasing, Glemp was pointing to what seems a precisely focused attack on his country’s reputation. Both Canadian and American Jewish organizations and the U.S. Holocaust Museum have highlighted outbursts of Polish anti-Semitism during and immediately after the Nazi occupation. Two much-discussed acts of “unprovoked Polish assaults on Jews” were the killing of 46 Jews in Kielce (a city about 75 miles south of Warsaw) in July 1946 and the slaying of several Jewish residents of Ejszyszki (in Eastern Poland) in October 1944. The first incident featured mob action and what we are told is traditional Polish bigotry; the second, while ascribed to the same cause, has also been linked in the New York Times and by the television documentary Shtetl to the rampaging Home Front. This last indictment is particularly noteworthy, inasmuch as the Home Front was the noncommunist Polish partisan force fighting the Nazi invaders. By now the Home Front has been turned into a Polish equivalent of the Wayffen S.S., something that existed to kill Jewish refugees from the Nazis and which contributed significantly to the Jewish death toll. In an obvious attempt at guilt by association, Bert Raphael, president of the Jewish Civil Rights Educational Foundation of Canada, has stated to the Toronto Star: “There has never been acknowledgment of responsibility that prewar Poland created a climate that made the Nazis feel comfortable in building many of their concentration camps in Poland.”

The responses made to these charges by the Polish government and by Polish groups in North America, such as the Canadian Polish Congress, have been measured in view of the provocation. They repeat accounts of Poland’s own agonies from 1959 onward and cite mainstream scholars, like British historian Norman Davies, and Jewish holocaust witnesses who present a positive view of the efforts made by Poles to protect Jews’ lives. There are facts, after all, that speak for themselves. The Nazis slaughtered almost three million Poles and, with Soviet assistance, devastated their country. Of all countries occupied by Hitler’s armies, the Poles were, next to the Russians, the worst treated and resisted their oppressors the most fiercely. Though the punishment meted out in Poland for saving Jews was death (sometimes by burning), Polish Catholics, including my late mother-in-law, risked their lives on behalf of Polish Jews, and the number of Jews saved through Polish intervention has been estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000. Among the beneficiaries of Polish heroism is the American Jewish liberal advocate Abe Foxman. Despite the work by Polish Catholics to save his life, I have never seen Foxman or the Anti-Defamation League he heads challenge the equation of Poles with Nazis. This charge has come from one of Foxman’s close associates in the ADL, in his never-ending war against Christian anti-Semitism, Alan Dershowitz. In his autobiographical Chutzpah, Dershowitz vents spleen on Polish Christians and insists that, unlike homosexuals and Jews, Poles were “only selectively murdered by the Nazis.” One awaits (perhaps in vain) Foxman’s correction of such unkind errors by his frequent companion-in-arms.

In one unpublished response to the Toronto Globe and Mail, and to the published allegation of an Alan Levine (this one not to be confused with the military historian) that Poles too must accept responsibility for the holocaust, Polish-Canadian historian Mark Wegierski cites the contrary opinions of three distinguished Polish Jewish scholars: Richard Pipes, Yisrael Gutman of the Yad Vashem Institute and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, and Szymon Datner, director of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute. All three of these respected historians have controverted the charge of widespread Polish complicity in Nazi crimes. Each has insisted that Polish Catholics, like Polish Jews, were victims of the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe.

There is, unfortunately, a long-standing and mutual dislike between these two European groups, a fact that my late wife, descended from both, never tired of stressing. Despite the fact that they had lived side by side for centuries and had been treated as subhuman by a common oppressor, no real warmth has existed between them, with only rare exceptions. Indeed each has defined itself by what the other is not, be it providential or prodigal, shrewd or impetuous, calculating or animalistic. Even in shared suffering it may have been difficult for either to recognize the humanity of the other, and the fact that some Poles risked their lives for some Jews must come as a happy surprise in this history of tangled, bad relations. When the war against the Germans was over, and even before then, hostilities between the unwilling allies erupted again. In Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland (which Stalin acquired by joining Hitler in the rape of Poland), Jews as outsiders were eagerly recruited to impose Soviet rule. Not only did many work for the Soviets, they were also disproportionately represented in the postwar Stalinist government inflicted on the Poles in 1948.

The now publicized account by the oral historian Yaffa Eliach of the Polish Home Front’s assault on her family’s home in Ejszyszki omits one unsettling detail: Eliach’s father had been housing and entertaining members of the Soviet secret police when the attack was unleashed. The assailants were Polish resistance fighters against the Germans who had just broken out of Soviet captivity. After the assault, in which two members of Eliach’s family were killed (another had been saved by a Catholic priest from the clutches of the S.S.), local Jews, together with the Soviets, hunted down and killed the Polish soldiers. These contextualizing details can be found in released communist archives in Lithuania; they also turn up, inopportunely for Ms. Eliach and Shtetl, in the autobiography Time to Mourn by Polish Jewish NKVD officer Leon Kahn. The second source has been available in English since 1978.

But others also assisted the Soviets, including those who took their pay while inciting Polish peasants against the Jews. In a courageous, factual brief, the late Leopold Tyrmand, the first editor of this magazine, exposed the postwar Soviet connection of the Polish anti-Semitic politician Boleslaw Piasecki. Tyrmand showed how Piasecki and others even far more virulently anti-Jewish were used by the Soviets to turn Western opinion against noncommunist Poles and toward their communist conquerors. Incidents were provoked by Soviet agents who denounced Jews as Soviet collaborators in a starving and occupied country.

A common feature of recent anti-Polish broadsides is their refusal to allow for the obvious, that from September 1939 onward Poland was an occupied and wrecked country responding to events rather than shaping them. Those who complain that Poland will not confront its past have a strange view of what they think Poles refuse to confront. In this view Poles welcomed the German occupation because it enabled them to rob and massacre Jews, supposedly a preferred Polish pastime. Alas, I have heard this view expressed by Polish Jews more times than I care to recall. Nonetheless, when pressed on these points, they will also explain that some Poles treated them well while others tried to curry favor with the Nazis by behaving treacherously. The point in either case is that Poles did not initiate or carry out the killing. It was done by the Nazis and occasionally with Ukrainian collaborators, who had it in both for Jews and for Poles. That some Poles betrayed Jews to get Nazi favors was not uniquely Polish. The same practice went on to the same extent or even more in Western Europe. It is highly doubtful that Poles engaged in such behavior at a higher rate than, say, the Hench or Dutch. And unlike these others, the Poles did not produce volunteers for the S.S., and moreover their low racial status would have kept the Nazis from accepting them anyway.

Most of the anti-Polish tirades now being circulated betray the fingerprints of the Soviet Empire. The dissolving empire left an eddy of propaganda that continues to encircle the Polish nation and confuse discussions of its past. Thus the Soviet takeover of Poland, from the perspective of the conqueror, is seen as a benign event, which stopped anti-Jewish pogroms and neutralized Polish Catholic character. Never are the Soviets to be held responsible for the anti-Semitism they fomented. They just came along opportunely to suppress Polish Nazis, who otherwise would have finished Hitler’s work. Significantly, the one indisputable, overshadowing Polish atrocity of the postwar years, the killing or expulsion of over three million ethnic Germans settled in what became Western Poland, is no longer brought up in our newspapers or by the media. This oversight should be expected even with the current Polonophobia. It was the Soviets who openly encouraged the brutal revenge on the Germans, after moving territorial Poland to the west and grabbing its eastern lands. Moreover, the Western allies gave in to the Soviet plan for a reconstituted Poland, including getting rid of Germans from what had been German lands, in the Potsdam Agreement of July 1945. Needless to say, Soviet-endorsed atrocities do not have the moral gravity of those that can be attributed to Polish Catholics without acknowledged Soviet complicity.

Recycled communist versions of history work because enough haters on both sides of the ethnic divide are all too happy to slug away. Anti-Semitic writings have multiplied in Poland in the wake of the new indictments and after Jewish groups had demonstrated against the presence of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz. At the time of that controversy, Cardinal Glemp stirred the cauldron of discord by charging that Jews had inflated holocaust figures. Not to be outdone, anti-Polish Jewish activists Avi Weiss and Alan Dershowitz organized demonstrations against Glemp during his visit to New York in 1991. Both Weiss and Dershowitz expressed anger about Glemp’s statements concerning Jews in 1989, and despite promises to keep demonstrations peaceful, the New York Post reported that on October 8 menacing crowds had hurled obscenities at the Polish primate, including “you Nazi bastard Catholic.”

Allow me to conclude this gloomy account of ethnic hostility by noting two other features of recent anti-Polish outbursts. First, not all of those who propagate these truncated histories are Polish Jews, and the publishers and editors of those Canadian newspapers that have put out the worst slanders have identifiably WASP names. Why such people would take sides in an unseemly war between the first and second most victimized groups of the Nazi era may seem at first blush a bit baffling, but the explanation may be that like most WASPs of my acquaintance, these particular journalists have a desperate desire to be p.c. Confessing to anti-Semitic crimes that one has not committed has become a litmus test of who is or is not a right-thinking goy, and for a bien-pensant WASP, the most convenient way to perform this penance is to call attention to insensitive ethnic Catholics. That way two birds are killed at the same time, engaging in liberal self-flagellation and sticking it to a group whom WASPs have always disliked far more than Jews. Thus publishers and reviewers, not all of them Jewish, praised the veracity of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, a pseudo-autobiography by a bogus holocaust survivor, which first caused a stir in the 1960’s. The vivid accounts of Polish peasant atrocities against Jews hiding from the Germans were here invented out of whole cloth. The real Kosinski and his family had been protected by Polish Catholic neighbors in Sandomierz and had supported the Soviets when they occupied their town in 1944. Last Easter the Toronto Star demonstrated my thesis of WASP atonement by warning Christians not to be too pleased about the Resurrection of their Savior. “The message of the Resurrection,” explained this editorial, had led to massacres of Jews in the past, as had been the case in Catholic Poland. The best documented refutations of these charges against the Poles that I have seen did not get published in the Star’s letter section. They might have interfered with the p.c. penance being performed at the expense of those despised by liberal Protestants.

Second, the new anti-Polish World War II revisionism is based on bizarre judgments about some victims and victimizers. For example, the U.S. Holocaust Museum has moved the Poles, save for “some Polish intellectuals,” from the first category to the second, while homosexuals have been raised in its literature and displays to co-victims with the Jews. One can be sure that the Brownshirts and Hermann Goering would appreciate this posthumous tribute. Some Nazi bigwigs, one may assume, might even be eligible for other victimological honors, in view of their drug-dependency and penchant for little boys. Note that the group having the most nefarious record of Nazi collaboration, the Bosnian Muslims, now gets much better press than the once victimized Poles. The professional holocaust survivor and Hillary Clinton-companion Elie Wiesel claims not to use the term lightly (and certainly not for the Nazi slaughter of Poles), but he has wailed about a new holocaust descending on the Bosnians. Such a catastrophe should be distinguished from the earlier unmentioned one that occurred in the Balkans, after the Bosnian Muslims had volunteered to form two Waffen S.S. divisions. This selective amnesia is so striking that even I, an Austrophile critic of the Serbs, note it with astonishment. Are human memories as selective as the reconstructed World War II victimology seems to suggest? This question is, of course, rhetorical.