The Polish and the Holocaust: What Churchill Knew

The Polish and the Holocaust: What Churchill Knew

Polish firing squad of one

Mr. Paul Bonow­icz staged a one-man protest against Churchill in South Ruis­lip, Mid­dle­sex. He denounced “the lies in British books about Win­ston Churchill. I am Pol­ish and we know he betrayed Pol­ish peo­ple.” He added: Churchill “knew about the Holo­caust. He knew Jew­ish peo­ple were dying, but he didn’t help. After the war there was a deal between Churchill and Stal­in, and the price was Poland. Part of my coun­try went to the Sovi­ets. It was Churchill who decid­ed which part, not the Poles.” —Uxbridge Gazette.

Churchill did know about the Holo­caust, and alone among allied lead­ers, he tried to do some­thing about it. As to the alleged Pol­ish betrayal…

Virtues and mistakes

(Wiki­me­dia Commons)

In 1938, the Teschen Dis­trict of Czecho­slo­va­kia was absorbed by the Poles, who hap­pi­ly took it, as a result of the Munich Agree­ment. In 1939 Pol­ish parts not tak­en by Hitler went to the Sovi­ets. Toward war’s end Churchill first protest­ed, then acqui­esced, and ulti­mate­ly ago­nized over the shift­ing of Poland to the west. An east­ern slice went to Rus­sia and the Poles received part of Ger­many. In August 1945 Churchill told Par­lia­ment: “I think a mis­take has been made, in which the Pro­vi­sion­al (Com­mu­nist) Gov­ern­ment of Poland have been an ardent part­ner, by going far beyond what neces­si­ty or equi­ty required.” (Churchill By Him­self, 179). “There are few virtues that the Poles do not possess—and there are few mis­takes they have ever avoided.”

The mat­ter has ben raised more recent­ly in the mod­ern round of Churchill crit­i­cism. It is dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend what Churchill, and Roo­sevelt for that mat­ter, could have done abut the land shift. By 1945 the Red Army occu­pied all Pol­ish ter­ri­to­ry. The Anglo-Amer­i­cans hoped (for­lorn­ly) that Stal­in would make good his promise of free elec­tions. Some Poles have nev­er for­giv­en them, although Churchill was first to pre­dict Communism’s fall, thanks to patri­ots such as Lech Wale­sa.

3 thoughts on “The Polish and the Holocaust: What Churchill Knew

  1. The Teschen Dis­trict was invad­ed by Che­cho­slo­va­kia in 1919 when Poland was fight­ing the war with Sovi­et Union. Accord­ing to Ver­sailles Treaty that Dis­trict was award­ed to Poland based on major­i­ty of Pol­ish inhab­i­tants. Poland in ’39 just retook what was belong­ing to Poland in the first place.

    Not so. Teschen (Cieszyn) was divid­ed between Poland and Czecho­slo­va­kia at Ver­sailles. You can look it up. Both coun­tries were sig­na­to­ries, both owed their post-1919 exis­tence to Ver­sailles, both agreed to set­tle bor­der dis­putes peace­ably, as many coun­tries did between the World Wars.
    “Frisk­ing up at the side of the Ger­man tiger with yelp­ings not only of appetite—that can be understood—but even of tri­umph…” Churchill said that of Mus­soli­ni, but it applies as well to Col. Beck’s gov­ern­ment snatch­ing Czech vict­uals from the table in 1938, only to itself become the vict­uals less than a year lat­er. A line of Churchill’s in anoth­er con­text is appo­site in my opin­ion: They had a choice between war and shame; they chose shame, and got war into the bar­gain. This is no reflec­tion on the hero­ism of the Pol­ish peo­ple in a grim cen­tu­ry. Every­one makes mis­takes.

  2. In 1988 I was vis­it­ing Poland help­ing to deliv­er aid to the Catholic church there. We were advised to take dol­lars with us and to change them on the street, rather than in a bank. In War­saw my friend and I were approached by a local whom we assumed want­ed to change our dol­lars for zlot­tys. Instead, after ask­ing if we were British, he said “I would like to thank you for going to war for us in 1939.” It was remark­ably moving.

  3. The courage and char­ac­ter that Churchill pledged for Britain had already been demon­strat­ed by Poland. It was the first coun­try to expe­ri­ence the ter­ror of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, the first to fight back, the first to say — and mean — “We shall nev­er sur­ren­der.” Poland fell in Octo­ber 1939, but its gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary refused then, and refused for the rest of the war, to capit­u­late. In a remark­able odyssey, scores of thou­sands of Pol­ish pilots, sol­diers, and sailors escaped Poland — some on foot; some in cars, trucks, and bus­es; some in air­planes; some in ships and sub­marines. They made their var­i­ous ways first to France, thence to Britain to con­tin­ue the fight. For the first full year of the war, Poland, whose gov­ern­ment-in-exile oper­at­ed from Lon­don, was Britain’s most impor­tant declared ally. Sad­ly promis­es made by Churchill to the Poles could not or would not be kept. Of all of Britain’s allies in the ear­ly years of the war, the Poles have the most griev­ances for Churchill’s fail­ure to keep his promises.

    “There are few virtues the Poles do not pos­sess.” -WSC. The Pol­ish 303 Squadron, RAF, fly­ing Hawk­er Hur­ri­canes, claimed the largest num­ber of air­craft shot down in the Bat­tle of Britain, even though it joined the fray two months late. As for griev­ances there are also the Balts, as I remem­ber bicy­cling Latvia on VE-Day+50. When we said Churchill, they said Yal­ta. Still, ratio­nal con­sid­er­a­tion of cir­cum­stances is valu­able. -RML

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