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Collaboration and Complicity during the Holocaust

One sentence in a speech by FBI Director James Comey at the Museum’s annual dinner on April 15 has triggered a wide-ranging debate about complicity in Poland and Hungary during the Holocaust. Although scholarship continues to illuminate these important questions, much has been clarified in the past 70 years of research.

During World War II, Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered six million Jews as the Germans sought the domination of Europe and the destruction of European Jewry. As the war proceeded and Germany occupied or allied with almost every European state, it depended on other governments at the national level as well as organizations and individuals at the local level to help carry out what it called “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”

Although there was some level of resistance to Nazi Germany in many countries, it was rarely directed at helping Jews. And although some individuals risked their lives to save Jews, they constituted a very small minority. The Germans were relentless in pursuing their goal, but without widespread collaboration the murder of six million Jews and millions of others in just four years would not have been possible.

Poland

Prior to World War II, antisemitism in Poland had been growing, and Polish authorities had taken various measures to exclude Jews from key sectors of society. Some Polish politicians pressed for the mass emigration of Poland’s Jewish population.

Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the country was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. Then in 1941, after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, all of Poland came under German control. 

Poland was brutally occupied by the Germans. The Nazis viewed Poles as racially inferior and targeted Poland’s leadership for destruction, killing tens of thousands of Catholic priests, intellectuals, teachers, and political leaders. Over 1.5 million Poles were deported as forced laborers. In total, at least 2.5 million non-Jewish Polish civilians and soldiers perished.

With the occupation of all of Poland, Germany now had more than three million Polish Jews under its control. The Germans established close to 700 ghettos throughout occupied Poland where tens of thousands of Jews died due to harsh conditions of starvation, overcrowding, and disease. 

After killing in mass shootings almost 1.5 million Jews in hundreds of locations in occupied Soviet territories, the Germans decided to construct stationary killing centers in occupied Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau being the most well known. The ghettos became “holding pens” for Jews before deportation to a killing center.

As German forces implemented the killing, they drew upon some Polish agencies, such as Polish police forces and railroad personnel, in the guarding of ghettos and the deportation of Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often helped in the identification, denunciation, and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from the associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.

There were incidents, particularly in the small towns of eastern Poland, where local Polish residents—acutely aware of the Germans’ presence and their antisemitic policies—carried out or participated in pogroms and murdered their Jewish neighbors. The pogrom in the town of Jedwabne in 1941 is one of the best-documented cases.   

The Polish Government in Exile based in London sponsored resistance to the German occupation, including some to help Jews. For example, Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews, saved a few thousand Jews, even though helping a Jew in occupied Poland was punishable by death. Yad Vashem has identified more rescuers from Poland than any other country—6,532. 

By the end of the war, three million Polish Jews—90 percent of the prewar population—had been murdered, one of the highest percentages in Europe. 

Hungary

Unlike Poland, which was under German rule, Hungary was a willing ally of Nazi Germany.  Hungary adopted antisemitic legislation emulating Germany’s Nuremberg Laws beginning in 1938. With its entry into the war in 1941, Hungary sent 100,000 Jewish men to forced labor, where 40,000 died. That same year, the Hungarian government deported at least 15,000 Jews to German-occupied Ukraine, where they were murdered.

Although Hungary was initially resistant to mass deportations of its Jews, in early 1944 it agreed to do so. After the Germans occupied the country in March 1944, they sent a small SS detachment led by Adolf Eichmann to Budapest to work with a newly appointed prime minister and a more cooperative government. With the approval of Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian head of state, the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior, police, gendarmerie, and local civilian administrators carried out the deportations. In a matter of weeks, from May to early July, they forced 440,000 Jews into ghettos, stripped them of their possessions, and loaded them into trains. Some 425,000 were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. More than three-quarters of them were gassed on arrival, and additional tens of thousands died from disease, starvation, and harsh treatment.   

Yad Vashem recognizes 823 Hungarian rescuers, who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. 

In the end, nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered out of a population of over 800,000; almost 75 percent of the Jewish community had been killed.  

The Destruction of European Jewry

To carry out the “Final Solution” across an entire continent, the Germans required the collaboration and complicity of many individuals in every country, from leaders, public officials, police, and soldiers to ordinary citizens. In every country locals participated in a variety of ways—as clerks, cooks, and confiscators of property; as managers or participants in roundups and deportations; as informants; sometimes as perpetrators of violence against Jews on their own initiative; and sometimes as hands-on murderers in killing operations.  

Many collaborators were motivated by antisemitism, which had permeated Europe over the centuries and was now actively encouraged by the Nazis and their collaborators. Other motivations included greed, personal advancement, fear, resentment, and peer approval. Regardless of motivation, by the time the Allies liberated German-dominated Europe in the spring of 1945, two out of every three European Jews had been killed.

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