Opinion | To Coin a Crime

A push to commemorate a World War II era killer is part of a larger Polish propaganda campaign.
By | Jul 13, 2023

Is killing Jews “the right thing” to do? The Polish government seems to believe it is. It has issued a special commemorative coin honoring the memory of World War II partisan Józef Kuraé “Ogieé,” commander of a resistance unit that is documented in court testimony to have killed 13 Jewish survivors fleeing Poland in 1946.

The coin, part of a series honoring the memory of Poland’s anti-Communist fighters, is inscribed with the words “Zachowali siçjak trzeba,” which can be translated as “They did the right thing” or “They acted as they should,” taken from a letter sent by 17-year-old partisan nurse Danuta Siedzikówna from jail, shortly before her execution at the hands of the Communist secret police: “Tell Grandma that I did the right thing.”

These words have become the motto of a major government-sponsored educational campaign promoting anti-Communist resistance fighters during World War II—known as the “Accursed Soldiers”—as models to emulate. Though they’d resisted the Nazis, in postwar Communist Poland these fighters were disavowed, hunted down by police, jailed or executed, and condemned to oblivion.

But many of these resistance units, it turned out, had also murdered ethnic minorities. The issuing of this particular coin was met with a protest letter organized by the POLIN Jewish Museum in Warsaw and signed by many people active in Polish-Jewish relations.

The campaign to commemorate the “Accursed Soldiers” is a major element of the “historical policy” endorsed by the
right-wing government that took power in Poland in 2015 and is campaigning for reelection this fall. The government is mobilizing its supporters through a medley of patriotism, homo- and xenophobia, and the very real fear of Russia waging war next door. Any criticism of Polish nationalism, past or present, is portrayed as pro-Russian treason, supported by an allegedly lily-livered European Union. Under these circumstances, the Accursed are political gold.

Kuraé had certainly been one of the Accursed, and his biography embodies the contradictions they faced. Originally a fighter in the anti-German resistance, after the liberation he joined the Communist Polish police, grew disillusioned with the regime, rejoined the underground—and sent his soldiers on a killing spree. They killed Slovak villagers for alleged previous support of the Nazis, Jewish survivors for alleged support of the Communists, and some Poles.

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On May 2, 1946, near the Czechoslovak border, his soldiers robbed and murdered 13 of a group of 26 Jews fleeing Poland. The victims included the group’s leader, 27-year-old Jakub Finkelsztajn; the Galler family, 11-year-old Josef, 14-year-old Rena and their parents, all survivors of Bergen-Belsen; and the Binjuéski, Holland and Wygoda families, all parents with children. “After I issued the order, everybody shot the above-mentioned citizens of the Jewish nationality,” testified squad leader Jan Batkiewicz “Émigły” at his trial.

The campaign to rehabilitate the Accursed is part of a wider propaganda drive whose goal is to produce an entirely positive image of recent Polish history. It started with the passing in 2018 of the “Holocaust law” that made it a felony, punishable with up to three years in jail, to allege that “the Polish Nation…was responsible or co-responsible for the Nazi war crimes of the German Third Reich in World War II.” Though this particular article was eventually dropped after international outrage, its freezing effect has been substantial. A number of local educational and journalistic investigations into Polish participation in killing Jews during World War II were curtailed or canceled.

At the same time, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki maintained, during a visit to New York in 2018, that all the 300,000 Polish Jewish survivors had lived “because they had met a Pole.”

In reality, 250,000 of them survived in the Soviet Union, while for the rest, meeting Poles was problematic. It could mean salvation—a full one-fourth of all the “righteous among the nations” recognized by Yad Vashem were Polish—or death. The research of Polish historians Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking showed that Poles had either denounced or murdered outright at least 65,000 Polish Jews attempting to hide from the Germans.

Warsaw also rejects all demands for the restitution of individual Jews’ property; Poland is the only EU country that has not passed a private property restitution law. A recent Polish law makes it impossible to challenge administrative
decisions—which includes most decisions regarding Jewish properties—after 30 years. The government also objects to the organized visits by Israeli youth to Poland, claiming that their curriculum distorts history.

The Józef Kuraé commemorative coin was issued barely a month before the state officially observed the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Some of Kuraé’s victims were survivors of that ghetto. The message is clear, if probably unintentional: Killing Jews is wrong if committed by German occupiers. If committed by Polish patriots—not necessarily so.

Konstanty Gebert is a journalist and author in Warsaw, Poland. 

Opening picture: The Józef Kuraó commemorative coin. 

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