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Clarifying the numbers

June 06, 2004

To the Editor:

Your review of "Contested Memories" ["Poles and Jews: Troubled History," Jan. 18] contained so much misinformation one doesn't know where to start. But the statement that "95% of ethnic Poles ... survived the war" is plain wrong.

So, too, is the false assertion that your reviewer's figures are accepted "by all historians."

Official estimates for wartime deaths among Poland's multinational population mention 3 million Jews and slightly more than 3 million Poles. This means that the total numbers of Jewish and Polish victims were similar, although the dead constituted about 97% of the Jewish community and, (since Poles made up only two-thirds of Poland's prewar population) about 17% of the Polish community. It also means that Polish survivors represented 83% of the prewar total, not 95%.

Teodar Polak

Chairman, Polish American Defense Committee

Los Angeles

Abraham Brumberg replies:

My objective was to show that the number of Jewish victims, in absolute and in relative terms, cannot be compared with the number of Polish victims. I did not imply that the two figures can be equated nor that Polish losses were not enormous. They certainly were.

In his magisterial work "The Spring Will Be Ours," the Warsaw historian Andrzej Paczkowski notes that Poland lost more than 6 million of its citizens during the war, half of them Jews. Since the Jewish population in prewar Poland came to slightly more than 3 million, these figures speak for themselves. Let no one say that Poles did not suffer: They did, horribly. In fact as a country, Poland was more devastated than any other, with the exception of Ukraine. But the fate of the Jews was much grimmer: All of them were slated for death, and the vast majority of Polish Jews were exterminated. This may be an unlovely way of putting it, but it is true.

Witold J. Lukaszewski's 1998 article in the Sarmatian Review (a scholarly journal on issues relating to Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland) offers slightly different figures, but essentially they agree with those used by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Lukaszewski says that the population of the Polish lands was reduced during the war by about 6.5 million. Three million of those were Jews, more than 600,000 were battlefield casualties, their ethnicity uncertain. The Nazis killed about 2 million Polish Catholics. More than 1 million Polish citizens died in the Soviet Union as a result of deportations. (Lukaszewski does not mention that of those, some 200,000 were Jews.)

Lukaszewski's figures thus dispute the common Polish claim that 3 million ethnic Poles who perished did so at the hands of the Nazis. According to New York University professor David Engel, there were about 23.5 million ethnic Poles in Poland on the eve of World War II out of a population of 35 million. Using that figure, Germans killed about 8.5% of the ethnic Polish population. If, however, you count only the 18 million to 19 million ethnic Poles in just those territories occupied by Germany before June 1941, then 10% to 11% of ethnic Poles were killed by Germans. The other deaths occurred in the Soviet Union or on the battlefield.

This is not comparable to the percentage losses of Jews, but it does not justify my claim that 95% of ethnic Poles survived the war. I regret that I had originally not made some of these distinctions.

To the Editor:

Honest criticism is an author's elixir, but Eric Foner's review of my book "Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828" ["America, Land of the Hustle," May 23] was poisonous. Foner is wrong to say I "rejected" all other themes in favor of depicting Americans as "hustlers." I in fact write that "one of the major themes" turned out to be hustling, while the book pays ample attention to other themes including technology (as Foner himself grants) and religion (which he ignores).

Foner is wrong to say I have a "single-minded preoccupation with hustling" since, by his own admission, the narrative is "nuanced and complex." Foner is wrong to claim that my notion of the American Revolution as transforming "sits uneasily" with the hustler theme. There is no contradiction between them, as my interpretations of the origins and effects of the revolution clearly explain.

Foner is wrong to say I ignore the suffering caused by the rise of capitalism in England (see pp. 20-24). Foner is wrong to suggest I give slavery short shrift. The book adumbrates the (sparse) literature that exists on colonial slavery, describes the rise of the Cotton Kingdom at length and accords white Americans' "conspiracy of silence" over the institution a central place in U.S. political history. Nor do I ignore what Foner calls "the symbiotic relationship between liberty and slavery," albeit I shall say much more about it in Volume 2.

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