by: Abigail Gilbert, BFP Staff Writer
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”—Elie Wiesel
In January 2018, Poland passed a controversial bill making it a crime to blame Poland for the atrocities of the Holocaust. The bill, proposed by the country’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), calls for up to three years in prison or a fine for accusing the Polish state or people of responsibility for the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. While heated debate over the law raised legitimate concerns held by the Polish people, it also uncovered an ugly undercurrent of anti-Semitism within the small country.
Poles have for decades been rightly offended by the term “Polish Death Camps,” a misleading phrase that places responsibility for the crimes of Nazi Germany on the shoulders of Poland. Proponents of the bill point out that while three million Polish Jews were killed in death camps in Poland, 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians also lost their lives, many dying in the 1940 AB-Aktion operation, when the Germans shot thousands of teachers, priests and other intellectuals in mass killings in and around Warsaw.
Israel and Germany have both come forward to denounce the term “Polish Death Camps,” calling it a “misrepresentation” of what happened in the war-torn country during the Nazi occupation. They recognize that many of the “Righteous Among the Nations” were Poles who sacrificed to fight back against the evil happening in their own backyard.
The new legislation, however, doesn’t simply target the phrase “Polish Death Camps.” It broadly condemns holding the Polish people responsible for crimes committed against the Jews, a move that world leaders and Jewish voices around the globe say risks whitewashing the true history of the Jews in Poland. While there was a resistance to the Nazi invasion and brave acts of heroism from some Polish people, there was also a significant amount of “turning a blind eye” and in some cases, as documented by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, communities helped the Germans hunt down and kill Jews.
While it’s true that the Polish people suffered bitterly under the Nazi occupation, the new Holocaust law (which insultingly went into effect on Holocaust Remembrance Day) seeks to rewrite a harsh truth about pre-war Poland: anti-Semitism was not just existent—it was on the rise.
Between 1935 and 1937 in Poland, there were anti-Jewish riots, unofficial quotas limiting the number of Jews in Polish universities (20.4% of the student body in 1928; 7.5% in 1937) and “ghetto benches” separating Jewish children from their peers. Even well-educated Jews were excluded from most government positions, and when they turned to medicine and law, Catholic trade unions formed to ensure “Christian Poles” filled those roles. In fact, by the start of the Second World War, anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland had reached its zenith. Thousands of Jews were killed and injured in anti-Jewish incidents. Their homes and businesses were looted. Laws were established to prevent the kosher (according to the requirements of Jewish law) slaughter of animals and the government encouraged people to boycott Jewish businesses.
The current Polish government is unwilling to speak about these atrocities. The controversial 1941 Jedwabne Massacre, when hundreds of Jews were rounded up into a barn and burned alive, is just such an example. Recent research, including that done by Polish scholar Jan T. Gross, reveals that Polish villagers participated in rounding up and murdering their neighbors, yet in 2016 the country’s Education Minister Anna Zalewska suggested that the Jedwabne murders by Poles were “opinion” rather than fact.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Moraweicki, who signed the new Holocaust bill into law, said worldwide concern about the possibility for rewriting history through the new law is actually a case of anti-Polish racism, implying in an interview that there were as many “Jewish collaborators” in the Holocaust as Poles. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that the remarks came from “an inability to understand history and a lack of sensitivity to the tragedy of our people.”
As historian Eva Hoffman explains, between 1939 and 1945, Poland was the epicenter of several violent upheavals: the Soviet invasion, Nazi conquest, extermination of the Polish Jews, loss of eastern territories and deportation of Polish citizens to the West. In the decades following the Cold War, Polish historians unearthed sobering evidence of long-held anti-Semitism and accounts from prominent Polish heroes like Jan Karski (a fighter in the Polish underground who tried to tell the world about the death camps), who testified about the prevalent anti-Jewish sentiment in his own country. In many ways, the new Holocaust law is the right-wing pushback against this unsettling spotlight. The rhetoric of those defending the law is full of grievance—a sense that the wider world doesn’t truly understand the suffering of the Polish people, and that the Holocaust is giving Poland a bad name.
Debate over the new law revealed a virulent strain of anti-Semitism among the supporters and leaders of the PiS, so much so that Polish Jews say they’re beginning to feel unsafe. Prominent TV and radio interviews featured commentators joking about the gas chambers and using slurs to refer to Jews. A well-known religious figure said Jews “had a different notion of truth,” and the president’s top advisor said Jewish concerns over the law came from a “feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust.” The Jewish community in Poland has faced vandalism and threats in the past few months.
What could have been a legitimate discussion about the tragedy faced by Poles and Jews alike during the Second World War has been warped by debate over the new Holocaust law, showing the dangerous undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Poland and leaving local Jews afraid that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
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