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Why Poland’s Holocaust Bill Will Backfire

Efforts to protect the good name of Poland by criminalizing speech are backfiring. Rather than leading to more accurate statements about responsibility for the Holocaust, the draft amendment is having the opposite effect. The very statements that the bill is intended to ban and punish are being stated and restated across the globe in ever more extreme forms. The result is distortions of history on all sides.

A great source of pride in post-Communist Poland, especially after 2000, has been the open discussion of the most painful events in the history of Polish-Jewish relations during and after the Holocaust. Scholarly works based on extensive archival research have reached a broad public, sparked intense public debate, and inspired bold artistic works. Willingness to confront such traumatic events in scholarship and public forums is the mark of a mature democracy. The current bill is a step backwards.

Historical truth is not to be legislated and certainly not in the service of protecting the good name of any country. Such demands are bound to lead to distortions. Rather, the work of historians must proceed independently of political demands and ideology and be open to public debate.

The current bill arises from a series of false equivalences, explicit and implicit. What makes the words “Polish death camps” so toxic is the intimation that Germany and Poland (Polish Nation and Polish State) were both responsible for the Holocaust (“Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich”). When Jan Karski published an article entitled “Polish Death Camps” in Collier’s on October 14 1944, it was obvious then and for decades after that the phrase referred to German death camps in occupied Poland. In the article itself, Karski also referred to “Jewish death camps,” which were obviously death camps created and administered by the Germans for killing Jews. It is only recently, in the last fifteen years, that what was shorthand for the obvious has inflamed outrage at the intimation that Poland created these camps and by extension was responsible together with Germany for the Holocaust, which is also taken to diminish Germany’s responsibility for the genocide. Such distortions are patently false.

The voiceover for the official 1946 Polish newsreel covering the funeral of the murdered Jews states: “We cannot decline the responsibility for this crime, which cast a shadow on the good name of Poland…”

The oft repeated formulation “6 million Polish citizens were murdered, 3 million of them Jews” is also a false equivalence. This is not to diminish in any way the suffering of the Polish population during the brutal German occupation. However, this equivalence is misleading on several counts— absolute numbers, proportions, and policy. Before Poland was occupied in September 1939, the population of about 35 million included approximately 3.3 million Jews and 24 million ethnic Poles. The term “Polish citizens” includes not only Jews and ethnic Poles, but also Ukrainians, the largest minority, and Belarussians and Lithuanians, among others. How many Polish citizens, other than Jews, were murdered? The United States Memorial Museum of the Holocaust puts the number of non-Jewish Polish civilians who perished at around 1.9 million. Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance estimates the number of ethnic Poles who died at 2.7 million.

Absolute numbers aside, the larger issue is proportion. Up to 3 million Jewish deaths equals about 90 percent of the Jewish population, in other words, genocide in plan and implementation. The deaths of about 2.7 million ethnic Poles amounts to about 10 percent of the 24 million ethnic Polish population. To say that “We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews,” as Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo declared in defense of the amendment, is also a false equivalence. To be sure, the suffering of Poles under the brutal German occupation was worse than anywhere else in Europe, and millions were murdered, but the policies and circumstances for Jews were different, as was the outcome — the near total annihilation of Poland’s prewar Jewish population.

Szydlo went on to say that “It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland.” Such a statement would be uncontroversial in any country. The real question is the best way to work for the good name of one’s country. Does the historical policy of the Polish government today really serve this purpose well? It emphasizes Polish suffering and heroism during the Holocaust in the service of patriotism and national pride, and against the so called “pedagogy of shame,” for which it holds its predecessors responsible. In particular, the current government strongly opposes assigning collective guilt to the nation as a whole. But even acknowledging that individual Poles forced Jews into the barn and set it on fire was too much for the present Minister of Education, Anna Zalewska, who insisted that the verdict is still out on who committed the crimes, not only in Jedwabne but also in Kielce, despite historical consensus on the matter — Polish inhabitants.

Most recently the Polish ambassador to the United States, Piotr Wilczyk, wrote a letter to the editor at The New York Times on 2 February 2018 stating that “Individuals all throughout Europe — guided by coercion, fear, anti-Semitism, opportunism and greed — collaborated in one way or another with German occupiers and committed heinous acts, and in occupied Poland as well.” But Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated on the same day: “All the atrocities and all the victims, everything that happened during World War II on Polish soil, have to be attributed to Germany.” These statements show some differences even within the official narrative: yes, some Poles did commit heinous acts, but the final legal responsibility for anything that happened under German occupations rests on the occupying power; the Polish nation and its legal representative, the government-in-exile in London, bear no responsibility for the crimes. It fought against Nazi Germany from the first day of the war to the last. Moreover, only in occupied Poland and nowhere else in Europe was there a department within the underground state specifically to provide aid to Jews. Żegota was its code name. Notably, the Prime Minister made the statement to foreign reporters at the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II, located in the remote village of Markowa, about a five-hour drive from Warsaw.

An action against 6000 Jews in Plonsk, north-central Poland, circa 1942. Image by Getty Images

The choice of this remote museum for the press conference conforms with current historical policy, namely to promote the Polish Righteous, those exceptional individuals who risked their lives to save Jews, and to treat them as representative of Polish society. In a conversation with Jürgen Habermas in New Left Review in 1994, Adam Michnik referred to this way of thinking as the “triumphalism of innocence.” Historical research in the decades since Michnik’s remark shows that the scale and brutality of violence against Jews by segments of the Polish population were even greater than previously reported, especially in eastern Poland, and that many Poles who tried to save Jews faced hostility from their neighbors. According to current historical policy, such violence was exceptional — the evil deeds of a few bad actors — while efforts to save Jews were widespread. Both propositions lack solid evidence.

Compare what can and cannot be said today with what was said in Poland immediately after the Kielce pogrom in July 1946. The voiceover for the official Polish newsreel covering the funeral of the murdered Jews states: “We cannot decline the responsibility for this crime, which cast a shadow on the good name of Poland…’, while the Chief Rabbi Dr. Dawid Kahane declared in his funeral oration: “Priests of the Polish people! Polish intelligentsia! Polish people! Can you say with a clear conscience, after leaving here today, ‘Our hands have not shed innocent blood, our eyes have not seen this’? … Polish bishops, where was your pastoral letter about this? Were you not aware of the papal encyclicals definitively giving the lie to all the nonsense about ritual murder? Does the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ not apply to Jews?’” Visitors to POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews will hear these words in the postwar gallery of the core exhibition.

A Jewish man is forced to dig his own grave before his execution. Lodz, 1941. He is wearing a Star of David badge on his back. Image by Getty Images

“This law is not going to limit speech, not even one iota,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared at the press conference in Markowa. This statement is at odds with the amendment, which explicitly criminalizes speech that “claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich … or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes,” whether intentional or unintentional and by Polish and foreign citizens. Exempted are scholars and artists, who are allowed to commit such criminal acts “in the course of one’s artistic or academic activity,” a provision that makes no sense. Why are scholars and artists exempted but not journalists, public intellectuals, teachers, librarians, and museum directors? Are scholars safe when they publish in obscure academic journals, but not when they appear in the media, as many often do? The Polish Historical Association, the Polish Association for Jewish Studies, and Holocaust historians in particular have raised strong objections to the bill and asked the President not to sign it.

As for the facts, who will judge their accuracy and, equally important, their interpretation, given the rationale for this amendment, which is to defend the good name of Poland? Last but not least, the public has a right to open discussion of their history, all of it, the best and the worst. As Dariusz Stola, director of POLIN Museum, has so wisely stated, “We are not responsible for a past on which we had no influence. However, we are responsible for what we do about that past today. Above all, we owe the truth to the victims of past crimes, and the truth is fueled by an open and factual discussion.”

Participants of the annual ‘March of the Living’ are seen at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Brzezinka (Birkenau) near Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland, on May 5, 2016. Thousands of young Jews from 40 nations marched alongside a handful of Holocaust survivors and Polish teenagers in homage to the victims of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau WWII death camp in southern Poland. Image by Getty Images

The intended consequences of this amendment are to promote patriotism in Poland and raise Poland’s standing in the world. While the amendment reflects the platform that won PiS the election, it has backfired internationally and precipitated a diplomatic crisis with Israel and the United States. The very statements that the amendment is supposed to criminalize are being restated and amplified across the globe. The polarizing of positions is intensifying historical distortions. Israel accuses Poland unfairly of Holocaust denial, while Poland holds Germany fully responsible for what happened to Jews during the occupation. While it is inaccurate to hold the Polish State and Polish Nation responsible for the Holocaust, along with Germany, it is also inaccurate to overlook or underestimate the violence against Jews committed by segments of the Polish population. Historical accuracy in these regards in no way diminishes the suffering of the Polish population during the occupation and the heroism of those who risked their lives to save Jews.

The current crisis is not simply a result of poor timing, as Poland’s Prime Minister would have it — the amendment was announced on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The crisis is the result of an effort to legislate history in the service of patriotism at home and national reputation abroad. At issue is not only the content of the amendment, but also the principle of criminalizing speech regarding the fate of Jews in occupied Poland. Education is better than legislation for setting the record straight, but not if education must follow a misguided historical policy, and patriotism continues to embolden expressions of xenophobia. At the same time, many media outlets have voluntarily added to their style sheets the historically accurate way to refer to German death camps in occupied Poland.

Among the unintended consequences is precisely the public debate the amendment would forestall if passed into law. Statements of protest from the most respected quarters in Poland and internationally are not only defending unfettered freedom of inquiry and expression, but are also weighing in on the historical issues and warning of the dangers of polarization and the historical distortions that follow. It is small consolation that the proposed amendment is unenforceable. Whether the Polish and Israeli representatives currently in discussion can overcome the impasse, the damage is done. The good name of Poland has been tarnished. The whole world is watching, and history itself is on the docket.

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