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The danger in Poland’s frontal attack on its Holocaust history

New legislation threatening prison time for anyone who talks about Poland’s complicity with the Nazi’s is just the latest dark turn in the country


 
A man walks on the railway tracks in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

A man walks on the railway tracks in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Poland gave power to a right-wing, nationalistic and populist party, called Law and Justice. The ensuing changes on the political scene were nothing short of dramatic—and deeply troubling. Those who thought that the constitution was the supreme law of the land, were in for a nasty surprise: the new Polish government, with the help of the president, immediately started to dismantle and muzzle the Constitutional Court (an equivalent to the Canadian Supreme Court), the only remaining obstacle to its complete control of the state. The court is now paralyzed, and its most important verdicts are simply ignored by the authorities.

Elsewhere, the journalists of the state radio and television have been purged and those less sympathetic to the new regime were fired. Not surprisingly, the European Parliament took a dim view of the dismantling of democracy in one of its member states and repeatedly expressed its deep and growing concern over the situation in Poland.

However, the departure from democratic practices also goes hand in hand with a frontal attack on Polish history. “Who controls the present, controls the past,” wrote George Orwell, and the Polish authorities seem to have taken Orwell’s words to heart.

Earlier this month Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish minister of justice, introduced new legislation intended to “defend the good name of the Polish nation.” The new set of laws, already approved by the cabinet, would impose prison terms of up to three years on people “who publicly and against the facts, accuse the Polish nation, or the Polish state, [of being] responsible or complicit in Nazi crimes committed by the III German Reich.” In the governmental narrative, the recently approved law is a penalty for those who talk about the “Polish death camps” of the Second World War. In reality, however, the new law, with its ambiguous and imprecise wording, is meant to freeze any debates which might be incompatible with the official, feel-good, version of the country’s own national past.

This “feel good” narrative, which the new Polish authorities espouse, is, however, based on historical lies and revisionism masquerading as a defence of “the good name of the Polish nation.” Just a few weeks ago Anna Zalewska, the Polish minister of  education, declared herself unable to identify the perpetrators of the notorious 1946 Kielce pogrom. It is a matter of very public record that in 1946, in Kielce, in the center of Poland, one year after the end of the war, an enraged mob, incited by tales of blood libel, murdered close to 50 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust; women, men and children. Unfortunately, the minister was unable to admit that much. “Historians have to study the issue further,” she said, before finally declaring “it was perhaps anti-Semites.”

Her words were echoed Jaroslaw Szarek, the new chief of the Institute of National Remembrance, a state institution that aspires to be the guardian and custodian of Poland’s national memory. He flatly denied Polish involvement in, and responsibility for, the communal genocide in Jedwabne in 1941. Again, it is a matter of historical record that in July 1941 Polish citizens of Jedwabne herded hundreds of their Jewish neighbours into a barn and then set the barn on fire, burning their neighbours alive. The new law will, quite likely, make further debates surrounding these unpleasant events unlikely.

It so happens that the list of “unpleasant” historical themes, which could soon become a topic of interest to the police and to state prosecutors, is long. For instance, in the face of the new legislation, historians who argue that certain segments of Polish society were complicit in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours in the Second World War will now think twice before voicing their opinion. What about those who would like to study the phenomenon of blackmailing of the Jews, known in Polish as shmaltsovnitstvo? What about those who would like to talk about the role of the Polish “blue” police who collaborated with the Germans in the extermination of the Polish Jewry? What about those who want to shed light on the deadly actions of the Polish voluntary firefighters involved in the destruction of Jewish communities? Or on the involvement of so-called “bystanders,” who might have been much more involved in the German policies of extermination than had previously been thought?

Those are but a few of the who questions that have not yet been tackled by historians. Now, it’s the minister of justice and his prosecutors will probably decide what is a historical fact and what is not.

In the light of the clear message sent by the authorities, the new law, which should be adopted by the Polish parliament any day now, becomes a clear and present threat to the liberty of public and scholarly discussions. It is also a dramatic departure from the democratic principles and standards which govern the laws of other members of the European Union. Finally, introducing prison terms for people who dare to tackle some of the most difficult questions of the country’s past puts Poland right next to Turkey, infamous for its laws against “slandering of Turkish identity,” which is a code word for denying the Turkish responsibility for the Armenian genocide.

Unfortunately for Polish authorities—and fortunately for those involved in the study of the past—the history of the Holocaust, which is at stake here, is not the property of the Polish government. The history of the destruction of the European Jewry is, actually, the only universal part of the national history of Poland, one which resonates in the minds and hearts of people around the world. Any attempt to muzzle debate and to stifle academic research into the various aspects of the history of the Shoah can, should and, hopefully, will be seen as a form of Holocaust distortion, or Holocaust denial—something to be vigorously protested by the international community.

Jan Grabowski is a professor of history at the University of Ottawa and the 2016-17 Ina Levine Senior Invitational Scholar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. His last book, Hunt for the Jews, was awarded the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research.


 

The danger in Poland’s frontal attack on its Holocaust history

  1. So much death…..and over a religious belief

    • Mr. Mochnacki, although I am impressed by your analysis, I don’t think that we can paint a picture of the new government in Poland as actively supporting anti-Semitism. The current president, as far as I have read, has re-affirmed the 2011 apology of his predecessor for Jedwabne and has voiced his support for both Jewish people in Poland and the notion that Polish and Jewish history are intertwined. As far as Mr. Kaczynski goes, true — he may have few screws loose — but he’s not in a position of real power is he? He is only the party chairman. Some other Polish ministers, mentioned in this article, may appear to be acting in a way that attempts to absolve Poland of any past wrongs its citizens committed, but really I think they are just incredibly insecure and protective, being worried that their emerging country might earn a negative impression abroad. Likely, nobody will be charged with saying the words “Poland” and “concentration camp” in the same sentence — that would abrogate free speech, which is enshrined in the Polish Constitution. I will concede, however, that there is a problem in some segments of Polish society, as well as in European culture in general, with anti-Jewish bias. That’s evidenced not only by the rhetoric I hear from my extended Polish family members, from my own observations of directly racist comments by some educated professional Poles, and by the reactionary tone and vitriolic comments of some Poles to this article (see below) (eg. “…they will get what they deserve”, etc.). Nevertheless, implying that there is an anti-Semitic sickness in a country where, in general, human rights regarding freedom of religion, speech and way of life are championed is a bit excessive here. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how it turns out over the next few months. Has the law actually been passed yet?

  2. It is not “a religious belief”. Attitudes toward Jews in Central and Eastern Europe are founded on race, not on religion. Anti-semitism is a sickness buried deep in the culture of Europe, perhaps rooted in the centuries-old rivalry between impoverished members of indigenous or colonial land-owning classes finding it hard to begin to compete commercially with the inhabitants of towns, often with large Jewish populations already dominating commerce. The Papal strictures against interest (i.e. “usury”) in the Middle Ages led to the Jews providing an essential service which Christians could not: to lend money. This, and a genius for surviving as a race and culture, put the Jews in an envied situation. In fact, European culture is fearful of any group which can organize for the benefit of the group and its members, or which is seen to potentially challenge the existing order (e.g. Masons, various religious orders and sects). Polish culture derives heavily from its large class of gentry (“slachta”) and from its very large class of peasants (“chłopi”), and both of these were either in competition with, or antagonistic to, the Jews. Somewhat similar caste divisions can be found in India, for example. There is a perception in Poland that after World War II, a large fraction of the Soviet-imposed Communist apparatus of oppression was Jewish, although the Communist Party was in fact at times very anti-semitic. Although there was a concerted effort over many years to reduce anti-semitism, including efforts by the late President Lech Kaczynski, the present regime of Jaroslaw Kaczynski wants no opposition to its right, and is therefore absorbing all of the nationalist (and very anti-semitic) movements. It actually is carrying out a social revolution, aiming to entirely replace the national elite with its own followers. That all-encompassing Right contains a lot of nasty movements and history, and the Centre and Left seem totally unable to offer meaningful opposition, despite big marches and a lot of noise. There are some similarities to what Stephen Harper tried to do in Canada, but in Poland the structures of state and civil society are much, much weaker (except for the Church, which treats Pope Francis with polite disdain), and there is no Justin Trudeau to offer an acceptable alternative which people can vote into power.

  3. In my opinion, as a Pole, Jewish historians are reaching a blind alley. The truth is that the Poles will respond, and they will be right. It is easy to make an argument that the Jews were also accessories to the Nazi extermination campaign against Christian Poles.
    Take for example, the case of Jewish agents paid by Gestapo who worked both inside and outside the ghetto. These Jews sought their fellow Jews in hiding but they also denounced the Christian Poles hiding Jews and denounced Christian Polish resistance fighters. This means that these Jews were part of the German extermination machine. This is just one example, but one could come out with a multitude of cases where Jews helped to murder Poles under the German population. And this is only the case concerning the German occupation, when it comes to Jews in high positions responsible for mass extermination campaigns in the Soviet Union that is another matter. Even Putin recognised that the first Soviet government were mostly (80%) Jewish. He said that when talking to the Jewish community leaders in Russia.
    The Jews must understand that the time when Poland was an isolated communist country are gone. Now, the Poles can argue, speak and write in English. If the Jews are going to present a one-sided story as they have done for the last 40 years, they will get what they deserve. The truth will come out and it will not be pleasant for the Jewish soul.

    • The Germans could not have achieved so much of their genocidal blueprint without the complicity of Jews in the annihilation of their own people. Much is made of the relatively small number of collaborators among Poles (who were usually motivated by avarice, not racism), but there is a glaring paucity of discussion about the role of Jews, e.g. the Jewish Ghetto Police, Kapos, Judenrat, Ghetto Kings, Zagiew, Group 13, Hotel Polski and others. In postwar Poland, Jews comprised a highly disproportionate number in the terror apparatus which, ironically, hunted, humiliated, imprisoned, tortured, exiled and killed the very Poles who had fought against the Germans. It is not Poland that is whitewashing history.

  4. Another day, another yappy leftist hippie article about Jews. Jews, Jews, Jews…. they sure love to talk about that insignificant group of people known as the Jews. Why is it that we don’t see any on the ground articles based in reality from Israel? No mention of Jews air-striking Palestinian hospitals, schools, and killing regular Palestinian suspects in broad daylight in the middle of busy streets? Nothing about that? Shocking. Only yappy leftist articles trying to portray Jews as harmed, defenseless people who are only harmed by the world and it’s inhabitants. Do you ever get tired of this garbage? Do you think that this hippie leftist delusional pile works? Poland doesn’t care! Deal with it! They might not even care that the Jews got gassed but guess what.. you’re gonna have to DEAL WITH THAT TOO! Why? Because Poland is Polish and not Jewish, and Poland has moved on and does not care about the holocaust anymore.. why? Because Poland is too busy living and succeeding in the present day 2016.. oh, yea, you must have thought it was still 1939. There are skyscrapers going up in Poland and you’re still spitting wax poetic about the holocaust. You’re laughable.

  5. Is this article for real??? Can someone explain me how comes Blue Police is called Polish if it was 100% subordinate to Nazi Germany, the country Poland was in the state of war with? Created in December 1939 by the occupier, of former Polish policemen forced under death penalty to serve Germans? How comes any of these administrative units are called Polish if none was approved by the Polish Government in exile? And where is Poland complicity here?

    I can’t believe someone would have nerve write such a thing. I think prof. Grabowski will slip on this one.

    • The so-called Polish Blue Police were about as popular among the Polish population as the Jewish Ghetto Police were among Jews. In fairness, the Blue Police, many of whom were pre-war police kept on by the Germans to maintain civil order, were often informers for the resistance and shared valuable intelligence. On the other hand, Jewish Ghetto Police were known to herd their own families onto trains bound for death camps.

      • Blue Police and Ghetto police were both units consisting of Polish citizens (Poles and Jews) forced to work for the Nazi regime. These people were victims – their refusal would result in death penalty on them and their families. None of these units belonged to the Polish administration which was operating entirely underground. I oppose attacking these people. I think our efforts should be rather directed at people who spread evil historical lies against Poland.

  6. Are Jewish historians going to deal with the genocidal massacre at Koniuchy where Jewish Soviet partisans murdered the Christian Poles, men, women and children in January 1944?

    • No Avata. Wouldn’t that be Politically Incorrect?

      Those killed at Koniuchy, along with the millions killed by Stalin, have no political weight.

      Or, as George Orwell might have put it, “All victims are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

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