Poland Needs to Leave the Holocaust History Writing to Actual Historians

The debate over 'who the Poles were in the Holocaust - victims of the Nazis, collaborators or killers' is a dangerous one when relegated to politicians

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A thick evening fog clouds the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau during ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the camp's liberation, January 27, 2018.
A thick evening fog clouds the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau during ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the camp's liberation, January 27, 2018.Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The basic mistake the Polish government committed in initiating the Holocaust-related bill that was approved by the lower house of the Polish parliament and awaits approval by the upper house is its improper and dangerous mix of politics, law and history. Poland’s right-wing nationalist government claims, in its defense, that it hadn’t been left with other tools to defend Poland’s “good name” from what it describes as lies, defamation and fake news when it comes to the country's Holocaust-era past that is being disseminated around the world.

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The Polish deputy justice minister even complained that a day doesn’t go by in which a media outlet doesn’t use the mistaken term “Polish extermination camps,” thereby attributing Nazi crimes committed in Poland by the Germans to the Polish people. One can understand the basic Polish frustration over the world’s forgiveness of Germany, the country that instigated the Holocaust, with Berlin becoming the global capital of multiculturalism and a prime tourist destination for the past two decades at a time when many still label the Poles as uneducated and uncultured anti-Semites. This is, of course, unfair.

Yet still, choosing to draft a law in Poland that criminalizes those who express positions uncomfortable to Polish ears, including threatening jail time, for saying that some Poles were guilty of persecuting Jews, is embarrassing, astounding and outrageous. It is embarrassing because it is evidence of a hysteria in keeping with a fascist regime rather than the reasoned and more thoughtful approach at the foundation of a democratic government. It is astounding because it is clear to everyone that ultimately it will achieve the opposite result. The global public debate on Polish involvement in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust will only grow, which runs counter to the interest of the Polish government.

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It is outrageous because it is based on ignorance and deafness in the best of cases or a crude lie in the worst. All of the cards need to be put on the table. Like most European countries during World War II, there were various people in Poland, which had been occupied by Nazi Germany, who chose to act differently. Some, including the 6,700 Polish righteous gentiles recognized by Yad Vashem in Israel, risked their lives and sometimes paid with them to save Jews during the Holocaust, whether by hiding Jews in their homes, smuggling food or helping Jews flee the grasp of the Nazis.

The Polish government is correct in claiming more should be done in praise of these people, telling their stories and according them the honor that they deserve. There are very probably many more like them who have never been officially recognized for various reasons and the time has come to highlight their deeds.

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The Polish government is also correct in claiming that more can and should be said about the Poles who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis and about those who fought the Nazis. But there were other Poles, and their numbers are a matter of dispute among historians, who conducted themselves otherwise. They hunted down and turned in Jews to the Germans or murdered them by themselves. There is no lack of testimony of this, in books and articles and in the diaries and memoirs of many thousands of families that immigrated to Israel from Poland.

The fact that there were Poles who persecuted Jews – for ideological, financial or material reasons – and thereby contributed to the Nazis’ crimes, is in its nature an established historical truth that is not subject to dispute. In practice, both past Polish governments and several senior officials from the present Polish government have acknowledged this and some have apologized for it.

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The question that remained was one of interpretation or more precisely the scope of the phenomenon. But the important, sensitive and complex discussion over “who the Poles were in the Holocaust  -- victims of the Nazis, collaborators or killers” needs to be left to those with the tools to consider the subject, in other words, the historians. It is possible that there isn’t an unequivocal answer to the question, since for the Jew who was hidden in the barn of his Polish neighbor, the Poles were angels, while another Jew who was slaughtered in another nearby barn by other Poles, they would be justifiably seen as human beasts.

This discussion must not be relegated to politicians with a personal interest of one kind or another and clearly no ban must be allowed to neutralize the discussion via threatening those engaged in the discussion with prison. At the same time, the Israeli government would do well to roundly and sharply condemn this trend and even threaten sanctions of its own on the Polish government before it’s too late.

At this time, many may ignore the law and relate to it as just another caprice of a nationalist governing party designed for domestic consumption. That, however, would be a dangerous mistake. The Polish law does in fact provide an exception for academics and artists, but the day on which a counselor accompanying a Holocaust history trip to Poland for Israeli young people is arrested for telling the students about the pogrom in the Polish village of Jedwabne in 1941; the day on which the first Israeli journalist is detained for questioning for writing an article critical of the behavior of “the Polish nation” during the Holocaust; the day on which criminal proceedings are opened against a woman whose father survived the Holocaust only to be murdered in 1946 on Polish soil by Poles, it will already be too late.

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