Poland's New Government Looks to Rewrite Polish Role in the Holocaust

The new government's conservative line is trying to portray Poland as a victim of the Nazis, with, among others, a move by the justice minister seeking to make use of term 'Polish death camp' illegal.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Holocaust survivors walk through the main gate of the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 2016.
Holocaust survivors walking through the main gate of Auschwitz, January 2016. The UN now calls it Auschwitz-Birkenau: German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945).Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The new Polish government has presented a right-wing and conservative line from its very first day in office last October. Now it seems to be trying to reshape the collective memory concerning the country’s part in the Holocaust.

First, Polish President Andrzej Duda examined the possibility of revoking the medal given to Holocaust historian Jan Gross, who researched Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Then, on Saturday, Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro called for new regulations to punish the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” when referring to wartime Nazi concentration camps on Polish soil.

Thanks to a recent change in the constitution, Ziobro now enjoys sweeping powers as both justice minister and attorney general. He explained his rationale in a radio interview. “This will be a project that meets the expectations of Poles, who are blasphemed in the world, in Europe, even in Germany, that they are the Holocaust perpetrators, that in Poland there were Polish concentration camps, Polish gas chambers. Enough with this lie. There has to be responsibility,” he said.

The concentration camps built on Polish soil should be called “Nazi extermination camps” or at the very least “camps in occupied Poland,” to prevent linking Poland to the Nazi crimes committed there, Poles say. Before Auschwitz became the largest extermination factory for European Jews, it was a prison camp for Polish prisoners, they note. The United Nations officially changed its name for Auschwitz in 2007: It stopped calling it Auschwitz Concentration Camp in favor of Auschwitz Birkenau: German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945).

Ziobro’s initiative made the headlines back in 2013 when his Law and Justice Party was in parliament but not yet in government. His proposal included a five-year sentence for those who denied the Nazi role in the camps established in Poland, and the threat of punishment against foreign journalists who reported on such matters from Poland.

In May 2012, the issue made the headlines worldwide when U.S. President Barack Obama used the phrase “Polish death camp” at a ceremony bestowing a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Jan Karski – a hero of the Polish underground who provided some of the first information on the Nazi atrocities. The White House apologized as a result of the diplomatic incident.

Ziobro’s new plan is to pass legislation to punish those who make such misstatements as part of the new government policy, which is intended to preserve the “honor” of the Polish people, present Poland as a victim of the Nazis, and limit any mention of the crimes committed by Poles in the service of the Nazi regime.

Historians differ as to the Polish role in the Holocaust. Yad Vashem recognizes nearly 6,500 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations (the largest number of a country’s citizens accorded the honor of risking their lives to save Jews). Historians also speak of the destruction of Poland by the Germans and the murder of 3 million Poles (in addition to the 3 million murdered Jewish Poles) by the Nazis.

Protesters at an anti-government rally in Gdansk, January 2016. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, seen in the protest banner, is leading calls to make use of the term "Polish death camp" illegal.Credit: Reuters

On the other side stand the great number of Poles who participated in the persecution and murder of Jews, even without the encouragement of the German occupiers – before, during and also after the Holocaust.

Even before Ziobro spoke out, Duda confronted the previous president, Bronislaw Komorowski, on this issue last year. The point of contention was an apology Komorowski issued over the Polish role in the murder of Jews during the Shoah – in particular, the July 1941 massacre in Jedwabne, when 1,600 Jews were killed. Jan Gross exposed this pogrom in his acclaimed 2001 book “Neighbors,” which shocked the country with its descriptions of how Poles corralled and then locked their Jewish neighbors in a barn and set it alight.

Komorowski apologized and said bravely, “The nation of victims was also the nation of perpetrators.

“Difficult and painful episodes in our history must not be hidden,” he added. “Those who do not see them are closing their eyes before historical truth.” Duda was angered by Komorowski’s statements, calling them an “attempt to destroy Poland’s good name.”

Duda – also a member of the Law and Justice Party – won the presidential election in May 2015 and took office last August. Now he has decided to do something about the matter.

Last week, he told a television station that his office had received 2,000 letters asking him to withdraw the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit medal awarded to Gross in 1996. The award is given to foreigners or expatriate Poles who have rendered great service to the Polish nation. Gross received it for his opposition to the Communist regime in Poland. Duda is now awaiting the opinion of the Foreign Ministry on the matter.

Gross, 68, lives in the United States and is a professor of history at Princeton. Last week, a number of well-known Polish academics came out in his defense and published an open letter in Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. They wrote that Gross deserves not only thanks but honor due to the discussion he triggered over Poland’s past. They said they were shocked by the move to withdraw the medal, and that it was impossible to overestimate his contribution.

Such a step would be a sign of a threat to academic freedom in Poland and political interference in the freedom of expression, they noted. “Such a gesture would cast an unfavorable light upon the historical policy pursued by the current government and compromise Poland not only in its own eyes but in the eyes of international opinion,” they wrote.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, December 2015. Wants to strip Holocaust historian Jan Gross of his medal.Credit: AP

Jan Grabowski, a history professor at the University of Ottawa, was a signatary to the letter. In 2014, Grabowski won the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research for “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.” “The government says Gross is unpatriotic. But he is a patriot who looks at both the darker and lighter periods in Polish history,’’ says Grabowski.

Gross is considered controversial among the Polish right, with his work viewed as undermining Poland and damaging its international image. His opponents claim the discussion of Polish crimes during the Holocaust minimizes the other side of the coin: the thousands of Polish people who saved Jews.

Last year, Gross published an article that drew criticism in Poland. He attacked the attitude of Eastern European countries to the refugee crisis in Europe, saying its roots could be found in the treatment of Jewish refugees during World War II. The line that caused the greatest outrage was the one saying that Poles had killed more Jews (in pogroms, the murder of Jews who fled the ghettoes and turning over Jews to the Nazis) than Germans during the war.

President Reuven Rivlin is a great admirer of Gross. In 2014, speaking at the inauguration of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, he said “Neighbors” had “deeply stirred up the Polish historical awareness. That book has described in the most painful way the Jedwabne massacre; it woke up the Polish community and made it thoroughly explore its past.”

Rivlin certainly disagreed with the present Polish government in his speech. “It seems to me that Polish society becomes more and more courageous in confronting themselves on a day-by-day basis; in confronting its past and its future,” he said. “Only through this kind of courage shall we be able to write – and we have already started that process – a new, promising chapter of our mutual history which we have shared throughout centuries.”

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