There is a particular irony in the timing of the new Polish law criminalizing any mention of the participation of the “Polish nation” in the crimes of the Holocaust. On January 27, 1945, when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the full scope of the horrors its soldiers discovered were deliberately suppressed on the Kremlin’s orders. Besides a cursory report in Pravda, there was scant mention of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of death and concentration camps.
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Joseph Stalin was still struggling with his fellow Allied leaders over the future of Poland, which he demanded would come under Moscow’s rule, via communist puppets. The only narrative Stalin was prepared to see was one in which the Soviet Union had been Hitler’s victim and the brave soldiers of the Red Army had fought back, until victory was declared on the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin.
Polish, and Jewish, suffering was to have no part in the Soviet narrative. Not least because Stalin had shared in the dismemberment of Poland in 1939, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the Soviets had signed with Nazi Germany. Poland was to be airbrushed from the history of the Great Patriotic War, which Russian children were to be taught began only in June 1941, long after Poland had ceased to exist.
Stalin set the template for the commemoration of the war’s victims: They weren’t Jews or Poles or any other specific nationality or ethnicity; all were “victims of fascism.”
The story of Auschwitz was to come out only gradually, through the stories of survivors who had arrived in the West. At the memorial site built at the camp, it would take decades before the fact that 90 percent of its victims had been Jewish was even acknowledged.
With the new law passed Friday by the Polish parliament, history has come full circle. Seventy-three years since Stalin tried to suppress the story of Auschwitz and deny Polish suffering, it is now the nationalist majority in Polish politics that is trying to enforce historic revisionism and hide the fact that the Polish nation included both victims and collaborators – and that, often, Polish Jews were killed by their neighbors before even seeing a German soldier, or after surviving the camps. The victims of the whitewashing of history are now the perpetrators.
Of course, Stalin wasn’t the only leader to try to ignore the Holocaust. He wasn’t even the first. During World War II, the Roosevelt administration tried to do so, partly out of fear that the Allies would be seen by their own anti-Semites as “fighting a war for the Jews.”
The British under Winston Churchill did the same. They were concerned that news of the Jews’ extermination in Europe would pressure them to allow Jewish refugees into British Mandatory Palestine, after their White Paper of 1939 had put sever limits on Jewish emigration – effectively closing off the only available haven.
There was a limit over how long Britain could keep a lid on the Holocaust, especially since its own soldiers had begun liberating concentration camps in western Germany. A million Jewish survivors in displaced persons camps at the end of the war – many of them Polish-born who were not going to go back to where their neighbors, surprised that any Jews had survived, were fearful they would return to reclaim their houses and property – meant the White Paper could not last. By 1947, Britain was forced to relinquish Palestine’s fate to the United Nations.
The Soviet suppression of the Holocaust lasted a while longer under Stalin’s successors, but it was doomed to fail. A new generation of Soviet Jews began reawakening to their roots, emboldened by Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967. The first events held in decades by Jewish communities in places like Kiev and Riga, which had been under Nazi occupation during the war, were gatherings at the killing fields outside of town, where for the first time Kaddish was said for the dead – no longer anonymous “victims of fascism.” This was where the campaign to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate began, at the sites where Stalin had sought to rewrite history. Two decades later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
The Polish attempt to revise the history of the Holocaust will fail as well. As part of a much wider campaign by the Warsaw government to limit constitutional constraints and curb freedom of speech, it proves yet again that any whitewashing of anti-Semitism is always a sign of the erosion of democracy.