Opinion

When Israel Ignorantly Blames the Holocaust on the Poles, It Boosts Their Illiberal Nationalists

Poland’s authoritarian curb on debating its complicity in the Holocaust is odious, but the Israeli backlash has been foolish - and smells of anti-Polish prejudice

Undersecretary of State, Chancellery of the President of Poland Wojciech Kolarski, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo at the Monument to the Victims at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Poland. January 27, 2018
\ KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS

It is ironic that Poland, the country that suffered most at the hands of the Nazis, is almost more closely associated with the Holocaust than Germany itself.

Ironic, but not surprising: Many view the massacre of Jews in Poland during World War II as the logical conclusion of centuries of anti-Semitism, while there's more sympathy for the view that Nazism was an aberration in German history. Germany, while culpable, is commended for coming to terms with its past, not least through a program of denazification, while Poland is chastised for not accepting responsibility for its role in the Holocaust.

However, Poland’s new law banning the attribution of collective guilt to the Polish people for the Holocaust is deeply troubling. The law, which stipulates a fine or a prison sentence of up to three years for offenders, is an authoritarian curb on free speech by Poland’s nationalist government, and joins the continued persecution of Holocaust scholars for investigating Polish atrocities. 

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. January 27, 2014
רויטרס

Clearly, it’s a complicated situation that requires a thoughtful and yet forceful response. Israeli leaders opted instead to equate the Polish law with Holocaust denial, in an ignorant and foolish display of haughtiness and prejudice.

Ignorant, because it ignores historical facts, and foolish, because it only plays into the hands of the Polish government, which can now legitimize the law by saying it’s standing up in defense of Polish national honor.

"History cannot be changed and it is forbidden to deny the Holocaust," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Cabinet minister Yisrael Katz tweeted that it was, "The Polish parliament's law is to deny Poland's part in and responsibility for the massacre that took place on its soil. We will not forget or forgive."

The cherry on top of was a Twitter exchange between the head of the Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, and the Polish Embassy in Israel. Lapid accused Poland of denying "Polish complicity" in the Holocaust, using the questionable term "Polish death camps" to buttress his claim.

The Embassy responded with a link to a statement by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance condemning the use of the term, and followed up with the tactless comment: "Your unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel." Lapid responded by haughtily demanding an immediate apology for attempting to "educate" him, the son of a Holocaust survivor, about the Holocaust.

The Polish Embassy’s response to Lapid was crude, and its snide insinuation that Israel’s Holocaust education is faulty is deeply offensive.

Article in the new Polish law criminalizing the act of calling the 'Polish nation' or the 'Polish state' of complicity with Nazi war crimes
Twitter

But the Israeli politician’s implicit claim of a monopoly over historical truth is ludicrous and conceited. Had Lapid claimed that it was the Poles who came up with the Final Solution, would it have been impermissible to correct him, just because his father survived the Holocaust?

Even before we debate a "Polish culpability" for the Holocaust, it should be admitted that the very concept of collective guilt is fraught with danger. No one knows this better than the Jews, whom the Church only cleared of collective guilt for the death of Jesus in 1965. In modernity, no pogrom in Russia was carried out without the preamble of a supposed atrocity by a Jew. Even the Nazis had recourse to one, the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris, to "justify" Kristallnacht in 1938, when more than 90 Jews were killed in attacks across Germany.

Even in relation to Germany, the question of collective guilt or responsibility has been hotly debated by such eminent Jewish philosophers as Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt. While Arendt argued against it, Jaspers defended the use of the concept, saying that, "There exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each as responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail to do whatever I can do to prevent them, I too am guilty." 

But in Poland’s case, ascribing collective guilt is more precarious.

Nazi German soldiers marching in Warsaw 1939 after the invasion of Poland in World War II
Photo12 / Ann Ronan Picture Libr

Contrary to other European countries, such as France or Norway, Poland was directly controlled by Nazi Germany. There was no puppet regime in Poland to assist the Germans, like the Vichy or Quisling governments, and the Nazis annexed parts of the country, while putting the rest under the control of a German governor, Hans Frank.

Frank subjected Poland to a terror "much fiercer and more protracted [...] than anywhere in Europe," scholar Norman Davies says, as cited by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

This terror included capital punishment for offering any help to Jews.

While it’s true that Poles aided, abetted and participated in the Holocaust (an estimated 200,000 Jews were killed, directly or indirectly, by Poles), it is also true that 6,500 Poles were recognized as righteous among nations, more than in any other country, and it is widely considered that this number is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Nazi terror also included the killing of at least a million and a half Polish civilians, as well as a cultural genocide aimed specifically to make the Poles into better laborers for their German masters. While in France intellectuals were free to continue their efforts - Sartre, for instance, produced his magnum opus Being and Nothingness in 1943 in occupied Paris - the Polish intelligentsia was practically obliterated.

Not only this, but the Nazis sought to ensure that there would be no one to replace their ranks. As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum states: "To prevent the birth of a new generation of educated Poles, German officials decreed that Polish children's schooling end after a few years of elementary education. "The sole goal of this schooling is to teach them simple arithmetic, nothing above the number 500; writing one's name; and the doctrine that it is divine law to obey the Germans. . . . I do not think that reading is desirable," Himmler wrote in his May 1940 memorandum."  

Considering, then, that Poland was under direct Nazi rule, that this regime was ruthless toward Polish civilians, and that aiding Jews was a capital offense, Poland’s consternation at being accused of national complicity with the Nazis is reasonable. Defending a Polish culpability for the three million Jews killed in Poland is problematic at best, just like arguing for a collective Polish saintliness due to 6,500 Polish righteous among nations would be.

People carry Polish national flags prior to a march and gathering marking Polish Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. Nov. 11, 2017
Czarek Sokolowski/AP

That said, the new law is misguided and its repercussions are chilling. The law doesn't define what would constitute an accusation against the Polish nation, and as such, it is unclear how the law will be enforced and against whom. As the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights noted, the law may discourage members of the public from discussing certain aspects of Poland’s history because of the risk of facing criminal sanctions.

That is most likely the goal of Poland’s nationalists, and when Israeli leaders targeted the law not on that basis, but on the basis of "Polish complicity" in the Holocaust, they’re only aiding them in their efforts.

Among all the Israeli responses, Yad Vashem’s condemnation of the Polish law stood out in its clarity and evenness, that didn’t detract from its urgency. It is worth quoting in full:

"Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, opposes the new legislation passed by the Polish parliament, which is liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust. There is no doubt that the term "Polish death camps" is a historical misrepresentation! The extermination camps were set up in Nazi-occupied Poland in order to murder the Jewish people within the framework of the "Final Solution." However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people's direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion. Yad Vashem will continue to support research aimed at exposing the complex truth regarding the attitude of the Polish population towards the Jews during the Holocaust."

Perhaps in the future, Israel’s leaders should follow Yad Vashem’s example on such matters.

Oded Even Or is a former editor at Haaretz. He is now a graduate fellow at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Twitter: @odedevenor