As Edmund Burke once wrote, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." While there were undoubtedly many instances of righteous Poles helping Jews during the WWII Nazi occupation of Poland, the current government cannot seek to promote recognition of their deeds by rewriting history.
In doing so, it risks stalling Poland’s path to democracy and relations with key international allies.
The fallout from Poland’s Holocaust legislation cannot be underestimated. Both my parents were born in Poland and my grandfather and uncles were killed during the Holocaust when the Polish family hiding them set their hiding place on fire, burning them alive.
The law itself is ideologically problematic. Its historical example is pre-Holocaust era law which set a maximum prison sentence of three years for insulting the Polish nation, the same sentence governed by its modern-day version.
For a generation of Poles - educated under Soviet rule, raised with a deeply sanitized version of their nation’s WWII-era history - to introduce legislation forbidding accusations of Polish collusion with the Nazis and penalizing research into Polish complicity is akin to historical revisionism at best.
Passing a law which prevents the Polish nation from acknowledging their own complicity in the Holocaust cannot be seem as a legitimate way to redress misconceptions of Poland’s war record.
The purpose of any such legislation is to deny the truth about the genocide of six million Jews, half of whom were Polish, and in doing so, it puts Poland in the same league as Iran, Islamist terrorists, the alt-right in the U.S. and proven Holocaust deniers.
More worrying still is the ripple effect this move has already produced and which continues to reverberate.
Since the government announced the legislation, threats to the Jewish community have risen. Senate leader Stanislaw Karczewski last week asked Poles living abroad to inform the authorities of "anti-Polish comments and opinions" they saw or heard that could harm the state. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sought to defend the legislation from attacks at a security conference in Munich earlier this week by claiming that Jews were among the perpetrators of the Holocaust, as complicit in the Nazis’ crimes as the Poles who facilitated them.
In seeking to revise the true story of the Holocaust in Poland, the government has turned a blind eye to escalating anti-Semitism and given its tacit consent for the new emerging anti-Jewish rhetoric that equates the victims with the perpetrators.
Let us not forget that this Polish nationalist government defended the rights of far-right groups to march through Warsaw last November to mark Poland’s independence day. That rally, which drew 60,000 participants, was one of the largest far-right displays in Europe in the last decade.
I have recently returned from a trip to Israel as part of the 32nd International Mayors Conference. Our delegation included 33 municipal leaders from across Europe, the US, South America and Africa, as well as the Mayor of Poznan, Poland Jacek Jaskowiak.
I showed Mayor Jaskowiak around Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial. He told me what he'd learned about WWII at school had skimmed over the loss of those millions of lives lost in Nazi death camps, and omitted completely mentioning that 90% of those were Jewish. Those were facts he only learned later, once Poland had become an independent state again.
Yad Vashem pays tribute to the 6,700 righteous Poles who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust. It also makes clear that without the complicity, whether direct or indirect, of ordinary Poles, the Nazi extermination of three million Polish Jews would not have been possible. The term "Polish death camps" may not be technically correct, but the vast majority of Nazi death camps in Europe were built on Polish soil.
However unpalatable the true picture of Polish involvement in the atrocities of the Holocaust, Mayor Jaskowiak informed me, those facts that only emerged in the public consciousness in the 1990s at least went some way to addressing the issue and to facing Poland’s murky past under Nazi occupation.
While contentious laws such as these may not succeed in their aim of erasing or rewriting the narrative of the Holocaust, we need society to collectively acknowledge the realities of European’s darkest chapter and ensure that never again is a commitment, and not just a slogan.
Facts are facts and must not be denied. It's a historical fact that some Poles were complicit in the Holocaust. I for one do not differentiate between the direct perpetrators of the Holocaust and those who were complicit wit it.
While the Polish Justice Ministry has announced it is suspending the implementation of the law, following intense pressure from Israel and the Jewish world, it has made similar noises previously, and to no avail. I hope this time the Polish government can be prevailed on to listen to legitimate concerns and step back from this action.
Whitewashing history is a betrayal to the memory of Holocaust victims and the survivors who remained to tell their stories. Rather than denigrating their memory, it is our duty to cherish and protect it. History and all of our futures demand it.
Jack Rosen is President of the American Jewish Congress. Twitter: @JackRosenNYC
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