What Poland's New Holocaust Bill Gets Right - and What It Gets Very Wrong

The bill, which prohibits speaking of Nazi death camps in Poland as 'Polish,' isn't Holocaust denial, but it is marking Poland as a country denying its past. With that, it joins a shameful club of nations, of which Israel is no stranger.

Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman
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Gate of the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Oswiecim, Poland, Oct. 19, 2012
Gate of the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Oswiecim, Poland, Oct. 19, 2012 Credit: AP
Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman

On August 16, the Polish cabinet approved a bill, drafted by the Justice Ministry, that would impose prison terms of up to three years on anyone convicted of referring to the death camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland as “Polish.” Claiming that the Poles collaborated with the Nazis in exterminating the Jews would also be a criminal offense.

Predictably, the decision evoked a strong reaction from Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. The director of the Holocaust museum and archive, Avner Shalev, said there were many instances in which Poles murdered Jews during the Holocaust and participated in atrocities. Therefore, he said, the new law could lead to a distortion of the facts concerning the Holocaust. The head of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, Prof. Dan Michman, said no law could negate what is known about Poles’ role in the Holocaust. Prof. Yehuda Bauer, an academic adviser to Yad Vashem, said: “A law that imposes punishment on someone who says Poles participated in the murder of Jews contains a total lie.”

Let it be said right away: This bill is shameful. Not because it denies the Holocaust, as some claim. It does not. Nor would it punish anyone for saying that Poles murdered Jews. It’s shameful because it adds Poland to those states that avoid acknowledging injustices they have committed and even that they occurred. Israel is a member of this dishonorable club. Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide is the most famous example. But the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe also did not accept responsibility in the past for their murder of Jews and other minorities during World War II: specifically, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia (which were part of the Soviet Union), Croatia (which was part of Yugoslavia), and also Poland. But Poland, in contrast to Romania and Hungary, was not authorized by Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews. Unlike Lithuanians and Ukrainians, Poles were not recruited into organized mass killing units. They murdered their Jewish neighbors for various reasons, in terrible ways, and apparently in large numbers. But they were not responsible for the Holocaust of Polish Jewry.

If you actually read what Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro wrote about the law, you see that he is correct on several points. He says that Poles cannot consent to victims of the Nazi terror being portrayed as collaborators in the Holocaust, as responsible for murder in the concentration camps, to essentially being charged with genocide. Factually this is correct. Accusing the Poles of responsibility for the genocide is a distortion of the historic truth. The minister also said that the tendency to attribute the killing of Polish Jews to the Poles not only slanders Poland but also violates the memory of the Polish tragedy under the years of Nazi occupation. Between the lines, of course, hides a worrisome revisionist history. The law is meant to block attempts to reveal the truth about the murder of Jews by Poles during the Holocaust. The Polish government is trying to assimilate the outlook of a nationalist, antiliberal regime that aims to redefine the Polish national identity and historical memory. In Poland these issues cannot be addressed without addressing the murder of the Jews.

However, the new law is also part of a counterreaction to the discourse that has developed in Polish scholarship on the Holocaust over the past 20 years. Ever since historian Jan Tomasz Gross detailed the murder of the Jews in the town of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors, Holocaust research in Poland has come to focus largely on one thing: the Poles’ treatment of their Jewish neighbors. One could generalize and say that Holocaust scholarship in Poland is primarily the study of the hostile, often lethal relationship of the Poles to their Jewish neighbors during the years of the German occupation.

A small group of Polish historians has devoted many years of study to this subject. They have taken on a most important task: uncovering a chapter in Polish history that has been long ignored. But in their efforts to uncover exactly what happened in the towns and villages in which Poles informed on Jews who were in hiding, where Jews were blackmailed by their neighbors in return for their silence, or sometimes killed so that their property could be stolen — this research has lost sight of the big picture to some degree. For while examining the murderous, anti-Semitic tendency that was let out of the bottle in Poland with German help, one cannot neglect to consider the broader perspective of a country that was being crushed by violent terror unlike that in any of the other occupied countries.

The historical picture is not complete if one tells about the killing of Jews by their Polish neighbors without also mentioning, for example, the labor camps that were in operation in those same areas, and in which many Poles found their deaths. The murderous Nazi violence was applied in different ways and hurt different parts of the society. The patterns of violence fed one another, and thus must be examined as a whole, while noting their points of similarity and difference. In Holocaust scholarship in Poland, this important element has gotten lost.

As noted, the Polish government is handling this complex historical question in a crude manner, and with motivations that are less than pure. Obviously, it is not the only government that refuses to accept responsibility for a historic injustice it caused to another group. The same thing can be seen in Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinian Nakba. Of course, it’s not surprising to find plenty of similarities between the Catholic-nationalist government in Poland and the Jewish-nationalist government in Israel, and not only in the dictation of an official explanation for their country’s national history.

Prof. Daniel Blatman is a Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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