Opinion |

Poland’s Holocaust Bill Is a Shameful and Futile Attempt to Bury Its WWII Ghosts

In Poland, heroism and complicity can coexist. But this legislation blocks that messy reality: it promotes the avoidance of historical responsibility, deflects blame, and grants the ownership of WWII 'truth' to an illiberal Polish government

Tweet by the @Poland Twitter account, managed by Poland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Tweet by the @Poland Twitter account, managed by Poland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.Credit: Twitter

Warsaw - In July 1941, a group of townsmen in the small Polish town of Jedwabne led their Jewish neighbors into a large wooden barn. The men locked the barn and set it on fire. At least 300 Jewish men, women, and children burned to death inside.

I never heard of Jedwabne growing up, despite living embedded in the Polish-American immigrant community and spending several years of my childhood and adulthood living in Poland.

I have been taught to revere Poland’s heroism during World War II, and that reverence has always required sidestepping certain facts. At the top of the list is the role that some ordinary Poles played in assisting the Nazi regime carry out the systematic murder of 90 percent of the country’s three and a half million Jews - who made up a full tenth of the total population - during World War II.

Polish performance artist Rafal Betlejemski burns down a barn in central Poland to commemorate the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom when more than 300 Jews were locked in a barn and burned alive. July 11, 2010Credit: REUTERS

Avoidance is the unofficial national policy that Poland’s ruling conservative party, Law and Justice, now seeks to enshrine in law. The so-called "Holocaust Bill" (formally titled the "Amendment to the Act of the Institute of National Remembrance") criminalizes any public speech that, "contrary to the facts," suggests that Poland or the Polish people were complicit in Nazi crimes.

The conservative majority of both chambers of the Polish Parliament handily passed the bill, and Tuesday, President Andrzej Duda signed it into law. Now only Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal - an institution that has been undermined by the Law and Justice party since 2015 - could reverse the damage.

The ruling party's new bill is intended to protect the country’s standing in the world but will only weaken its moral credibility on the international stage. If it passes, the gag law can also be expected to have harmful domestic effects, as it treats the country’s Jews as a national liability instead of as full-fledged Poles who deserve to have their stories told, however uncomfortable or inconvenient the truth may be.

It might be tempting to dismiss the proposed law as just another stunt from a populist party that has attracted global condemnation for consistently defying the norms of liberal democracy since coming to power two years ago. But the bill seeks to criminalize speech that has always been taboo.

No one knows this better than Jan T. Gross. In 2001, Gross, a renowned Princeton historian, caused an uproar when he published the first detailed account of the Jedwabne massacre in his book "Neighbors." By his count, half the town was complicit in slaughtering the other half - he set the number of likely murdered Jewish residents at 1600.

Gross’s version of events almost immediately destroyed his stature in Poland. Politicians, scholars, and Catholic church officials attacked his findings, and his book set off a national inquiry by the Institute of National Remembrance, which substantiated many of his findings despite disputing others, such as the number of people murdered by Poles.

A group of Polish Jews being led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops in 1943. Credit: AP

In 2015, after Gross publicly opined that Poles may have killed more Jews than Nazis during World War II, Warsaw prosecutors opened a libel probe against him. President Andrzej Duda stated that Gross’s work was "an attempt to destroy Poland’s good name," and launched a reevaluation of the order of merit awarded to Gross by the Polish government in 1996.

The Polish reaction to Gross - fury, rather than dialogue - can be hard to understand without historical context.

Poland fell to Communism in 1947, and international attempts to examine what happened to the country’s Jewish citizens were thwarted by the campaign of anti-Semitism internally encouraged by the USSR.

When the Iron Curtain finally collapsed in 1989, scholars around the world began scouring extant archives and conducting interviews with Holocaust survivors still living in Poland, but the country’s own focus, understandably, was not on looking back but on moving forward, out of the depths of decades of poverty and isolation. This focus took expression in fierce national pride and sensitivity to perceived insult and humiliation.

There can be no greater insult or humiliation than blame for the killing of Poland’s Jews.

This sensitivity should not be written off as simple jingoism. It’s much more complicated than that. In 2015, President Obama’s mistaken description of Nazi concentration camps as "Polish death camps" upset Poles not just because the phrase was inaccurate, but because it seemed to erase the immenseness of Polish suffering at the hands of the Nazis, who, all told, killed about two million non-Jews and three million Jews during their brutal occupation of Poland.

The Auschwitz death camp, which was situated in Nazi-occupied Poland.Credit: רויטרס

The historian Norman Davies famously described Poland as "God’s Playground": when Poland protests what it sees as historical revisionism, it does so as a country that has suffered invasion, exploitation, and erasure - and perceives the protection of its national reputation as a matter of strength, and even survival.

Few of my Polish friends and acquaintances refute the Jedwabne murders or horrors like it outright. The more common reaction is deflection - recounting anecdote after anecdote about how many Poles risked their lives for their Jewish neighbors.

This week, a Twitter account officially managed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged the spread of the now-viral hashtag "#PolishRighteous." The hashtag, a reference to the honorific that Israel uses for non-Jews who saved Jews, the Righteous Among the Nations, is trending alongside pictures and stories of Poles who risked their lives to protect the country’s Jews.

But heroism and complicity can coexist. This is the messy reality - and it is that reality that will become difficult for Poles to candidly probe if the Holocaust Bill passes. Although the bill purports to criminalize only lies, Gross’s treatment proves this distinction is meaningless as long as the government alone has the power to define the truth.

The ghosts of Jedwabne still haunt Poland today, and the Holocaust Bill should be rejected by the Constitutional Tribunal as a futile and shameful attempt to bury them.

Joseph Pomianowski was a 2010–11 Fulbright scholar in Poland and is working on a book about the Polish School of Mathematics.

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